Real couples know that Instagram is a lie: relationships aren’t always a highlight reel. Relationships, especially long-term ones, take work to, well, work. However, seldom are we taught how to actually do that work for our relationships so that we can help foster intimacy and connection with our partner. As a result, our relationships often bring us more stress and anxiety than ease and love.
“The human relationship is the most complex thing on Earth,” says Dr. Chris Tickner, MFT. “Our brains have evolved over millions of years and contain billions of connections, possibilities, and potentials. Yet despite that complexity, like it or not, being human means we are fear-based. We tend to expect the worst, be self-centered and act from our survival instincts. Put all of this together and it is no wonder most relationships struggle from time to time.”
Enter: therapy. Couples therapy keeps a relationship on track via tools and various exercises to help restore intimacy and improve communication. Essentially, therapy is a gift that keeps on giving, and thankfully there are a number of couples therapy exercises that you can try at home with your partner to help heal and fulfill your relationship
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The Eyes Have It
The next time you are arguing with your partner, Dr. Tickner suggests noticing if you are looking at each other.
“In my office, when couples are fighting, they usually look away from one another. In those moments, I will remind them to make eye contact, and something magical happens. The fighting slows down and they begin to connect.”
Tickner says there is a good reason for this. Our eyes, and other senses, provide our brains with immediate, real-time data. “Without this input, we fill in the gaps with fear-based assumptions. We assume the other person is being mean, is trying to hurt us, or is not listening. Avoiding eye contact will add fuel to the fire! So, next time you get into a heated argument, move in close, hold hands, make eye contact and see what happens.”
The 5 Minute Exchange
“One of my favorite exercises for couples to do is the 5 Minute Exchange,” says JF Benoist, professional counselor, founder of The Exclusive Hawaii and author of Addicted to the Monkey Mind. “The goal of this exercise is to only use ‘I’ language.”
To do this exercise, one partner would set an alarm for five minutes and essentially give a weather report on how they are feeling: “I feel concerned about this…” “I’m so excited for this….” “I’m anxious about this….”
During the five minutes, the other partner can’t say anything. After the timer goes off, the first partner “Thank you for hearing me.” To which the second partner replies, “You’re welcome.” Then they set a timer for five minutes, and do the same thing, sharing their emotional state of being.
“The most important aspect to this exercise is that after [the second partner] is done sharing, they each go their separate ways,” says Benoist. “It’s often most effective to do this exercise first thing in the morning, so maybe [one partner] goes and takes a shower, or the other partner goes to make coffee.”
By not discussing what’s been said, Benoist says you’re developing the ability to stop fixing things. “You’re not there to fix your partner, and your partner isn’t there to fix you. This exercise is about bringing presence, love, and kindness to each other’s experience.”
One Nice Thing
Licensed therapist Amanda Stemen‘s tip is pretty simple but sweet: each partner commits to doing one nice thing per day for the other person.
“Don’t tell one another what it is, but rather each person pays attention and writes down in a shared notebook anything they think might be the one nice thing their partner did for them,” she says. According to Stemen this exercise does two things: “First, it gets each person to think about what they can do for their partner and then actually do it; and second, it encourages each person to look for nice things their partner does for them.”
Ideally, the exercise encourages each person to be more mindful of how much their partner is doing for them and what more they could be doing for one another. “It also more naturally increases appreciation and gratitude for one another in a fun way. This will help any couple who thinks their relationship isn’t balanced or is having difficulty being grateful for one another.”
The Reunion Hug
Dr. Tickner credits famed psychologist Stan Tatkin’s Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy for this exercise.
Whenever someone returns home, whether from after work, shopping or dropping off the kids, the person who is at home should greet them. “First, without talking, stand in front of each other, about one to two feet apart. Look into each other’s eyes (sound familiar?) and just breathe,” says Tickner. “Now wait until you think the other person is really present with you. This can sometimes take a few minutes, so be patient and don’t rush it. You are letting your nervous system calm down and acclimate. Once you are both settled, present and connected, move closer and embrace in a hug. Hold that embrace for at least one minute, the longer the better.”
The Reunion Hug, when practiced consistently and daily, says Dr. Tickner, can increase intimacy, connection, feelings of empathy and relaxation.
“Because of the nature of our past conditioning including how we attached and bonded with our caregivers, reunions can be tricky. But practicing this technique, even if you had the best of childhoods, will only serve to strengthen your connection with your partner and develop powerful emotional regulation skills.”
The Adventure Jar
To help keep the spark alive, Stemen suggests keeping an adventure jar in which the couple writes down things they’d like to do together.
“This can be added to at any time and written down individually or together. If you’re feeling bored or if it’s someone’s turn to plan a date, you draw an adventure and go about it. This increases the spontaneity and fun in the relationship, while also ensuring each person is doing things they enjoy and trying new things at the same time.”
“The exercise also helps couples who are stuck in a rut and also simply to keep the spark alive as spontaneity and new activities are crucial to that.”
If you and your partner need ideas to spice things up in bed, check our bucket list of 69 sex positions to try ASAP:
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