Stress is an inevitable part of life, and it can take a significant toll on our relationships. Whether it’s financial strain, health issues, or parenting challenges, stress can lead to tension, conflict, and emotional distress in couples and families. Fortunately, there’s a powerful tool that can help: reframing. By learning to reframe stressful situations, couples and families can build resilience, strengthen their bonds, and cope more effectively with life’s challenges. In fact, it’s the most relied upon method that families use!

What is reframing?

Reframing involves looking at a situation from a different perspective, one that is more positive, empowering, or solution-focused. It’s about challenging our automatic thought patterns and assumptions, and considering alternative interpretations that can lead to more constructive emotions and behaviors.1

In the context of couples and family therapy, reframing can be used to shift negative interaction patterns, create new narratives, and foster a sense of hope and possibility. By helping clients see their challenges in a new light, therapists can empower them to find creative solutions and build stronger, more resilient relationships.

Reframing in cognitive-behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used approach that emphasizes the role of thoughts and beliefs in shaping our emotions and behaviors. According to CBT, stress often stems from cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, or catastrophizing.2

Reframing is a key technique in CBT, used to challenge these distortions and replace them with more balanced, realistic thoughts. For example, a couple struggling with financial stress might reframe their situation from “We’ll never get out of debt” to “We’re taking steps to improve our financial health, and we’ll get through this together.”

Real-life example

Imagine a couple, Patricia and Robert, who are arguing frequently due to the stress of caring for Robert’s elderly parents. Patricia feels overwhelmed and resentful, while Robert feels guilty and torn between his responsibilities. In therapy, they learn to reframe their situation:

Patricia: “I know this is a challenging time for both of us, but our kids love their grandparents, Rob. It’s a lot right now, but they will look back and have a lot of great memories of Lillian and Harold. We need to pace ourselves but can get through this.”

Robert: “I appreciate everything you’re doing to help my parents, Patricia. It means a lot to me, and I know my parents can be tough. Ya, they really do love the children, and I know they spoil them constantly. But I guess that’s what they will remember when they’re older.”

By reframing their challenges as a gift they are giving to their children; precious memories about their grandparents, Patricia and Robert can reduce conflict and reframe the stress of the situation.

Reframing in family systems therapy

Family systems theory views the family as an interconnected unit, where each member’s behaviors and emotions influence the others. Stress in one part of the system can ripple out and affect everyone, creating negative interaction patterns that can be difficult to break.3

Reframing is a powerful tool in family systems therapy, used to interrupt these negative cycles and create new, more positive patterns. By helping family members see their interactions from a different angle, therapists can foster empathy, understanding, and collaboration.

Real-life example

Consider a family where the teenage daughter, Emma, is struggling with anxiety and acting out. Her parents, Amanda and Andrew, are constantly arguing about how to handle the situation, blaming each other for Emma’s challenges. In therapy, they learn to reframe their dynamic:

Andrew: “I can really see how Emma’s behavior is her attempt to assert her independence. The anxiety seems to block it. She’s such a smart girl.”

Amanda: “Ya, she reminds me of myself when I was her age. I was so blocked by anxiety that I would lash out, instead of learning how to manage it. But I did learned how to manage it, and that was a really important step. I guess I never saw it as a ‘block’ but that’s how I felt about it at her age.”

By reframing Emma’s challenges as a “struggle for independence” that is “blocked by anxiety,” Amanda and Andrew can break negative interaction patterns and create a clearer pathway for Emma and the entire family.

Reframing in narrative therapy

Narrative therapy is an approach that emphasizes the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives. According to narrative theory, problems arise when we get stuck in narrow, problem-saturated stories that limit our options and overshadow our strengths and resources.4

Reframing is a central technique in narrative therapy, used to help clients construct alternative, more empowering stories. By exploring exceptions to the problem story, as well as clients’ hopes and values, therapists can help them create a new narrative that opens up possibilities for positive change.

Real-life example

Imagine a couple, Susan and John, who have been drifting apart since they’ve retired. They’re struggling with feelings of emptiness and loss, and their relationship story has become one of disconnection and loneliness. In therapy, they learn to reframe their narrative:

Susan: “It’s funny, John. We have more time now to do things together. It seems our biggest problem is planning! We’ve always been great at execution!”

John: “It’s true. The more time we’ve had, the more I keep thinking ‘I’ll plan that tomorrow,’ but tomorrow never comes!”

By reframing their story from one of loss to one of “poor planning,” Susan and John saw the problem as more manageable and less hopeless..


Reframing is a powerful tool for helping couples and families cope with stress and build resilience. By shifting perspectives, challenging negative thought patterns, and creating new narratives, reframing can foster hope, collaboration, and positive change. Whether used in cognitive-behavioral, family systems, or narrative therapy, reframing is a valuable technique for empowering clients to navigate life’s challenges and strengthen their relationships.

As a clinical psychologist, I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of reframing in my work with couples and families. By learning to look at stress through a new lens, my clients have been able to break free from negative cycles, build stronger connections, and create more fulfilling lives together.

If you’re struggling with stress in your relationship, I encourage you to explore the power of reframing. Whether on your own or with the help of a therapist, learning to shift your perspective can open up new possibilities for growth, healing, and resilience. Remember, you’re not alone, and there’s always hope for positive change.


  1. Robson Jr, J. P., & Troutman-Jordan, M. (2014). A concept analysis of cognitive reframing. Journal of Theory Construction & Testing, 18(2), 55-59.
  2. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(5), 427-440.
  3. Minuchin, P. (2015). Families and Family Therapy. Routledge.
  4. White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. WW Norton & Company.