DIY Marriage Counseling: Exercises That Work (Plus When to Get Help)
When you’re struggling to get your relationship with your partner back on track, couples counseling can be one of your best options for saving your relationship.
But as good as couples counseling can be, it’s not always an option. Time and financial constraints can get in the way, and it’s almost impossible if you and your partner aren’t equally invested in it.
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.
Trying DIY techniques might help you and your partner avoid getting to that point.
Keep reading to learn some exercises you can try with your partner at home, when they’re worth trying, and when you might want to try couples counseling instead.
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 ways you can start the work at home.
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 courses are offered in many places. You may find one in a local counseling clinic or church. They’re often offered on military bases. 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.
We recommend looking for a course that’s evidence-based. Research shows that evidence-based relationship education courses can improve communication skills and relationship satisfaction.
Evidence-Based Relationship Education Courses
The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) is supported by the evidence. According to research reported by the American Psychological Association, it 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 program is the National Extension Relationship and Marriage Education Model (NERMEM). It has been extensively researched and the National Council on Family Relationships affirms it is 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.
One of the most important things marriage and couples counselors do is help couples improve 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 Nonviolent Communication (NVC). You may not be familiar with NVC, but you’re probably familiar with the idea of using “I statements” instead of using “you statements,” which comes from NVC.
Relationship expert John Gottman gives similar advice on effective ways to communicate with a partner. He teaches that the “Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse” are the four aggressive communication tactics of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.
Dr. Kathy McMahon clarifies 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.
Vulnerability and Emotional Intimacy
One of the most important things you can do to improve your relationship is to learn how to be more vulnerable.
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 blaming your partner, saying that they’re a bad person, or trying to justify yourself.
Brené Brown is a social science researcher at the University of Houston who is an expert on how vulnerability impacts relationships. Her 2010 TED Talk on vulnerability has become one of the most viewed talks on the site, and in 2019, she released a Netflix special called The Call to Courage that focuses on how to be vulnerable.
Brown’s 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.
How to Open Up and Be More Vulnerable
There are many things you can do to practice vulnerability and increase your emotional intimacy with your partner. Here are a few:
- Do something that scares you. Nothing makes us feel more vulnerable than being afraid. Talking about your fears—in the relationship or in general—increases emotional intimacy. And if there’s something you both fear that’s relatively safe to try, doing it together will create a vulnerable experience you can talk about afterward, bringing you closer.
- Talk about childhood memories. Underneath our defenses, we all have a scared child inside of us we’re still trying to protect. Our wounds and the struggles we play out in relationships often have their origin in our childhoods. Taking turns talking about experiences you had when you were growing up can foster deeper understanding, empathy, and emotional intimacy.
- Express gratitude to one another. Saying you’re thankful can make you feel vulnerable. You might not want others to see how much you value or need their love out of fear they’ll use it against you. 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 doesn’t have to be about materialism. Instead, it can be 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 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 can cause you to translate your partner’s words or actions into something they never meant. This can cause big, painful fights to erupt over relatively small issues. For example, the sight of dirty dishes in the sink might make you feel invisible or unloved. Then, you lash out at your partner based on that. Being vulnerable enough to say how something made you feel creates a space to explore your painful beliefs about what your partner’s actions mean—and usually, to find out they don’t mean what you thought they did.
The couples therapy method with the strongest research support is emotionally-focused therapy (EFT), which aims to help couples increase their capacity for vulnerability.
According to an in-depth research review, the “active ingredients” of EFT that make it so effective are “depth of emotional experience in key sessions” and learning new, more vulnerable communication patterns where you can talk about and respond to one another’s fears and emotional needs.
You can find EFT techniques to practice 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.
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.
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.
It’s possible to work together to improve your relationship even if this is true, as long as you both care about saving the relationship and are willing to put in the work to save it. If your partner cares enough to make a sincere effort, doing the work may help both of you find your way back to each other.
No matter what kind of therapy you’re doing, it’s only effective when you apply the insights you have in the therapy room to your life 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.
When Shouldn't You Try DIY Marriage Counseling?
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.
A single episode of violence, such as a push or a slap, may or may not become a pattern of abuse. But it is always a sign you need outside help.
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.
It’s not always a good idea to try DIY couples counseling or otherwise try to work on your relationship without outside help. In some cases, it can be destructive—even dangerous.
There’s no work you can do on your relationship if it isn’t safe to talk to your partner about difficult issues.
If your partner is violent, you may need to seek temporary shelter outside of the home or reach out to law enforcement to protect yourself before you can even start to think about anything else. And you’ll probably want to talk to a counselor individually to address any trauma you’ve experienced.
If an episode of violence, a pattern of abuse, or escalating conflict in your relationship is linked to untreated substance use disorders or mental health 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 individual and couples counseling at the same time can be a great approach when personal issues are affecting your relationship, but couples counseling rarely, if ever works to treat individual issues.
If the shoe is on the other foot—if anger toward your partner 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 first. Next, getting individual counseling can help you 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 violence that can make DIY marriage therapy unsafe. Psychological violence or abuse can also make it unsafe.
If your partner frequently puts you down, gaslights you, causes you emotional harm, or makes you feel like you don’t deserve their help to make things better, trying to work on things at home may 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, these types of partnerships can leave people grinding through the same patterns for years. One partner keeps trying to fix everything for or about the other person, while the passive partner refuses to make the effort to change, so nothing is ever really fixed.
These dynamics can sometimes be subtle. Even if you are both contributing to your relationship, you are actively working together to resolve issues, 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.
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 the things that we care about—especially important relationships—are in trouble.
But what if they don’t, or what if you’ve been waiting a really long time? First, know that 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 to help and doesn’t seem to care.
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.
How Might Individual Therapy Affect Your Relationship?
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, 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. Better times with your partner could be just a call or click away.
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 clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.