Right away, we realized that we need outside help. We try books, a therapist, and finally register for our first ever “Couples Retreat.” (Good thing we hadn’t seen the movie yet.) After 15 years of parenting, we’ve only stolen a shameful single weekend away so there are visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads about this trip–not a cubicle with twin beds and a community bathroom down the hall.
The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health had bestowed upon us a generous scholarship–including a private “room” instead of the standard dormitory accommodation (which would have really separated us)–so who was I to complain? (I do anyway.)
By my request, my husband helps shift my attention from the white brick walls and tight corners of our room–with almost a view– to gratitude for the tiniest sink we’ve ever seen. At least we can brush our teeth in privacy.
I unpack a slew of yoga pants and tank tops while Casey lies down on his bed to rest his broken leg. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve rolled my eyes since his accident, I could have easily upgraded to a room with a queen and our very own toilet.
I’d been consumed by childish feelings like this ever since my husband came hobbling into the house just days before we left for Kripalu. (Did you catch that it’s a Yoga Center?) I wanted to kick his air cast in the shin or at least drop to the floor and kick the air for such cruel injustice.
“Did you have the injury when you made the reservation?” they ask at the reception desk, wondering who would want to navigate a Yoga Center with a broken leg. (A desperate couple, that’s who! Another eye roll dollar please.)
In a moment of good humor, my husband jabs that he is going to tell the “Love, Sex & Intimacy” presenters how unkindly I’ve felt about his injury. I counter with a threat to reveal his attraction to “suffering.”
But there are too many of us at the workshop for tattle time: a lucky 13 pairs in all.
While the rest of us lean comfortably in seat jacks with yoga cushions, my disabled partner sits above me in a banquet chair, maneuvering his cast for comfort. Each couple takes a turn sharing why they came.
There are at least two newly married ones, another newly parenting, a dating pair, and a seasoned bunch like us (on first, second and third marriages) with 20 or more years in wedlock.
Interestingly, a single man is among us–attractive, newly divorced and wanting to get a better handle on the stuff of successful relationships. At the end of the weekend, he leaves with a bag of books to bring back to Wall Street. There is a woman attending solo too. Her partner of 30 years was unwilling to accompany her (while other spouses admit to being dragged along.)
During our face to face activities, this woman is paired with the single Trader. As an added variable, she is a Lesbian. At the end of their awkward partnership, she jokes that she’s taking him home. (We all relieve ourselves with a belly laugh.)
Another same sex couple is participating in the workshop too, and they blend right in with the generic heterosexual partners, leaving me feeling hopeful about the future–of Love.
We are a hopeful bunch indeed. But jaded just the same. All of us have been together long enough to know that relationships are complex. Over the course of the weekend, each shares a bit about the “grind” of his or her particular challenges.
Surprisingly, there are only 3 times when we are all asked to speak directly to our partner. The first requires us to face each other, close our eyes, and hold up fingers to assess our satisfaction with the intimacy in our relationship. One guy is relieved to earn at least a “one”– just for coming.
I hold a full hand up with another two fingers, blinking the latter up and down, just in case I need to better calibrate with my husband. (I don’t want him to have the “upper hand” of greater dissatisfaction.) Our ratings are similar.
After lunch, the topic turns to Sex…
I joke to the group that I hope we aren’t using fingers this time, only to find out that–Yes, in fact, we are. With a flushed face, I whisper to Casey, “Let’s hide our fingers between us.” (We calibrate this time without any blinking or peeking.)
On our last morning together, there are no fingers at all…
And grown men crying.
Once again, we are asked to turn toward our partner, but this time–with eyes wide open.
We are each given 10 minutes to tell the other what it was that we love and appreciate about him or her.
The workshop presenters model this process for us first.
When Linda finishes telling Charlie just how and why she’s loved him through the past 40 years (and it wasn’t always pretty), there isn’t a dry eye in the entire room. (I make a mental note to buy both the Bloom’s books before we leave, even though I already dismissed them.)
When it’s time for the rest of us to turn toward our partners, I dash out for the bathroom, to both relieve and compose myself. I’m joined by a handful of tissue clutching women doing the same.
With a deep exhale, I return, only to run back out again to the hall–to kick off my flip flops (which you can’t wear inside)–and then I plop down beside Casey. He’s arranged us by the post in two seat jacks and patiently continues waiting while I reposition myself–again and again–to create the best angle for eye contact–And privacy–And delay. (Public vulnerability is not my strong suit.)
He smiles. And goes first. And I find my eyes shamefully stinging–not with gratitude, but with bitterness.
Casey speaks genuine love and appreciation for who I am, but in hearing this, I realize just how long I have felt him diminished in the face of my strength, and in my bitterness, I realize how much that’s cost me. ,
A watershed of emotion at the bridge of his forehead threatens to break the dam of resistance; and I realize that he has been withholding love, not just me.
When my own 10 minutes comes, I can’t help but scan the room to find faces awash with grief and tenderness.
As I begin to acknowledge what it is that I love about this man beside me–his tender lips, his willingness, the combined strength and vulnerability of his throat–-I am shaken by an unusual sound.
Is it laughter?
Someone is sobbing.
I attempt to regain my focus, but this sound of anguish takes hold of me.
I stumble through the rest of my turn and depart the workshop as soon as it ends without saying goodbyes.
Saturated, I return to our room to pack, only to find that it has grown. (It is a sweet space after all and I offer it my belated gratitude.)
At lunch, I collect whomever I see from the class to join us in the corner of the dining hall–the Trader from Wall Street; the couple married just a year; the other married a lifetime.
“Did you hear the crying?” one man asks.
“Yes!” I say, “I didn’t know what it was.”
“It was the young couple,” he says. “The ones with the new baby.”
“She must have been really moved,” I say.
“No,” he replies. “It wasn’t her It was the husband.”
We all gulp, knowing what it is to have love brushed aside in the face of early parenting, each carrying the scars of the ways in which we’ve felt unloved and unappreciated over time. After everyone has gone, I linger at our table, soaking up the buoyant energy of the room.
I began this day in such darkness, waking to a troubling dream: I had prepared my best turkey soup only to store it in a garbage disposal where it went bad before I could figure out how to serve it to my family.
I ponder this as I step outside and look out over the Berkshires where skaters and fisherman opened the new day. A pair of crows lands in a tree beside me. One circles overhead, a little too closely. Casey limps out to join me. The way before us is jagged, and I don’t know what will come. I only know that we’re reaching for the BIG LOVE–
The kind that makes grown men cry.
(Your thoughts, comments & conversation welcome below. To read more on the subject of Intimacy, you could begin here: 82 Pages Till Sex.)