Christiane, a mother from New Jersey, had endured years of conflict with her husband when the couple met Portland psychologist John Stewart.
After their son was born with muscular dystrophy, the couple struggled to reconcile their widely different approaches to parenting, she said. Christiane, the youngest of six children, drew on her upbringing in a boisterous household that welcomed a steady stream of guests, while her husband relied on his experience of rigid structure and discipline as a child, she said.
The marriage reached its lowest point several years ago when the couple’s son, now an adult, moved to California. Christiane, heartbroken that her son was in need of care so far away, followed him, ultimately living on the opposite coast from her husband for two years. Christiane felt her husband should join them in California, he wanted her to return home.
“That gap was hard on the marriage,” she said.
By the time an Internet search turned up Stewart’s psychology practice, their marriage was on the brink, Christiane said. Previous attempts at therapy had brought years of talking about their problems without reaching any real solutions. Christiane emailed her husband Stewart’s information, writing “either go to this or there’s no marriage,” she said.
“This” was a therapy retreat run by Stewart and his wife, Janet, a psychiatric nurse. The Stewarts have operated the program for the past four years in a small fishing and tourist town in southern Nicaragua. The one-week retreats, which serve both couples and families, provide intensive therapy sessions in the context of a luxury vacation.
The Stewarts are now adding Maine destinations to the program.
While couples retreats aimed at reinvigorating stale marriages aren’t uncommon, his program’s clinical approach and family treatment option make it unique, Stewart said. Many of his clients are struggling with parenting conflicts, infidelity, or slowly drifting away from their partners, leaving them living more like roommates than spouses, he said.
“The clinical model that I work in is really not so much about helping people negotiate who’s going to take out the trash and who’s going to make the bed,” said Stewart, who has practiced psychology for more than 30 years and also works as an instructor in the child psychiatry department at the Maine Medical Center and Tufts University Medical School. “It’s really much more about facilitating a deeper sense of connection.”
By working through the feelings of profound sadness and vulnerability that come with emotional estrangement, couples find ways to heal and reconnect before tackling issues such as communication and conflict resolution, he said.
Couples participate in therapy together for about two hours a day, as well as undergo individual sessions. Then, they “go have fun,” exploring the region around the Nicaraguan town of San Juan del Sur on ATVs, surfing, scuba diving or just relaxing in suites overlooking the ocean.
While some might argue international travel can bring out the worst in a relationship, addressing marital problems in a new setting — away from the distractions of daily life — can help to unearth and resolve destructive patterns, Stewart said. Living in unfamiliar surroundings nudges couples to rely on each other as they explore, a bonding experience many have left behind, he said.
“Finding themselves in this very pretty but very distinct culture I think does cast people together and can provide the opportunity to see one another through a different set of eyes,” said Stewart, who also works with children struggling with developmental and psychiatric disabilities.
For Christiane, it meant exploring scenic beaches with her husband and learning to talk to each other again, rather than waiting a week between therapy sessions at the house that held memories of all their fights over the years. The experience brought back memories of their travels together when they met as a young couple 35 years ago, she said.
“You look at each other like that’s the partner I chose,” Christiane said. After six days, “We went from black to white,” she said.
Roughly 50 couples have participated in the retreat since its inception, including one couple from Maine and some expatriates living overseas, Stewart said. A few high-profile individuals, loathe to visit a therapist’s office in their own communities, were drawn to the confidentiality, he said. The program hosts one family or two couples, who don’t interact with each other in therapy, at a time.
The program is well suited to individuals of means, but at $5,900 per couple and $6,900-$8,500 per family — including lodging, transportation and breakfast — it may prove financially out of reach for many couples. The retreats typically aren’t covered by health insurance, though the Stewarts provide clinical documentation to couples who use medical savings accounts to pay for the program. Therapy services account for about 70 percent of the costs.
The fees for the Maine retreats, available June through September, will depend on which option couples choose. Clients can either book a sailing adventure aboard a 63-foot classic sailboat docked near Castine or arrange a stay at a variety of coastal rental properties. The costs for therapy range from about $5,000 to $7,000.
Before couples and families sign up for a retreat, Stewart meets with them through an online video chat to be sure they’re a good fit for the program. The remote retreat settings aren’t suited to clients with histories of significant abuse or individuals exhibiting reckless behavior as the result of alcohol addiction, he said, though the program accepts some clients with alcohol problems, he said.
A year and a half after her retreat, Christiane is back at home with her husband in New Jersey.
Stewart helped her to understand that while she and her husband faced struggles in life that she described as a “heavy storm” suffocating their relationship, the problem wasn’t each other.
“We still argue, but I know after an hour it will end on a good note,” she said.
For information about the therapy retreats, visit familytherapyvacations.com.