We are sometimes asked if virtual retreats are as effective as working in person. Actually, they are usually more effective! That surprised us, too…
Like most people, we had assumed that in-person work was superior. That turned out to be an erroneous assumption.
For over two years, we’ve been conducting virtual retreats online via Zoom. These have been successful far beyond all expectations. Read this in couples’ own words: What couples are saying about their virtual retreats →
At the bottom of this page, we also show excerpts from couples who were initially skeptical and hesitant to work with us online rather than in person.
When you read this client feedback you will see that we’ve suffered no limitations in our effectiveness using Zoom.
In fact, many couples found major advantages in having done their retreats virtually. And these couples were not merely dealing with light-weight problems, either. On the contrary, we helped them heal heavy issues like affairs, infidelity, and lying.
We helped couples who had been disconnected emotionally, avoiding each other, building up walls of resentment, or living like room-mates for years. We helped couples stuck in long term conflicts and fighting, or who were perenially bickering over everything. We helped couples who already had filed for divorce.
We helped these couples successfully, every bit equal in effectiveness to the in-person work we have delivered for decades in our intensive retreats. Usually the results have been even better compared to working in person.
That said, we are only doing private retreats. We did not find that virtual group retreats were as effective, so we stopped offering group work.
Why Is Our Virtual Work Better?
As we thought it, we came to see a few reasons why our virtual work was so powerful, and actually better than our in-person work. Not that the latter was lacking. As pioneers of the intensive approach, we’ve been offering best-in-class help for the full range of couples’ issues for over three decades.
Yet there are several ways that the model we developed to strengthen and empower couples actually works better virtually. Here are some of those ways…
A Tool-Based Approach. First, our approach is tool-based. Couples do not need “therapy” as much as they need effective tools and models of what strengthens a marriage and enables partners to maintain high levels of shared happiness.
We teach tools that enable couples to communicate effectively and productively. We teach tools the empower a couple to collaborate well, get their needs met, and achieve mutually satisfying results.
We teach new understandings for how to achieve a secure, strong foundation in a marriage. One which has durability and increasing satisfaction over time.
To achieve these outcomes, we have developed a robust and engaging psycho-educational component as part of our program. This component has been strengthened when presented virtually.
As a result, we see couples come to understand and use these tools more rapidly in our virtual retreats. And thereby we see partners more quickly repair relationship wounds, collaborate better, and renew their positive feelings and sense of connection.
A Coaching Model. Another ingredient gets strengthened when we work virtually. It has to do with our coaching model, where we aim to coach from the sidelines.
Why do we strive to coach from the sidelines? Because couples want to communicate better with each other. Not with us.
And effective communication is a face-to-face process.
Thus, improving communication can only truly happen if partners are facing each other. So, the more we can coach from the sidelines, the more partners directly face each other, improving communication, resolving issues and reconnecting emotionally.
Using Zoom also strengthens this strategic feature of our approach. When we’re on a screen rather than in the room, partners more quickly get comfortable staying face-to-face. Doing so, they more rapidly improve communication, understanding and connection.
Empowering the Couple. People assume it is better to be in the same room with a therapist. Our orientation is to empower the couple rather than foster dependency on us. Virtual work actually is a stronger context for that to happen. This parallels our tool-based approach: teach people how to fish rather than feeding them a fish.
We are very aware of the dichotomy between dependency on the therapist versus empowering the couple. When we are in the room, there is typically much more facing and referencing towards us than when happens we are on a screen.
In typical counseling (intensive or not) partners initially tend to reference toward the therapist as the “safe” third, the adult in the room, the Dear Abby, or the judge and jury. This triangulation is not a part of our model.
We find that referencing towards us impedes a couple’s ability to acquire and use the face-to-face tools that empower them to take charge of their relationship and change how they operate in it.
So our approach emphasizes educating, training, and coaching a couple to use the tools to solve their issues. Again, teach them to catch their own fish. Working virtually is a better fit for this approach.
More Comfort & Productivity. Further related to this, there is typically more emotional acting out by couples when we’re in the room compared to on a screen.
Acting out is that upset and negativity so often occurring in the traditional counseling office that wastes everyone’s time and so discourages both couples and therapists alike.
Couples therapy turns out to be the segment of the mental health field with the highest therapist burn-out rate. This is primarily due to the amount of emotional activation that occurs with highly distressed couples.
The therapist’s nervous system automatically resonates with this elevated activation, thus reduces their resourcefulness and ability to help the couple. It’s a vicious circle where all parties suffer.
Even though our in-person model and approach did not produce this problem to the same degree, we were pleased to find in virtual work that couples’ emotional upsets or acting out was even further reduced.
So in addition to empowering the couple more, virtual work has turned out to be more productive as well as more comfortable for all parties, including us.
Getting Away from Home. But what about going somewhere nice and getting away from home? Isn’t that what a retreat is supposed to be? Don’t we know it… we started that idea over 30 years ago. So what do we say about it now?
Short answer: you can still get away if you want. And, yes, we are often asked if we recommend that a couple stay at home or go somewhere else for their virtual retreat.
There is no single one-size-fits-all answer. It’s entirely your choice as to do whatever you feel would work better for you. You have even more choices with virtual work.
Certainly there can be a benefit for some couples to get away from the home front and feel more relaxed in a vacation-like location. Many couples do that for their virtual retreats, going to a second “lake” home or other desirable travel destination.
Other couples who chose to stay at home for their retreat reported an advantage that their issues got handled in their home environment, directly where those issues live. So the progress they made integrated more rapidly into their daily lives. They said that was far better than going somewhere magical then returning home and trying to remember or apply what they learned.
Some commented on how the safety and comfort of being on their home ground helped them learn faster. Others mentioned that using the tools at home felt very real and relevant, more so than if they were saying in an unfamiliar place. Still others appreciate the increased flexibility of scheduling virtual sessions.
details about virtual retreats
Feedback on the Effectiveness of Virtual Work
Here are excerpts from the feedback we got from couples many of whom were initially hesitant or skeptical about doing a virtual retreat. Several of them ended up finding reasons they thought the Zoom retreat was better than doing it in person.