Effective Couples Therapy Techniques

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated June 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Couples counseling is becoming increasingly common across couples of all ages, sexual orientations, and relationship types. Because each relationship is unique, mental health professionals may employ a number of different couples counseling techniques to suit clients’ needs and resolve relationship issues.

Couples therapy may help a couple improve communication, resolve conflict, and develop a deeper understanding of one another. Premarital counseling may teach couples valuable skills that underpin a healthy marriage or lifelong partnership, while marriage counseling can be helpful for couples who wish to repair or deepen their bond. The counseling techniques used in a therapy session typically depend on the couple and their goals for couples therapy. 

This article will discuss some common reasons people in a relationship might seek advice from a couples counselor, as well as several couples counseling methods for nourishing communication and connection within a partnership.

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Why couples might seek expert advice

It’s a common misconception that couples therapy is for couples on the brink of divorce or breakup. Certainly, couples counseling can be beneficial for those experiencing relationship problems. However, there are a number of reasons a couple may seek the guidance of a couples counselor. Here are a few common reasons couples start therapy:

Improving communication

Couples counseling can be very helpful in improving communication between partners. In relationship counseling, each partner may learn valuable communication skills to help them relate to one another in a healthy way, ensuring both individuals feel heard and respected. A therapist may work with a couple to help them:

  • Express emotions in a healthy, constructive way
  • Actively listen for mutual understanding
  • Avoid criticism when navigating conflict
  • Resolve conflicts and find mutually agreeable solutions
  • Set boundaries to establish what is and is not acceptable

Repairing trust

Trust is critical in relationships, and circumstances such as infidelity, financial difficulties, and addiction may significantly damage the trust between two people. In cases of betrayal, a couples counselor can help a couple repair their bond and find a workable solution. In many cases, this type of relationship therapy involves helping couples rebuild trust and recommit to one another; sometimes, however, couples therapy may help a couple decide whether they’ve reached a point in their relationship where it’s best to part ways. 

Coping with life changes

Significant life changes can cause difficulties even within a strong partnership. It’s common for a marriage to be affected by circumstances such as becoming parents, relocating, grieving the death of a loved one, or starting life as a blended family. A couples counselor can be helpful in navigating these life changes. 

Resolving conflict

Whether a couple is stuck in a pattern of conflict or dealing with a significant relationship issue like financial concerns or infidelity, a couples counselor can act as a neutral party to assist the couple in resolving conflict and working toward a resolution. Couples counselors are trained to act as mediators, meaning they don’t take sides; instead, they help by providing tools, techniques, and frameworks for navigating conflict in a constructive way. They can teach those who seek couples therapy effective problem-solving skills to use in everyday life. 

Deepening connection

Many couples choose to start therapy as a means of strengthening their bond and deepening their connection. When it comes to romantic partners, bonding behavior can be crucial. Often, there may be nothing “wrong” within the relationship; however, in therapy, partners learn valuable skills in couples counseling to help them improve emotional or sexual intimacy. 

Common techniques for couples therapy with marriage and family counselors

There are a number of ways that a licensed counselor can help couples improve their relationship, and many therapists specialize in or prefer a particular therapeutic method. However, there are a few common techniques that you’re likely to encounter in therapy:

Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy is a type of therapeutic approach that emphasizes the importance of personal narratives in shaping an individual's perception of themselves and their relationships. One of the key principles of narrative therapy is that individuals are not defined by their problems. Instead, problems are seen as separate from the individual and can be externalized and viewed as distinct entities that can be addressed and managed. This can be particularly useful in couples counseling, where it can help couples reframe their relationship problems in a more positive and constructive way.

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Learning reflective listening

Reflective listening is a communication technique commonly used in couples counseling to help couples improve their communication and deepen their understanding of one another. Reflective listening asks each partner to listen actively, paragraphs their partner, validate their feelings, empathize with them, and respond by discussing their feelings honestly and constructively. The goal of reflective listening is to create a safe and supportive environment where both partners can feel heard and understood. It can be an effective tool when working through relationship difficulties.

Facilitating deeper conversations

A couples counselor can help couples deepen their connection by facilitating deeper conversations between them. This can be beneficial for helping couples understand each other's perspectives, strengthen their emotional bond, and work through issues that may be causing conflict in their relationship. These deep conversations may reduce relationship distress, improve relationship satisfaction, and help individuals understand how their past relationships may be impacting their current and future relationships.

Identifying love languages

A couples therapist may help couples identify their love languages to help them better understand and meet each other’s emotional needs. It can be common for one partner to have a completely different love language than the other. Understanding how each other prefers to give and receive love offers a way for couples to improve communication, deepen emotional connection, and strengthen their relationship overall. 

Building positive communication

Expressions of gratitude, appreciation, and admiration are commonly associated with increased relationship satisfaction. As such, a relationship counselor will often encourage a couple to examine their communication patterns and find ways of increasing the number of positive interactions they have with one another, rather than perpetuating negative behavior patterns. This could be as simple as asking one another about their day or saying “i love you” more often. Often, building positive communication patterns takes practice, and a marriage therapist can be helpful in staying accountable.

Scheduling quality time

It can be common for couples to spend less quality time together as they become busier with the demands of their families and careers. However, spending quality time with one another can be helpful for couples in counseling. A marriage therapist may encourage a couple to schedule one-on-one time together each day or to block off an evening for a date night each month so that they can enjoy the positive aspects of their relationship.

Improving physical intimacy

Physical intimacy is an important aspect of adult relationships, and improving physical intimacy can help couples strengthen their relationship. A couples therapist may often open up a conversation with a couple about sex and other aspects of physical intimacy. They may assign homework that asks couples to spend more time cuddling, holding hands, or even looking into each other’s eyes. This can be an effective way for couples to reconnect and increase their physical intimacy in a safe and comfortable way.

Types of couples therapy

There are several types of couples therapy that a couple may benefit from. While the first few sessions may be challenging, it can be important to stick with the therapy process for the best results.

Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) 

Emotionally focused couples therapy is an evidence-based therapy approach that helps couples identify and address their emotions, which can improve communication and strengthen the bond between partners. Emotionally focused therapy can help partners identify and change attachment or interaction styles that may contribute to conflict in a relationship. Emotionally focused therapy techniques include restructuring the primary concerns and focusing on each partner’s acceptance of the other’s emotional needs. 

The Gottman method

The Gottman method is another evidence-based approach that helps couples improve their communication, manage conflicts, and increase intimacy. The Gottman method focuses on building positive interactions between partners and improving the overall quality of the relationship through healthy behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral couples therapy is a common couples counseling technique that can help couples identify and improve thought patterns and behaviors causing problems in their relationship. This form of therapy can also help each partner address individual mental health challenges. 

Solution-focused brief therapy

Solution-focused therapy is a short-term therapy approach that focuses on finding solutions to specific problems in the relationship. Solution-focused therapy can be helpful for couples seeking therapy who are dealing with specific issues, such as communication problems or financial issues. It may also be helpful for couples going through life transitions that may have come with negative behaviors or conflicts.

Imago relationship therapy

This type of therapy helps couples identify patterns of behavior that may be causing problems in their relationship. Imago relationship therapy focuses on understanding each other's childhood experiences and how they affect the relationship.

Mindfulness-based couples therapy 

Mindfulness-based couples therapy helps couples increase their awareness of their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Mindfulness can help couples reduce stress and improve communication and intimacy.

When should you seek therapy?

Generally speaking, the earlier you and your partner seek couples therapy, the better. While many couples don’t contact a licensed therapist until they experience relationship troubles, they often wish they had begun counseling sooner. It can help to get potentially problematic relationship concerns out in the open and discuss them before they place too much stress and negative emotions on a partnership.

Couples therapy can provide a safe space to address any concerns that may be affecting your relationship satisfaction and can help partners work through those issues effectively. A couples counselor will often provide materials, techniques, and strategies like communication exercises to continue the work outside of your sessions. These take-home training materials can be very helpful for those who are willing to put daily effort into improving their relationships.

Relationship counseling and mental illness

It’s important to note that couples therapy isn’t usually viewed as a primary treatment for individuals with a history of mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety. If you or your partner may be living with a mental health disorder, it can be important to speak with healthcare professionals about your medical history and symptoms so that you can get the care you deserve. However, couples therapy can be an excellent concurrent therapy.

Mental illness can influence all areas of a person’s life, particularly relationships, shaping how partners interact and communicate with each other. While couples therapy is not primarily focused on treating mental illness, it can help with treatment by offering strategies for conflict resolution, mindfulness, and reflective listening. These strategies may be helpful not only for improving a relationship affected by mental illness, but also in helping both partners support each other and manage symptoms. 

Counseling can give both partners a comfortable environment

An effective couples counselor creates a safe environment for identifying any issues within a partnership and helping couples reach a workable solution together through a variety of couples therapy exercises. Whereas marital stress can often be challenging to manage in daily life, couples counseling provides a safe space for individuals to explain their perspectives and express their feelings honestly. It can often be beneficial to have difficult conversations in a neutral environment with a trained counselor facilitating the conversation. 

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Finding a relationship therapist near you

The best couples counseling programs are typically conducted by licensed marriage and family therapists, or LMFTs. You can find marriage and family therapy providers by searching online for couples therapists or marriage counselors near you. In-person couples therapy generally requires meeting at a therapist’s office weekly.  In many cases, however, online couples therapy sessions, such as those offered by Regain, may be preferable. Online couples therapy offers couples a way to attend sessions from the comfort of their home, or anywhere with a strong internet connection.

This may be beneficial for couples with busy schedules, careers that require frequent travel, or long-distance relationships. It’s also a great fit for couples who struggle to find a babysitter for in-person sessions.

Recent studies have found that online therapy, for both couples and individuals, is as effective as in-person therapy in many cases.  Online therapy can help couples regardless of sexual orientation or relationship status. 

Takeaway

of seeking support from a licensed marriage and family therapist to work toward a healthy relationship. Talking with a professional may help you and your partner move toward healthier communication, greater intimacy, and stronger connection.
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