A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to St. Thomas, USVI, for an extended weekend. Of course, it's a beautiful place - I think I was surprised by how mountainous it is. I was a little disappointed that the attraction I was looking forward to, Blackbeard's Castle, was closed to visitors, but the did tour the island, visit the beach, and stand on Drake's Seat, so overall, it was fun.
Whenever we go on short excursions like this one, we usually try to turn it into some kind of marriage retreat or reconnect mission, in order to justify taking the days off from work. It's a lot easier to write down "marriage retreat" on your pre-arranged absence form, than "I want to swim all day, and you don't let me do that here." I've been looking into legit marriage retreats, most of them Christian-run, but none of them seem to be available when we can actually go, or else they're just too expensive. As a replacement for the real thing, we try to plan similar kinds of activities and talks for ourselves.
This time, I got inspired to look up some help online, and I came across an interesting article called The Getaway Plan, at Familylife.com. I took the discussion questions from the website, as well as the basic structure. We flew in on Thursday and out on Sunday, so we agreed to take some quiet time separately every night, starting on Thursday night, after the bags and bodies were all in the hotel. I even made two journals out of composition books (because I love composition books) with decorated covers and the questions printed out and pasted nicely in the pages, with ample room for long responses. Then we would go to bed, or stay up, since we don't have any clocks to punch for the next couple of days. In the morning, over a nice quiet breakfast together, we would trade our journals and read each others answers to the questions. The rules we decided on were:
1) You have to read all answers before asking or saying anything.
2) You can ask only two questions at first, and those only for clarity.
3) You cannot make a defense for any of the answers you read - assume your spouse is being honest about their feelings and accept that.
4) You cannot defend, refine, or take back any of your own responses once you trade journals - stand by whatever you wrote.
5) After asking your two questions, we won't talk about the answers until after lunch. No immediate responses.
It was really odd to drop bombs like that and then just keep your mouth shut and think about it, but we found it pretty effective in making us both really hear and accept each other's responses.
The first set of questions, for the first night, focus on how we specifically relate to each other as partners, friends, and lovers. One caveat, I felt funny about "borrowing" the questions, instead of writing some myself, but the more I tried to write questions, the more I felt like I was being biased. It felt as if I was writing questions that I wanted to ask my wife, or avoiding questions that I didn't want her to ask, which was obviously counter to the whole purpose of the exercise. Either way, a big shout out to Rob Flood for the insightful questions.
- In what ways do you feel cherished by me?
- In what ways do you feel taken for granted?
- In what areas have you seen God change my heart and spirit this past year?
- In what areas would you like to see me grow in my heart and spirit over this next year?
- What three things am I currently doing that make you feel encouraged?
- What three things could I do that would help encourage you further?
Tough ones, right?
The second night questions had more to do with how we relate to our children, and to each other as parents.
- What three things could I do to help you fulfill your role as a father/mother?
- In what ways could I improve in how I help you?
- What are the top three issues you see in (child's name)'s life right now?
- What do you think he/she needs in the next six months to overcome those issues?
- In what two areas could I most improve as a father/mother?
These were fewer questions, but a whole lot more work, since we had to write answers for the third and fourth questions for each of our three children. But doing this really forced us to think about how different all the children are, and what different stages in life they are in, and ultimately how special each one is. My son, the oldest, is in college, but living at home. My older daughter is in the middle of high school, with everything that means, and very ambitious about it. And then the baby is not really a baby any more, and needs her mind stimulated, and a lot more discipline than the others.
The third night questions were honestly ones I would not have thought of on my own. They have mostly to do with how we relate to our community, our family, and our church as a couple and as a family.
- How has God used our family in the past six months in the lives of others?
- How do you sense He is leading for the next six months?
- How effective has our family worship/devotional time been? Should we make changes?
- In what ways has God answered prayer in the last six months?
- For what should we be praying in these next six months?
- What atmosphere do we want others to feel when they come into our home? Do our activities and our attitudes help us to achieve this goal?
It's ironic, that my wife and I talk about family members and church members, or people in the neighborhood, that we're concerned about, and we sometimes intervene and either try to help or just talk to them, but we rarely get alone together and just pray for the people who are on our mind.
I definitely recommend this for any married couple, whatever your situation. It's easy to do, low stress, no yelling and crying (as long as you stick to the rules), and it builds some connection and intimacy into any kind of trip you take together. In our case, we had the baby with us, and despite the potential distraction, we were still able to get her involved in an iPad long enough to focus on each other and these questions.
So, when we got back home, after a flight that was delayed because the plane flew through a flock of birds on it's way into the landing (really), we definitely felt closer. Even though we made a point of not discussing/debating the responses we gave, I can tell that my wife read them and took them to heart, because I can see some change and effort on her part already, and I hope she sees that in me. Best of all, by writing everything down, we still have the journals to look at periodically and think about, and since there are a whole lot of pages left in them, we can take the same ones on the next trip and add to them as we go. Maybe it will take us another ten years to fill those composition books up with our thoughts and feelings, and that's just fine with me.