Couples Therapy Tools: The Paper Exercise

Posted by: ellyn


When I mentioned the Paper Exercise in last month’s newsletter, many of you wrote back and asked for more information about it.

The Paper Exercise is an exercise that Pete and I adapted from Susan Campbell’s book, The Couples Journey. The exercise sounds a bit contrived, but it is so revealing of couples’ dynamics that it is worthwhile learning to use it. It can be used either diagnostically or as an intervention into the couples’ system.

Setting up the exercise

You will need a piece of plain white 8 ½ x 11 paper. Hold it in your hand, look into the eyes of one partner, and say, “This piece of paper represents something important to you. I’d like you to take a minute and think about what this piece of paper represents to you.  You can think of anything that’s important to you except for your kids and your marriage.”

Then pause and continue to look into the eyes of that partner giving him a few seconds to think about what it is you’ve asked him to do.  You want him to have time to process the request.

Then turn to the second partner and say, “This piece of paper represents something important to you and I’d like you to take a minute and think about what it represents to you. It can be anything that’s important to you except for your kids or your marriage.” Then pause again, giving time for that partner to think about it. Next, ask the couple to hold the piece of paper between them. Make sure each person has a hand on one end of the paper.

Then say to them, “I’d like you to hold this paper between you and I’m going to give you up to five minutes to decide who gets this paper without ripping or tearing it.  You can do it verbally or non-verbally. You can do it any way you like, but at the end of the five minutes, I’d like you to decide who gets the paper without ripping or tearing it.”

Then be quiet and watch them. Usually I’ll back my chair up a little.

You might even consider tape-recording this when you do it.

Anyway, you watch and you time it.  A lot of couples will try to engage you in answering questions, because you’ve created a projective type of situation that’s unsettling for them and they’re going to want you to structure it for them.

They’ll ask you all kinds of things. I keep responding to them, “You can do it any way you choose and you’ll have up to five minutes to decide who gets the paper without ripping or tearing it.”  That’s all I say to them. And then I observe for the 5 minutes, especially watching for six categories. Watching for these will illuminate major areas of developmental weakness for the couple.

Summary List of Diagnostic Areas

  1. Do the partners self-define? Is self-differentiation present in one, two or neither partner?

  2. How do they manage boundaries?  Are their boundaries rigid, overly permeable or clearly expressed?

  3. Do they show awareness that their partner is separate and different from them? Do they explore what matters to the other? This is a measure of other-differentiation.

  4. How do they manage conflict? Is it avoided, escalated or acknowledged and handled?

  5. Do they have the capacity to negotiate and move the conflict forward?

  6. Is each partner able to give and/or receive?

After the couple completes the exercise, be sure to inquire how each partner feels about the outcome.  Then, you can give them feedback about where you saw each of them break down. You can also give positive strokes for strengths the exercise revealed.

This exercise is so rich. When you become fluid using it, you will learn an enormous amount about any couple in just a very few minutes!  And you will come to recognize predictable patterns in couples without a base of differentiation.

Remember you can use this blog to share your comments and experiences using this exercise.

In our book, In Quest of the Mythical Mate, we give common examples and transcripts of responses from couples at most of the different developmental stages. For more information about it or to order a copy, click In Quest of the Mythical Mate.

I also have an entire lesson on this in my internet training program. For more information about that, visit Couples Therapy Training.

I love seeing comments from readers and will look forward to your observations about working with this exercise.

Until next time,


Comments (23)Add Comment
Helen S. Bianca
written by Helen S. Bianca, July 15, 2010
Hi Ellyn and group
I just wrote up a wonderful session I had last evening with a couple. I lost it all and I am too tired to re-write it. I used the paper excercise and it was a powerful experience for me and the couple. Together they worked through the exercise in a respectful and communicative manner.
Too tired to re-do...Helen B.
Jean Pollock
written by Jean Pollock, July 16, 2010
I've been using this exercise for years (thanks f=to Ellyn) and I'm interested in it's latest evolution. I'm SO relieved to see the caveat "except your marr or your children." I've always thought of adding that! It imagine it will really heats things up for some of those more symbiotic cpls to add that exclusion, whereas that dynamic can't be sniffed out quite so quickly if they're 'allowed" to choose the more comfortable option of marriage, children. Love that exercise... and thanks for the change!
Michelle Wangler, M.A., MFT
written by Michelle Wangler, M.A., MFT, July 16, 2010
Loved the Paper Exercise. Used it already with a couple and found it a great diagnostic tool that made the couples' typical and often unproductive method of conflict resolution so visible to them, as well.
Thanks for sharing the exercise.

Dr. Christine Paynter
written by Dr. Christine Paynter, July 20, 2010
I'm really looking forward to using this. Cheers, Christine
Robert  Solley, PhD
written by Robert Solley, PhD, July 20, 2010
This is one of my favorite exercises with couples. I videotape it and often go back over it with them in a subsequent session. I also add "pets" as exclusions.
Vinod Chebbi
written by Vinod Chebbi, July 20, 2010
Hi, Ellyn, Pete, Michelle and Friends,
So nice to blog again!!!
I never knew that such an exercise existed - until you introduced it in our teleseminar. Since then I have used it in 4-5 couples, but could not make out much except some conflict-avoidance and aggression. May be I need to listen to the recorded session again and again. But, Ellyn, your description of the purpose (six points) - it's just wonderful! I will follow it up again with my new clients and get back to you. And I have a question: What if the issue between the couple is entirely about bringing up the kids – for instance, wife is burdened with caring for kids and the husband is reluctant to give a hand to her and bears a “don’t bother me” attitude?
written by ali, July 21, 2010
hi allyn the topic is very interset but please think with us how can we catch them together as coupls
written by K, July 21, 2010
Regarding the paper exercise...
What happens if they both just hand each other their papers?
What happens if they don't want to take it from the other?
written by Ellyn, July 21, 2010
Thanks to all who are writing. The goal of this exercise is to learn about the couple's process-and especially to see what happens if they each want something different. There is only 1 paper. The goal is to expose what they do that is problematic and gets in their way. Not being able to take the paper may mean that the issue is not resolved yet, it may reflect guilt or anxiety or a feeling of obligation about receiving. If an attitude of disdain shows up, I would ask that partner what type of relationship they want to be in.
Paula Gallacher
written by Paula Gallacher, July 23, 2010
Hi Ellyn, I have started practicing the paper excerceise, but many times the couple or one of them insists in choosing the marriage or children. Should I listen and take tis attitude as a diagnostic issue or insist they should choose something else?

written by Ellyn, July 24, 2010
I'd tell them that the marriage and children are not easy to split or put into one person's hands and it would be best to choose something else.
Helen S. Bianca
written by Helen S. Bianca, July 24, 2010
Paper Exercise:
Marcella initially came to see me in April 2010 for individual therapy. He was depressed, anxious and said he has a history of dysfunctional relationships. When he was 20 yrs old he met a women and had two children with her. Two sons, one 19 and the other 11. When I first met Marcella he was in the middle of a divorce but dating a women with whom he cared for a great deal. After several sessions I started working with them in couple therapy. I will call her Sharon.
Marcilla and Sharon have a very dysfunctional relationship (symbiotic/dependent, I think). They both are jealous of the other. In my last session with them I decided to use the "paper exercise."
I gave the paper to them along with the instructions, telling them they had 5 minutes to decide who gets the paper. It went like this:
At first they seemed awkward, more Marcella than Sharon. He laughed and said, "Are you serious?"
Sharon initiated the first step.
S: I think it is best that I have the know it is important that is kept safe...I think I can do that.
M: Shakes his head. I don't know about that...I don't think I can give it up.
S: This is a really important paper and I think I am the best one to keep know how organized I am.
M: Yeah, but I don't know. I think I should have it. His demeanor showed how uncomfortable he was, how hard it was for him to give up the paper.
S: I really think it is best if I keep it. You know I can put it in my file cabinet...where would you keep it. Together they said: "in the trunk of my/your car." They laughed.
M: I just don't know if I can trust it. Again, struggling holding tight on the paper.
S: How about I keep it safe, make a copy for you and you keep the copy wherever you want.
M: He breaks out in a big grin...Okay I can do that. He gives up the paper.
What happened next was the powerful part of the exercise. Marcello opened up about all the betrayals he has experienced and most of them from people close to him.
1. His father died in an auto accident when Marcello was 11 yrs. old. He was very close to his father. He helped him on the farm...they both shared an interest in cars.
2. His mother fell into a deep depression (he only recognized this at the time of the sesson.) After his father died his mother completely disconnected from his father's side of the family.
3. He had two children with a women he never married. He describes the relationship as hostile...she cheated on him and stole money from him.
4. One of his sisters and his mother abused the credit card,without his knowledge. When I asked how it was that he was unaware they did this, he replied: I trusted them.
5. His wife also took money from him. Together they did not have children. At some point in time he bought a new home. When he decided to leave his wife. he wanted to protect his assets. He asked his brother to put his name on the deed of the house, taking Marcella's name off. They made arrangements for his brother to make monthly payments and Marcella sent his brother a check. His brother failed to make the house payments...he had a gambling problem. He used Marcella's checks to paydown his debt. The house went into foreclosure. Another betrayal.
margie ulbrick
written by margie ulbrick, July 26, 2010
Love the descriptions for what the exercise reveals. Thanks Ellyn.
Ioana Cupsa
written by Ioana Cupsa, August 06, 2010
Hello everyone,
I just applyed the exercise to a young couple that wants to get married.They are toghether from 1 year. During the exercise, they did not speek so mostly they where sending non-verbal clues to each other. This is a couple in the first stage of symbiosis where the bond needs to be strenghten.
Vinod Chebbi
written by Vinod Chebbi, August 15, 2010
Hi, Ellyn-
I wish to share with you a couple I have been seeing recently. He (Mr. S.) is 31, she (Mrs M.) is 28, married for 3yrs, and yet unconsummated, presumably due to her vaginismus and fear of pain. Both have strong passive aggressive trait. He had a secure childhood with his mother supporting him; his father contributed financilly little, so his mother had to take the burden. She had an insecure childhood wherein she was demanded to be brave, suppress her tears, and be disciplined to the expense of relationship. Her parents have been having conflicts, and her father could not support his family necessitating her mother to work. Presently she is financing her family of origin. During the paper exercise they held the paper for considerable time when he ascertained his rights on it; she went on acknowledging his views patiently and supporting him (typical of conflict avoidant) while tentatively mentioning her own demands. At the end of 5mins she let the paper go off with a hurried unsure mention of her demand saying – “I will let go of the paper provided that my demand is met” without waiting for approval from husband.
While in therapy they were angry several times and fought with each other and kept the blaming game on. In yesterday’s session when I was about to introduce the I-to-I process, the husband said that he was very upset because she had just rebuffed his demands of paying attention to him. He also said that her snapping at him which she generally indulges in, would provoke him to be belittled and extremely angry. I made out that he was slipping from here-and-now situation to then-and-there situation and relive in the past. It was very evident that both were overwhelmed by the right brain. I seized this opportunity and created an exercise: I arranged them them to be seated facing each other and hold hands so that he continuously kept in physical contact with her and sensed her warmth. I asked her to begin snapping at him, first mildly, and then gradually increase the intensity of snapping from 1 through 10, while I asked him to tolerate his anxiety while focusing his attention on the warmth of her hands. He was soon able to take her snapping positively to the extent that he found it funny! On her part, she was unable to snap at him when he was holding her hands, so she had to shut her eyes to pretend to be upset. She was unable to go to grade 7! Later I asked him to leave her hands and sit with a distance, hold his own hands and imagine that he was still holding her hands, and then asked her to start snapping at him again. Surprisingly he was able to tolerate to 70% without being in physical contact with her.
I am not sure how the success of this activity could be explained. Did I help create a connection between the right and left brain through holding hands of partner and later of self? Did I simply use a behavior technique? Did the physical contact help him to stay in touch with intimacy so that it discounted the vehemence of snapping? Or did I stumble upon another form of the I-to-I process through which he could develop tolerance to anxiety? Please guide.
Vinod Chebbi, Bangalore, India.
Dawn Vincent
written by Dawn Vincent, August 15, 2010
I used the paper exercise for the first time last week. My couple asked me if they were allowed to tell each other what the paper represented to them. I was unsure myself to be honest as it had not been clear to me if this was expected or necessary or not. Anyway I said they could tell each other, hoping this was correct. Initially the wife chose something which involved the children and I had to get her to pick something else. The process was quite interesting as the husband had been complaining that he felt he was always the one compromising and he was somewhat resentful that his wife always seemed to get what she wanted - often because she was much more organized than him and managed to put him in a position that he felt he had to co-operate because he was trying to do the right thing by her and the kids. Towards the end of the exercise the wife decided that the husband already had what he wished for and let go of the paper. He then seemed uncomfortable being "the winner" in this process, but he also was uncomfortable and said later that he felt that although the wife had said he could have what he wanted, in practice this was not yet reality and he questioned if it would occur in practice. He then attempted to give the wife the paper back saying he did not want to win if it meant she would not have what she wanted. This was a powerful exercise in reminding him of his own needs and how he felt thwarted in getting these met because of his wish for his wife to want what he wanted. She on the other hand, could see that she did usually get what she wanted and I felt she relinquished the paper because she felt this was only fair. However, I sensed some resentment in her that she had already given in to what he wanted because she then pointed out some of the boundaries she would place around him getting what he wanted in practice. I would like clarification if I should have allowed the couple to tell each other their important thing or is the idea to let them just focus on some anonymous concept? I note that some couples described above did not appear to tell each other what it was. Your reply would be appreciated. I enjoyed the exercise and would like to use it again, but want to make sure I am using it appropriately.
written by Ellyn, August 17, 2010
The paper exercise you did seems very revealing of low level differentiation. In answer to your question, the directions are vague about whether to tell the partner specifically what they picked. There is a definite reason for this. Partners who take the time to select something important and meaningful to themselves--and then tell it to their spouse are usually more differentiated. Be sure you give the directions exactly as they are written, because the directions have been refined over time. When evaluating what they do, look for whether they did self-define(tell each other what they picked). How they handle this gives an important window into how the couple manages their desires and their conflicts.
written by Ellyn, August 17, 2010
Vinod-I will try my best to answer your question, although since you know the couple and were there with them, your observations might be better than mine.

I think you were very creative. It seems like you created and discovered a new way to help him develop increased self soothing under stress. You originally created a new experience and thus a memory was stored in his hippocampus. Then you gave him a way to re-access it, and used bi-lateral stimulation of his own hands-thus accessing more regions of the brain.
Intriguing and well done.
In the future when you have specific questions, will you post it inside your members area blogs. I will give longer, more detailed answers there. This blog is for all the therapists on my list and not one where I will always answer. I was glad to see you will be back in September.
Brenda Logan
written by Brenda Logan, August 17, 2010
Thank you for sharing this information with me. I have not had the opportunity to use either exercise with a couple. I can see from the comments how both exercises can be very powerful tools to help the couple discover things about themselves and the relationship and in a short period of time.
Matt Gomes
written by Matt Gomes, August 20, 2010
It might be my presentation, and...

Twice in a row (and before that), when I've used this technique, one or the other in the couple IMMEDIATELY lets go of the paper (usually shrugging their shoulders first).

I'm curious what the first thing you would say to a couple after this happens, Ellyn.
written by Ellyn, August 21, 2010
Usually I wait quietly for a minute to see what they do.
Then I ask are you finished? If they say yes I ask how each feels about the outcome. The most common reason for someone to let go is they want to avoid anxiety and are highly conflict avoidant-and sometimes passive-aggressive.
Dawn Vincent
written by Dawn Vincent, August 22, 2010
Ellyn, Thanks so much for your response. This blog is so useful and it is great to read other people's questions and have them answered so promptly so we all can learn.
Jon Gergeceff M.A.LCSW
written by Jon Gergeceff M.A.LCSW, October 04, 2010
Interesting excercise indeed,,In response to Matt above,
I few the incompletion/toss as avoidant, resistant behavior,,defensive stand..mexican standoff perhaps.

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