The importance of homework in couples therapy
You’re not the only ones who struggle to do homework in couples therapy.
Part of the point of asking you to do homework is to help you learn to change routines and behaviors on your own.
My husband and I have been doing these homework exercises for years. They work really well to help us keep our relationship strong, and we still have lapses where we can’t find the time to do them.
The outcomes of doing homework
Over the years, the couples in my practice who’ve actually done homework exercises have reported communicating better, being more affectionate and sexual as well as being more supportive of each other than couples who haven’t. Doing communication homework tasks has led to more careful listening to each other in general. Doing physical affection and sexuality exercises has led to more spontaneous gestures of affection and a more satisfying sex life. And changes in behavior and interactions that couples have made on their own at home have increased their sense of competence, self-esteem, and positive feelings about each other and the relationship.
In fact, the implementation of homework is the single variable that underpins successful treatment in couples therapy.
Lack of time
Most couples say the trouble doing the homework is because of time pressure. But underneath the “we don’t have time” excuse are more difficult matters.
By the time you arrive in my office, you’ve developed deeply ingrained habits and patterns of interaction which I call “the dance you do together“. This dance allows you to live and function together while holding feelings of ambivalence, hurt, distrust, and often anger with each other. You’ve already made countless efforts to improve your relationship on your own, so most of you feel that you’ve been there, done that—and have failed repeatedly. You’ve probably tried everything you can think of on your own, or have received help from therapists who aren’t well-trained in couples work.
I see difficulties in doing homework as an opportunity for us to explore your feelings safely, normalize difficulties with change, and help you choose homework that you can and want to do. Exploring problems with doing homework also allows me to help each of you take responsibility for your own behavior, rather than blaming each other.
I’m fully committed to encouraging you to prioritize doing homework as the core of our couples work. To make sure I’m successful in motivating you, I use the Six P’s.
The 6 P’s of homework
Starting with our first phone call, I explain how the work you do between sessions is the key to successful couples therapy. I expect that you will be working hard to build your competence and confidence in your relationship through the assignments at home. I explicitly say that homework is the foundation of my couples therapy, and if that idea doesn’t appeal to you, I’m happy to recommend other therapists you could work with.
I don’t simply give homework assignments: I also want you to come up with your own homework or choose from a menu of possibilities. No matter what you decide, it’s critical that the choice be collaborative. With homework, one size definitely doesn’t fit all, and the more that you collaborate in choosing and designing your homework, the more you’ll feel ownership and investment in its success.
I ask you to place the same priority on doing homework that you place on showing up for your appointments with me. Even small assignments, like a communication exercise that only takes 15 minutes per week, can be hard to follow through with. So it’s essential for each of you to make a commitment to prioritize the effort. Having each you take responsibility for your own actions is at the core of almost all successful couples therapy.
For homework to succeed, it’s critical for you to practice in the room with me so you can experience how to do a task via coaching from me.
When working with intimacy and sexuality issues, for example, I help you practice an exercise called “Hand Massage.” You take turns giving each other a light hand massage while I encourage you to internally experience all your feelings. This helps you learn to touch each other lovingly while acknowledging that you have a lot of mixed feelings. You can experience the power of touch while also allowing yourselves to have difficult, uncomfortable feelings. Of course, one or both of you may feel unready to do this, but that allows me to address the importance of being able to say “no” and to adjust the pace of our work.
We always start the next session by deciding and discussing what aspects of the homework worked and what didn’t. Having each of you be accountable for your own actions around homework breaks patterns, reveals problems, and short-circuits the blame game. If one of you is compliant and the other isn’t, I can bring curiosity—not judgment or blame—to the feelings blocking you from fully participating. Often this allows the therapy to go deeper into the underlying pain and vulnerability that lies beneath the surface.
If you report that you did the homework but didn’t like it or it didn’t help, that’s always a welcome opportunity to explore with greater depth what you believe would help that you’d be ready to try. Creating successful homework is a collaborative creation by you as a couple and me, so we all work as a team.
I’m as persistent as a dog with a bone when helping you do homework. I ask you to write down the homework task, or I send you an email restating it. Please email if you have questions about the homework. With couples who really struggle to follow through with homework, sometimes I’ll even offer an incentive and/or a “penalty” to get you started 🙂 I might also recommend that you take a break from treatment until you’re able to do the agreed-upon homework.
Over the years, my husband and I have been practicing many of the homework assignments I routinely give you. But do we always practice what I preach about making them our first priority? No. We often lapse and disregard our relationship practices, even though we know they’re highly effective. So we often have to rededicate ourselves to the work. Commitment is a day by day process.
The simple truth is that with all self-discipline practices, like meditation and physical exercise, homework practices are difficult to sustain. So, toward the end of successful therapy, when you‘re doing well with your homework, we space out sessions progressively, with the understanding that you’ll need to keep up your homework between our sessions. We prepare for the possibility that you’ll lapse and discuss how you’ll get back on track. Accept that your relationship will always take maintenance, just like a garden. On finishing work, I will help you co-create a relapse prevention plan so you have a map of the most important exercises to do regularly which help maintain your connection.
People often have a hard time with the core truth of what it takes to be a successful couple: work that never ends.
It’s not always about the therapeutic breakthroughs, the dramatic insights, the tenderness of amends and forgiveness. Just like cultivating a successful garden, you can’t enjoy the fruits of your couples work without putting in the effort of weeding, watering and fertilising the soil, day in and day out, decade after decade. Rather than brush this truth aside, I can help you accept and practice this, with the aim of continuously nourishing your relationship long after therapy ends.
Adapted by Vivian Baruch from David Treadway PhD