My husband and I go to a lot of conferences for professors, aid and development workers, expatriates, American families in Africa, parents of boarding school kids, church retreats. So when my parents gave us a Christmas gift a few years ago of a marriage retreat, the idea of spending a weekend “together” but really in meetings and then in manufactured conversations based on a fill-in the bubbles personality/compatibility test didn’t sound appealing.
Also, I’m a chameleon afflicted with a weakness for comparison. If someone has a super-star schmoozing, social, trendily-dressed husband with a six-pack who notices that the trash needs to go out before she tells him, I think Tom needs to be that way too. (He almost pretty much sort of is, except his six-pack is of the Stella Artois variety).
If someone has a wife who still rolls her jeans at the ankles and perms her hair, who burns everything except Chinese take-out, who screams at the kids every day, and who only wants to make love on their anniversary, I start to think I’m doing pretty A-Okay. (I almost pretty much sort of am totally not like this. My hair is naturally curly).
Listening to other people either boast or whine and letting them bring discontent or pride into our marriage, wasn’t something we wanted.
But we did want to get away. We did want to work on our marriage, every marriage needs work, even the almost pretty much sort of perfect ones like ours in which the screaming doesn’t happen every day and the garbage goes out nearly before stinking up the entire house.
We hadn’t had a single night away from our children together for the purpose of just being together since … ahem … 2002. That was before I had wrinkles around my eyes and before Tom got that white patch in his goatee. That was before the Iraq war and before America elected a black president. How the world had changed(!) and we parented every.single.day of the last decade without taking much time away for ourselves.
My parents, married now forty years(!), understood what we needed and graciously allowed us to design our own marriage retreat, took our kids, and sent us away. Tom’s parents, married now 41 years(!) also helped with the kids. (What a gift our parents have given us in that total of 81 years of marriage.)
So Tom and I designed our own marriage retreat and spent four days, three nights in northern Minnesota in January, colder than we had been since moving to Djibouti ten years ago. He skied, I jogged. He skied, I read books in the Jacuzzi. He skied, I submitted an essay to The New York Times. He scored a huge jump, and I scored a huge publishing cred.
Oh, and we also spent time talking about our marriage. We even resolved a conflict that dated back to 2002 and which had precluded us ever playing Scrabble together again. I am happy to say we can now play civilly, though Tom doesn’t like to because he is allergic to losing.
Here’s what we did to make our long weekend away more than a ski vacation and better than an official marriage retreat.
A Personalized Marriage Retreat 1 of 7
Plan it Yourself 2 of 7
We planned it ourselves, based on what we needed. We needed to see snow and beauty, to be away from young children, to not fly in an airplane, to eat good food. We also needed guidance and vision for how to honestly look at the strengths and weaknesses, the holes and the mountains, in our relationship.
Seek Guidance 3 of 7
To provide the guidance, we contacted a couple we knew who work as marriage counselors for an organization we respect. We told them our plan, and they agreed to administer one of those fill in the bubble tests with us. They then gave us the full results, which included conversation suggestions based on the results. We discussed the test on the four-hour drive and while cooking lunch and over dinner in the resort's restaurant.
Be Inspired 4 of 7
Rest Well 5 of 7
We slept and watched movies and played games and didn't have a schedule and didn't have anyone asking for help with pouring the milk or help wiping up the spilled milk or help washing the milk out of their hair. We rested and rested together.
Seek Beauty 6 of 7
We went somewhere beautiful. To us, that was Lutsen in northern Minnesota. Snowy hills, pine trees, Lake Superior, the shushing of skies and the magical silence of snowflakes. Light years away from our day-to-day in garbage-strewn, steamy, dusty, desert, people-packed Djibouti (which you know I enjoy, but I needed my beloved Minnesota).
Be Yourselves 7 of 7
We played and did what we wanted. Tom knew I didn't want to ski, neither of us wanted to spend the weekend in the emergency room. Last time I skied, I fell off the chairlift every time. On the bunny hill. I wanted to read and lay in bed eating strawberries and write and train for a marathon. And he let me. He wanted to ski and ski and ski and impress me with big jumps as he went by our window. And I let him. I love that about us.
(me running while he skied)
Have you been on a marriage retreat or made up your own? Do you think they are important? Tips?