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4 ways to reap the benefits of couple's therapy — without seeing a therapist

Not ready to see a therapist? Here are other things you can do to strengthen and repair your relationship.
Image: Young couple enjoying cooking class in kitchen
Learning something new together — like taking a cooking class — can allow for a renewed, refreshed perspective on your relationship.NoSystem images / Getty Images

What you might not see on carefully edited social media feeds tends to pop up in real-life conversations.

Last month alone, three friends told me about relationship struggles that you’d never knew existed from their smiling photos with their partners on Instagram. A few days ago, a friend opened up to me about a potential desire to file for divorce, even though her and her husband took the most beautiful and mushy Thanksgiving photo together.

Throughout all of these conversations, when my advice grew thin, I mentioned to each friend that they try couple’s therapy. I got answers that ranged from “we tried it and it wasn’t for us” to “we’re not comfortable doing that.”

Kara Lissy, LCSW, says sometimes there’s a stigma around going to therapy.

“Whether it’s a question of convenience and lack of time, the stigma around asking for help, or a general lack of interest in changing the relational dynamic, there are a lot of reasons couples resist therapy,” says Lissy. "But it’s important to connect in other ways to address any potential gaps in communication and reaffirm your commitment to each other."

If you have committed to therapy and dread every appointment — know that you’re not alone. Matt Smith, a licensed therapist at ModernEra Counseling, says that few, if any, couples truly look forward to going to therapy, even when it’s needed.

“Meeting with a professional can be intimidating, especially at the outset,” says Smith. “For some couples, therapy is out of the question. They may have had a bad past experience in therapy, or they may just not feel ready.”

The resistance to spending an hour on the couch got me wondering: Are there other options when it comes to putting some time and effort into repairing — or even just strengthening — a relationship?

Lissy says that if a couple is resistant or wants to try something else first, doing a therapeutic activity as a couple has a double benefit because you are strengthening the connection with yourself while simultaneously connecting with your partner.

And this isn’t a smart move just for couples that are navigating a rough patch. Lissy says that even people in happy partnerships can benefit from gaining more self-awareness; it increases your ability to reflect on your own emotions and reactions which leads to better communication.

So if couple’s therapy is a step you aren’t quite ready or willing to take, here are some other actionable options, recommended by professionals, that can help start to move the needle in the right direction.

Try something new together

After you’ve been with someone for a while, you might start to notice that those regular date nights start to get further and few in between and you fall into a habitual pattern of daily life — which leaves each of you spending more time doing your own things.

Joree Rose, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says that one of the biggest challenges she sees is the disconnection between couples after years of being together, along with the distraction of kids, work, commitments and financial stressors. That’s why she recommends finding something in common to do together.

One of the keys to being happy in your relationship is to actively continue to step towards it; this becomes an antidote to disconnection.

Joree Rose, LMFT

“One of the keys to being happy in your relationship is to actively continue to step towards it; this becomes an antidote to disconnection,” says Rose. “Make it fun, be creative, get out of your comfort zone — do new things together and you’ll find new and wonderful aspects to your relationship.”

It doesn’t have to be an extreme sport, like skydiving or water skiing, it could be something as simple as taking monthly cooking lessons or starting a book club together.

Lissy agrees that there’s power in learning or doing something new with your significant other.

“When we decide to learn something new, we enter what is called ‘Beginner’s Mind’. It’s a state of being in which we acknowledge we are newcomers to an activity, skill or way of thinking and tend to be more open-minded, flexible and creative,” says Lissy. “These positive attributes of Beginner’s Mind can extend into our relationship and lead us to be more curious, less judgmental and more willing to learn about one another. This is similar to what happens when couples try something new out of their normal routines; the novelty of an unknown situation allows for a renewed, refreshed perspective that can extend to the way the couple views one another.”

Go on a couple’s retreat — or find a workshop

An alternative to sitting down and talking to a therapist could be the exact opposite, getting far away.

Rose recommends going on a couple’s retreat, which can be a great place to heal and transform in a group setting.

“While I love therapy too, it’s easy to go to a therapy session, have a deep insight or ‘a-ha moment’ and then walk out the door and back into the busyness of your life, and not actually integrate what you’ve learned,” says Rose. “But when you intentionally take the time to step out of your routine and give yourself the space to delve into deeper aspects of yourself or your relationship, it guides you towards your growth and healing; it’s amazing what can transpire and transform.”

If retreats are too much of a time commitment (since they can range from 3-days to a week) couples can consider local workshops instead.

“Many couples find safety in numbers, which is why I often recommend couples workshops as an alternative to couples counseling. Weekend workshops, such as those offered by The Gottman Institute, focus on helping couples enhance communication, deepen intimacy, and establish a more trusting connection,” says Smith.

Access therapy from the comfort of your own couch

For some, having resources available to them at home might be a solution to bringing relationship problems to the surface.

Rose recommends reading relationship books or listening to podcasts, which can be a happy medium if one partner is resistant to traditional therapy, and another wants to give it a try.

“Then share talking points with one another,” says Rose. “It’s a neutral way of gaining tools and giving us the language to name and communicate what we are experiencing, while still gaining great insight to ourselves and our relationship.”

Smith also recommends online or video courses for couples who want to get help but do it with privacy.

Our Relationship and other similar online programs guide couples through a range of relationship challenges without having to even leave the house. As long as you do your homework and find a course or program that’s taught by someone with valid credentials, online courses can be a real game changer,” says Smith.

Setting aside a specific recurring date, time and location to have a check-in is an easy way to replicate one of the best parts about therapy in your own home.

Kara Lissy, LCSW

Schedule a weekly date night

If a couple did go to therapy, they’d have a recurring appointment on the calendar to see their therapist. Instead, an option can be to use that calendar time for an intentional and pre-scheduled date.

“Undivided attention and communication can feel impossible on a regular basis, especially when feeling rushed before work or tired after a long weekend. Setting aside a specific recurring date, time and location to have a check-in is an easy way to replicate one of the best parts about therapy in your own home,” says Lissy. “Knowing you both have a safe space and reliable time to fall back on to express any concerns that have cropped up throughout the week can help you have a chance to feel heard. Just make sure you honor the commitment, though; canceling check-ins frequently can result in a loss of trust.”

Lissy also recommends that this weekly date night happens outside the house, for best results.

“It’s rare to get uninterrupted time with our significant others. It seems something digital is always grappling for our attention,” says Lissy. “Also, it sets an important example to one another that you value time together with just the two of you. It’s easy to order in, watch Netflix and stare at each other’s phones and call it ‘quality time,’ but when you make a reservation, grab tickets to a show or make plans to take a walk in the park, you’re setting aside a special place and time and have a fun activity to look forward to.”

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