This summer I was hired to assist at the Sharing the Path couples retreat designed and facilitated by Robert Gass and Judith Ansara at Hollyhock centre on Cortes Island. I hadn’t met Judith and Robert before the retreat, though I knew of them by their solid reputation. I showed up ready to be of service, and was happy to discover that my skills and expertise fit like a glove. It was great to be part of such a talented and attuned teaching team, and to support and witness all the courageous participants as they navigated their particular relationship terrains.
Over the five-day intensive there were many reminders and much learning. I thought I would share 7 key takeaways here with you –
1. Simple is good
It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of complicated relationship theories. Models and maps like attachment theory, Imago therapy, family systems, personality typing etc can all be interesting, illuminating, and valuable, but I was reminded it’s possible to go plenty deep with basic ideas and simple practices.
Speaking from the heart, telling the truth, taking responsibility, listening deeply… these are understandable ideas and doable practices for most people; simple, yet infinitely challenging and infinitely rewarding.
2. Sex matters
Almost every participant at the retreat included sex in their list of troubles. I’ve found this to be true for the couples in my couples counselling practice as well. And yet the presenters at the retreat confessed that it was not until they had been doing couples workshops for some years that they began including sexual dynamics in the curriculum. I appreciated their willingness to address sexuality head-on. Too often sex slips through the cracks in this sort of relationship work.
I think there are two main reasons that sex routinely gets excluded or marginalized in much conventional marriage counselling and couples therapy:
First, there’s a cultural prejudice against addressing and valuing sex on its own merits. The assumption – partly a moralistic holdover from puritanism ideals I believe – is that if “the relationship” is good, then the sex should automatically follow. It should be obvious by now that this is often not the case.
Second, sex is a difficult topic fraught with unconsciousness and shadow, complicated meanings, tender feelings, trauma, taboo, frustration. It’s a dangerous and awkward box to open. Even skilled professional facilitators and therapists can feel uncomfortable speaking explicitly about sex.
3. Relationship trouble is universal
Many people are not in the habit of sharing their relationship troubles and pain with anyone outside their own relationship, at least not in any constructive way. The result is that we tend to internalize an erroneous idea that our relationship problems are completely unique to us. This creates feelings of isolation and even defectiveness. The false fronts presented through social media exacerbates feelings of incongruence; shiny happy personas on the outside, tenderness, hurt, and desperation on the inside.
At this retreat carefully designed exercises allowed participants to switch off and provide coaching support for one another, always in ways that honoured safety and privacy. After these exercises, individuals and couples sometimes chose to share their insights and gleanings with the group; of course this was always optional.
4. The work is never finished
Relationship work comes with built-in traps, especially the assumption that we will somehow master this thing called relationship and one day be free from the difficulties it causes. What actually happens is that as we become more skillful we can’t help but raise the bar, and so we are continually called to navigate new and more sophisticated challenges.
Robert and Judith modelled this wonderfully by weaving in stories of their own significant trials and tribulations over their fifty years of relationship together, including sharing one challenge that arose between them in “real-time” during the course of the retreat.
5. A sense of humour helps
Relationships by nature have a bittersweet element. This bittersweetness is beautifully expressed through humour (etymologically related to humility) and laughing at and with ourselves. Judith and Robert exemplified this throughout. (Note – Humour can also be unconsciously used to escape uncomfortable but necessary tension. This is a self-defeating strategy to watch for.)
6. Move your body
It’s easy for many of us to get stuck in our head trying to figure things out. The presenters wisely had us getting up and moving, often through dance, at regular intervals. The change in energy and perspective this created was palpable.
7. It’s called practice for a reason
Finally, if we want to get better at relationship, including sex, we need to practice. There’s always that moment when it dawns on a person that their life is completely full and that they have no time to add “relationship practice” to the mix. Something will have to give.
If you want to play the violin or become a good skier it’s not nearly enough to gather information; you must practice. Relationships are no different in this regard. Learn tools (there are many – see my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples), then practice them, preferably daily. Learning tools without practicing them is maybe worse than useless because it amplifies disappointment. One way or another, you will have to make room in your life for doing relationship practices.
Relationship practice tips: Practice implies imperfection – give yourself and your partner permission to fail. Be curious and non-attached to practice outcomes. Practice in low-stakes situations; don’t wait until your biggest triggers are activated before you pull out your relationship toolbox! Get help if you need it, even if just to get started.
To learn more about Judith and Robert’s work visit www.sacredunion.com.
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Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com
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