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Way back in the 70s, my parents went on a weekend getaway with my aunt and uncle. When they got back, I heard the words "marriage encounter" bandied about. Apparently such weekends were all the rage then. The one my parents attended was church-based -- sort of a refresher course on the premarriage education our church required before matrimony. I was just a kid, but I do remember them being a bit more lovey-dovey with each other when they returned. It seemed like their "encounter" gave their marriage, now going strong for more than 40 years, a real shot in the arm.
If my parents -- or any couple -- were looking for just such a shot in the arm these days, they'd have many more options beyond a church-basement retreat. There are day-long, weekend-long, and even longer programs offered by marriage therapists, "sexperts," counselors, and (beware) some not-so-professional self-proclaimed marriage experts all over the country, some probably right in your own neighborhood. The sessions promise everything from repairing a union ruptured by infidelity, to giving your sex life a jump-start, to learning new strategies designed to help you communicate your needs and get them met.
How do you know if your marriage could benefit from such a boost? Usually, say experts, you'll have an instinct. "Couples who head to a workshop or retreat usually feel they are on 'cruise control' in their marriage," says Bridget Brennan, director of The Cana Institute in St. Louis, Missouri, which runs spiritually-based marriage and premarriage programs for couples, as well as programs for single adults. "They're still on the journey, but they're not enjoying it or sharing it with each other."
Other experts agree -- with a caveat. "Workshops can be really helpful for couples, presenting basic techniques, giving them a reality check when they observe other couples in the workshop, and even enhancing their motivation to change and grow," says Tina Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page Books, 2003). But, she says, there are good and bad workshops, and good and bad counselors. So be sure to thoroughly research any workshop or retreat you're contemplating to find one with philosophies that match yours (see the Web sites listed on the last page of this article).
Most couples' education courses are geared towards generally stable unions or sex lives that are feeling a little stale, or marriages where one or both partners are experiencing lingering resentments. That said, there are workshops geared towards couples in serious trouble. If you're dealing with a crisis that threatens your marriage, like infidelity, only the two of you can decide if a course is something that can help. (Your other option is, of course, private marriage counseling).
Relationship education classes run the gamut from day- or weekend-long retreats, to full-on courses that require homework and offer months of follow-up. There are even longer getaways that combine serious workshop activities with a nice vacation (think: cruises, resorts). A bit of Internet digging turned up one promising-sounding trip called "Soul Healing Love Caribbean Cruise." Imagine participating in classes like "Money and Marriage" or "Spiritual Intimacy" between exotic ports-of-call.
There are also, inevitably, sex-education workshops, that promise mind-blowing orgasms in a weekend. Web sites are loaded with testimonials from couples such as "Our best sex ever! We can't wait to come back!" (No pun intended.) Most of these are not for the faint-of-heart, but, thankfully, most are done in both good taste and good humor.
For example, self-proclaimed sexpert Lou Paget (Loupaget.com), author of How to Give Her Absolute Pleasure (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000), offers sex workshops, but usually just for single-sex groups. Others are offered by couples. A series of tantric sex workshops offered by a couple in Canada (Tantra-sex.com) promise not only to pump up your sex life by teaching the principles of tantric sex (an Eastern, spiritual approach to deepening sexual pleasure and increasing orgasmic pleasure), but also to "open your body, your mind, and your heart to love." The best kind of sex workshop will not just be about titillation and techniques, but about learning more about what turns each other on -- and that involves, not surprisingly, enhanced communication.
If you are considering signing up for a sex workshop with your partner, find out as much as you can beforehand about what the classes will entail. Steer clear of anything that makes you uncomfortable, such as explicit group talk, nudity, or sex toys. The idea should be to enhance sex not just for the sake of mind-blowing orgasms, but to improve and strengthen your relationship, too.
So, what happens at a sex workshop? At Tantra-Sex.com's Beginners' Workshop in Canada, "There is no disrobing or explicit sexual behaviour in the group sessions, but part of the weekend is dedicated to practicing in private the delights you've learned about as a group," the site states. Session topics are as varied as "awakening your senses" and "lovemaking skills" to "ejaculation mastery and multiple orgasm for men."
What might you and your partner be doing at a couples' education course? You could find yourself sitting close together, knees to knees and eyes locked, while you share your needs, wants, resentments, and expectations in a controlled manner, or going off in groups and role-playing various scenarios while you try to figure out, with your group members, better ways to solve age-old problems.
Many workshops are geared toward retraining automatic reactions, or teaching couples to be kinder, fairer, and better listeners. Take, for example, this exercise (from the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment):
As you can see, it's hardly rocket science -- but it does get you thinking, and talking, which is of course the point.
Anger is another big issue discussed in these courses. Where it comes from, how it can fester when left unchecked, how it can be properly expressed. Expect to ask each other such questions as: "In what kinds of situations do I feel angry with you?" "How do I usually act when I am angry?" "How do I wish I would act when I am angry?" In many cases, you'll be pondering your own answers to these questions, then sharing the results with your spouse.
Couples who've done this sort of sharing are enthusiastic. "You could have considered our relationship a good one," says 40-something Susan, in New York, "but there was an underlying current of disagreements and bickering. But after we took [a marriage workshop], we now see that we have a choice in how we relate to each other. We are not on automatic mode for fighting."
What couples take away from marriage courses varies tremendously. According to one veteran, the effects of a good course can last years. "Bill and I have been married 42 years and counting," says Charlotte, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. "Eight years ago, we took a two-week seminar in Indonesia called 'Living in the Moment.' At that time, I would describe our relationship as 'putting up with each other.' We were both dissatisfied but were not going to change things because it was too scary to contemplate. I can remember being angry most of the time. The seminar taught me that I had been blaming negative things in my life on Bill. We learned that we were indeed in love with each other, and had the possibility to interact with each other in a way that was new and fresh. And we are still 'living in the moment.'"
If you are interested in finding a course that suits the two of you, the following Web sites feature resources that help: