Common Techniques used in Couples Counseling

Common Techniques used in Couples Counseling

When you and your spouse/partner agree to schedule a couple’s therapy session together, the marriage and family therapist will get to know you both first, will hear your story, and explore both of your perspectives on what concerns bring you to therapy.

There a lot of different techniques therapists use but here we will discuss the three specific techniques that you could expect.


Circular Questions.

In relationships it is not just one partner affecting the other, but rather there are circular patterns or “dances” that the couple goes through together.

Circular questions are used by the therapist to include both partners. These types of questions come from a circular dynamic. The circular dynamic flows like this:

Partner A: Thought – – – – – -> Feeling – – – – -> Behavior (towards partner B)

Partner B: (receives behavior from partner A) Thought- – – – -> Feeling – – – – -> Behavior (Back to partner A)

This dynamic goes around and around and is the couple’s “dance” or interactions they have at home. The goal of circular questioning is to find out more about the interactions that go on between the couple outside the therapy room.

Circular questions help inform the following:

  • Thoughts, feelings and behaviors
  • How each partner perceives their partners behavior, and how that makes them feel and how they react
  • How the couple effects each other and in what way
  • Relationship dynamic: who “pursues” and who “withdraws” in arguments or encounters

Circular Questions Example:

Husband: “She is always using the credit cards! She runs up the balance and maxes one out and moves on to the next one! It’s out of control!”

Therapist: “So what happens next, once you find that out?”

Husband: “I go to her and ask her what’s going on and why she is maxing out our credit cards.”

Therapist: “And what is that like for you when you find out your wife has done something without you knowing?” (CIRCULAR QUESTION)

Husband: “I’m mad! I’m upset! She did something behind my back and its effecting our lives!”

Therapist: You are angry because your wife did something behind your back. (EMPATHY)

Therapist: (To wife) “And what is it like for you when your husband comes to you after he finds out that you have used the credit card?” (CIRCULAR QUESTION)

Wife: “I back away and become defensive. His anger pushes me away and he has no right yelling at me like that!”

Therapist: “You feel hurt and defensive when you he comes at you in that way and you withdraw.” (REFLECTION)


Operational Questions.

Operational questions bring to life what is going on between the couple and what those feelings “look like”. This exercise helps the couple understand what the other’s feelings are in their interactions together, and what they look like in their behaviors when it happens. Understanding and acknowledging each other’s point of view can help facilitate change and new interactions together to help improve the relationship.

Operational Question Examples

Therapist: (To wife) “So you say that your husbands anger pushes you away. How does that anger show when it happens?” (OPERATIONAL QUESTION)

Wife: “He gets up and storms at me really fast, he gets really angry throwing his arms all over the place. He yells at me and gets really angry.”

Therapist: “It is really scary for you how aggressive he gets with his yelling. (To husband) Do you see how scared she gets and how fearful she is in that moment when it happens?”

Husband: “I’m not really sure, I am so angry at that point with how she has been hiding things behind my back.”

Therapist: “So if she is scared, how would that fear show?” (OPERATIONAL QUESTION)

Husband: “She becomes really quiet and looks away from me. I guess she is not engaged with me at all at that point.”


Reciprocal Questions.

Reciprocal questions are used to find what a couple prefers to happen when there is a given argument or topic of issue. The reciprocal questions help to bring the different person’s thoughts and feelings out in the open and can clear up uncertainties. These types of questions help clear up communication and get everyone on the same page.

Operational Question Examples

Therapist: (To wife): “When your husband confronts you, what would you prefer him to do instead of what he is currently doing?” (RECIPROCAL QUESTION)

Wife: “He could walk up to me calmly instead of storming at me angrily. He could calmly tell me ‘Honey, I love you, and right now I have some concerns’ and explain to me calmly from there what is going on.”

Therapist: (To husband): “What do you think about this? What could your wife do to make it likely that you would approach her calmly about this issue?” (RECIPROCAL QUESTION)

Husband: “If she were to first tell me about her spending in the first place and not go behind my back about it, I would not be so angry. If we had clear communication, I would be more likely to approach her calmly.”



Enactments are exercises in which the couple turns towards each other and express how they feel and talk directly to their spouse. This is a powerful and even intimate exercise in which connections and bonds are made and built. In an enactment, the therapist stays present with the couple, actively listens, and validates their feelings in the moment. Connecting the emotions with the couple really accentuates their relationship and strengthens their attachment. This type of exercise helps to build the bond within the couple’s relationship.

Enactment Example

Therapist: (To wife) “Have you told your husband how you feel when he “storms” towards you, as you say? Have you told him what it’s like for you in that moment? Could you turn to him? Could you turn to him and tell him what is going on for you during those moments?

Wife: (Choking up/ tearing up) *Turns towards husband* : “It’s so scary to me when you aggressively come at me and start shouting. I feel attacked and so alone in that moment. I feel helpless and alone, and I don’t want that.”

Therapist: “I really see the feelings coming out to your husband. I could really feel what it was you were saying to your husband just now. It took a lot of strength and courage to say those important words to him.”

Therapist: (To husband) *Slowly and softly* : “What was it like for you, just now, hearing the words of your wife’s heart speaking to you?

Husband: “I never thought about how she felt and how I affected her. I was just so focused on how angry she made me feel and about running up the credit card. I never knew that I was really attacking her. This is all just so new to me.”


There are many different types of questions, exercises, techniques and homework assignments to be done within couple’s therapy. That is precisely why it is called “therapy” because there is work to be done in order to find a result, not just talk emptily to a counselor. True change takes true work, and the many types of exercises in couple’s therapy has shown to provide just that.