Marriage Retreats & Intensives
A 6 Step Healing Process
By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD
Marriage retreats and intensive weekend programs have become quite popular. But what exactly is a marriage retreat and how does it work?
There are several types of marriage or couples retreats. Some are primarily educational, with lectures, exercises, and tools for improving relationships. Some retreats have a religious or spiritual component, and others emphasize a specific type of marriage counseling theory or approach. These programs generally include 3 major components:
3 Primary Components of Marriage Retreats
Communication and Problem Solving Tools
All of these components can be helpful in guiding couples toward an improved relationship. But how exactly do they work? How do marriage retreats and intensive weekend programs help couples to heal their marriage?
Research studies now indicate a healing process that includes 6 necessary steps or processes (Johnson; Gottman). Relationships and marriages are most likely to improve and result in long term satisfaction when these healing processes are included.
The 6 Step Healing Process for Couples
1. De-escalate and reconnect
Most couples who seek a marriage retreat or intensive weekend counseling program are in a state of distress. Couples usually report a pattern of tension, arguments, fighting, distrust (sometimes due to infidelity), and/or withdrawal and distance in the relationship. The healing process often begins with compassionate guidance by the counselor or therapist by helping couples to reduce the tension and talk about their feelings and concerns in a safe and empathetic environment. When one or both partners are distant or shut down, the counselor supports and guides both partners toward a more open, trusting reconnection.
2. Recognize and understand relationship patterns
The relationship “dance” is identified and discussed so that both partners have a clear understanding of these patterns. There is usually a “pursuer” and a “distancer” in the relationship and the patterns may include blame-defend, demand-avoid, criticize-counterattack, and so on. We know that the problem in most relationships is the dance itself. The goal is to understand the underlying purpose or reason for these patterns, and to explore the unmet needs and distressing feelings that drive these patterns.
3. Rebuilding trust in the marriage
A feeling of safety and a secure connection is the foundation for a strong, lasting, and satisfying relationship. Marriage retreats and intensive counseling programs for couples must include this healing process. Trust is obviously eroded and compromised when there is infidelity. Infidelity includes affairs, flirtations, online intimacies (inappropriate “friendships” or sexual behavior), and the use of pornography that results in emotional distress to a spouse or partner. Other trust issues result from real or perceived abandonment in the relationship, patterns of criticism, blaming and excessive anger, addictions, threats of divorce, excessive control issues, and actual marital separations. Couples need to discuss feelings and beliefs related to these trust issues, and marital therapists or counselors need to carefully guide these discussions to help couples develop a sense of understanding and empathy.
4. Compassion, empathy, and emotionally corrective experiences
This is possibly the most crucial step in the healing process. Couples must be able to connect emotionally with understanding and compassion, in order to heal the relationship distress. The distressing patterns in the relationship are driven by strong emotions and unmet needs – fears and insecurities, hurt feelings, feeling abandoned, unimportant, disrespected and unappreciated. These and other feelings and needs drive the dance, and the feelings need to be understood and discussed in an atmosphere of compassion and empathy. Effective marriage retreats will include guided discussions between each couple where each person is able to express these feelings openly and authentically – and the partner will respond with understanding and empathy. This is the emotionally corrective experience that heals the relationship.
5. Identify and express relationship needs
These needs are usually emotional in nature, and include the need for safety, security, trust, connection, appreciation, respect, and importance. Couples need to feel loved and cared for, emotionally supported, seen and heard. Effective marriage retreats help couples to understand and discuss these needs with empathy and compassion.
6. Communication and problem solving tools
When couples reconnect in an atmosphere of safety and mutual care and concern, the use of communication and problem solving tools is easily facilitated. In marriage retreats these simple tools may include active listening techniques and speaking from the “I position” (for example, “When this happens, I feel ___________”) instead of complaining, criticizing or blaming statements. New solutions to old problems can be facilitated as couples learn some simple tools of negotiation, compromise, and acting in partnership.
Marriage retreats and weekend intensives for couples can be very effective in facilitating the healing process for relationships in distress. Follow-up marriage counseling sessions after the retreat are often recommended. Couples are encouraged to do some research before deciding on a marital retreat. What is the structure and content of the retreat, and is the subject matter and counseling process based in sound research that measures effectiveness? Are the therapists and counselors trained and experienced in working with couples? A telephone or skype interview with the primary counselor(s) is recommended – to make sure there is a good personality fit, and to answer some basic questions about content and format. And the therapist or counselor should determine if the marriage retreat is appropriate given each couple’s unique relationship circumstances.