The volumetric response of compacted bentonites against environmental actions is a key aspect in most designs of nuclear waste repositories. The safety assessment of such repositories must account for robust and reliable models of stress–strain for bentonites. While many models for unsaturated low activity clays take advantage from the use of a generalized effective stress, its application to expansive soils has not found the same degree of success. One of the possible reasons is the complex water retention behaviour of these materials, which only recently has been successfully reproduced by numerical models. Here, by adopting an appropriate water retention model, a coupled hydro-mechanical approach to simulate the volume change behaviour of compacted bentonites is suggested. An explicit distinction between interlayer adsorbed water and capillary water is used to simulate the water retention behaviour. It is then shown that by using a precise water retention formulation, the volumetric behaviour can be interpreted within an effective stress–degree of saturation based framework. Some interesting results derived from the use of the effective stress include the shrinkage limit, the increase in stiffness of the elastic regime and the use of a single elastic coefficient for both wetting–swelling and reloading stress paths.