Originally published May 10, 2019 on mindbodygreen.com
There is a major misconception that therapy alone can eradicate or cure whatever problems you’re experiencing as a couple. Therapy sessions are designed to help you and your partner understand your problems and give you proven tools and techniques that will hopefully provide solutions. However, whether therapy actually “works” for a couple depends solely on what they’re committed to accomplishing unchaperoned and between sessions. The biggest mistake couples make while going to therapy is not doing the necessary work at home, too.
In addition to whatever suggestions and homework your therapist directly gives you, here are five things you and your partner should be doing while going to couples therapy to make it truly effective and to truly find workable solutions to the issues you’re facing. Being proactive about your relationship’s healing and growth every day will ensure you’re taking positive steps forward until your next session.
1. Practice the strategies your therapist has laid out for you.
This should go without saying, but if your therapist thinks you badly need to start using “I” statements because you’ve got a tendency to hurl criticisms at each other, do it! This goes for any other strategies they’re teaching you. The techniques you’re learning in your sessions aren’t only for when you’re sitting on your therapist’s couch. Make sure you’re taking them out the door with you to apply in your day-to-day life. If you feel like you’re on your “best behavior” in your therapy sessions but sliding back into unhelpful or unhealthy habits at home, you’re not really learning.
Especially when it comes to communicating with each other, try not to fall into old habits. Communication is the bedrock of a good relationship. Without transparency, resentments can build around unresolved conflicts or differences of opinions. Sometimes these differences may be based on assumptions and not on reality, but conflict-avoidant behaviors lead couples to steer clear of topics because they’re “guessing” about potential negative outcomes without addressing them head-on. These topics remain heavy in the room, unresolved and untamed, polluting future interactions. Having mindful discussions about topics without making assumptions about one another’s opinions may yield much better results than you might think if accusations, blame, and name-calling are left at the door.
2. Write down concerns as they come up throughout the week.
If you have concerns, write them down so you can bring them to the next therapy session instead of trying to navigate through potentially turbulent waters by yourselves. The therapist will advise when you’re ready to act on your own without a moderator. Sometimes “hot” topics begin to be uncovered in sessions, and there is a temptation to continue the discussion outside of the therapist’s office. If this is done too early, it can lead to unproductive and even damaging discussions about issues that would be better discussed within the confines of a prescribed time period and with an objective person as a moderator. Try to have the patience and frustration tolerance to wait until the next session to continue discussing more painful issues so they can be addressed most adaptively.
In the meantime, take notes on your phone or a notebook as reminders of what you want addressed to help you manage the waiting period between sessions. Learning to wait to talk as opposed to speaking to each other impulsively is a good strategy to learn as a life skill for a healthy relationship anyway.Article continues below
3. Make sure you’re having fun as a couple.
When you’re engaged in couples therapy, there’s often a lot of heaviness and tension in the air. It’s important to offset the serious energy with some fun and play.
Try to engage in activities together that you once enjoyed as the people you each fell in love with early on as a couple. Invite each other on a fun date and do something new and out of the norm. Be creative and flexible. You can look to activities you enjoyed early in your relationship that you have since abandoned (for example, some couples used to play board games and stopped after a few years), or you can think of an activity you enjoy currently, like having a quiet dinner out.
Challenge yourself to each come up with one such activity weekly that you might enjoy doing together. Make sure to honor whatever plan you make. No exceptions and no cellphone distractions. Focus on each other. If you’re struggling for topics, there are games specifically designed to help with engaging dinner questions.
4. Aim for a moratorium on fighting and digs in between sessions.
Keep things lighter between sessions. Concentrate on re-engaging with each other as people.
It can be helpful to have a signal to stop potential arguments before they start in between sessions so that conflicts won’t escalate and get out of control. Agree on the signal beforehand so one partner doesn’t feel condescended to by the other.
Instead of focusing on your various issues that you’re working through in your sessions, spend your conversations together asking each other mindful questions about each other’s day that are personal and not about children. Pro tip: Show interest by asking follow-up questions from a conversation that may have happened the day before. If you feel you may forget, write a note to yourself to “follow up about X” in the same way you would write a note to follow-up about something at work or with your children.
5. Lay on the love.
Every day make an attempt to show the person you “see” them in some small way: Send a fun text, make a surprise call, or give your partner a thoughtful gift. I remember my grandmother putting notes in my grandfather’s lunch each day. They were married for over 70 years. Times have changed a lot since then, but the gesture is still a moving and powerful one. Although I’m sure that’s not what was the cornerstone of their successful marriage, I know her daily thoughtfulness affected him.
In today’s world, I know most people don’t write notes anymore. However, there are other ways to let your partner know you’re thinking about them. Take a picture of something you see that makes you think of them and send it to them. Text to connect, not just to make plans or relay practical information. Buy a ticket and send them a picture to show that you have a plan to take them out. Send them a thoughtful audio message. Do something predictable or unpredictable. Both a little effort and a lot of effort can go a long way!
Always remember that you started couples therapy because you’re struggling as a couple, so be patient with the process. Try to remember that you likely opted into therapy because you realize there’s still something valuable within the relationship to fight for. Don’t lose sight of the big picture.