People come to couples counseling for a variety of reasons, but most people want help figuring out how to make their relationship better again. I love using tools that are easy and effective to help accomplish this goal, and I’ve been able to incorporate these five into my work with couples quite successfully. Here are my five favorite tools I use in couples counseling.
1) Identifying Your Dance
Many couples start marriage counseling stuck in “dance” or a pattern of communicating. This “dance” stems back to each person’s attachment style and can often be traced back to a hurt that they’re still trying to heal.
When you can start to see your partner’s behavior, however annoying they may be, through this lens, you gain the courage to stop tiptoeing, and start recognizing their vulnerabilities. Seeing your partner in this light naturally changes the way you respond.
2) Using the Feedback Wheel
The feedback wheel, created by Terry Real, is one of my favorite tools in couples counseling. The goal is to create a safe space where both partners can express their feelings about each other and about issues that affect their relationship.
Using the feedback wheel creates a format that allows a person to voice their perspective with by owning their thoughts and feelings. By doing so, couples are able to minimize blame and criticism and keep their partner calm enough to hear them out. In turn, people usually feel heard, understood and empowered enough to move forward with greater strength as individuals and as a couple.
3) Filling Your Emotional Bank Account
Even if you don’t know it, we all keep an emotional bank account with our romantic partners. This idea, introduced by John Gottman, is that every time we do something nice or caring—like helping out around the house or picking up a bouquet of flowers—we deposit a little bit of goodwill into our partner’s emotional bank account. Then, when we get upset about something or feel frustrated, we can withdraw from that emotional bank account to balance things out and make ourselves feel better. (In good relationships, there should be plenty in that account for both partners.) Withdrawals often lead to debts, though; and those are toxic because they build resentment.
Understanding your balance in the relationship’s emotional bank account will help you understand when you can withdraw and when you need to deposit. For those with negative balances, it makes sense that it may take some time before you’re allowed to make any more withdrawals.
4) Doing Inner Child Work
Getting in touch with your inner child may be one of the most powerful tools I use in couples counseling. Inner child work is a type of therapy that involves revisiting your past in order to let go of old wounds and help you move forward in life. For instance, imagine a past situation where you felt ashamed or hurt. That memory becomes associated with negative emotions, which affects your life going forward by influencing how you feel about yourself and how others treat you. Inner child work provides a safe space to explore those memories and heal them so that they no longer affect your self-image and relationships.
5) Identifying Your Partner’s Core Negative Image
Think of the way you view your partner when they’re at their worst. The core negative image is the exaggerated negative qualities that you see in your partner when you’re both flooded with emotions. When couples take turns identifying each other’s negative image, they learn why they react the way they do and how they’re actually feeding their partner’s negative image of them. This can tricky work for couples in marriage counseling, but also a relationship game changer is both people are secure enough to hear it.
BONUS: Squeezing the Lemon
Do your arguments ever feel repetitive? This may very well be because you never finished the problem the first time you talked about it. I say with certainty that 100% of the couples I see in marriage counseling stop the conversation before it’s over. Think of this as a weed…if you don’t get it all, it’ll just grow right back.
Squeezing the lemon requires a “ME” conversation where the person listening mirrors (M) and offers empathy (E)…over and over again. After each mirror, it is IMPERATIVE that the listener say, “Am I getting that right?” and “What else?” I guarantee you’ll only feel stupid in this repetitive cycle until you see your partner cry with relief because they finally feel understood.
Think you might be interested in couples counseling?
Couples therapy is a wonderful opportunity to clear the cobwebs out of your relationship. Our counselors at Knot Counseling LOVE turning upside down relationships, right side up again. Give us a call to see if couples therapy is a good fit for your relationship. We offer free consultations and even have opportunities for sliding scale therapy.