Perspective: Can Other Horrible Couples Save Your Marriage?

Ann Bauer's Salon essay about the awful marriage retreat that ended up improving her union raises an interesting question: can watching unhappy couples actually strengthen a relationship?

Though Salon titled the piece "My escape from marriage retreat hell," the Lutheran marriage-improvement Weekend (caps apparently mandatory) doesn't sound hellish exactly — just cheesy and overly rulebound. The bans on cell phones and leaving one's hotel room before the appointed hour do seem draconian, but really the most upsetting part of the retreat seems to have been the other couples in attendance. Bauer writes,

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.

Bauer and her husband, with three divorces between them, were seeking preventive care for their marriage, not resuscitation. But it's not surprising that many of the other couples were in dire straits — or possibly past the point of help. Bauer offers this disturbing anecdote:

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.

Ultimately Bauer and her husband fled the retreat, later basking in the joy of having escaped something unpleasant together. But while she doesn't exactly say as much, some of this joy may have come from not being like those other couples. All but the most saintly among us judge others' relationships sometimes, and when one is oneself coupled up, the temptation can be even greater. I've definitely caught myself in the past having thoughts like, "we may have problems, but at least they're not as bad as those people's" — only to reflect that others might be having the same thoughts about me. When they become frequent, thoughts like those have usually been a sign of trouble brewing in my relationships, and probably the happiest couples are also the least judgy of others. But there may be something to be said for learning from others' mistakes before you make them yourself. Maybe Bauer and her husband really did help "divorce-proof" their marriage by witnessing what happens when people stop caring for their partners' feelings. And maybe their "marriage retreat hell" was really just a giant lesson in how not to love.

My Escape From Marriage Retreat Hell [Salon]