17 Communication Exercises for Couples Therapy

Published on: 24 Nov 2021
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
couple sitting on couch smiling

All couples will, at one time or another, go through a rough patch in their romantic relationship. It’s not only common, it’s also actually very normal for healthy relationships to have some relationship problems and even seek in-person or online couples therapy. Often, the struggles can be either directly or indirectly related to couple communication issues, and they can result in serious relationship anxiety if not dealt with. Learning how to effectively communicate and honing in on those skills can be a real game changer in your relationship. Healthy communication exercises for couples can help partners figure out how to strengthen their romantic relationship. 

Here, you can learn more about the importance of relationship communication exercises and get examples of some of our favorite communication activities to practice connecting with your partner on a deeper level.

“Unmet expectations are hard to accept, but when we are lonely in our relationships, it’s time to reflect on when the dialogue stopped; when life gets busy, it’s easy to lose touch and sight of shared goals. Avoid creating unintended space, by communicating with empathy from the start, keeping the focus on the relationship, rather than each other’s flaws.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C

Importance of Relationship Communication Exercises 

Couples therapy exercises for communication allow partners to learn how to talk and listen to one another. This is one of the many benefits of couples therapy. This positive communication process involves exchanging, in a productive manner, thoughts, ideas, information, and knowledge. How you communicate directly relates to how well you can come together as partners. When your communication is strong, and on point, intimacy can be strengthened, and trust can be reinforced in your spouse.

Studies have consistently shown that couples who are good communicators have a greater chance of having a happier, longer romantic relationship compared to those who don’t communicate well or at all.

“Talking about what is wrong is easy, but what’s going well should be at the core of the discussion. We tend to want to fix or perfect our relationships, although honoring growth, transition and change deserve as much attention. When communicating, practice clarity, generosity, and honesty, not only with your partner or spouse but also with yourself about your own needs.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C

Remember that  “communicating” isn’t just talking in good communication. There are couples therapy techniques that will ensure you’re both being heard and that you’re validating one another’s feelings.

Some of the more beneficial relationship exercises for couples’ communication follow. 

1. Validation Exercises

Validation is important in any relationship. We all want to feel validated in life. In your relationships, validation can make you feel secure when you open up and are vulnerable. It helps you fully connect and feel like you can trust your partner. Especially when dealing with relationship problems and conflict, it can be even more difficult to express your feelings if you don’t feel safe.

It’s really important to understand that validation is not simply agreeing with each other. Rather, it’s acknowledging someone’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings, and then making sure they know you hear them and are making a concerted effort to understand them.

2. Positive Language Exercises

When couples speak to one another with positive communication styles and language, conversations tend to be more well-received. It makes sense that a positive tone would trump a negative one, especially when couples are trying to navigate difficult situations or topics. Research has reinforced the idea that it’s often not what you say, but how you say it. This refers to one’s communication styles.

Using negative language can result in communication problems and one partner feeling either accused, attacked, or both. An easy way to practice positive language exercises is to just think about what you’re saying and then frame it up in a more positive version. 

For example, rather than saying, “Those pants don’t look good on you,” you could say, “I love those black pants you wore on our last date night.”

3. Active Listening Exercises

Sometimes we might come across as if we have a need to be right. Active listening can be an excellent way to change this. In an exercise also known as uninterrupted active listening, you don’t interrupt your partner while they’re expressing their needs or feelings. You might think that you’re being helpful by giving relationship advice or explanations while your partner is opening up to you, but this can be misinterpreted as you feel like you know more than your partner does.

To conduct an uninterrupted active listening exercise, simply set a clock for anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes and then allow one partner to talk openly. They’re free to express whatever they’re thinking about. It can be related to school, work, friendships, the children, relationship stress, or anything else at all. 

The silent partner can give verbal communication support using gestures and nonverbal communication clues, but they shouldn’t speak during the designated time. Once time is up, switch speakers and conduct the couples communication exercise once more. 

At the end of each speaker’s time, the silent partner can check in if they need clarification about any points — this part is important because it ensures that what was said is understood. Over time, a deeper understanding of one another will develop. Using language like “Would you mind telling me more about this?” can be effective here. 

“Mindful and reflective listening should not be mutually exclusive and are a great exercise. Practice offering thoughtful and authentic responses after being a mindful listener. How we express ourselves can reveal how much or how little we care, to the same degree as what is said, and if we are lazy about how we share, we run the risk of holding ourselves less accountable and less motivated to be open towards each other.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C

4. Extended Eye Contact Exercises

Extended eye contact is a powerful way to learn about how your partner truly feels. In this non-verbal exercise, neither partner speaks. Using just an eye-to-eye connection, you sit across from your partner in a calm, relaxing, and peaceful place. You maintain eye contact for up to five minutes without turning away or breaking the gaze. During this time, you should allow all of your innermost feelings to come up.

At the end of the specified time, you and your partner should talk about the experience. Share how you felt and try to verbalize any sensations that you noted throughout the session. 

Perhaps the most important part of this exercise is after your discussion when each person should really think about what the other said. How well was each of you able to pick up on gestures and nonverbal cues during the exercise?

5. ‘I’ Statement Exercises

The classic “I” statement technique is one of the most well-known communication exercises for couples. Here, you want to eliminate finger-pointing, blaming, criticizing, and shaming — all of which are very common ways that couples might attempt to engage with each other during conflict. The problem with this type of communication is it can lead to a disconnect or detachment rather than strengthening the relationship.

If you’re upset about something in a relationship, using “I” statements can let you take responsibility for your own feelings while reducing how much blame you’re putting on your partner. 

“I” language has been shown in studies to reduce the likelihood that discussions about conflict will lead to an explosive confrontation. Ultimately, “I” statements can help us deepen connections with everyone in our lives, not just our romantic partners.

6. Three and Three Exercises

Three and three exercises are simple but effective. To complete the process, you and your partner should sit separately in a quiet place where you won’t be distracted. The only tools you need are a piece of paper and a pen. 

Both of you should write down three things you don’t love, and three things you do love about your partner. Be sure that you’re open and honest with what you write down because you’ll use these to communicate and hopefully enact change in your relationship.

Make sure that when you share your lists with each other, you’re in a very neutral setting and that you remain calm. Try not to feel offended about your partner’s list. Rather than look at that don’t love list as a deal-breaker, look at it as an opportunity.

7. “I Feel ____ when _____” Exercises

Sometimes it can be difficult to express how we feel. It’s not uncommon for one partner in a relationship to feel like they’re shutting down or closing themself off. They simply can’t find the words to fully express themselves. I feel exercise can help you overcome this roadblock in a relationship.

An example of this technique is having one person identify an emotion that’s connected to an act or situation, and then just filling in the blanks. This can sound like: I feel _________ when you are late getting home. Or I feel _________ when you cancel plans on me. 

The more we practice identifying how we feel and then expressing that specific emotion, the more natural it will begin to feel. 

8. Lend Me a Hand Exercises

The lend me a hand exercise requires both partners to participate so they can finish an assignment. Each of you should have one hand secured behind your backs as a reflection of the need to cooperate and work together. During the exercise, you’ll both be using verbal communication to fully complete the task at hand. An added bonus to this exercise is it can often help people look at their relationship in terms of who plays more of the captain role, and who is more of the leader.

Lend me a hand exercises encourage couples to look at how they’ll likely deal with stress in their relationship. Then they can figure out how to overcome future struggles.

9. Prediction Method Exercises

The prediction method is yet another effective communication exercise for couples. The prediction method is based on the idea that many couples overestimate how they think they might react to a situation compared to how their partner will react. Focus on trying not to make assumptions by jotting down several different situations and predicting how you think your partner will react to each.

Reviewing your responses gives you a safe space to discuss each other’s feelings while giving your partner the chance to respond to your assumption. In the long run, this exercise might prevent problems and mistrust in future difficult situations.

10. Reminiscing Exercises

Nostalgia can invoke deep feelings for partners. Revisiting old memories can remind you both why you fell in love in the first place. 

The only thing you need to do to complete this exercise is just to spend time together. Take the time to focus on good memories or special times in your relationship. You can use photo albums, letters, or cards that you’ve saved, gifts that were given to each other — anything that’s a reminder of past kindness that’s been expressed in your relationship.

When we revisit memories that are associated with sweet times, we tend to feel more connected and closer to each other.

11. Daily or Weekly Check-In Exercises

Checking in regularly with your partner is a way to reconnect and avoid the distractions that life is often full of. Scheduling actual time to check in with each other on a deeper level can prevent your relationship from going off track too far. 

Regular date nights or even a quick check-in during daily routines can be hugely beneficial. Something as simple as taking a walk around the block in the evenings can go a long way in fostering communication and letting you reconnect.

12. Expressing Gratitude Exercises

Expressing gratitude isn’t just good for couples. It’s a good practice anywhere in life. Focusing on gratitude as a therapy exercise lets both sides feel appreciated and not taken for granted. 

Taking the time to say a simple thank you or acknowledge the other person’s effort can really make a difference in your relationship. Especially if you or your partner respond to words of affirmation, expressing gratitude can satisfy an important need.

13. Behavior Change Requests Exercises

Behavior change requests can only come after much work has been done. Once both people understand and validate each other‘s feelings, the requests can begin. This one is fairly simple. Making a specific, yet — and this is key — measurable behavior change request is step one. Requests can be negotiated until there’s an understood and accepted expectation. As change is agreed-upon, both partners should already have felt heard and validated.

14. Mirroring Exercises 

Mirroring is a technique that can be helpful if two people feel they don’t communicate effectively. If you’re constantly feeling like your partner doesn’t hear what you’re saying, mirroring might be something for you to try.   

Mirroring’s “take-turn” approach has one person speaking at a time. When it’s the first speaker’s turn, they’ll express what they’re feeling and explain why. 

The listener will respond with, “So, what I heard you say was…” 

If the listener understood everything the speaker said, they’ll next ask the speaker to “Tell me more.” 

At this point, this speaker can make their next point, and this back-and-forth continues until the speaker feels they’ve exhausted everything they need to say.

Mirroring works and is effective because it has an actual effect on the brain, which relaxes when it feels heard.

15. 40-20-40 Exercises

The 40-20-40 process specifically targets compassionate listening and constructive conflict resolution. During this very detailed type of relationship exercise for couples, communication time is split. 40% of the allotted time goes to each of the two participants, with 20 minutes left over to discuss the relationship. 

During each speaker’s time, they can share their feelings without being interrupted. The important part of the 40-20-40 process is to ensure neither party uses accusatory statements. This exercise often ends up being a constructive conversation where two people understand that while conflict is not avoidable in a relationship, it can be survivable.

16. Sandwich Method Exercises 

The sandwich method is one of the communication exercises for couples that can keep each partner from feeling bogged down or stressed when they’re asked for something. Instead of just stating a demand (or what may be interpreted as a demand), you can “sandwich” your request in between two positive statements. 

For example, if you need your partner to help with carpooling one day, try beginning your request with something like, “Thank you for bathing the kids last night. Would there be any way you could pick them up from school today? I understand and appreciate how much you’ve been doing lately.”

By surrounding criticism or requests with positivity, there’s less chance your partner will be offended.

17. Stress-Reducing Conversation Exercises

It’s easy to take on your partner’s stress. If you find that when your partner opens up about a taxing situation they’re dealing with and you instantly want to find a solution for them, you may be wearing both of you down. 

The communication exercise known as stress-reducing conversations gives the speaker a chance to vent about their stressors while giving the listener an opportunity to hear them out without responding. In this exercise, the listener simply listens for 20 minutes without giving any advice or trying to find a solution. 

To be most effective, this should be done at the end of the day for about 15 – 20 minutes. Stress-reducing conversation exercises can help strengthen your bond and improve communication and listening skills.

18. DBT Exercises

Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that emphasizes the psychosocial parts of treatment, emphasizing the necessity of a collaborative relationship, client support, and the development of skills for dealing with highly emotional circumstances. 

An example of a DBT exercise would be DEAR MAN. This stands for Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, Mindful, Appear, and Negotiate.This exercise is a way of setting healthy boundaries in a relationship.

  • Describe: Accurately describe the situation by only using relevant facts. 
  • Express: Let your partner know how the situation made you feel. Elaborating on how you feel will help them understand why the situation matters to you. To effectively do this step, use “I” statements. 
  • Assert: Let them know what you want. Be very specific. 
  • Reinforce: Focus on what they can get if they give you what you want. If they do what you ask, always reciprocate it with a smile or a thank you. 
  • Mindfulness: Stay on the situation at hand. During the conversation, don’t get distracted. Focus on the present, express what you want and feel, then listen to what your partner has to say. 
  • Appear: Appear confident. Regardless of how you actually feel, act confident by keeping your head up, straightening your posture, and enunciating your words clearly. 
  • Negotiate: Remember that you are asking for something, and not demanding. Relationships are built on healthy compromises. Compromise where you can, but also remember your boundaries. 

Couples therapy can be very effective when two people come to the table willing to put in the work. Using a variety of relationship communication exercises can keep the work fresh and the growth continuing seamlessly throughout the duration of your therapy. Relationships are like anything else in life; we must work at them. Having the tools to effectively do so is key.

If you struggle with finding tools to work on your relationship, a therapist is an excellent guide that can help you and your partner practice some of the communication exercises above. At Talkspace, we can connect you with a licensed couples therapist that will help you and your significant other on a journey to a better relationship.

Sources: 

1. Lavner J, Karney B, Bradbury T. Does Couples’ Communication Predict Marital Satisfaction, or Does Marital Satisfaction Predict Communication?. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2016;78(3):680-694. doi:10.1111/jomf.12301. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4852543/. Accessed October 28, 2021.

2. Words can deceive, but tone of voice cannot. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151123202344.htm. Published 2015. Accessed October 28, 2021.

3. Rogers S, Howieson J, Neame C. I understand you feel that way, but I feel this way: the benefits of I-language and communicating perspective during conflict. PeerJ. 2018;6:e4831. doi:10.7717/peerj.4831.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5961625/. Accessed October 28, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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