After infidelity, these couples turned to upscale, intensive marriage retreats as a last-ditch effort to stay together.
first published on Elle magazine's website on July 13, 2022
BY Esme BenjaminESMEBENJAMIN
Couples’ names have been changed.
Calum and Maria were having one of the biggest blowout arguments in the history of their 18-year marriage. It didn’t matter that they were away from their home in Canada at a luxury resort in the Caribbean, nor that they’d just enjoyed a romantic dinner, basking in a post-beach afterglow as they worked their way through the all-inclusive cocktail menu. Maria hadn’t been able to stop herself from reliving the events that had brought them to this beautiful locale in the first place: Her husband, the father of her two children, had recently confessed to multiple one-night stands while traveling on business.
The fight had started over a boozy dinner, but now they were back in the privacy of their hotel room, and without the judgmental glances of onlookers to rein them in, things were getting increasingly heated.
“I hit my rock bottom, I felt so hopeless,” says Maria, who had been unable to work ever since Calum’s disclosure. “I was basically suicidal.”
The couple called the one person they knew could bring them back from the brink: their therapist, Andrew Sofin, who was also staying—and working on-site—at the resort. Minutes later, he arrived at their door, ready for an emergency session that would stretch into the early hours of the following morning.
Maria and Calum were on a relationship therapy retreat held at Club Med’s new Michès Playa Esmeralda in the Dominican Republic. Run by Sofin, a marriage and family therapist based in Montreal, the $12,000-per-week Couples Retreat at Ocean Coral aims to build on the connection-cultivating power of a regular vacation by introducing intensive therapy to the itinerary.
Sessions can total up to eight hours per day, but in their downtime, couples are free to decompress, enjoying the property’s bougie amenities as if on a regular getaway. Sometimes, Sofin prescribes specific leisure activities that encourage teamwork and trust, like sailing lessons. Other times, something purely relaxing, like a trip to the spa or floating side by side in inflatable pool rings. It’s a concept that could easily inspire a White Lotus plot line, but the sincere goal of relationship therapy retreats is to resuscitate relationships. By providing the couple with expert guidance to work through their issues, combined with breathing room from the daily responsibilities, routines, and distractions of home, these retreats aim to prevent more couples from winding up in divorce court. In the wake of infidelity, they can even offer a blueprint for rebuilding trust and fostering forgiveness—that is, if you can afford the hefty price tag.
Last fall, Angelique and Christopher, a Texas couple who had been married for six years, attended a similar retreat, The Marriage Restoration Project in Costa Rica. The impetus to book came when Angelique got a call from a stranger who claimed she’d been intimate with Christopher. Considering the couple had been distant and struggling to communicate effectively for some time—Christopher has a tendency to, as Angelique puts it, “shut down” and “go cold” during arguments—it was clear they urgently needed professional help to salvage their marriage.
A five-day retreat with The Marriage Restoration Project blends wellness-focused activities like daily yoga and guided meditations with practical tools for working through conflict and rekindling romance. Attendees are even given scripts to help them make formal amends for the hurt they’ve caused, as well as workbooks to practice their communication techniques once they return home. Step one on the path to reconciliation is to examine how the interplay between their upbringings and attachment styles contributed to the affair. A marriage, after all, is a union of two psychologies.
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, the therapist behind The Marriage Restoration Project, uses Imago Relationship Therapy, an approach that posits we are unconsciously drawn to partners who resemble our primary caregivers.
“In Imago therapy, it’s believed that we're all looking to marry someone familiar, who’s going to push our buttons in very painful ways because it’s going to uniquely play on our childhood wounds or unmet needs,” explains Slatkin, whose private couples retreats start at $7,000, not including flights, food, or accommodations. “In order to prevent an affair from happening again, we need to understand the origins and the context. And when we do that, we find that couples who have experienced infidelity and have worked through it actually wind up having a stronger relationship than ever before because they’re really going to understand what was broken in the first place.”
With Slatkin’s guidance, Angelique and Christopher began exploring past experiences that might have influenced their domestic discord. Despite their shared history, the process unveiled facets of their respective childhoods they’d never previously disclosed to one another.
“There were a lot of things that had come up, digging deeper and deeper, things that had happened in our pasts that we had forgotten about ourselves,” Angelique says. “There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know about his life growing up, and it finally made sense as to his behavior. That was a huge step for us.”
Meeting your spouse’s wounded inner child can be powerful. When difficult or traumatic formative experiences are shared for the first time, it can help the wronged party view the infidelity through a new lens, as a manifestation of the unfaithful partner’s unresolved issues, rather than a reflection of their personal value. If they can bring themselves to empathize with the wrongdoer—no small feat under the circumstances—a softening can take place. And it’s from this softer place that forgiveness can grow.
Maria says that learning Calum was raised in an environment of alcohol abuse and physical violence, and that he had silently been struggling with anxiety and depression for years, helped her feel more compassion for him.
“When I am in an emotionally regulated place, I actually feel like it could easily have been me [who cheated] if I was raised in that same environment, with all those ingredients,” Maria says. “If I grab onto this, I can actually feel better. Like, it’s not me. There is a scientific and historical explanation for [his infidelity].”
Drawing on this new understanding, couples can avoid triggering each other’s deep-seated issues while nurturing the other in the exact way they need to be nurtured, hopefully affair-proofing the relationship for the future. But even couples who do manage to beat the odds and keep their relationship intact after unfaithfulness may find that the work of cultivating forgiveness and trust is ongoing.
For Clara and Oliver, a couple from California who dealt with infidelity six years ago after the successive losses of Oliver’s father and business sent him spiraling into destructive coping habits (including a long-distance affair with a married woman), healing has been a non-linear process. Although the couple says the worst is behind them and they could “write the book on what it takes to have a great marriage,” Clara still exhibits symptoms of post-infidelity stress disorder, a condition characterized by intrusive recurring thoughts and hypervigilance, which psychologists say is similar to—but distinct from—post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The way I describe [our marriage] is like a piece of paper that was crisp and new, and then you take it and you crumple it up. When you flatten it out, it’s never the same, it’s always going to have those marks,” says Clara, who is now very alert to times when disconnection or distance are present in their marriage. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s still a battle every day.”
As part of their ongoing commitment to working on the relationship, Clara and Oliver recently traveled to Arizona to attend Sedona Soul Adventures, a five-day bespoke retreat that takes a New Age-y approach to healing marriages. There, the couple dabbled in “core wound” exploration (another term for addressing issues stemming from childhood), love languages, and Enneagram personality tests designed to help couples understand themselves and their partners better.
As Debra Stangl, the owner of Sedona Soul Adventures and a former divorce attorney, says of her methods: “Most people know more about what they want on their pizza than about what they want in their life and relationship.”
Other more esoteric wellness activities are also part of the retreat’s programming, including holotropic breathwork, a facilitator-led technique where altered states of consciousness are accessed through repetitive breathing patterns.
“I believe that your core wounds, and I like to call it ‘gunk,’ can get energetically stuck in your body. So we’re doing sessions that actually move the energy out and connect people to that highest part of themselves,” explains Stangl, whose couples retreats start at $6,000 for therapeutic guidance and bonding activities. (Couples must arrange and separately pay for their own accommodations, food, and transport.) “We do that through things like breathwork, where people are literally moving into a different state of consciousness, and moving into connection on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.”
Clara and Oliver, who identify as non-religious but “spiritual,” believe they didn’t find the retreat so much as the retreat found them. Throughout the week, they had profound experiences that imbued their union with meaning. One particularly impactful activity was sandplay, where the couple arranged random objects in a large sandbox then stepped back to observe the story they had unconsciously told through their arrangements.
“That just blew me away. It was as if something other than ourselves had guided us to pick up those trinkets and put them down in a manner that told our story,” Oliver says. “On a spiritual level, we’re supposed to be together. Me and Clara know that unequivocally, it’s not even a question.”
A 2018 survey found that just 15 percent of couples manage to successfully work through an affair. While the retreat hosts don’t keep data on the success rates of their relationship therapy retreats—and it can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly qualifies as “success”—all three couples attest that they were worth the investment. Six months to a year after their respective trips, and as of publication, each couple is still together, and credits the retreats with giving them crucial insights and useful tools to move forward. That said, even the hosts, who offer follow-up therapy sessions as needed, admit that there is no quick fix for such an egregious breach of trust.
“I truly believe that every couple is capable of change if they really want it and they’re willing to do the work,” says Sofin, the therapist who worked with Calum and Maria. “I always see [the retreat] as like planting seeds. Real change takes time and work and practice.”
After all, the biggest selling point of a relationship therapy retreat—and what’s used to justify such a significant cost—is the promise of hope. It may not be an easy process, but when both halves of a couple are willing to pay up, show up, expose their wounds, and embrace complexity, there’s no doubting their commitment to one another. Maybe things will never quite be the way they were, but there is still a fighting chance for a loving and united future.
“I am super grateful that we found [the retreat] and are still here and fighting for our marriage and for our family,” says Calum, who, in a big a-ha moment following that blowout argument with his wife in the Dominican Republic, decided to quit alcohol for good. “We didn’t even come home from that trip and try to make things normal again. We just said, ‘We have a bit of a template for our lives now, and we’re just gonna focus on that.’ We’re not going back to the life we had; we’re trying to create a new life, and we’re doing it together.”
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