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New book offers more than 100 exercises to repair rocky relationships

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A new book co-written by psychology professors at Virginia Commonwealth University and Regent University provides more than 100 practical exercises to help couples improve their relationships.

Jennifer Ripley, Ph.D., a professor and director of the psychology program at Regent
Jennifer Ripley, Ph.D., a professor and director of the psychology program at Regent

Couple Therapy: A New Hope-Focused Approach,” by Jennifer Ripley, Ph.D., a professor and director of the psychology program at Regent, and Everett Worthington, Ph.D., a professor in VCU’s Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is geared toward couples counselors but is also accessible to anyone who wants to work on their relationship.

“It’s a very practical book that provides exercises that couples can do to make their relationship better,” Worthington said. “And it’s structured within a nicely organized theory. So it all makes sense — it’s not just a hodgepodge of methods.”

The book is centered on the professors’ approach to couples counseling, known as “Hope-Focused Couples Therapy,” which focuses on assessment, feedback, creating commitment, communication, problem-solving, understanding each others’ pasts, apologies and forgiveness. It also seeks to accommodate religious ideas and principles of healthy living from faith traditions.

“The book is unique in drawing from the best of science and the best of religion,” Ripley said.

The book’s overarching goal is to provide hope to couples counselors — including mental health professionals and community leaders such as clergy — who can often get discouraged by seeing failing relationships, and also to give hope to the couples themselves.

“We’re in the hope business,” Worthington said. “We’re trying to provide hope all around.”

One exercise in the book calls for couples in rocky relationships to commit to having five-minute dates together each day.

“Plan it out. What would be a positive thing you could do together for five minutes?” Worthington said. “Could you sit down and talk about your day together without fussing? Have a positive five-minute date every day this week? OK, how about going to get ice cream together?”

On top of the five-minute dates, the couples are encouraged to plan one bigger date once a week.

“The idea is they go out and they make an agreement that this is for our fun,” Worthington said. “If we’ve got disagreements or issues, we’re not going to bring them into it. We’re setting this time aside for fun; we’ll deal with issues at another period.”

Another exercise described in the book is called “A Coke and a Smile,” in which couples are asked to identify and write down a list of interactions that might require some self-control, such as discussing a touchy topic.

“Since self-control is like a muscle, and it can wear out, couples are encouraged to find times to address difficult situations when self-control is high,” Ripley said. “They should avoid difficult situations when self-control is low such as when they are tired, depleted or stressed out. A little glucose actually helps increase self-control, hence the idea is ‘have a Coke’ to increase the virtue of self-control in your relationship and decrease conflict.”

An important aspect of the book’s exercises is that they seek to get couples to go beyond merely conceptualizing their problems. It also attempts to give them a concrete, tangible sense that they can make changes.

“Every method that we use gets them to do something concrete,” Worthington said. “It doesn’t rely on just talking. Because frankly if you talk to a couple, you’ve got two different perspectives. By the time they go out to the car to go home, they’re fighting about what you said.”

For example, Worthington said, one exercise starts with the counselor asking the couple to consider the office as a metaphor for intimacy, and to move their chairs as close or as far away in the room from their partner as they want, based on how intimate with their partner they currently feel.

“They might move around and decide that they’re at two,” Worthington said. “So I say ‘OK’ and get them to talk about why they feel like they’re at two. And then I say, ‘Where would you like to be?’ And they move there — usually closer together. A lot of conflicts can show up there. One of them might say, I want to be joined at the hip. The other might want some space.”

The counselor continues to ask the couple about their feelings and the couple continues to move their chairs based on the level of intimacy they feel.

“I say ‘OK, now talk about how you can become closer,’“ Worthington said. “‘What is it, what could you say to each other to make yourselves closer?’ Maybe they’ll talk about how close they felt when their child was born. When I sense they’re feeling closer, I say ‘Stop. It seems like you’re feeling a little closer than before, so now move your chairs to where you feel now.’“

By the end of the exercise, he said, the couple should understand that they have the power to make themselves feel distant or closer to one another based on how they choose to interact and respond emotionally.

The strategy behind the book’s exercises is called “faith working through love,” Worthington said, as it involves faith, work and love.

“Faith can be a lot of things,” Worthington said. “It can be faith in the other person to change. Faith in my ability to control my emotions. Faith that the counselor can help.”

Work, he said, is required to create change. One of the hardest parts of being a couples counselor is getting the couple to work on the relationship outside of the counseling sessions.

“They want to live their life as normal, and when they have conflicts, they go to counseling and think magic will happen in an hour a week,” he said. “But it won’t. Basically you’ve got 168 hours in a week, only one of them is in counseling. So if they aren’t working during those hours outside the counseling session, they really can’t expect much change.”

Love, Worthington said, is the third and most important element of the book’s strategy.

“Love is being willing to value the other person — to be willing to treat that person as a valuable treasure — and to be unwilling to devalue the other person by putting them down, to use nonverbal communication like rolling their eyes,” he said. “So love is being willing to value and unwilling to devalue the other person. So most of the things we’re going to try to do is help them value each other more.”

For more information, visit www.EvWorthington-forgiveness.com, www.forgiveself.com and www.hopecouples.com.

 

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Everett L. Worthington, Ph.D.
Everett L. Worthington, Ph.D.
<p><span style=“Couple Therapy: A New Hope-Focused Approach” features more than 100 practical exercises to help couples repair their rocky relationships. Below are excerpts from the book highlighting a selection of these ideas:


The Five-Minute Date


One of the more important things a couple does is to stay connected to each other on a daily basis. It is not possible for most couples to have a "date" with each other every day. But most couples can plan to have "five-minute dates" daily. The five-minute date occurs when the couple step away from all other responsibilities to focus on connecting with the daily life of their partner. It is recommended that couples who are repairing their relationship plan to have two five-minute dates daily. Couples who are maintaining a healthy relationship plan at least one five-minute date each day. In addition, one longer (more than two-hour) weekly date is recommended for couples who are repairing their relationship. For couples in maintenance, dates at least twice a month are recommended.


Goal: Keep a connection with your partner. Keep up a mental map of your partner's daily life. Do not lose track of what is important to your partner. Know what is going on so you can be responsive and caring.


Setting: Anywhere you are unlikely to be interrupted. Step onto the back porch, or take the dog for a walk together. Commute to work together or sit down to a meal together. Talk while getting ready for bed. It can be a scheduled phone call if needed. The setting should allow you to focus on each other for an uninterrupted period of five minutes. Ideally eye contact and tender touch can be used.


Activity: Check in briefly with each other about what is going on in your lives. Think about the things in your partner's life right now. What is going on at work? How are things with the children or parents? How is your partner's health today? What stress is your partner facing today? Ask about it. It is okay if the discussion is "mundane" – turning to such things as what to plan for dinner, or discussing a disagreement your partner had with his brother. But it is good to reach for more existential issues like long-term hopes and dreams for life.


Love Bank


The couple's relationship is described as a love bank in which each positive loving and valuing action is a deposit, but each negative action is a withdrawal. The cumulative effect of too few deposits and too many withdrawals is emphasized with the easy to remember metaphor. This intervention is particularly good for couples who need to increase the work in their relationship.


Over the years in both of our labs, we have used the love bank in a variety of ways. The simplest version of the intervention has each partner list things the other does that they appreciate. They can put monetary amounts on the love-bank deposit to further communicate the value of various deposits. Then they decide what things they could do that week and attempt five to seven positive "love bank deposits" during the week …


Other versions of applying the love-bank concept for enrichment and counseling include:


- Creating a love bank "jar" with positive deposits written on the list.
- Having the couple keep a log or journal of love-bank deposits (but not withdrawals) during the week to focus them on positive interactions.
- Using a computer or smartphone to keep lists and reminders to make specific love-bank deposits in an electronic calendar.
- Discussing attributions for love-bank deposits can illustrate the negative attributes that have developed in the relationship and help the couple reflect on them.


Perfect Relationship


Here the couple create a narrative of their future as a "perfect" couple with an eye toward what their ideal future would be like. This explores personal dreams, vision and hope, and it motivates partners for work. The counselor helps the couple identify underlying dreams within their narrative of a perfect future. He or she can also explore threats to their dream and potential responses they can make.


Principle: Discussing a perfect relationship can help couples come together with common purpose and meaning.


Sharing Psychological Needs Card Sort


The counselor works with the couple to explore what they need in their relationship. Couples use an assessment of their personal relationship needs by completing a card-sort activity. Each partner receives a set of cards with various psychological needs on them. They sort the cards into three categories. The first category is absolutely essential, this defines what our relationship is all about. The second category is very important to me and the third category is somewhat important to not important. After the partners have each sorted the cards, they can look at each other's card sorts and discuss them. Finally, the counselor asks the partners to select a few of the needs that they would like to focus on as part of their goals in working on their relationship.


Writing Hot Love Letters


This intervention seeks to increase the couple's romantic passion. The couple is asked to write hot, passionate and sexy letters to each other during the week and exchange them. For some couples who have been avoiding sex or general intimacy, this might be a difficult intervention to do early in the course of treatment. Partners might need to work up to it. For example, if a couple has not had sex in months, then they may not be ready to write hot love letters. The counselor might not wish to do this with unmarried couples who have traditional values about sexuality. Generally, the letter is not shared with the counselor, but they can discuss in the next meeting how the homework went, what was good about it, and whether it can be used in the future to increase intimacy.

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“Couple Therapy: A New Hope-Focused Approach” features more than 100 practical exercises to help couples repair their rocky relationships. Below are excerpts from the book highlighting a selection of these ideas:


The Five-Minute Date


One of the more important things a couple does is to stay connected to each other on a daily basis. It is not possible for most couples to have a "date" with each other every day. But most couples can plan to have "five-minute dates" daily. The five-minute date occurs when the couple step away from all other responsibilities to focus on connecting with the daily life of their partner. It is recommended that couples who are repairing their relationship plan to have two five-minute dates daily. Couples who are maintaining a healthy relationship plan at least one five-minute date each day. In addition, one longer (more than two-hour) weekly date is recommended for couples who are repairing their relationship. For couples in maintenance, dates at least twice a month are recommended.


Goal: Keep a connection with your partner. Keep up a mental map of your partner's daily life. Do not lose track of what is important to your partner. Know what is going on so you can be responsive and caring.


Setting: Anywhere you are unlikely to be interrupted. Step onto the back porch, or take the dog for a walk together. Commute to work together or sit down to a meal together. Talk while getting ready for bed. It can be a scheduled phone call if needed. The setting should allow you to focus on each other for an uninterrupted period of five minutes. Ideally eye contact and tender touch can be used.


Activity: Check in briefly with each other about what is going on in your lives. Think about the things in your partner's life right now. What is going on at work? How are things with the children or parents? How is your partner's health today? What stress is your partner facing today? Ask about it. It is okay if the discussion is "mundane" – turning to such things as what to plan for dinner, or discussing a disagreement your partner had with his brother. But it is good to reach for more existential issues like long-term hopes and dreams for life.


Love Bank


The couple's relationship is described as a love bank in which each positive loving and valuing action is a deposit, but each negative action is a withdrawal. The cumulative effect of too few deposits and too many withdrawals is emphasized with the easy to remember metaphor. This intervention is particularly good for couples who need to increase the work in their relationship.


Over the years in both of our labs, we have used the love bank in a variety of ways. The simplest version of the intervention has each partner list things the other does that they appreciate. They can put monetary amounts on the love-bank deposit to further communicate the value of various deposits. Then they decide what things they could do that week and attempt five to seven positive "love bank deposits" during the week …


Other versions of applying the love-bank concept for enrichment and counseling include:


- Creating a love bank "jar" with positive deposits written on the list.
- Having the couple keep a log or journal of love-bank deposits (but not withdrawals) during the week to focus them on positive interactions.
- Using a computer or smartphone to keep lists and reminders to make specific love-bank deposits in an electronic calendar.
- Discussing attributions for love-bank deposits can illustrate the negative attributes that have developed in the relationship and help the couple reflect on them.


Perfect Relationship


Here the couple create a narrative of their future as a "perfect" couple with an eye toward what their ideal future would be like. This explores personal dreams, vision and hope, and it motivates partners for work. The counselor helps the couple identify underlying dreams within their narrative of a perfect future. He or she can also explore threats to their dream and potential responses they can make.


Principle: Discussing a perfect relationship can help couples come together with common purpose and meaning.


Sharing Psychological Needs Card Sort


The counselor works with the couple to explore what they need in their relationship. Couples use an assessment of their personal relationship needs by completing a card-sort activity. Each partner receives a set of cards with various psychological needs on them. They sort the cards into three categories. The first category is absolutely essential, this defines what our relationship is all about. The second category is very important to me and the third category is somewhat important to not important. After the partners have each sorted the cards, they can look at each other's card sorts and discuss them. Finally, the counselor asks the partners to select a few of the needs that they would like to focus on as part of their goals in working on their relationship.


Writing Hot Love Letters


This intervention seeks to increase the couple's romantic passion. The couple is asked to write hot, passionate and sexy letters to each other during the week and exchange them. For some couples who have been avoiding sex or general intimacy, this might be a difficult intervention to do early in the course of treatment. Partners might need to work up to it. For example, if a couple has not had sex in months, then they may not be ready to write hot love letters. The counselor might not wish to do this with unmarried couples who have traditional values about sexuality. Generally, the letter is not shared with the counselor, but they can discuss in the next meeting how the homework went, what was good about it, and whether it can be used in the future to increase intimacy.