My escape from marriage retreat hell

My husband and I went to a religious getaway to divorce-proof our union. We had no idea what a trial it would be

Topics: Coupling, Life stories, Religion,

My escape from marriage retreat hell

It’s 11:45 on a Friday night and we’re locked in a king room at the Tukwila Marriott Courtyard, plotting our escape.

“The wake-up call is supposed to come in about 6:30,” John whispers. “That means they’ll be up praying and getting ready by 6. If we want to leave we’ll need to be out of here by 5:30, no later.”

“Is there a bus to Seattle that early?” I ask, upending our only bottle of wine.

My husband pulls the schedule out of his backpack. “6:40,” he says. Outside, lightning flashes and rain pelts the roof. “It’ll be wet while we’re waiting.”

“What about a coffee shop?” I ask. “If we find a place that opens early, we could sit there until it gets light.”

He glances at my laptop, which is sitting — in clear violation of the rules — on the desk. “Go ahead and try,” John says.

I stand unsteadily, my head pounding from two hours of questioning under fluorescent lights. I plug in the hotel’s Ethernet cord and am irrationally comforted when Google appears.

After a few searches and one furtive cellphone call to a number that only rings, I turn back to John. He’s sitting on the mammoth bed staring out the window, his eyes wide and glassy. “There’s no answer,” I say. “I don’t know if they’ll be open at 6. And I don’t dare call the front desk to ask.”

“No.” He moves slowly, as if drugged. “You get ready for bed. I’m going to pack everything and …” He glances at the clock radio next to the bed. It’s midnight. “Set the alarm for five.”

After we’ve brushed our teeth and checked the room for stray items, we get under the covers and huddle in about a fifth of the mattress’ breadth. He sleeps fitfully. I sleep not at all but for a short stretch in which I dream there is a tall man standing in the corner, watching us.

Then there is a piercing sound and we bolt out of bed. I shower in three minutes and dry my hair. John puts on yesterday’s clothes, unlocks the door, and peers into the hall.

“C’mon,” he hisses. “I don’t see anyone.”

So I grab my backpack and umbrella, pulling my suitcase behind me, and follow him down the hall. We wait 30 tense seconds for the elevator. We’re nearly through the lobby when a hotel clerk calls to us to stop.

“Which room are you leaving?” she asks, picking up her phone.

Neither of us even thinks to lie. We blurt out our room number and dash through the automatic doors into a dim and dreary storm.

—-

I’ll admit, we should have known better. But it seemed like such a reasonable idea when it first came up.

Several months before, I’d asked my husband, John, what he wanted for his birthday. “A trip alone with you,” he said. “Something just for us. Maybe a marriage retreat.”

Now that may sound like an unusual request from a middle-aged agnostic from the deep South, but John is an unusual guy. Not only is he incredibly sweet, he’s also an engineer who relies on statistics. Math is his religion. And our odds — they’re not good.

John was divorced twice before marrying me. His father, a hard-drinking used car salesman, was married to so many different women I need an org chart to keep track of John’s various siblings, whole, half and step. I have long-married parents but divorced my own first husband after 13 years, then remarried him after his first stint in rehab, six months later, and divorced him again. Historically, neither of us is good at this marriage thing.

Add to that the various stresses: My three children — a brilliant but unpredictable young man with autism; a college student with a flair for throwing blow-out parties; and a stunningly sardonic teenage girl — and John’s now-pregnant adopted daughter. Also the two houses we’re supporting, a recent cross-country move from Minnesota to Washington, and our very different ways of dealing with the outside world.

Just 18 months into marriage we’d nearly come undone when our condo association exploded into a particularly ugly feud. At issue was a $9,000 plumbing bill. I wanted to negotiate with our neighbors; John wanted to hire a lawyer. A couple of the wilier residents quickly figured out we were at odds and further divided us. In the end, John and I were barely speaking and we wound up covering a far greater share of the cost than we would have if we’d pursued either tack jointly. It was a bitter lesson. But when you’re two strong-willed people who came together at 40, acting as one can be hard.

The marriage encounter John had found in Tukwila, Wash., claimed to address this and more. It focused on enhancing communication and making couples stronger. Divorce-proof, even. It was nearby, relatively inexpensive, and, yes, it was sponsored by Lutherans, he said, but the literature clearly stated it was “ecumenical” and that people of “all religious faiths” were encouraged to attend.

This is the religion that runs one of the best and most effective social service organizations in the world, I reasoned. The sect so progressive it ordains gay clergy. I tend to feel warmly toward Lutherans and they seemed to be welcoming me — a Jewish woman –to renew my marriage with them. Plus it was a weekend with a king-size bed and towel service. I immediately said yes.

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But as months passed and the retreat drew near, I had misgivings. First, there was the e-mail we received from one of the organizers, outlining everything from precisely what time we should arrive to the exact type of clothing we should bring.

The 26K message contained the lines, “We would like to stress that this is a structured, work Weekend. There is no time for TV, books, work, etc. There are also no distractions.” Weekend was capitalized throughout the text, including in this personal testimonial from past participants: “By Sunday afternoon of our Weekend, we had a whole new appreciation of our relationship and didn’t want the Weekend to end.”

“This is feeling a little, um, cultish to me,” I said to John.

“I agree,” he said. “Let’s check it out.”

So we both, independently, ran our own computer background searches but came up with nothing. There were 20 or so Marriage Encounter pages and a single endorsement — for an “expert” called Dr. Michael Peters (not his real name, but that’s what I’ll call him due to the team of lawyers his empire no doubt employs) — but no stories, schedules or descriptions to be found.

A few nights later, John received a phone call from two of the presenters. Both husband and wife were on the phone and they were so enthusiastic I could hear their bright shouted welcomes from across the room.

“That was really weird.” He’d hung up but stood, still staring at his phone. “What do you think? Should we cancel?”

I was tempted. But the trip was only three days away. I’d already cleared the time and arranged supervision for our teenage daughter. “Let’s try it,” I said.

—-

We relaxed when we arrived at the resort. We had an hour to kill before the introductory session and I’d come prepared: I pulled a bottle of wine, some cheese and crackers, and blood oranges from my suitcase. We ate dinner on the love seat, my feet in John’s lap.

But at 7:40, the phone rang. “They want us downstairs for a photograph,” John said, covering the receiver. Ten minutes, I signaled with my fingers then got up to cork the bottle and put away the food. “He said no.” John’s voice came from behind my bent back. “Now.” And everything in me went stiff.

It took us perhaps five minutes to get down to the lobby, where we were posed in front of a potted plant and our photo was shot. Then we were led into a small room lined with tables and felt banners: God Loves Your Marriage, they proclaimed. In front of each seat was a red three-ring binder with a blank white sticker in the top right corner. “Sit,” we were told by the older man. “Write your name and room number on your folder. We –” he gestured at the white-haired woman and two middle-aged couples who had gathered around him, “must leave for a few moments to pray.”

I looked around the room. There were a dozen other couples that looked to range from mid-20s to late 50s. One was biracial; two were overdressed. Most of us hovered around 40 and wore sweat shirts and jeans.

John put his arm around me. And that’s when I noticed there was one thing nearly all the other couples in the room shared. With one exception — a pair that was at least inclined toward each other — the husbands and wives sat looking forward, keeping a space between them that practically glimmered with hate.

The first presenters were a prim woman and a slicked-back Jimmy Swaggart-looking man. He smiled his toothy grin and told us how the Weekend would proceed.

There would be many presentations and we might feel resistant, he told us. But we needed to trust in order to let the Weekend do its work. It was important to do everything we were told and stay until the very end of the Weekend. They themselves had been saved by the Weekend. And it was their privilege to be along on our Weekend, because magical things were about to happen to us.

Then the man stepped down from the little podium where they sat — the four presenters — and told us there was one more person who wanted to welcome us. He pulled a TV out of the profusion of banners and hit a button. Presto! Dr. Michael Peters appeared. He reiterated that our marriage was about to be saved by the Weekend. And he told us that even more wonderful work could occur in the privacy of our own home, even after the Weekend was over, thanks to his several, life-changing books. One by one, the titles scrolled across the screen: “The Five Love Languages,” “Love Talks for Couples,” “The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted.” And so on.

Then the elderly couple spoke. He was a pastor, but his wife was the real force — you could tell. She talked about how their marriage had grown lackluster after 20-plus years. But on their Weekend, Marriage Encounter “relit the spark in their relationship through Jesus Christ.”

He stroked her back suggestively, and I tried not to squirm. But this was like watching my grandparents at foreplay. I was relieved when the third couple took the stage. The wife was cheerful and childlike; she described their renewed marriage using kindergarten phrases. Every day was like her birthday, she said; she felt so happy with her spouse, it was like being wrapped in a bright pink blanket all the time. Her husband — a squat, bearded man — beamed and wept, telling the assembled men he had learned on his Weekend that it was OK to cry.

Then the pastor told us to open our folders and turn to Page 3 where we would find a list of questions to answer and discuss. What do you love most about your spouse? Describe a time when you felt a strong emotion. A few moments passed during which John wrote diligently, as did I. Behind us, there was a scuffle.

“Write something,” hissed a woman’s voice.

The answer — coming from her husband, I assume — was something between an obscenity and a groan. We heard her slam her folder closed and throw it at him. “Well, if you won’t, I won’t either,” she said.

We engaged in a couple more exercises like this; during the final one, all the men were sent back to the hotel rooms to write in private and we women were kept to do our work under the buzzing lights.

Finally, around 10:30, the presenters began to wrap things up. This was only a taste of the Weekend ahead, the pastor said. Then, suddenly, his wife stepped back and he stood to give us a steely look. There was to be no TV, no computers, no cellphones or pagers, he said. If we were found using any of these devices — he grinned, but in a serious way — we risked having them disconnected or removed.

In the morning, we would get a wake-up call. We would then have exactly 45 minutes to shower and dress. A second call would come in. “Do not,” he said, wagging one finger, “leave your room until that second call. Under any circumstances.”

We would gather for a devotional prayer before breakfast. Then the day’s work would begin: about 15 hours of it. Meals would be taken together, in a designated area of the hotel dining room. Sunday, at the end of the Weekend, there would be a sacred Communion ceremony and he encouraged all who had been “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” to partake. The rest of us were required to attend, even if we could not accept the Host.

The wives were dismissed first to wait for our men in the rooms; it was, I think, meant to be like a wedding night. We women moved in one solemn herd toward the elevator and boarded, exceeding the weight limit by about 200 pounds and setting off an alarm. Nevertheless, the door closed.

Once inside our room, I paced. After several minutes John arrived, his face ashen, and closed the door behind him. “What do you want to do?” he asked.

Which is how we end up running down a frontage road at dawn, our rolling suitcases bumping along behind. We cross over the highway and slow a little. My forehead and eyelids are wet and itching. I need caffeine.

Hallelujah for Starbucks, open at 6:20. We sit by the faux fireplace and dry out as we sip from enormous cups. Reading the New York Times by Wi-Fi feels like a luxury; we trade news items and move closer together, cuddling openly in the Southgate Mall Starbucks while we discuss the Dow Jones and healthcare reform. The rain lets up and light floods Tukwila.

“Do you think we should call someone and tell them why we left?” I ask.

John considers for a moment before shaking his head. “My father always told me there was no use chasing a mark once he was out the door,” he says. “I don’t know what they were selling us back there, books or religion or both, but I think once we’re gone they don’t care anymore. They lost the deal.”

I start to object but stop myself. “All right,” I say, snuggling further in.

We miss the first bus, happily, but run through the sunny, yellow morning to catch the next.

An hour later, we’re nearing Seattle. It’s 9 a.m. and we’ve already been awake for half the day. But I realize, suddenly, that I feel strangely good. “Hey,” I breathe into his neck. “Are you hungry? Do you want to go to Mae’s and get something to eat?”

“Yes,” he says, in that I’m-always-hungry tone he has. So we get off in the tunnel, walk up to Third Avenue, and transfer to a No. 5. It’s another 30 minutes to Mae’s Diner but the bus is warm and growly and we’re jostled together between our piles of suitcases, coats and bags.

Finally, around 10 o’clock, we’re in a booth drinking hot tea and eating from mounded plates of food. It feels like we did something momentous together and I realize there was not a moment when one of us questioned the other. Not even Dr. Michael Peters and the scary pastor could sway us. We made our decisions in partnership.

Just then, John reaches across the table and grabs both my hands. “This may be the best morning I’ve ever had,” he says.

“Me, too,” I say, and mean it. What do you know? Dr. Michael Peters may be on to something: The retreat really did work.

Ann Bauer is a novelist and frequent contributor to Salon.

Ann Bauer is the author of three novels, including "Forgiveness 4 You," which the Overlook Press published this month. Follow her @annbauerwriter

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