marriage counseling retreat

How Is Marriage Retreat Counseling Different From Couples Counseling?

Let’s be real. Going to couples counseling probably didn’t make your top-5 bucket list for things to do this year. And marriage retreat counseling, if you’ve never gone before, probably didn’t even blip your radar.

By the time the “c” word enters into most relationships, a lot of muddy water has flowed under the bridge. As much as six years’-worth of muddy water, according to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s those misunderstood, touted-as-self-absorbed millennials who are breaking through the stigma of couples counseling and making it a trending practice. Some even see it as a way to build a strong foundation now for a strong marriage in the future.

Whether you’re spinning the whole counseling idea as a way to take your relationship from good to great or from gone to still-there, you have choices.

Marriage retreat counseling has taken couples counseling to a new level. Yes, the traditional counseling format still exists and definitely has its place. But the retreat format has opened up a world of options and benefits for couples seeking to improve their marriages.

The biggest difference between marriage retreat counseling and traditional couples counseling is the time-intensive format of the retreat.

Traditional counseling happens for one hour every one to two weeks, and therefore continues for months, sometimes years. A marriage retreat packs months of work into a matter of days. 

Most people think of couples counseling as individual counseling, but with two clients in the room. If you have participated in individual or couples counseling, you know the drill. You sit across from the therapist. You review the previous week before delving into your current (or continuing) issues. Fifty-five minutes later, the therapist wraps things up and confirms the next week’s appointment. S/he then sends you on your way, often with relationship homework.

That may sound simplistic, but in the scheme of a 168-hour week, only so much can be accomplished in one of those hours. And the therapist has to trust that you want your growth as much as s/he wants it for you. S/he also has to trust that you are working on yourself and your relationship outside of your sessions.

That means you have to make time to reflect, communicate, and put new lessons into practice. And you have to do so from within the routine chaos of your daily lives and unresolved issues.

Inevitably, you may show up the following week having not touched your homework. And if your reason for going to couples counseling in the first place involves a crisis, your problems may have gotten worse.

After all, an hour leaves barely enough time to go deeply into both sides of what may be a huge issue. And sending you right back into the environment and habits that fuel that discord can make progress slow at best.

The beauty and lure of marriage retreat counseling is that it takes you out of your regular environment and routine. It clears the deck for complete focus on the relationship, usually in a beautiful, relaxing setting. And instead of having an hour of therapy followed by 167 hours of “life,” you have a full weekend (or longer) to stay connected to your marriage.

Couples attend marriage retreats for a variety of reasons. Some have hit a dry spell and want to bring vitality back to their relationships. Some have unresolved issues that continue to plague their communication and connection. Some have been thrown completely off-kilter by infidelity or some other betrayal. Some are looking for a way back in. And some are even looking for a healthy way out.

Regardless of your motivation for attending marriage retreat counseling, you will come away with a wealth of insight and communication skills. Because the counseling happens in an extended, ongoing format, you and your spouse will have time to practice what you learn. You will actually begin the work of unearthing old, destructive patterns and bringing new, constructive patterns into your comfort zone.

Having time to work on what you learn while in the context of therapy significantly increases the long-lasting effect of the new information. Instead of receiving suggestions to implement over the next 167 hours, you do the work, right then, right there. And you practice in front of therapists who understand the awkwardness and how to help you through it.

The repetition of weekly couples counseling without significant progress can be defeating. But the repetition of behavior and communication skills in a safe, intensive format yields new neural pathways. And those new pathways yield new behaviors…and a new normal.

Another big difference between marriage retreat counseling and couples counseling is the presence of other couples. Some marriage retreats are done as private intensives, with only one couple working with one therapist team. This format is especially effective for issues that are deeply personal or threatening to the relationship.

Many marriage retreats, however, are done in a group format. The presence of other couples creates an environment of support and shared insight. Personal peeves have a way of losing their oomph when you realize you’re not the only one who has them. And a healthy dose of laughter can put a healing perspective on annoyances that get in the way of all that is worth loving.

Marriage retreat counseling can stand alone or as an intensive adjunct to traditional couples counseling. Couples who go on a marriage retreat after going to traditional counseling for a while inevitably experience an acceleration of the benefits of counseling.

Likewise, those who start with a marriage retreat have a great foundation for follow-up support work with traditional couples counseling.

Whether you and your spouse are drifting apart, facing an empty nest, or proactively seeking the skills to keep your marriage thriving, help is available.

For all the differences between couples counseling and marriage retreat counseling, one thing connects them both. It’s the relationship, not the individuals, that reigns supreme.

Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats