I Went On A Singles' Retreat & It Changed Who I Am In Relationships
When marriage and family therapist Marissa Nelson invited me on Intimacy Moons, a couples' and singles' retreat in Barbados, I pictured something along the lines of Bachelor in Paradise. But when I asked her for more information, I found out it was a far cry from that: The singles' program was not a meet-and-greet (which was good to know since I was newly dating someone) but a series of therapy sessions, and any tears would be in the service of healing, not drama.
Me, one other single woman, and an engaged couple were there for the soft launch of the retreat, which officially launches in April. The program consisted of two group dinners, two therapy sessions (me and the other single did ours together), two Barbados tours, and some rest and relaxation at our resort The Crane. The ultimate goal, Nelson explained to us, was to learn to be our most "authentic selves" and bring those selves to our relationships. But it wasn't until the therapy began that I realized how badly I needed that.
During the first session, we talked about the beliefs we'd fed ourselves about relationships. We all walk around with a set of beliefs — like, for example, "men are cheaters" or "I'm a lot to handle" — and without knowing it, they inform our interactions with others, Nelson (with me below) explained.
Understanding My Beliefs
Here's the thing about beliefs: When you tell them to yourself for long enough, you don't even realize they're beliefs. You think they're just facts. So, when asked to reflect on what my beliefs were, I didn't even know.
It started to come to me when we were talking about adolescence. During middle school and high school, we all tend to label ourselves as either someone who fits in or someone who doesn't, Nelson said. I fell into the latter category.
Starting around middle school, I recognized I wasn't one of the popular girls, so I began to consider myself an outcast. I got a skateboard, listened to punk music, and posted a quote on my AOL Instant Messenger profile reading: "You laugh at us because we're different. We laugh at you because you're all the same."
When I switched schools in high school, I immediately flocked toward the group I perceived to be the least popular, even though the popular kids talked to me. Sometimes, I'd eat lunch alone and work. I just assumed nobody liked me. I never really asked myself why I thought this because it seemed like a given — until Nelson talked to us about parents.
Nelson often runs into resistance when she talks about parents because people don't want to criticize theirs. The thing to understand, though, is that our parents can love the hell out of us, do the absolute best they can, and still mess up. Our parents all mess up a bit.
And as supportive as mine were, they did not totally understand me. The message I got from them consistently was: "You're very bright and gifted and talented, but socially, you're a little off." They expressed a lot of worry about my ability to make friends or find dates, which led me to believe it was very difficult. My dad would lecture me in the car on the way to school, "You're not cookie-cutter. You won't be dating the jocks. You'll want to find someone nerdy like you."
I can see why they thought this way, because I was extremely intellectual and marched to the beat of my own drummer. But for the first time, I also saw how their interpretation was wrong. I wasn't "off" — I was just different.
My Beliefs About Myself Were Wrong And Harmful
The next day, as I was walking along the shore, I remembered a dream I had a couple years ago. In it, the guy I was dating at the time and I were back in my high school, and he was also a student there. Everybody was gossiping about us dating, and I loved it. I loved feeling visible. I loved feeling like I had an ally.
Was I trying to relive high school with that relationship? Was I trying to do that with all my relationships?
Thinking back on my choices of partners, I'd always picked people who seemed "a little off" like I believed myself to be. Tortured artists. People who had trouble with social interactions. People who were emotionally wounded — so that we could be wounded together and lick each other's wounds.
As I strolled along the coast of Barbados, I realized something: The beliefs I'd been carrying around about inability to socialize were my parents' beliefs. They were never my beliefs. As an outsider looking back on my childhood, I was never awkward. I was unique for sure, but I was always well-liked. I missed out on social opportunities because I didn't believe I belonged, not because I didn't.
And now, I make friends wherever I go. After my first day in Barbados, I'd already befriended a group of locals. Friendless is just about the last adjective you'd use to describe me. My beliefs about myself weren't just harmful. They were factually wrong.
How My Beliefs Affect My Relationship
The discussion about my childhood also allowed me to see the relationship I'd gotten into earlier in the summer more clearly. When we'd first gotten together, I felt like the undeserving nerd dating the jock. But now I understand that's not the case. I'm the cheerleader, albeit a quirky cheerleader with bright blue hair, a pretentious knowledge of indie music, and a propensity to talk about robot ethics when she's drunk.
Secretly, I realized, I'd always felt unworthy when someone conventionally desirable was interested in me — because of what my dad had outright said and because of the message my parents had implicitly given me. But that had never even occurred to my partner. He'd simply known me as the crazy person who approached him in an Ibiza nightclub and told him he was sexy. So, the next day, during our "letting go" ceremony, I knew exactly what I had to let go of.
The "Letting Go" Ceremony
Me, Nelson, and the other single woman there stood by the water to release things we wanted to let go of. We both had written three down as part of our homework the previous night. But I couldn't keep it to three. Everyone laughed as I kept saying "One more thing!" I just couldn't seem to throw that damn piece of paper in the water.
I let go of all the exes who made me wonder whether I was enough for them rather than whether they were enough for me.
I let go of the guy in college who said I was like the moon: pleasant to be around but not adding much intellectually to his life. I let go of the boyfriend who complained he had nobody to talk to about sci-fi even as I filled my shelves with Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. I let go of the one who told me I was "f*cked up" when we broke up because he didn't want to admit he was really breaking up with me because of his own problems. I let go of all the exes who made me wonder whether I was enough for them rather than whether they were enough for me.
I let go of my parents' belief that I am shy, quiet, and awkward and came to understand that I am actually wild, outgoing, adventurous, funny, self-assured to the point of being a bit scary, and the life of the party. That was already how other people saw me. It just took me some time to catch up.
Less than a week later, I traveled across the world to be with my partner. And it was on that retreat that I finally saw why I was willing to give up an apartment, work opportunities, and proximity to my friends and family. I was moving far away from two people who never truly saw me to the person who sees me the most. But before I could understand that, I had to make a pitstop in Barbados and toss a list of lies into the ocean.
Images: Author's Own