what happens at a marriage retreat

What Happens At A Marriage Retreat

By the time a married couple considers therapy, the spouses are usually trying to save or repair their marriage. Couples therapy is often the first outreach, in part because its format is familiar to most people. One hour a week for several months (maybe years), a comfortable office with couches and chairs, a therapist with a notepad and pen. Because they don’t know what happens at a marriage retreat, many couples miss out on what could be the most life-changing therapy experience available.

It takes a village.

We say it about raising children and any effort that doesn’t thrive in a vacuum. Four words that speak to our interconnectedness when it comes to the most essential things in life. And marriage is right at the top of that list.

Marriage takes a lot of work. Couples know that going in, even though they rarely realize just how much work is involved until their rose-colored glasses have gotten a bit dingy.

Unfortunately, reaching out for help is often a reparative move, not a preventive one. Instead of embracing therapy as an essential component of a thriving marriage, most people still cower behind the need and surrender to it as a means of crisis intervention.

If they only knew what happens at a marriage retreat, their whole perspective would change!

People don’t realize what they don’t know about good marriages.

Think about all the areas in your life for which you have received training, mentorship, education, and support. You go to college to prepare for a successful career down the road. You go through extensive training once you have a job, knowing that your income and financial future depend on your performance. You look up to and reach out to leaders in your field to help you perfect your skills and excel in your profession.

Think about the lengths parents will go to ensure their children receive the best education and have access to the most promising sources of enrichment — sports, tutors, clubs, camps.

Love is all you need for a good marriage, right?

But relationships? Love? Communication? You’re just supposed to “know” that stuff, aren’t you? Those are “soft skills” that are just “built-in”, learned by osmosis. 

You grow up. Date. You figure things out as you go along. You meet someone who sends your hormones aflutter. You are in love, and that’s all you need. You get married. And voila, it’s all official. Signed, sealed, secure. Mission accomplished.

But we all know it doesn’t work like that. Love has its typical stages, even for the strongest, happiest couples. And just as love educates us, we benefit from learning how to to make it last.

And that’s where the village comes in.

Why weekly counseling has limitations.

Traditional couples therapy happens in small doses over a long period. It fits into the couple’s routine, like a doctor’s appointment or oil change. One hour in which to lay it all on the table, spend a little bit of time in the thick of discussion, get homework, and go home.

At that point, it’s up to the couple to follow through. Because that one hour is culled from the normalcy of a couple’s routine, it has no “cushion” around it — no protective barrier of time to allow the couple absorb the counseling and work on the relationship.

Life goes on. Kids need nurture. Work demands attention. Partner’s time is spread thin. Finding quality time to do their counseling homework together can have 50:50 odds at best.

Most couples who enter couples therapy are hoping for what happens at a marriage retreat. They have often reached a point of crisis. And their marriages don’t have time to inch along week to week while problems and tension persist, and the marriage continues to decline.

The other downfall of traditional weekly therapy is the 167-hour time gap between appointments while life continues. That’s a lot of time in which to add to an already overwhelming list of grievances and concerns.

Marriage retreats offer a safe, focused and immersive experience

What happens in a marriage retreat differs from the traditional weekly couples counseling, especially when the marriage retreat is private and hosted by a couple as the therapist team in an intensive format.

In the marriage retreat format, the couple is free from the distraction and stress of their regular, often demanding daily routine. A couple gets an opportunity to settle into a safe environment for several days so they can focus on their marriage.

This difference alone has the potential for positive change in a matter of days, instead of waiting months, if not years, for results. Most high conflict couples no longer have the bandwidth for a long course of therapy; their relationship is at risk and needs emergency attention.

What happens at a marriage retreat is similar to language immersion. And, in its way, a marriage retreat is like language immersion.

Couples learn to re-language their relationship and communication.

Think about the effectiveness of immersion in learning a new language. Students who are “immersed” in a new language and culture learn more rapidly and gain more fluency because they stay in the moment of learning. They practice. They have the time and support to struggle and process without an alarm signaling an end to the session. They settle into the learning and absorb nuances they might otherwise miss. They listen differently.

Wondering what happens at a marriage retreat and how it can help your relationship? Here are the basics:

You will be in a safe environment to communicate the tough stuff.

It’s difficult to reach into the vault of pent-up feelings and personal history when you’re staring at a clock over a therapist’s head. What if time runs out just when you get to the vulnerable part? You don’t want to have to go home with that now-open wound and wait another week to deal with it.

A marriage retreat is built on a foundation of safety. Emotional safety is non-negotiable and essential for making progress.

And it’s incredible what kind of progress couples can make, both as individuals and together as a couple when you skilled professionals teach you to talk things through in a safe environment.

There will be a series of sessions.

You will meet with your therapists at least a couple times a day. They will guide you through the discovery and clarification of your goals as a couple and will safely guide you through the disclosure of the obstacles to achieving them.

You will come away with a relationship tool kit.

Your therapist team will teach you sustainable tools for effective communication. They will also give you strategies for anger management and conflict resolution and will coach you in how to apply them.

You will have time and a safe place to practice what you learn.

Instead of racing through your list of issues for the week, then going home with homework, you will practice what you learn while in session.

Your therapists, especially if a husband-wife team, will be models of the very techniques they are teaching you. They will guide you through the difficult conversations in a safe way and keeping the marriage as the priority.

You will have time to process while you are learning.

Between therapy sessions, you will have the opportunity to revisit what you have learned and to talk more about some of the issues raised. If you are so inclined, you can journal or take notes of things you want to discuss in the next session. Processing together like this will strengthen your bond as a couple.

The beauty of what happens at a marriage retreat is that you are away from all the triggers of your daily routine and can focus only on your marriage. You can delve into your feelings and spend time exploring them.

You will begin to heal.

By uncovering and healing each spouse’s wounds, healing the marriage’s wounds becomes not only possible but likely.

You will receive ongoing support.

What happens at a marriage retreat isn’t limited to the days you are there. You will receive materials and access to follow-up support to help you remain active in your relationship-growing process.

Whether you are getting a head start on building a healthy marriage or trying to save your marriage, therapy is a gift. It’s a statement of value and an extension of hope and promise to your spouse, your marriage, your children, and all who support you.

What happens in a marriage retreat is grounded in the safe teaching and practice of effective communication. And ultimately a marriage retreat is as unique as the couple attending and as successful as each couple’s commitment to the marriage and the work involved.


If you’re interested in learning more about building a better relationship, visit our Blog or get a copy of our book.

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