Whether private and customized or offered in a group setting, marriage retreats are designed to give struggling spouses practical tools to communicate better, overcome conflict and connect on a deeper level — away from troubling patterns at home.
Some are held seaside, others in rural farmhouses. Some are faith-based, others incorporate tantric philosophies. There are as many different approaches to marriage retreats as there are approaches to marriage.
No matter the format, these intensive getaways allow couples to truly focus on their relationship and nothing else.
"I refer to this as warp speed therapy,” says Israel Helfand, 66, a licensed marriage and family therapist who, with his wife, Cathie Helfand, facilitates Marriage Quest retreats at their homestead in rural Northern Vermont. “We're getting a lot of work done in a short period of time, and in the majority of cases, we're figuring out whether this marriage can survive and thrive. Some couples are happier in the long run if they let go and move on."
10 Reasons Marriages Fail
People struggle in their marriages for a variety of reasons. But a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information examined why marriages failed and found these to be some of the most common factors.
1. Lack of commitment
3. Arguing and conflict
4. Getting married too young
5. Financial problems
6. Substance abuse
7. Domestic violence
8. Health issues
9. Lack of family support
10. Religious differences
Addressing sexual dissatisfaction
Depending on the setting or length of stay, marriage retreats can range from several hundred dollars to $10,000 and up. Typically couples will work with trained professionals — look for those who are licensed — on how to identify issues affecting their marriage, communicate effectively and set goals for the relationship. Some retreats work only with one couple at a time; others are held in group settings. Some have nightly homework; others don't. Most last from two to five days.
For example, Marriage Boot Camp in Allen and Plano, Texas, advertises that it uses more than 120 “interactive games and drills designed to help participants address and deal with their baggage, damage and issues."
Experts, like Kathy McMahon, founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc., which hosts marriage retreats in 32 states and in Canada, Ireland and Australia, suggest working with professionals who focus on couples therapy, and who are listed in well-respected directories, such as the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists and the Gottman Referral Network.
The Helfands host guests in the tiny village of Cabot, Vermont, on a working farm with lambs, calves and chickens. Their three-day program, which includes 10 hours of intensive work, costs $12,000 on weekdays and $15,000 when dates straddle a weekend. A family history for each partner is collected to help clarify goals and prepare couples for the experience.
Uninhibited straight talkers about sex, the Helfands say that sex is a topic that comes up most often. Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the couples have dealt with some form of infidelity. Others deal with performance challenges, low libido or lack of interest.
Sexual performance is a common issue for couples because testosterone levels decline as men age and cause changes in sexual function. Men often are resistant to talk about those changes openly.
"Women can and do fake arousal and orgasm with a few well-placed ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ but men can't,” says Israel Helfand, who's also a certified sex therapist. “Their sex organs are out for the world to see, and it doesn't take more than one or two or three bad experiences for them to sexually shut down."
Part of couples’ on-site homework may be to have fun with a dirty word list, for example, or to experiment with a supplied bottle of oil.
Adverse childhood experiences are another major factor in rocky relationships. A psychodramatic technique called “doubling” involves one of the Helfands taking on the role of a client, acting as an inner voice. This can be helpful if someone is really angry.
"If all they can do is blame and judge and accuse, we show them how to say the same thing in a positive, effective, assertive way,” explains Cathie Helfand, 67, who has degrees in counseling and in human development and family studies. “This can also be helpful if someone is shut down and not aware of what they are feeling."
Cheaper than a divorce
Tanika Forestal, a licensed family therapist in Kokomo, Indiana, recommends arriving at the retreat with a “teachable, self-improvement” mind-set. Too often, she says, clients show up hoping the therapist will encourage changes only in their partner.
Blended family takes on a new meaning when family therapist Forestal describes her approach with marriage retreat clients in the Indiana countryside.
"No matter what color you are or what your ethnic background is, you're always in a multicultural relationship,” she says. “Each individual comes from their own family of origin, and when two people blend under one roof, they are bringing their culture with them."
That means the way couples speak and communicate love and disappointment may be different — and disconnected.
Forestal is founder of Relationship Rescue Academy, where retreats range between $3,200 and $6,500 for stays between two and five days. Clients who register for a retreat above two days receive some individual work as well.
While retreats aren't cheap, “investing in your marriage is still going to come out much, much cheaper than a divorce,” says Forestal. “We usually get married believing that this is going to be a lifetime commitment, and so the marriage is worth it."
Sorting through challenges
Some issues, truth be told, may never go away. Retreats can help couples navigate and deepen conversations around those issues, and help resolve the ones that can be kicked to the curb, according to McMahon, of Couples Therapy Inc.
Two-and-a-half-day Couples Therapy Inc. retreats cost from $2,500 to $5,000, depending on the experience of the licensed psychotherapist leading the counseling.
Before traveling, clients separately fill out an extensive assessment. Called “The Big, Big Book,” it contains between 800 and 1,000 questions that have to do with things such as negotiating tasks and parenting or grandparenting challenges.
"We work from a science-based perspective,” says 65-year-old McMahon, a clinical psychologist.
One new topic of dispute over the past year has been politics around the coronavirus.
McMahon says she has worked with couples who've “always had political differences, but nothing they had to immediately reconcile. They used to laugh that they canceled each other out at election time, but when it comes to something as powerful as whether they'll get sick and die, they can't ignore those differences anymore."
The retreat leader's job is to get the couple to talk — at length — about themselves rather than about their partner, while not getting what McMahon calls “emotionally flooded."
"So each of them goes deeper rather than staying inside the stereotypical arguments,” she says. “They say, ‘Why is this so important to me? Why am I willing to go to the ropes for this?'"
Going through hours of talk therapy, exercises and sometimes nightly homework takes a lot of effort — and that effort can be exhausting.
Says Cathie Helfand: “The most important thing is to be well-rested, open-minded and open-hearted. That leads to the best result."
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Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M is for Mindful.