What if I told you there was a magic recipe for making a relationship work?
I’m sure you wouldn’t believe me, and for good reason! It’s easy to see how difficult relationships can be. If there was some totally effective method for happy, healthy relationships out there, surely someone would have bottled it up and sold it by now, right?
Until we can find that 100% success guaranteed recipe for a perfect relationship, we’ll have to make do with what we do have – building our relationship skills, communicating effectively, engaging in activities that enhance our connection, and using couples therapy to tackle any of the big issues.
Read on to learn more about all of these great ways to build and maintain a great relationship.
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What is Couples Therapy and What is Couples Counseling?
While you may have heard both of these terms – “couples therapy” and “couples counseling” – and wondered what set them apart from one another, they usually mean the same thing. Although “therapy” often calls to mind the idea of getting help for long-term, chronic problems, and “counseling” might make you think of seeking aid for short-term, immediate problems, there is no difference between them on a technical level. The only context in which it matters what the session is called is a legal one – in some places, you must have a special certification or license to practice “therapy” that is more difficult to obtain than the certification or licensing to practice “counseling.”
Whether you call it couples therapy or couples counseling, this type of engagement with a qualified professional provides couples with an opportunity to work through their most difficult or emotionally challenging problems. These problems can range from simple communication issues or significant disagreements, to substance abuse issues and psychological disorders (Bonior, 2017).
While couples therapy can be a great way to reconnect with your partner or mend the fences between you, there are many ways to make sure you keep the spark alive and the relationship healthy without seeing a professional. In fact, there are many resources out there that draw from theories or research in couples therapy.
It’s never too late (or too early) to start putting a little more effort into your relationship. If you are part of a couple that would like to improve your connection, choose one or two of the activities and exercises described below to practice with your partner. If you are a marriage and family therapist or couples counselor, consider sharing some of these activities and exercises with your clients.
Go ahead and give them a shot, even if you’re comfortable with the current state of your relationship or think that these new age-y activities are pointless. After all, the worst that can happen is that a few minutes are wasted doing an unhelpful activity! Might as well give it a try, right?
Let’s dive in!
What are the Best Healthy Relationship Activities for Couples?
I’m sure you know what I’m about to say: the best healthy relationship activity depends on you and your partner! There is no one BEST activity that couples can engage in to build a fantastic relationship and fend off divorce or separation, because each couple will have their own best practice.
For some couples, it may be engaging in a shared hobby together, like bike riding, playing a beloved game, or playing music together. For others, it may be the long talks they often have when looking up at the stars, sitting around a campfire, or lying in bed at night.
No matter what this activity is, the only things that matter are that the activity:
- Is something you can do together,
- Is something you can do regularly,
- Is enjoyable (or at least not unpleasant) for both partners, and
- Is something that allows you to communicate in a healthy and productive way.
These four criteria don’t narrow down the world of activities very much, and that’s how it’s meant to be. The prescription for a good relationship for one couple will probably not work for another couple, and vice versa. Each relationship is unique, and should be appreciated and tended to as the unique connection that it is.
If you’re stumped on what activity might be best for you and your partner, the following four exercises may be a good place to start.
The old faithful activity for bringing people together – icebreakers! I’m sure you remember these from school, training, or another context in which strangers are forced to interact or work together.
This time, you won’t have to break the ice with a stranger; instead, you will get to know your partner a little better.
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about your partner, asking them some fun icebreaker questions is bound to produce at least one or two new facts about your partner that you didn’t know before.
Try asking them questions like:
- Tell me something weird about yourself.
- Tell me your favorite ice cream flavor.
- Tell me a wonderfully random childhood anecdote (Suval, 2015).
Feel free to get suggestions or ideas from actual icebreakers for this exercise.
Use this exercise whenever you feel the need to get a little more connected to your partner, and be ready to learn some interesting new things!
The Game of Truth
Although you might enjoy watching Game of Thrones with your significant other, sorry – that doesn’t meet the four criteria! However, you can work in a game of another kind – the Game of Truth.
In this game, all you need to do is ask your partner questions and answer your partner’s questions honestly. The sole purpose of this game is to enhance your connection, so the content of the questions can range from the lightest topics (favorite television show or celebrity crush) to the heaviest (greatest fear or desire, meaning of life).
For example, you could ask your partner questions like:
- What’s your biggest fear?
- If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be and why?
- What’s a fond childhood memory that’s close to your heart?
- Which song truly speaks to you?
- Who is someone who inspires you? (Suval, 2015)
This simple game can get you and your partner sharing intimate and meaningful details with one another, improving your connection and building up your relationship base.
Music can be an deeply personal and intensely meaningful experience – one that can be difficult to share with others. While it might make you feel overwhelmingly vulnerable to share something so personal with your partner, it’s a risk that can pay off in a huge way. The reward may be a deeper and more connected relationship with your partner, something that is surely worth the risk!
Take some time to think about and listen to some of your favorite music. Find songs that resonate with your personal life story, showcase your personality, or articulate some of your most deeply held beliefs. Share these songs with your partner, along with an explanation of how the song relates to you and why you chose it to share with him or her.
This extremely personal exercise can leave you and your partner with much better insight into each other, into yourselves, and into your relationship (Suval, 2015).
Another personal (and possibly scary) activity is to swap favorite books with your partner (Suval, 2015).
What you love to read may convey some important messages about who you are and what you value to your partner, and vice versa. No matter how well you know your partner, this exercise can reveal something about them that you never knew before.
Reading his or her favorite book is like getting a window into your partner’s mind; this is especially true in the case of a long-favorite book or a favorite book from childhood. Diving into something that had a profound impact on your partner in some of their most formative years is a fantastic way to forge a deeper connection.
5 Best Couples Therapy Books
Speaking of books, there are many excellent books out there to help you learn about or practice couples therapy. A few of the most popular books on couples therapy are described below.
Couples Therapy: A New Hope-Focused Approach by Jennifer S. Ripley and Everett L. Worthington, Jr.
This book is a rare find – one that speaks to both couples and their counselors, therapists, or religious advisors alike. Couples Therapy outlines Ripley and Worthington, Jr.’s approach, expands on the theory behind it (note: approach also has a foundation in Christian beliefs), and provides assessment tools, real-life case studies, and resources for use in counseling. You can find this book on Amazon at this link, where it enjoys another rare achievement – a nearly perfect 5-star rating.
Couples Counseling: A Step by Step Guide by Marina Williams
Couples Counseling is an excellent resource for therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals who work with couples. This book will walk the reader through a complete couples counseling treatment – from intake to termination. With step-by-step instructions and evidence-based methods, tips, and exercises, this book can give a novice counselor the tools necessary to engage in their first clinical engagement. This book is also very highly rated on Amazon, and you can read the reviews or purchase the book for yourself at this link.
Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy by Alan S. Gurman and Jay L. Lebow
This book is a must-have for students and practicing professionals. It covers the most popular and most effective methods and approaches in couple therapy, including the history, theoretical foundations, research findings, and techniques for each. This updated text also includes information on applying these approaches to sensitive or complex contexts, such as blended families, LGBT couples, and separated couples. It also aids the therapist in addressing clinical problems like partner aggression, psychological disorders, and medical issues. This newest edition of the Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy can be purchased or reviewed here.
The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, & Validation by Alan E. Fruzzette and Marsha M. Linehan
This is the one book on the list that is intended for struggling couples alone, rather than helping professionals. It is written specifically for couples who are highly reactive, or quick to argue, quick to anger, and quick to blame; however, any couple will find useful information in this book. The High-Conflict Couple draws from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to provide exercises, techniques, and tools that will help a couple improve their communication, rediscover trust, and address their problems in a healthy and productive manner. You can find this book on Amazon at this link.
Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies by Brent Bradley and James Furrow
Finally, a seriously good resource with a silly title and great information – Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies. You certainly don’t have to be a “dummy” to get something out of this book. Whether you’re a student in couple or marriage therapy, a new practitioner, or simply someone who is interested in couple therapy, this book will be a valuable addition to your library. Not only does it provide an overview of Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), it also provides simple strategies, useful tips and tools, and interesting case studies to help you get the basics in this type of therapy. You can find this highly reviewed “for Dummies” book at this link.
7 Couples Counseling Exercises, Worksheets, & Techniques
If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read through a book on couples therapy right now, that’s alright. There are some quicker and easier ways, also backed by couples counselors and therapists, to learn more about your partner and improve your connection.
A few of the most successful exercises, worksheets, and techniques are described next.
The Miracle Question
This exercise is a great way for couples to explore the type of future they would like to build, individually and as a couple. We all struggle at times, but sometimes the struggle is greater because we simply do not know what our goals actually are – asking the “Miracle Question” can help you or your clients to clarify your goals.
This question helps both partners to probe their own dreams and desires, and learn about their partner’s dreams and desires. It can aid a couple in understanding what both they and their significant other needs in order to be happy with the relationship.
Therapist Ryan Howes (2010) phrases the Miracle Question this way:
“Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?”
While either partner may give an answer that is an impossibility in their waking life, their answer can still be useful. If practiced within the context of couples therapy, the therapist can dive deeper into the clients’ unrealistic miracle with this question: “How would that make a difference?” This discussion helps the client(s) to envision a positive future in which their problems are addressed or mitigated, and the therapist to learn how he or she can best serve their clients in session.
If you are engaging in this exercise without the guidance of a therapist, don’t try to dive too deep into the answer if it is unrealistic or impossible. Instead, use this discussion as an opportunity to learn something new about your partner and plan for your future together.
You can learn more about this exercise at this link.
This is an intense exercise that will help you and your partner connect on a deeper level. It can have a huge impact on your sense of connectedness, but it’s not for the faint of heart!
To try this exercise, face your partner in a seated position. Move so close to one another that your knees are nearly touching, and look into each other’s eyes.
Hold eye contact for three to five minutes. Don’t worry, it’s not a competition – you can blink! However, refrain from talking. Simply look into one another’s eyes, even if it’s awkward at first.
If the silence is uncomfortable, choose a song that is pleasant to both of you or meaningful in terms of your relationship and hold eye contact until the song ends (Gray, 2014).
Practice this exercise a few times a week to deepen your connection with your partner. You can read more about this exercise here.
Extended Cuddle Time
This exercise is just as simple—and fun—as it sounds! The instructions are simply to cuddle more often.
It’s easy to get distracted with a cell phone, tablet, or book at bedtime, but cuddling is actually a much better way to end your day. The chemicals that are released when we cuddle with our partner improve our mood, deepen our connection, and can even help us sleep better.
This exercise is intended to be practiced right before bed, but you can carve out any time of the day to cuddle if bedtime doesn’t work for you. The important thing is to get some one on one time with your partner, show physical affection, and enhance your intimacy with your partner.
Relationship consultant Jordan Gray (2014) suggests cuddling to a music playlist if you have trouble finding or committing to a regular cuddle session. You could also sneak in some cuddle time while watching a movie or first thing in the morning when you both wake up – the point is to work it in however works best for you.
You can learn more about this exercise by clicking here.
The 7 Breath Forehead Connection Exercise
This exercise is an excellent way to take your mind off of what is happening around you and focus on your partner.
To begin, either lie down on your side by your partner or sit upright with your partner. Face each other and gently put your foreheads together. Make sure your chins are tilted down so you aren’t bumping noses, and stay in this position for a few breaths.
Breathe at least seven slow, deep breaths in sync with your partner. It might be difficult at first, but you will get the hang of it before long. If you and your partner are enjoying the exercise, feel free to prolong it – take 20 breaths together, or 30, or simply breathe together for a set amount of time. There are no disadvantages to feeling connected with your partner, so go for it!
This close breathing exercise will put you and your partner into an intimate, connected space. Practice it whenever you feel the need to slow down and refocus on each other. Read more about the 7 Breath Forehead Connection Exercise at this link.
Another simple but powerful exercise is called Uninterrupted Listening, and it’s exactly what it sounds like (Gray, 2014). We all need to feel heard, understood, and cared for, and this exercise can help both you and your partner feel this way.
Set a timer for this exercise (three to five minutes will usually do the trick) and let your partner talk. They can talk about whatever is on their mind – work, school, you, the kids, friends or family, stress – it’s all fair game.
While they are speaking, your job is to do one thing and one thing only: to listen. Do not speak at all until the timer goes off. Simply listen to your partner and soak it all in. However, while you may not speak during this time, you are free to give your partner non-verbal encouragement or empathy through body language, facial expressions, or meaningful looks.
When the timer goes off, switch roles and try the exercise again. You may find that one partner is much chattier than the other, but don’t worry – this is totally normal.
To learn more about this exercise, click here.
The Weekly CEO Meeting
If you and your partner are leading lives jam-packed with activities, events, and obligations, this exercise will be a great way to connect.
This exercise provides you and your partner with an opportunity to interact as adults (no kids allowed) and without distractions (no phones, tablets, or laptops allowed).
Schedule a non-negotiable chunk of time (30 minutes is a good default) once a week for you and your partner to talk about how you both are doing, your relationship as a couple, any unfinished arguments or grievances, or any needs that are not being met.
You can start the exercise with questions like:
- How do you feel about us today?
- Is there anything you feel incomplete about from this past week that you would like to talk about?
- How can I make you feel more loved in the coming days?
The answers to these questions should lead you and your partner in a healthy and productive discussion about your selves and your relationship. Make sure to do this regularly to keep on top of any issues and ensure that things don’t get swept under the rug or put on the back burner for too long (Gray, 2014).
Click here to learn more about the Weekly CEO Meeting Exercise.
5 Things… Go! Exercise
Another quick and easy exercise, this exercise can be engaged in anywhere the two of you are together. You only need your words and your imagination!
Come up with a theme for each time you practice this exercise – something like “what I’m grateful for”, “what I appreciate in you”, or “what I’d like to do with you this month” – and list five things each within this theme.
You could have one partner go first and list all five things, or you and your partner could alternate saying one of your five things at a time. However you decide to do it, be creative and don’t afraid to get silly with your partner!
As an example, you could ask your partner, “What are five things that you love that I have done for you lately?”
Their answers might be something like, “Taking out the trash, making a dinner reservation, getting my car detailed, cuddling with me, and watching my favorite movie with me.”
Once they finish their list, come up with your own answer to the question, such as, “Fixing the water heater, pulling weeds, sewing the button back on my shirt, telling me how much you love me, and kissing me goodnight each night.”
When you have both finished sharing your list, you can talk about your items, show each other appreciation, ask follow up questions, or come up with more items together.
This exercise is a fun and engaging way to connect with your partner, learn something new, or reminisce over good shared memories.
You can read more about it at this link.
Free Relationship Worksheets for Couples
There are many more resources out there for couples who wish to try new things and build their connection. A few of the best free worksheets that can help couples enhance their bond are listed and described below.
Relationship Growth Activity
This worksheet is a great activity for those in a relationship who want to make changes or solve some difficult relationship problems. It keeps the discussion light but reminds the couple of their special connection while helping them learn more about themselves and their partner.
The instructions direct the couple to take turns asking each other a question from each section below, or ask them all if they believe they know the answers.
The questions are divided into six categories:
- The Fun Things (example question: What song is your partner into right now?)
- About Us (example question: When did your partner realize they were interested in you? Was there a specific moment?)
- Hopes & Dreams (example question: What is the happiest life your partner can imagine?)
- Work Life (example question: What is the most challenging task your partner has to do at their job?)
- Emotions (example question: When in your partner’s life did they feel the most scared?)
- Other Relationships (example question: Who does your partner feel closest to in their family?)
Asking and answering these questions can help couples feel closer, learn about each other, and reminisce or dream for the future together.
You can find this worksheet here.
My Partner’s Qualities
This worksheet can help you or your client to remember the good qualities in your partner, especially when there are problems or arguments within the relationship. Sometimes all it takes to get partners working together to solve their problems is a reminder of why they love each other.
The worksheet is divided into four sections to be filled out by the client:
- The qualities that initially attracted me to my partner were…
- My favorite memories with my partner have been…
- My partner shows me appreciation by…
- I value my partner because…
For each section, the client is instructed to identify at least three things that they love about their partner, treasured memories with their partner, or ways in which their partner returns their love.
To see this worksheet or print it out for yourself or your clients, click here.
If you or your client are struggling in a romantic relationship, this is another good worksheet to try. When a couple is having trouble, simply reminding themselves that they are a team and they have many things in common can be an excellent way to encourage problem solving.
This worksheet will help the couple remember that they are a team with common goals, common desires, and common traits.
There are eight sections to fill out, with space to write three items in each:
- We would like to visit…
- Movies, books, or music we like…
- We have fun when we…
- As a couple, we’re good at…
- As a couple, our weaknesses are…
- Unique things we have in common…
- Qualities we value in a person…
- Three goals for our future…
Filling in these blanks will encourage a couple to remember the good things in their relationship and feel a sense of shared responsibility and success.
Click here to see this worksheet.
Conflict Resolution Worksheet
Like the goal-setting worksheet above, this is not a worksheet in the traditional sense, but it also provides invaluable information about how to effectively work towards conflict resolution in relationships. For this reason, it is too great a resource not to share.
The rules of effective conflict resolution are laid out as follows:
- Focus on the problem, not the person.
- Use reflective listening.
- Use “I” statements.
- Know when to take a time-out.
- Work toward a resolution.
This worksheet describes each rule and provides tips and suggestions for you or your client to follow the next time there is a disagreement, argument, or other sort of conflict that is causing trouble in an important relationship.
To read more about these rules for conflict resolution, you can view or download the worksheet here.
Relationship Gratitude Tips
Although this is a handout rather than a worksheet, it’s still a great resource for couples who would like to build and maintain a healthy relationship.
The handout encourages the reader to remember not to take his or her partner for granted. Following these suggestions can help couples show their partners appreciation and inject some gratitude into their relationship.
The gratitude tips include:
- Show interest in their life
o You can practice this suggestion by asking about your partner’s day, using active listening techniques to show them that you’re listening. The goal of this suggestion is to understand what a day is like in their shoes.
- Give compliments
o Compliment your partner on something that will make them smile. Remember all the things you liked about him or her when you first met, and remind them that you still love those things.
- Surprise them
o There are so many ways to surprise your partner – plan a surprise date, give a small gift, pack an appreciative note into their lunch, or do a chore your partner is usually responsible for. Even the smallest gesture can have a big impact on how appreciated and loved your partner feels.
- Help them relax
o When your partner comes home from work in a bad mood or with extra stress weighing them down, surprise them with a relaxing evening – draw them a warm bath, light some candles, make a romantic dinner, or offer your loved one a massage or a foot rub without expecting anything in return.
- Go above and beyond with chores
o Do something you don’t usually do around the house; if you usually do the dishes, clean the whole kitchen instead. If you usually mow the lawn, rake the leaves and pull weeds as well. Get your partner’s car washed when you go to fill the gas tank, or call and ask for the entire grocery list when you stop at the store on the way home.
- Mind your manners
o We’re never too old to be reminded about good manners. Remember to say “thank you” when your partner does something for you, and remember to say “please” when you ask your partner for something. Try to “catch” your partner being helpful so you can express your gratitude to them.
- Give an evening off
o We all need a little time to ourselves at some point. Make sure to give your partner an opportunity to unwind alone once in a while. Surprise him or her with a personalized night off – get them their favorite food, rent a movie they love, and make yourself scarce.
- Be mindful of body language
o Remember to keep your body language in line with your words and your tone. Don’t send your partner mixed messages – be sure to smile, laugh, and touch your partner in reassuring and friendly ways.
While this handout includes some great suggestions for showing gratitude to your partner, it’s certainly not an exhaustive list. Add any special things you can do for your partner that you know they will enjoy.
To view, download, or print this list, click here.
A Take Home Message
This piece included a description of couples counseling, or couples therapy as it is also known, and introduced several engaging, informative, and helpful exercises for making the most out of a romantic relationship.
I hope you found a few new ideas for how you can bond with your partner (or help your clients bond), but I also hope you got the underlying message – that no relationship is so perfect that a little extra effort couldn’t help.
No relationship is without an occasional problem, and even the best can benefit from some concerted effort on the part of each partner. Whether you are in a brand new relationship or going on your 50th anniversary, there is still more to learn about your partner and more new and interesting things to do together.
What do you think keeps your relationship happy and healthy? Have you tried any of these activities or exercises? What do you think is most important in a good romantic relationship? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and remember to appreciate your significant other – you’ll find that doing something nice for your partner often benefits both of you!
- Bonior, A. (2017, September 19). Should you go to couples therapy? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/friendship-20/201709/should-you-go-couples-therapy
- Gray, J. (2014, November 18). 6 connection exercises for couples to build intimacy. Jordan Gray Consulting. Retrieved from https://www.jordangrayconsulting.com/2014/11/6-connection-exercises-for-couples-to-build-intimacy/
- Howes, R. (2010, January 18). Cool intervention #10: The miracle question. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-therapy/201001/cool-intervention-10-the-miracle-question
- Suval, L. (2015). Four fun bonding exercises for romantic relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2015/03/14/four-fun-bonding-exercises-for-romantic-relationships/