To celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary, Doug and I attended a marriage retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Since it’s almost February, the month of love, I’m going to do you all the favor of sharing some of what we learned.
Matt Townsend, a popular relationship, and life coach from Utah was the instructor, and he kept us entertained and engaged for 90 minutes every morning for five days. At the end of each class, he gave us homework — yes, a marriage retreat is a vacation with homework.
Since we were at a resort by the beach in Mexico, we had plenty of time between eating tacos and churros, to complete our after-school assignments, which meant a lot of time focusing on ourselves, each other, and our relationship.
After 33 years, we know each other well and we recognize some of the strengths of our marriage — communication topping the list. I read a quote by Andre Maurois, a French author, who said a happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short. That’s a good description of our marriage. We never run out of things to talk about.
We don’t spend a lot of time analyzing ourselves and our relationship though so, some of the assignments were easier than others.
Most of the material presented was based on positive psychology principles, and since Doug is Mr. Positive Psychology with an actual degree in it from the University of Pennslyvania, we were familiar with the theories and assessments. One of them is the Values In Action questionnaire which helps you identify your character strengths. (If you haven’t taken it, it’s worth the time.)
According to Dr. Matt, we are happiest when we use our strengths 10 or more hours a week, and our marriages are stronger, happier, and more vibrant when we know our strengths and bring them to the marriage regularly. He asked us to identify three of our partner’s gifts that make us happy. That was an easy one for me — Doug’s spirituality, love of learning, and never-ending optimism make me happy.
The assignments started out relatively easy, but got progressively more challenging because, to me, they became more personal:
- Start a nightly “pillow talk” habit of sharing three things that are working in your relationship. There is a catch: you can’t repeat the same things over and over. For us, this evolved into sharing three things we love or appreciate about each other. I confess though that we haven’t turned that vacation habit into a lifelong one. We need to work on that. (Doug, if you’re reading this, I appreciate that you let me blog about you occasionally, that you didn’t comment about my 44-ounce soda I lugged into the house today (it was a gift), and that you always let me have the aisle or window seat on the plane even though you hate the middle seat.)
- Think about what inspires you. Imagine you just found out you have two years to live. What would you do? What if that was reduced to two months? Two weeks? Two hours? A lot of what bothers us in life and in relationships doesn’t matter when you have two more hours to live. Talk about this to determine what matters most.
- Identify a problem in your life or relationship and instead of thinking of it as a threat, think of it as an interesting challenge. Can you reframe it as an interesting challenge instead of a debilitating threat? Then, can you create a reasonable plan with focused, intentional action steps to improve the way you deal with it?
- Determine what you are starved of. STARVED is an acronym for Safety, Trust, Appreciation, Respect, Validation, Encouragement, and Dedication. Honestly think about and share what you are starved of — it may go back to your childhood or a previous relationship. How does that affect you and your relationship now?
- After determining how you are STARVED, get REAL with each other — another acronym. Recognize your partner’s emotion, Explore the story behind it, Attend to their starved stuff (care), and Lift the conversation upward in a spirit of compassion, building, and understanding
This "homework" leaves you a little vulnerable, but the toughest assignment was saved for the last day -- an eye-gazing exercise to build trust and intimacy. Apparently staring into each other’s eyes for five minutes triggers connections and helps us understand our partner’s emotions on a deeper level. There is a stringent rule for this exercise -- no talking.
When Matt gave us this assignment, my face would have made a good meme.
He may have noticed my reaction because then, he said, “Okay, if you’re going to react like that, I’m going to make it six minutes.”
Okay, okay, five minutes of staring — in a ballroom with fifty other couples staring at each other. I gave myself a pep talk: “I can do this!”
The key is that while you are staring, you need to imagine what it’s like to be your partner. I tried so hard but all I could think of was FIVE MINUTES of staring and NO TALKING? After some nervous giggling, I finally straightened up and caught the vision.
I mean, remember, we’ve just learned our strengths, what we are starved of; what we would do if we had two hours to live, how we bond, what we believe is working in the relationship, and so much more. We are standing there staring at each other and feeling vulnerable… and admittedly, a little silly because, you know, the ballroom with all the couples and all the loving stares.
After I got past the awkwardness, remembered my age, and started acting it, it was a powerful experience — a rare moment to get out of my own head and heart and into Doug’s, which I have to say, is a beautiful, tender place to be.
My 80-something aunt called me yesterday to see if I’d recommend this retreat. Yes, I would, I told her. The tacos were great. The churros were better. The sunshine, warmth, and water were heavenly. And Matt Townsend is hilariously entertaining on top of being a relationship expert.
What I didn’t tell her is that she might come home knowing herself and her husband a little bit better and she may get a few extra tools to help her strengthen what already seems like a perfect marriage after almost 60+ years.
That’s not a bad endorsement for a marriage retreat. Happy almost month of love.