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DIY Marriage Counseling: Exercises and Techniques You Can Try At Home

DIY Marriage Counseling: Exercises and Techniques You Can Try At Home

In our recent in-depth article on marriage counseling, we mentioned that marriage therapy is one of the most difficult counseling disciplines—not even all fully licensed and trained counselors do it well. How can you expect to do it well on your own?


Simply put, you can't. But that doesn't mean there aren't things you can do on your own to help improve your marriage (or other intimate relationship—marriage or couples counseling methods work for all types of couples). And there are many good reasons to try.


It's hard enough to make the decision to see a therapist on your own, and it's even harder to make a mutual decision to see a therapist with a partner. This may be why it takes couples an average of six years to decide to see a counselor. By that time, conflicts have often become deeply entrenched and difficult to untangle, and even professional therapy may be unsuccessful.


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Trying do-it-yourself marriage therapy at home can help in one of two ways. It may be enough to get your troubled relationship back on track without needing to follow up with a counselor. This is more likely when the issues or conflicts you're dealing with are relatively minor. In other cases, it may help you make the decision to see a therapist together after you've made as much progress as you can on your own. In either case, you'll be helping your relationship.


When Shouldn't You Try DIY Marriage Counseling?

It's not always a good idea to try DIY couples counseling. In some cases, it can be destructive—even dangerous. If you're in an abusive relationship, trying to work on thorny issues at home is not only unlikely to help, it may make things worse. When your relationship has become violent, it doesn't always mean things are hopeless, but it does mean it's hopeless—and dangerous—to try to fix it on your own.


If your partner is violent, you may need to seek temporary shelter outside of the home, reach out to law enforcement, or talk to a counselor individually. If the violence is linked to or triggered by untreated substance use disorders or other conditions, one or both of you will need to seek treatment for those first before you'll be able to change the patterns in your relationship. Getting both individual and couples counseling at the same time is sometimes the best approach, but couples counseling rarely works as the only treatment for individual issues.


If the shoe is on the other foot—if anger toward your partner has caused you to lash out at them physically—the advice is the same. Whatever the type of abuse and whoever is perpetrating it, the best approach is to make a safety plan and seek individual counseling to better understand why this is happening and what you can do about it to stop it and keep yourself and others safe. If both of you are proactive after the first time one of you physically lashes out, you may be able to keep it from ever happening again. However, in many cases, violence becomes cyclical and the only solution is to leave the abusive relationship.


Psychological Barriers to Effective Couples Work

It's not just physical or sexual violence that can make DIY marriage therapy unsafe. Psychological violence or abuse can make DIY marriage therapy emotionally unsafe. If your partner frequently puts you down, gaslights you, causes you emotional harm, or otherwise makes you feel like you don't deserve their help to make things better, trying to work on things at home will likely just give your abusive partner more opportunities to be cruel to you.


Even couples who are respectful and kind with one another can get to a point where DIY efforts are destined to fail. Some couples fall into a pattern where one partner not only does most or all of the emotional work in the relationship, they also try to fix their partner's personal problems. Traditionally called "codependent" relationships, they can leave people grinding through the same patterns for years if the "codependent" partner has enough grit to try to keep handling it all on their own.


These dynamics can sometimes be subtle. Even if you are both contributing to your relationship and it doesn't feel "codependent," the reason for your conflict may be an individual issue that couples counseling won't fix. If one or both of you are struggling at work or in other areas of your life, and that unhappiness is fomenting conflict, you'll need to address these issues on your own as well as work on how you communicate about them.


When Should You Try DIY Marriage Counseling?


Circumstances don't have to be ideal for it to be worth trying DIY relationship improvement techniques at home. After all, you wouldn't be considering therapy if things were ideal. However, you're much more likely to be successful if:


  • Both of you agree that you need to work on your relationship
  • Both of you are invested in the relationship and want to make it better
  • One or both of you is already familiar with therapy and/or self-help work
  • You've been able to work through challenges together successfully in the past
  • The issues you want to address arise out of relationship rather than individual problems


It's not unusual for one partner to be more invested in the relationship than the other, especially at times of conflict. People have different attachment and coping styles, and some people find it easier to lean out or seek to leave difficult relationships than to "lean in" when things get tough. Doing the work may help both of you find your way back together if your partner cares enough to make a sincere effort. However, DIY couples therapy won't work if both partners don't believe in saving the relationship and aren't doing the minimal amount of work required.


The key ingredient to success whether you're in therapy together or trying DIY techniques at home is motivation. It's not all you need, but nothing will work without it. No matter what kind of therapy you're doing, it's only effective when the insights in the therapy room are applied outside of it. To get results without a therapist, you and your partner will need to be even more motivated to stick to the program you're following and put in the work every day.


DIY Marriage Counseling Exercises and Techniques


If you and your partner are both motivated to improve the quality of your relationship but aren't yet ready or able to see a therapist, there are several ways you can start the work at home. It's natural to think that the way to heal your relationship is to invest more in romance, but that can backfire if you're not dealing with deeper issues. Research shows that three approaches are particularly effective in improving relationships: taking relationship education courses, working on communication skills, and doing exercises to improve emotional intimacy.


Relationship Education


Relationship education courses are offered everywhere from counseling clinics to military bases to churches. You can also find them online. These courses take some of the same skills counselors teach couples in counseling sessions and translate them into a DIY course format. Research shows that these courses improve relationship outcomes, especially in the areas of communication skills and relationship satisfaction.


If you're considering taking a course, look for one that's evidence-based. Research reported by the American Psychological Association shows that the relationship education course used in the United States military, the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), leads to "less negative interaction, more positive interaction, lower rates of relationship aggression, lower combined rates of breakup and divorce and higher levels of relationship satisfaction up to five years following the training."


Another evidence-based relationship education program is the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model (NERMEM). This relationship education model is supported by the National Council on Family Relations, a nonprofit professional association, as being extensively researched and grounded in effective clinical principles.


If you have the opportunity to take a PREP- or NERMEM-based course (or other evidence-based course) locally or online, consider doing it. Whether the course uses a virtual classroom or is self-guided, it can be a great way to combine the support of an outside source with DIY work at home.


Communication Skills

The earliest marriage counseling models focused on helping couples build their communication skills. These skills are now widely taught outside of the therapy room.


One of the most effective communication skills for couples comes from Marshall Rosenburg's Nonviolent Communication (NVC). You may not be familiar with NVC or Marshall Rosenberg, but you're probably familiar with the idea of using "I statements" instead of using "you statements," which comes from NVC. The basic idea is that saying, "I feel hurt when you say that" is much less aggressive and much more likely to lead to productive dialogue than saying, "You are such a jerk for saying that," or, "It's your fault."


Similar advice comes from relationship expert John Gottman, who teaches that the "Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse" are four aggressive communication tactics: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Dr. Kathy McMahon clarifies in an article about the Four Horsemen that Gottman's advice not to criticize one another doesn't mean couples should stay silent about what bothers them. Instead, she says couples should complain instead of criticize. This means to talk to your partner about what's bothering you using "I statements" and requests instead of lashing out at them and attacking their character.


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has a communication skills worksheet that lists more techniques you can use to improve your communication, including listening skills. Using nonverbal gestures and body language, you can show your partner that you're tuned in instead of tuned out. It also helps if you take the time to paraphrase or summarize what they're saying to show that you are listening and to invite clarification if you've misunderstood.


Vulnerability and Emotional Intimacy


Many of the communication skills commonly taught to couples are based on the principle of rejecting aggression in favor of vulnerability. To be a good listener—to not interrupt and to hold space even when a partner is saying something you don't agree with—takes an ability to be vulnerable and to stay open even in the midst of uncomfortable emotions. So does stating how you feel without trying to justify it, blaming your partner, or saying that they're a bad person.


Brené Brown is a popular speaker and teacher on the subject of vulnerability. Her 2010 TED Talk on vulnerability has become one of the most viewed talks on the site, and in 2019, she released a well-reviewed Netflix special called The Call to Courage that focuses on how to be vulnerable. Her videos, specials, and books are a great place to start if you're looking for ideas on how to be more vulnerable in your relationship. Brown's ideas come from her work as a social science researcher at the University of Houston, so they're rooted in scientific research.


The couples therapy method with the strongest research support is emotionally-focused therapy (EFT). In their in-depth research review, authors Jay Lebow, Anthony Chambers, Andrew Christensen, and Susan Johnson state that the "active ingredients" of EFT that make it so effective are "depth of emotional experience in key sessions and the shaping of new interactions where partners are able to clearly express attachment fears and needs and be emotionally responsive to the other's needs."


There are many specific things you can do to practice vulnerability and increase your emotional intimacy with your partner. Here are a few sample ideas and exercises to try:


  • Do something that scares you. Nothing makes us feel more vulnerable than being afraid. Talking to your partner about your fears—in the relationship or in general—increases your emotional intimacy. And if there's something you're both afraid of that's relatively safe to try, doing it together will create a vulnerable experience you can process with one another afterward, increasing your emotional intimacy.

  • Talk about childhood memories. Underneath our defenses, we all have a scared child we're still trying to protect. Our wounds and the struggles we play out in relationships often have their origin in our childhoods. Talking to each other about your experiences growing up will help to foster deeper understanding, empathy, and emotional intimacy between you.


  • Express gratitude to one another. Saying that we're thankful for something often triggers feelings of vulnerability. We might not want others to see how much we value or need something out of fear we'll lose it or that they'll use it against us. Taking a risk and telling your partner why and how you're grateful for them will help you overcome this fear and increase your feelings of connection and intimacy.


  • Demonstrate your love for each other. Gift-giving isn't everyone's love language, but when it's how someone expresses love, it's often less about materialism and more about shared joy and vulnerability. If you're on a tight budget and can't afford to give gifts frequently, there are other ways to show that your love goes beyond words, including planning a special experience or crafting an object that shows that you care. Investing time, money, or emotional risk in each other can deepen feelings of trust and connection.


  • Dig deeper and find out the real reason you're fighting. Past experiences often cause us to translate words or actions into something another person never meant. There's usually something more vulnerable underneath what we claim to be fighting about. For example, fights about doing the dishes can be rooted in feelings of being invisible or unloved. Being vulnerable enough to say how something made you feel creates a space to explore what actually happened and to start unlinking concrete events from these painful subjective interpretations.


You can find more techniques therapists use in EFT to apply to your work with your partner at home by reviewing the DIY marriage counseling books and DIY marriage counseling worksheets for EFT that are listed on this site. You can also find general DIY worksheets and couples therapy homework assignments on and The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, as well as on other sites around the web.


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What If My Partner Won't Participate?


You may have spent a lot of time researching local couples counselors, only for your partner to refuse to go. What do you do if they also refuse to do any of these at-home exercises?


The first thing to do is to give them time. It's hard for any of us to admit when we or things that we care about—especially important relationships—are in trouble. Your partner may prefer to think everything is fine and that you're overreacting. However, their denial may not be permanent. They might surprise you by revisiting the idea of in-person or DIY counseling after your next fight.


But what if they don't, or what if you've been waiting a really long time? First, know you're not alone. Many people struggle when they realize a relationship they value isn't working. Second, honor your own emotional needs. It's heartbreaking when you feel like you should be able to fix things but the other person refuses.


One of the best things you can do to tend to that heartbreak is to find your own therapist. It may even be closer to what you had in mind. Many people who go to couples counselors are frustrated when they find out the counselor won't take sides. This is because couples counseling doesn't work unless both people are equally engaged. But your desire for your own support is valid, and an individual therapist can give you that.


Going to individual therapy when you're in the midst of a troubled relationship could lead to several outcomes:


  • You might realize that you want to end the relationship.
  • You might find ways to accept your partner's shortcomings or the limitations of the relationship, especially if you discover other ways to attend to your unmet needs.
  • Your insights might change the nature of the fights or conversations you have with your partner, leading to greater clarity or mutual engagement in the process of change.


Whatever happens, know that while you can't control or "fix" your partner, you have the right and the freedom to take care of yourself. If you're ready to find a counselor for individual or couples work, you can use the search tools on OpenCounseling to find affordable therapists near you. If online therapy would be a better fit for your schedule or lifestyle, you can try signing up with one of our sponsors, BetterHelp or ReGain. The help you need may only be a call or click away.

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 02/03/2020 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.