The Story of James & Maria
“This Marriage Retreat Saved Our Marriage”
By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD
This article is the true story of a couple who attended one of our weekend couples retreats & intensives. James and Maria are fictitious names and certain details of their lives have been changed to protect their privacy. Their story is similar to many couples who experience severe relationship distress, such as infidelity and trust issues. Their courage and determination to find the truth and to heal themselves and their relationship is inspiring.
“I made a mistake. I hooked up with someone from work.” James appeared contrite, but not exactly remorseful when he responded to our standard opening question. We usually begin our Connections™ marriage retreats by asking couples to describe the nature of their relationship distress. James went on to say that this hook-up didn’t mean anything to him, and he regrets it. Maria interrupted sharply: “It wasn’t a hook up. It was an affair. You had a relationship with her.” James lowered his eyes, and spoke toward the floor: “She was just a co-worker. It wasn’t a relationship. Maria means everything to me – I want to save our marriage.”
Infidelity and trust issues are central concerns in about 1/3 of our couples retreats and intensives. The other types of relationship distress that we commonly see in marriage retreats include patterns of angry reactivity, with complaining, blaming, and defensiveness. And we frequently see couples who are emotionally and physically distant and disconnected. James and Maria are fairly typical in that they experienced most of these distressing patterns.
Discovery – The First Stage
James and Maria are in their early 40’s and have been married for 11 years. They have 2 young children, Sophia, age 9, and Karl age 4. The couples who attend our marriage retreats range in age from their 20’s into their 70’s. James is ruggedly handsome and intelligent, and he’s a successful small business owner. On the first day of this 2-day program, he had the appearance of a man who feels defeated and demoralized. His eyes downcast, rarely making direct contact with any of us (his wife Maria, my female co-therapist Karin, and myself). James was mostly withdrawn and passive. Maria took up the slack, and was forceful in expressing her emotional pain.
Our couples retreats and intensives are conducted with a unique 3-stage model:
Stage 1 – Discovery
Stage 2 – Relationship Repair
Stage 3 – Partnership & Creative Solutions
During the Discovery stage we asked Maria and James about their relationship distress, including their negative, reactive patterns of interaction, and the feelings and unmet needs that drive these patterns. We also explored their learned relationship styles and beliefs (based on childhood experiences). Maria, a petite woman with delicate features, jumped in quickly, interrupting James’ disjointed and hesitant explanation for his infidelity. “I just don’t get it. You don’t do that to someone you love. I don’t believe you. I can’t believe this even happened. He had to have feelings for her. Everything is a lie!”
James continued to stare at the floor. He seemed to retreat from Maria’s anger, and he avoided looking at her tears. He said “No, I don’t have any feelings for her” and he went on to describe a relationship that he characterized as friendly co-workers. It became sexual only because she became overtly seductive with him. He told us he was under a great deal of stress at work, things weren’t going well at home, and he was susceptible to her flirtatious behavior. In our marriage retreats we’ve observed that infidelity and trust issues are often explained by this combination of personal stress, inadequate coping skills, and relationship distress. James went on to say that “It was stupid. It was just sex. I love Maria with all my heart.” Maria was incredulous. “What he did was unforgivable. I’m crazy to even stay married to him. It’s unacceptable!”
During the Discovery stage of this marriage retreat we were able to piece together a picture of James and Maria’s marriage prior to the affair. Their relationship distress developed early in the marriage and became more noticeable during and after each pregnancy. James was very focused on work, and would become sullen and irritable due to the stress of running his own business. Maria was reactive to his emotional state, feeling anxious and angry. The more she pressured him to talk about it, the more he shut down. He wanted to connect with Maria sexually, but she said she was never a sexual person, and she resented the lack of communication and romance. A reactive pattern of complaining, blaming, and distance developed, culminating in infidelity and trust issues.
Their patterns of relationship distress also resulted from negative experiences they both endured growing up in dysfunctional families. At first, both James and Maria reported that they had “normal” families. Maria even said that she had a “great childhood.” In our couples retreats and intensives we often discover that there’s more to this story. James was spoiled by his mother and sisters – he was given everything he wanted, at least materially. But mother also worked a lot, wasn’t around when he needed her, and he missed her. His father was his “hero” but we learned that he was around even less than mother. In fact, father was “unfaithful” and had a series of extra-marital affairs over several years. Research shows that patterns of infidelity and trust issues tend to be multi-generational.
Maria’s father, who was initially described as “great”, was probably an alcoholic, and he would fly into rages. While she had the “best childhood ever” and was given everything she needed, both parents were very strict, she was punished harshly, and her older brother often protected her from beatings. In our couples retreats and intensives we use a Circle of Re-creation exercise that explains how we tend to repeat, or re-create, our childhood fears and shame in our adult relationships. This was especially enlightening for James and Maria. James could see how his sense of entitlement with Maria – his expectation that she would meet all of his needs – stemmed from being spoiled by his mother and sisters (and he was never expected to be responsible at home growing up). Maria was surprised to learn that her chronic anxiety and struggles with intimacy were based in fears of her father’s anger, and feelings of abandonment due to his alcoholism and mother’s passive behavior with father.
Relationship Repair – The Second Stage
As we proceeded into the second day of this marriage retreat, James and Maria expanded their understanding of what happened in their relationship. Maria continued to struggle with the infidelity and trust issues, and she understandably felt that James was in the wrong. But she was also starting to see how the relationship distress that developed early in their marriage, and grew worse over time, influenced James’ unacceptable behavior.
Throughout our couples retreats and intensives we facilitate “emotionally corrective experiences.” We assist couples to look below the surface of anger, blame and defensiveness. Couples then discover more sensitive, vulnerable feelings that drive the relationship distress and negative relationship patterns. We asked James about his feelings – his feelings about his marriage and himself in light of this infidelity. Like so many men, it wasn’t easy for him to open up about his sensitive, emotional self. When there are infidelity and trust issues it’s critically important to create an emotional connection where the betraying partner is able to authentically express remorse and empathy with the injured partner. With time and patience, early in the second day of this marriage retreat, James began to tear up as he talked about the affair. We asked him to turn to Maria and face her with his tears. James told her about his sadness and shame: “I know I hurt you and I feel terrible about it. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I never wanted to hurt you – but I know it’s my fault. I love you more than anything.”
During the Relationship Repair stage of our couples retreats and intensives the cycle of relationship distress is clearly identified using our Relationship Dance exercise. Maria and James answered a series of questions about specific behaviors they use when they react to each other, their underlying feelings and unmet needs, and the way they see each other. James said that when he’s upset about the relationship he “escapes and avoids,” he drinks more alcohol, and he “shuts down” and doesn’t communicate. He specifically identified the feelings that drive those actions: he’s frustrated and angry, but he also feels hurt by Maria’s anger and blame. He was able to connect to his sadness, and a great deal of shame – he feels that he’s never good enough for Maria, and he feels ashamed about his own behavior. He told us that he never had such a deep and clear understanding of how and why he reacts to Maria until this marriage retreat.
Maria acknowledged that she pushed James away sexually because of her deeper fears of intimacy (which she learned growing up). Her complaining, blaming and critical behavior toward James protected her vulnerable, emotional self – while also serving as a type of “protest behavior,” letting him know that she felt abandoned and unappreciated. These are common patterns of relationship distress. Neither Maria nor James were ever taught, or had any experience in life with direct, appropriate expressions of what they needed relationally prior to this marriage retreat.
A breakthrough event in our couples retreats and intensives occurs when we literally diagram each couple’s relationship dance on a large poster – using their own words from our Relationship Dance exercise. James and Maria, just like most of the couples we work with, stared wide-eyed at the poster as we described exactly what happens in their reactive pattern of relationship distress. At first, they were almost speechless. James then said “I never realized that’s what we do. That’s exactly it. It’s so obvious when you look at it this way.” Maria echoed his surprise and sense of enlightenment: “It’s us. It’s what we do. I never saw it so clearly before.” Almost in unison, they both said “So now what do we do?”
Partnership & Creative Solutions – The Third Stage
During the third stage of our couples retreats and intensives we outline an approach that prevents and eliminates the cycle of relationship distress. James and Maria were now very clear about their negative, reactive relationship dance, and how it took over their entire relationship. The dance is the problem – and the enemy – not James or Maria. We helped James to understand his dance steps as the distancer who is reactive to perceived abandonments and other injuries. And Maria recognized her role in the dance as the angry, abandoned victim. After another emotionally corrective conversation with James, as he assured her that he is committed to the marriage, she said that “Now I can see what I did to push you away. I know I hurt you too. That wasn’t fair to you. I want us to be the way we were when we were first married.” The infidelity and trust issues will linger for some time to come, but Maria was able to let go of the anger and blame, and take responsibility for her role in the reactive dance that helped to set the stage for James’ affair.
The next step was to interrupt and disrupt the negative, reactive patterns in relationship distress. We use a simple 3 step guide for reducing and eliminating the reactivity. It’s an approach that’s easy to remember and very simple to use. The approach includes basic awareness (mindfulness), a decision, and simple tools to do it differently. We gave these written instructions to James and Maria, and they told us they will keep it with them at all times. As we do in all of our couples retreats and intensives, we reviewed other relationship tools and resources that James and Maria would take home with them to practice.
It’s been a little over a year since we completed the marriage retreat with James and Maria. They both participated in some follow-up counseling and relationship coaching, and recently we received a lovely card from them. Maria wrote the note and signed it from both of them. In addition to some news about James’ business and their children she wrote:
“We want you to know that we’re doing really great. We’re closer than we ever were, and I’m gradually trusting James more and more. Everything is working out really well. You and Karin (my co-therapist in their couples retreat) are very special to us. You made us feel very safe and cared for. You taught us everything we needed to know to have a great marriage. Thank you, thank you!”
Even the most disturbing and unrelenting types of relationship distress, such as infidelity and trust issues, can be transformed into relationship success and satisfaction at our Connections™ couples retreats and intensives. Couples therapy and marriage retreats are the primary specialty at our Center. For further information about marriage counseling, couples retreats, and our brief intensive couples therapy package, please contact us today.