Any fans here of those marriage retreat weekend getaways?
As a marriage and family therapist, of course I think some of them are quite valuable, and I believe they can have their place in a healthy relationship. BUT, also, if I’m being completely honest, they can be a total nightmare to coordinate (especially with kids to make arrangements for), and they can be really pricey. Over the years, I’ve decided it is good to have a more practical alternative.
For about 15 years now, my husband and I have been going away sometime each January to have our own DIY Marriage Retreat: a self-directed relationship assessment with some goal-setting and cocktails mixed in. (Let’s pause for just a moment right here and appreciate how awesome it must be for him to be married to a marriage therapist. ‘Til death do us part. He probably deserves a medal—or, at the very least, a really good bourbon.) Anyway, since the Hallmark Holiday of Love is nearly upon us, I thought I would share a few ideas and tips we’ve discovered over the years that might help you pull off your own version of a marriage retreat. Or, at the very least, have a meaningful conversation or two about how you are doing at being a couple.
Don’t Skip the Planning: Location and Agenda
Take the time to find a place that feels “away,” even if it isn’t very far. I’m not talking about requiring a long weekend in Maui here (though that would be pretty great). You certainly don’t need to break the bank. We’ve stayed in a secluded, rustic cabin several times. A couple of occasions early in our marriage, when we couldn’t seem to make the overnight part work out like we wanted, we took a drive and spent a whole day at a park or campground. We’ve talked through things in swanky hotel lobbies and at funky, fun patio bars and around expertly built campfires. We’ve also holed up for weekends in luxurious suites and VRBO lake houses. Once, we were in London. The location doesn’t really matter as long as it feels different from your regular life—away from chores and responsibilities, away from all the things that might distract you from just being present with each other. (And a note about kids: It is critical to maintain the couple relationship over the parent relationship, and that means periodic kid-free time is a must. It’s hard, I know. Family isn’t always an option. Nannies can be expensive. Maybe trade off with another family? Strategically schedule sleepovers? Get creative… But figure it out. It is important.)
Once you’ve settled on a location, take some time before the retreat to think through and map out an agenda. There’s a lot of detail about this below, but both partners should contribute potential topics that feel important to them—maybe something that keeps getting put on the back burner or that requires a longer conversation than your toddlers will allow. Will you need calendars or financial paperwork or other materials for any of these conversations? Once you have a general idea about the topics, you should add in the fun. Is there a must-try brunch place nearby or a really great hike in the area? Do you need to allow for pool or hot tub time? A nice dinner out or a cozy one in? Make sure you feel the “retreat” part of this process, too. Plan to sleep in and do things that feel restful and rejuvenating—whatever that means for you. When we go away for a retreat weekend, there are usually three conversation sessions and the rest of the time is for play and lounging.
Three Conversation Sessions: Now, Us, and Dreams
Whatever topics you may come up with, chances are good they will fit into one of these three areas. Here’s the breakdown:
“Now” means a kind of “state of the union” for your life together, a chance to look back and take stock of what the past year contained, both victories and challenges. Ours usually breaks down into the categories of Kids, Work, Home, Money, Health/Spirit. We take some time to reflect on each of those areas and set some short-term goals for the coming year. This is a chance to course-correct parenting tactics that might not be working, make adjustments to work-life balance, or overhaul a budget that is out of date. We live in a big, old fixer-upper, so some years we spend quite a bit of time prioritizing our next set of house projects. We also discuss fitness goals, how terrible we are at committing to another Whole30, and sometimes, decide to change jobs or churches during these conversations. The punchline here is to take a big chunk of time, push the pause button, and really talk about all the aspects your life together: what’s working, what’s not, and brainstorm about potential solutions.
The “Us” section is all about the relationship stuff. That’s a very technical term there, “relationship stuff.” I suggest you start with the positive. What might you take for granted or not compliment enough? What thing do you appreciate or always notice about your partner but never say anything about? From the silly to the serious, the importance of this part of the retreat can’t be understated. I still remember, word for word, some of the things we’ve said. Even now, as I think about them, I know there was a time early in our relationship when I couldn’t have dreamed we’d ever get so busy or disconnected that we wouldn’t say those things to one another anymore—but it happens. We’ve detailed what makes the other the absolute best parent for our kids, talked through the things we are most proud of about each other, recalled favorite gifts or complimented cooking and handyman abilities, and praised some of the day-in, day-out-grind endurance that often gets overlooked.
Once you have basked in all that positivity, you can move to some of the other aspects of the relationship. Very often people sit in my office and say, “I never knew she felt that way” or “I am totally blindsided by this.” And it is sad, because sometimes it is too late. So THIS is that time, a chance to ask, “Do we like each other these days?” “What’s really working? What’s not?” “How can we feel more connected? Have more fun? Have more/better sex?” Maybe it is a chance to apologize and ask forgiveness or tend to something that needs healing. Whatever it is, the punchline here is to take the opportunity to say the things to each other that are most important. (There are plenty of resources out there if you want a more directed conversation and also more light-hearted questionnaires like this one. And my own outline is here.)
The “Dreams” session is exactly what it sounds like. What are they? Do you ever take the time to talk about them? Maybe it is verbalizing your five-year and 20-year visions for your life and your family, what you want for your kids in the future, or maybe it’s that childhood dream you’ve been carrying around for a decade already. Whatever it is, speak it out loud and write it down. They don’t have to feel possible or even sane, but you should share them with one another. The punchline here is: if we aren’t working to help make each other’s dreams come true, then what are we even doing?
Marriages can be fun and breathtaking at times and tedious and heartbreaking at others, but they always require work from the people who are in them. Always. So, whatever your retreat or conversation sessions might look like, be sure to celebrate yourselves and your initiative to make your relationship a priority!
Save Your Notes
A pro tip if you decide to make this a regular occurrence in your relationship: save your agendas and notes. Even if you only do this every few years, trust me when I say how much you will appreciate being able to look back on your own five- and 10-year visions. It is also pretty satisfying to go through a list of past goals that have been accomplished—together.
For the “Keepin’ It Real” files:
The “Us” session of the retreat has come to a screeching halt for us on more than one occasion. One of those very bumpy years we literally spent that whole agenda item trying to figure out how to get a divorce. (We didn’t.) But I say that to simply warn: Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be years that are harder than others, and that’s OK. If the relationship section feels overwhelming or devastating, use that as your indication it might be time to get some help. We’ve been in therapy three times in our 26 years together. Get support if you need it.
If your relationship is in serious distress—maybe there is already talk of separating or there is no talk at all—I do NOT recommend trying a structured DIY retreat as a solution. These retreats are meant to be preventative and growth-focused, rather than a crisis-response. If your relationship really needs support, get it. Find a facilitated retreat, a therapist, or a support group; no need to DIY. Ask for help.