RELATIONSHIP GROWTH HAPPENS IN NATURE
By Hannah Eaton
A therapist leads wilderness retreats for couples.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
– John Muir
Growing up in New England, I spent a lot of time in nature. From a young age, my parents instilled in me the value of taking time to slow down and connect with the natural world.
It provided me with a sense of delight in the little details, like a blossoming flower at the beginning of spring, and a sense of wonder and humility, looking up at places like Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
I gained a sense of confidence and resilience as I looked out from mountain tops and successfully navigated unfamiliar terrain, deepening my connection with myself, my family, and the world at large.
By the time I entered college, I had developed a desire to share my passion for our natural world with others. I sought out opportunities to develop my skills as an outdoor leader, and to help facilitate meaningful experiences for youth and adults.
As I started leading more and more wilderness excursions, I met all different types of people. Some were avid nature enthusiasts, others, while curious about nature, had only ever explored places like Central Park.
A sense of wonder
A number of years ago, I led a full moon snowshoe hike one wintry evening with a group of international students. What was supposed to be a six-mile hike turned into a one-mile walk that culminated in two hours spent at a frozen pond taking in the night sky and spotting owls hovering nearby.
On the van ride over and during the first part of the hike, it was rather quiet—most people had never met before, and some participants had disclosed to me that they were somewhat anxious and afraid of going out into the woods at night.
As we came to the opening by a pond, the energy of the group shifted. I watched one 30-year-old computer science student drop to the ground in pure joy. Pretty soon, everyone began to drop their bags to lay in the snow and star-gaze. Every time they saw a shooting star dance across the sky, they would shout in delight. For some students from cities like Shanghai and Mumbai, this was literally the first time they had ever seen stars.
Deeply moved by the awe in my participants, I set aside my initial goal-oriented hiking agenda. As I watched alongside these otherwise serious grad students, they melted into a state of flow, wonder, delight, joy, relaxation, and connection with themselves and the world around them. It was as if the child in each of them had awakened. They all appeared lighter, even glowing.
On the way back, this group would have seemed like close friends and confident outdoors-folk to a stranger. They chatted away, recalling every detail about the stars, the moon, the owls, the animal tracks in the snow, the frozen pond, the novelty, and all of the beauty. One student who previously told me she was nervous about the outing came over and whispered to me, “I am so glad I came! It’s not as scary as I thought!” She tromped off confidently through the snow, continuing to snowshoe forward and take in her wintry surroundings.
Leading couples in the wilderness
In addition to my personal love for wilderness and my background leading excursions, my husband and I have had a long history of growth and connection in the wild. We met in our college Outing Club, where we were both Wilderness First Responders and outdoor leaders, taking students on various forms of outdoor adventures, like rock climbing, hiking, and backpacking.
From short walks in the woods, to living on multiple farms, to leading trips together, to spending extended periods of time in the mountains to connect and grow as a couple, the natural world has played a significant part in our story.
So when I became a Marriage and Family Therapist, I knew that I wanted to expand my private practice to include nature-based retreats for couples. I set out to create intentional experiences in the outdoors, purposefully designed for couples to unplug and proactively tend to their growth and transformation, without the distractions of everyday life.
While my husband and I love to go on outdoor adventures that totally push us out of our comfort zone, I wanted to create experiences that would appeal to a variety of couples—that would provide both comforts and stretching—to allow for rest, rejuvenation, and growth.
With this in mind, I’ve begun to lead group retreats in nature settings that offer some “front-country comforts” (like luxurious bedding and five-star dining experiences), while also offering customized retreats for couples who want the experience tailored to their level of adventure (like sea kayaking amongst Orcas and camping with more simple accommodations).
While the specific details of the retreats vary from one immersion to another, they all contain the same core elements.
Nature as the backdrop
Every retreat is designed in a wilderness or nature-based setting. The research (and time-old wisdom) is clear: time spent in nature is not only good for us, it’s vital to our health. One study out of Stanford has shown how time spent in nature can lead to a lower risk of depression, anxiety, and stress, and an increase in overall health and well-being.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s incredible. While conference rooms and indoor venues work for some, I find that my participants and I are all more relaxed, engaged, and primed to learn with nature as the backdrop. Eagles soaring overhead, mountains off in the distance, the smell of the salty air or a campfire burning nearby, an occasional seal swimming past, and the rustle of leaves blowing in the wind—these intrinsic elements of nature catch our attention and instill wonder. They bring us into the present moment, and prime us to be attentive, curious, and open to our partner and new patterns of interaction with one another.
Research-based skills and exercises
With the mountains, ocean, or canyons as our “classroom,” I lead couples through the Gottman Seven Principles Program, based on the New York Times bestseller, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. The program is designed to help couples strengthen and elevate their relationship through concepts and exercises developed from over forty years of research on thousands of couples.
Over the course of the retreat, I weave the time-tested skills into group sessions in between hiking, kayaking, resting, and dining. Couples are given ample time to privately have meaningful dialogue designed to strengthen their friendship and intimacy, manage conflict in a healthy manner, and to create shared meaning as a couple. Not only are they primed to learn these new concepts and skills, but they immediately have the chance to integrate them into their relationship throughout the immersive experience.
Attention to the whole person
In addition to going through the Seven Principles Program and being immersed in the natural world, we focus on providing an integrated experience that considers the whole person—mind, body, and spirit. The dialogue and conversations that couples have and that we have as a group are essential; however, the learning and transformation that takes place is enhanced as we care for our physical, emotional, and spiritual states.
We do so through intentional movement, nutritious meals, and guided meditation and visualization exercises. We provide space to move our bodies outdoors, through activities like hiking, yoga, kayaking, and canoeing. We focus on the whole person, which in turn accelerates powerful, deep, lasting change for participants.
Connection happens naturally
When I reflect on our wilderness retreats, I am constantly in awe of the deep, profound growth that takes place in the couples who join us. Premarital couples deepen their foundation as they prepare for marriage, and couples who’ve been together for years take their connection to the next level, reaffirming their strengths and having breakthroughs on gridlocked areas.
As I’ve reflected on how this growth and transformation can occur so rapidly, I believe it’s a result of several primary factors.
Having an open mind
Participants have an open mind and understand that they’re the primary agents of change within themselves and their relationship. They enter the immersion willing to put forth energy and vulnerability to enhance their partnership, and they expect change to happen, through the experience as a whole, and through the new concepts and skills they learn throughout the retreat.
Unplugging to recharge
We invite our participants to take a hiatus from their phones and technology during the retreats. For some, this is uncomfortable at first. For others, it is a welcome invitation to have a structured space where they are asked to take a break from emails and social media, to rest and focus on deep connection with their partner and the natural world. New studies show us that unplugged time spent in nature can help us experience reduced stress and anxiety, increased relaxation, improved mental health, and a whole host of other benefits to your physical well-being.
Power within community
Participants experience validation within a community. There are a number of couples who may be somewhat uncomfortable at the idea of being vulnerable within a group setting. While no self-disclosure is required, I find that couples begin to share and experience incredible validation and connection with the group at large. “Oh my gosh!” they say, “I thought we were the only ones who struggled with that!” Shame, fear, or isolation evaporate as they exchange stories, recognizing that our human and relational experiences are more alike than they are different.
There is a heightened sense of intimacy and connection that occurs with your partner when you unplug and give them your loving attention in a majestic and relaxing natural setting. Growing in your relationship requires a certain degree of stretching, so we make it our goal to create a space and experience that has thoughtful comforts and where the itinerary, meals, and details are planned for you so that you can have the mental space to dedicate to your partner.
Participants create shared meaning as a couple as they experience novelty and wonder through the immersion as a whole. They also take time to intentionally discuss how they want to ritualize time together, and set goals together as a couple for the coming months and years. They establish new patterns of interaction and connection, which are transferred far beyond the retreat, into their everyday life back home.
The combination of these elements creates an optimal state where participants are primed to learn, grow, and transform as individuals and couples. They learn new concepts and skills that they immediately get to practice and to apply throughout the immersive retreat.
As they experience the concepts at a deep, emotional level, they begin to cement new ways of connecting, turning towards, and being seen by one another. And as they move throughout the experience together, they have countless opportunities to practice this new framework when conflict arises. They are able to cultivate deeper connection and intimacy by not only talking about it but by actually experiencing it.
A mission to share
During those early years, when my family was off spending time in the woods or camping together, I had no idea how much those experiences would shape my identity and my path. From picking wild berries to climbing mountaintops, I am abundantly grateful for how my parents showed me the value of connecting with our natural surroundings.
And as I’ve reflected on my growth as an individual and as a partner, I can’t imagine how different my own life would be without the natural world as a backdrop for so many of its important moments.
It is my hope that I can help instill even a small fraction of the wonder, rejuvenation, and passion I’ve experienced with nature into the lives of my couples—that I can create sacred spaces in the wilderness where they can grow, transform, and experience deep, genuine connection.