I should have been excited. My husband and I were checking into a hotel alone, without our kids, for only the third time since our honeymoon more than a decade prior. Instead, I found the butterflies in my stomach doing a different sort of dance, one of nervousness and even a bit of dread. We were here for Retrouvaille — a weekend-long intensive retreat widely billed as a last-ditch effort to save failing marriages.
As we collected our course materials from the registration table, I looked around the spacious lobby and saw several other couples milling around, all wearing the same Retrouvaille nametags we had just been handed. I recognized the same look of anxiety on their faces as I’m sure we both wore, and I wondered what had happened in their lives to bring them to this place.
The diversity of the group astounded me. Couples of all ages, races and socioeconomic status were represented. Some had driven in from several states away to be there. Young or old; rich or poor; white, black, Hispanic or Asian; liberal or traditionalist; well educated or barely literate — it certainly seemed that marital strife knew no bounds. Could a single program really address the needs of such different people? I was skeptical … and that was even before we started wondering about all the various issues that might have brought them here, from addiction, to infidelity, to abuse, to the more mundane everyday frustrations that can spoil a marriage.
In the end we never found out what drove the other couples to sign up, which brings me to the number-one thing that we learned about Retrouvaille (and that everyone should know before they go): Whatever has happened between a couple stays between the couple. Unless you volunteer your issues, no one will ever know or ask what they are.
“But how can they help us if we don’t talk about our problems?” you might ask. Well, that’s the thing — Retrouvaille isn’t therapy. It’s more of a crowdsourced DIY affair. At Retrouvaille you won’t ever meet with a professional, aside from maybe a priest if you ask for confession. Instead, the sessions are led by other couples like you, who attended Retrouvaille in the past and used it to save their own marriages.
The entire focus of the weekend is on communication, particularly how to share your emotions with each other in a safe and productive way. As the presenting couples read from the program materials to give you the tools to talk about your feelings, they fill in the blanks in the narrative with their own stories. At our weekend, there was one couple presenting who had recovered from sexual infidelity; another who’d dealt with alcoholism and porn addiction; and another who simply couldn’t stand each other anymore after 20-odd years of poor communication, but managed to turn things around with the skills they learned at Retrouvaille. They bravely shared their experiences with us to give us concrete examples of what each step of the Retrouvaille process looked like when used by actual couples in crisis.
Between presentations we were given time to go practice the skills we’d just been taught in the privacy of our hotel suites. Mostly, this consisted of writing letters to one another about our feelings regarding prescribed topics, exchanging them, and then discussing them together as a couple using a specific method taught at Retrouvaille.
My husband and I were apprehensive. Communication was our biggest marital problem to begin with, so this much communication had “minefield” written all over it … and indeed, we were pushed to the brink of confrontation more than once. But we found that as long as we stuck to the rules of engagement prescribed by Retrouvaille, we were able to share our thoughts and feelings about some pretty heavy issues and know that our words were being understood and reflected upon deeply — no defensive reactions, no verbal sparring, no picking apart each other’s arguments. That may have been a first in our marriage.
Just being together through the Retrouvaille process taught us a lot about each other, as well. Until we were literally handed tools to help us discuss our emotions, I assumed my husband kept his emotions under wraps because he didn’t like to talk about them. But watching him refer over and over again to a printed list of emotions, furrowing his brow in concentration and confusion as he tried to pick even one to describe his own feelings, made me realize that he literally lacked the vocabulary to do so. I realized I need to be more patient and understanding when it comes to his weaknesses in this area.
Meanwhile, spending three days alone with me changed my husband’s perspective as well. At home it was easy for him to assume I let certain household duties slide out of laziness or disorganization. Being forced to sit beside me 24/7 for three days straight with no other distractions — no phone, no computer, no TV, no books — made him really see me for the first time in a long while and recognize how hard I have to struggle to keep up with normal life as my chronic illness progresses.
I’m not going to lie — the Retrouvaille weekend was intense. We were in session from roughly 8 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night, with very few breaks of any kind. It was emotionally and physically exhausting.
With that said, we would do it again in a heartbeat. The weekend, while emotional and even grueling at times, was truly an eye-opener for us. We’re no longer in the same dark place we were, because Retrouvaille gave us the tools we need to shine a light on our issues and begin the hard work of solving them.