Veterans Health Administration
Relationship a Little Rocky? Time to Retreat
Whether you’ve been a couple for six months or 60 years, whether your journey together has hit a few bumps in the road or some really deep potholes, sometimes it’s good to just slow down, take a break, and get to know each other again.
“We designed our ‘Warrior to Soul Mate’ couples retreat to be a relationship enrichment experience,” said Dr. Susan Stanton, a psychologist at the Salisbury VA Medical Center in North Carolina. She was one of four facilitators at the two-day event, held recently at a hotel in nearby Concord. About 20 couples attended.
“Our goal,” she continued, “was to teach Veterans and their significant others how to communicate better, how to become a stronger team. We found that when couples put in the effort, they can make tremendous changes in their relationship.”
Just ask Gary Adams, a Navy Veteran who served in Iraq for the better part of 2009. He had good reasons for signing up for the retreat with his wife Tammy.
“I had some issues and I wanted to work on those,” he explained. “Plus I think being in Iraq for a year put a strain on things. Being gone is what strained it all. When I came back Tammy was a lot more self- sufficient and independent. I was having trouble adjusting to that.”
From Glad to Mad
“He’d been gone for a year,” said Tammy, “so what do you do? I had two teenagers to take care of and a father with heart problems. I was running a household, and it was running smoothly. So when he finally came home, he came home to something he didn’t expect. I was different now. And he was different because of the things he’d experienced in Iraq.”
She paused a moment to collect her thoughts, then added, “When they first come home you’re just glad. You’re glad they’re home, you’re glad they’re safe. And because you’re so glad to have him back, you’ll put up with a lot. It’s not until months later that things start hitting the fan. That’s when you start having the hard conversations.”
At the Salisbury VA’s Warrior to Soul Mate retreat, the couple learned how to have those hard conversations in a respectful, constructive way.
Women Like It
“We learned something called the Leveling Position,” Gary Adams said. “They taught us that you always want to be eye-to-eye when you’re having a conversation. You want to be facing each other. It’s very uncomfortable for me to do that, but I think women like it.”
He added: “I think for a man it’s a little uncomfortable having a conversation when the television isn’t on. But at the retreat I learned how to be present during a conversation. It’s still hard for me, though.”
“That was a big step for him,” Tammy said. “Of course all our problems aren’t going to go away overnight. But we definitely learned some things that will help us have better communication. Before, when we had an issue, we’d just get to a certain point and hit a wall. But now we’ve learned how to talk things through and not just leave stuff sitting there.”
Her husband of 25 years agreed. “Communication is a lot easier now, after the retreat,” he observed. “We definitely don’t talk around each other like we were doing before. Now it’s more of a conversation instead of a tennis match.”
The Great Escape
Ryan Wagers, chief chaplain at the Salisbury VA, said investing just a few days in your relationship can make a profound difference.
“Our Warrior to Soul Mate retreat created an opportunity for these couples to escape the normal, everyday pressures of life and concentrate on each other,” he explained. “And you can see the impact. When they first get here on Friday evening, many of them are very reserved and quiet. There’s no hand-holding, no smiling, no laughing. No connection. But by Sunday morning you can see that something remarkable has happened. The body language is all different. They’re looking at each other, smiling, kissing and holding hands. That’s very gratifying to see.”
Army Veteran Will Curry said the retreat definitely brought him and his wife closer. “My wife and I just got married in November, so we’re still learning about each other,” he said. “And we learned a lot at the retreat. I learned there were some things I was doing that I didn’t know disturbed her. Little things...”
Really? What kind of little things?
“Sometimes I’d go off by myself and I’d forget to bring my cellphone,” he admitted. “I don’t think she liked that. Until the retreat I didn’t know how bad of a thing that was, because I didn’t realize she would worry about me if she couldn’t reach me.”
His new wife, Xzavier, smiled. “He’ll be out washing the car, and I’m trying to call him, and his cellphone is sitting here in the house ringing!” she said, laughing. “He wasn’t doing it intentionally. He’s just not a cellphone person.”
What’s the Temperature in Here?
Besides proper cellphone etiquette, was there anything else useful Will discovered during the retreat? “I liked the Daily Temperature Reading exercise,“ he said. “It’s where they have you sit and talk to each other, face-to-face. Now we do our Temperature Reading over breakfast, even though my wife doesn’t like to talk when she first gets out of bed. I’m a morning person, and she’s not. But she’s making an effort.”
“He’s right. I’m not a morning person,” Xzavier said. “I would cook breakfast for him, but I wouldn't sit down and eat with him. I’d go right back upstairs and begin my morning routine showering, getting dressed, or whatever. But during the retreat, I realized how important these Daily Temperature Readings are for us. So now I sit down and we eat breakfast together every morning. We talk, laugh and share. We’re both morning people now.”
The Daily Temperature Reading was apparently a big hit with a lot of other couples at the retreat as well. “I found it to be very useful,” said Marine Corps Veteran Shane Doyle. “They want you close together, looking at each other.”
“They also want to make sure you’re physically touching each another, holding hands while you’re talking,” said Shane’s fiancée, Michelle. “You say nicer things to someone when you’re touching them.”
She added: “They also teach you how to talk through an entire topic. They teach you how to break down a problem and talk it through. The conversation becomes much easier, much more productive. That was big for me. Shane and I did a lot of talking during the retreat. I had his undivided attention all weekend!” “And I was glad to give it,” Shane said. “She’s my best friend and I want her to know she can rely on me, that I can take things off her plate when she has too much going on.
“I’m helping her plan our wedding,” he added proudly. “We’re getting married on September 12. I’m getting the reception hall for us and I’m helping her with the invitations, and I’m doing other things. I think we’re a great team.”
Learn more about Warrior to Soul Mate retreats.