If you’re a fan of the hit television show Empire—and I assume you are because, well it’s Empire—then you are also familiar with the crazy and hurtful things two people can do to each other in the name of love. Luckily for me, the scandalous and outlandish behavior of Cookie and Lucious Lyon helped bridge a widening gap in my marriage. It started like this.
“I signed us up for a Strong Bonds marriage retreat,” my husband said.
I looked up from my computer and narrowed my eyes. There was something he wasn’t telling me.
“It’s for work. My entire military unit has to go, and because I’m the commander of the unit we have to go.”
There it was, the bit of information I was missing. My partner wasn’t the type of man to initiate big relationship undertakings like this on his own. I wasn’t being invited to go—I was being commanded to go.
I’d heard about Strong Bonds before. The military holds weekend workshops in ideal locations to diffuse the stress put on relationships when a spouse serves in the military. Maybe this could help us, I thought.
At the time, our marriage wasn’t working. We weren’t talking. We slept in separate beds. At 43 years old, I was a mother of four kids—my two youngest with my current husband—who had survived a previous divorce and I wasn’t looking to go through another one.
We had just relocated to another post in Washington State as part of my husband’s new assignment. Everyone was having trouble adapting to the new surroundings. My children and I grew to love the snow and four full seasons on the east coast, not to mention how difficult it was to leave behind the friends we made over the past five years. As a California native, I loved being closer to home. Yet, I felt coastal confusion that left me in a dreary mood.
The retreat, held a couple of hours away in the mountains at Magical Mount Hood, offered us the chance to see new scenery, and perhaps some sunshine. This particular event provided daycare, but I’d been dying to escape the suffocating closeness of six bodies under one roof. I jumped at the opportunity to get away for the weekend.
I looked forward to learning something new with my husband. It had been a while since we had some real alone time. Unfortunately, we fought the entire drive to the lodge. He wanted to eat at a steakhouse. I didn’t. We fought about how long it would take to drive down the hill, the wait at the restaurant, everything. By the time we got our things into our room, I started to wonder if this was confirmation that something big was going to happen: either we got the help we needed or we went our separate ways.
I knew the stakes were high that weekend because the people we were in the workshop with knew my husband personally and we were expected to function as a united front. We survived the first night. The second day, the session on betrayal broke him. Both he and I had difficulty trusting due to previous relationships. He left the workshop and didn’t return.
I tried to minimize the situation and stayed for the rest of the afternoon. I wanted to learn all I could. It was refreshing to focus on the how we could still make our marriage work instead of casually glancing at my husband to see his reactions to the material or if anyone was looking at him. I invested no time in trying to figure out what he was thinking.
I realized that I could apply the curriculum I learned to my marriage — even if my husband wasn’t present.
Learning to identify and be honest about my feelings from the past allowed me the freedom to let go of some hurts, and recognize those concerns that still needed to be addressed. That workshop reaffirmed my belief in how powerful and beneficial couples therapy could be. I wanted to utilize every tool available to us.
After the session was over, I made my way back to my room. But before I opened the door I made a decision: I was going to work my way through all of the workshops and learn everything I could about the techniques used. After the retreat was over I would attempt each of the lessons I’d learned. I thought the idea was worth a shot.
Our lives improved a little. We fought less and we knew a little more of what to expect. Slowly, we worked our way through The 5 Love Languages; the book by Dr. Gary Chapman that guides couples through identifying their love language was also the textbook we used in class. We listened to conversations about how to prepare ourselves for the type of relationships we wanted.
Understanding my love language, which was a course for the weekend, was crucial to our marriage as I assumed I should already know it simply based on time spent. I guessed at my husband’s language for the purposes of the course and proceeded with the lessons. I was fortunate that I guessed properly. He took the quiz at my request at a later time and identified the language I’d chosen as his. Once each of us knew and understood how the other received love it opened us up to more possibilities. It was also helpful to think of marriage in terms of seasons, as Dr. Chapman speaks about, since the weather is a manageable concept.
After two more weekend workshops, there was a slight shift in his behavior toward me. His attitude was lighter and his demeanor was softer. I believe it’s because I changed the way I approached him when we had a problem. In the past, I would sit him down and focus intensely on fixing whatever was wrong, which caused him to constantly be on high alert. Now, I simply let him know I like to have a conversation with him. I wait until he’s relaxed and I don’t talk long. It might take several conversations, but it works out better than in the past when nothing was accomplished.
At the end of our third round of workshops, I was chatting it up with one of the instructors that I’d met before and she mentioned that Strong Bonds was in need of teachers. I had a counselor’s degree and a teaching background, so I offered to co-teach.
My husband wasn’t surprised by my initiative, but quickly became annoyed when I said I wanted to do these sessions without him in the audience.
He was wary. He didn’t understand why I needed to be on my own. I tried to stress to him that the distance would serve as a chance to decompress and focus on teaching the curriculum. He wasn’t buying it, but I had made up my mind.
We came up with a compromise: I would teach the weekend workshops but we had to commit to a television date night each week. I knew he was secretly jealous of the time I spent watching Scandal with my mother, so I suggested that we watch Empire together, since I knew he was a fan of Terrence Howard. He agreed.
Fast forward a year: Even when he’s exhausted and we’re in the middle of a battle of wills, he still shows up to watch Empire with me. That fact makes me feel like the weekend workshops were worth the trouble.
Unfortunately, I had to stop teaching the classes because we moved back to New York. I miss those weekends, though. They were a constant reminder of the work required to have a successful relationship. I also miss the time away. But until we get the chance to attend another couple’s retreat, we’ll have Empire and maybe a few cookies.
Sharisse Tracey’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review and online at the New York Times, EBONY, Babble, Yahoo, Salon, DAME Magazine, ELLE, the Washington Post, Essence,the Men’s Journal and other online publications. She’s an Army wife, mother of four, educator and writer. Sharisse’s family is stationed in Upstate New York where she’s the chief cook and bottle washer.