There are many techniques for couples counseling that you can use on your own. You don’t need to wait to begin seeing a therapist to start improving your relationship now.
In this article, you will learn 3 techniques for couples counseling you can use right away.
Techniques for Couples Counseling
There are many techniques for couples counseling which come from a wide range of therapy models.
Many couples therapists choose to use the Gottman Method as well which stems from over 50 years of research on what makes relationships work – and fail. Finally, there are attachment based therapies for couples work such as Emotionally Focused Therapy.
In this article, we will focus on techniques from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
Why Use Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Couples
Fundamentally, DBT teaches how to manage overwhelming emotions without making things worse and how to communicate more effectively.
Most – if not all – relationship problems stem from an inability for each partner to cope well with strong emotions which leads to more and more misunderstandings. You are likely familiar with this cycle yourself.
DBT is a model rooted in teaching – and learning – many new ways of dealing with emotions and communicating more effectively. These skills are quite easy to learn for the most part on your own. Whereas other models have techniques that require the third party presence of a counselor, DBT skills can be integrated into your life right now. You need not wait for a therapist to learn these skills and be willing to try them out.
Couples Concern: “We Can’t Communicate”
All couples fight at times. However, the way you communicate around misunderstandings is what makes all the difference.
In couples seeking therapy, often their misunderstandings have become quite intense. Couples often come to therapy stating, “We can’t communicate.” They feel like no matter how hard they try or the different ways they attempt to communicate, they can’t get on the same page.
Couples Therapy Technique #1: Getting Wise about the Root Problem
The core skill from DBT is the States of Mind theory. Here we learn that all human beings are in one of three states of mind at any given time.
These 3 States of Mind are:
- Reasonable Mind – This is the purely logical mind, the place you can weigh pros/cons, and balance a budget without emotion for example
- Emotional Mind – This is the place where emotions contribute to emotional thoughts/beliefs i.e., “I’m not good enough” and lead to actions that further hurt a situation like yelling at a partner, getting drunk, or self-sabotage
- Wise Mind – This is where emotions are balanced with fact and logic. There is no problem with emotions rather it’s what we do with it that can be helpful or unhelpful. In Wise Mind, you use your emotions as information but respond to them in a way that helps the situation rather than worsens it.
When couples come to therapy, they are primarily acting from Emotional Mind. That is that despite their attempts to improve things, it’s coming from an emotional (rather than logical) place. This always makes things worse.
With DBT, each partner learns they are personally responsible to get into Wise Mind. This is where you can balance your emotions with fact and logic. Here you can break out of cycles that have hurt you as a couple.
Balancing Emotions with Fact and Logic
Your emotions are not a problem; it’s what you do with them though that can be problematic. With DBT, you learn how to notice when you’re in Emotional Mind so you can balance this emotional intensity with what’s logical. Here you can respond, rather than react, to the problems in the relationship.
It’s only from Wise Mind that you can positively impact the relationship. When either you, or your partner, is in Emotional Mind the most important thing is to take a break to calm down. If you try to communicate from an Emotional Mind place it always makes things worse.
Emotional Mind vs. Wise Mind Interaction
To clarify the difference between an emotional state of mind which makes things worse, and a wise mind interaction which can help the relationship, here are a couple examples.
Partner A “You’re so embarrassing when you drink. Can’t you act like an adult for once?”
Partner B “You never let me have any fun. You need to learn how to relax.”
Partner A “I feel concerned about how you acted last night when you were drinking. The things you said in front of our friends really hurt me.”
Partner B “I am so sorry that I was hurtful last night. Can you tell me more about what I said?”
Partner A “You criticized my parenting and my job. I feel so embarrassed. It was really out of line.”
Partner B “Absolutely. I’m so sorry. I’m going to cut back on my drinking for awhile because that can’t happen again.”
The Wise Mind example, of course, takes lots of practice. However, whether your partner is willing to get into Wise Mind or not, it’s crucial that you start noticing when you’re reacting to your emotions rather than responding Wisely. It’s from this place that you can improve your interactions without waiting for your partner to change.
Couples Concern: “I’m just so angry (or overwhelmed) (or resentful) (or hurt)”
Strong emotions, when you don’t respond from Wise Mind, can greatly hinder how you interact with your partner.
All people get overwhelmed by their emotions at times. And all people disappoint or hurt their partner at times. Miscommunication and conflict are inevitable in relationships. However, when you learn how to cope well with the emotions that naturally arise when there’s conflict with your partner, you improve how you interact.
Couples Therapy Technique #2: Coping Well with Your Emotions
DBT teaches many coping skills to move from Emotional Mind to Wise Mind. This blog features these skills at times. An important collection of DBT skills are called distress tolerance skills.
Distress tolerance skills are coping skills which help you deal with painful, overwhelming, and uncomfortable emotions without making things worse i.e., learning how to be mad at your partner without saying hurtful things.
In the article, DBT skills for Distress Tolerance Which Seriously Make Life Better, you learn 3 different skills: IMPROVE the moment, Radical Acceptance, and how to create self-soothing kit. Please read this article to learn how to get into Wise Mind with these skills.
To add to this list, lets discuss another DBT distress tolerance skill to help you get into Wise Mind: ACCEPTS.
Distracting Yourself to Feel Better
The ACCEPTS skill teaches you how to distract from your emotions to allow them to settle. You would want to use ACCEPTS in times that you are really upset with your partner. You use ACCEPTS to get some space from your emotions so that you can communicate with them later on from a more regulated, Wise space.
You want to take this break because when you communicate more effectively about your emotions without reacting strongly, you help your partner hear you better with less defensiveness or counterattacks.
ACCEPTS, like many DBT skills, is an acronym with a list of many things you can do to distract yourself from overwhelming emotions. Here’s what it stands for:
Using ACCEPTS to Help Your Relationship
To help you get into Wise Mind, you could put your thoughts and feelings towards your partner in an imagery container for a while (Pushing Away). Or you could use Emotions to watch a comedian on YouTube to laugh for a moment.
The idea here isn’t to talk you out of your emotions – it’s to distract yourself from them temporarily to reduce how intense your emotions are. Then, once your emotion feels less intense, you are able to communicate more effectively.
Couples Concern “I Don’t Feel Heard”
Partners in couples counseling often feel like both they can’t communicate with one another – and they’re not being heard.
Of course, no matter how many skills we use or how long we could to couples counseling, we can’t control if someone truly listens to us. However, it is absolutely within your control to communicate as clearly and respectfully as possible.
Often, when people come to couples therapy, they’re often communicating ineffectively from an Emotional Mind place. When they communicate ineffectively, they are naturally less likely to be heard.
There are 4 types of communication and all but 1 are examples of Emotional Mind communicating. The Emotional Mind styles of communication are:
- When you are passive, you hide your feelings, wants and needs. This is often how people who identify as people pleasers communicate. Unfortunately, when you aren’t direct with someone, you’re much less likely to be acknowledged and cared for in the way you need. After all, human beings are not very good mind readers – and it’s Emotional Mind thinking to expect someone to just “know” what we want or need without telling them.
- Aggressive communication is being too harsh or critical with someone when you express your needs or wants. When you’re aggressive, people naturally want to protect themselves. Your partner will focus more on defending themselves here rather than hearing you out.
- Passive-aggressive communication is when you are indirect about your needs and wants. You may say things like, “It must be nice to relax” if you feel like all the housework lands on your shoulders rather than asking for help directly. Passive-aggressive communication includes sarcasm. Here your partner will both want to protect themselves from this hurtful communication and be less likely to know what you truly need or want because you’re not telling them.
The goal type of communication is assertiveness. Here you communicate kindly and directly about your feelings, needs, wants, and boundaries while being respectful. From this Wise Mind place, you help your partner hear you clearly.
To communicate in this way, you must first cope well with your emotions to allow you to be direct and kind. Then you must identify what the core problem is as well as what you need or want in the situation with your partner. This leads to another very helpful DBT skill.
Couples Therapy Technique #3: Asserting Yourself with a Simple Script
Developing an assertive communication style can be intimidating or confusing at times. Fortunately, the DBT skill DEAR MAN greatly simplifies this by giving you a simple script.
DEAR stands for what you literally say whereas MAN stands for how you do it. Again, it’s an acronym. To assert yourself effectively, you want to Describe the situation using just the facts, Express how you feel, Assert what you need or want, and Reinforce the giving by telling the other person what they get if they give when possible.
You want to do this by staying on topic (no kitchen sinking) by being Mindful. You want to Act confident. Finally, you will want to be open to negotiating whenever possible to communicate well.
Using DEAR MAN
This simple scripts help you ask for you need, or want, in 3 or 4 sentences. You can use it in ANY situation you need to assert yourself. It’s helps you speak clearly without justification or over-explaining. The first step to using DEAR MAN is taking time to identify your need, want, or limit.
Here’s an example of this in action:
First, I notice that I’m sad my partner is always working. I notice I need quality time with him.
Here’s what I say using DEAR MAN:
“I notice most nights of the week you’re gone until 9pm.” (Just the facts to reduce opportunities for debate and disagreement.)
“I feel sad.” (An emotion is expressed not a thought or judgment. Hint: “I feel that” is a thought or judgment).
“I would like us to have one night a week we eat dinner together.” (Asserting the need directly)
“If you’re willing to do this, I’ll feel a lot closer and more supported in this relationship which will reduce conflict.” (What he gets if he gives.)
If you want support with practicing this skill, please get the free worksheet here:
When to Seek Therapy
You can begin to positively influence your relationship immediately with these DBT skills. And the more you work to get into Wise Mind, the better you should be feeling regardless of how your partner acts.
You will have the self-respect that comes from coping well with your emotions and communicating clearly.
Of course, there are times when you will want to ensure you seek therapy in addition to practicing these skills especially if there is abuse or toxic dynamics going on. A therapist can help you most effectively intervene on these to feel safe.
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About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist and author with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to find their voice, deepen their ability to self-love, and improve their relationships.
Her newest book, Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach), gives you the tools necessary to identify, set, and stay firm with your boundaries.
Her other books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many overcome people pleasing, self-neglect, and resentment to have a healthier relationship with themselves and others.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.