What I Learned at the Jennifer Finlayson-Fife Retreat this Fall

Hello, my friend. I’m Dan Purcell, your host here at Get Your Marriage On! My wife and I put on a marriage conference in the past and this year we decided to do something different and we put on a marriage retreat. It was absolutely phenomenal! And today I want to share with you some of the really cool things I learned from the retreat. 

First of all, the venue was gorgeous. It’s in the mountains and the person that built it built individual little mini cabins around the whole lake and in the forest. So each couple that attended got their own private cabin. The weather was wonderful, it was sunny, the food was excellent, and we really just had a lot of fun. About 60 couples came from as far away as Hawaii and Maryland. We were there for three days and two nights and Dr. Jennifer Finlayson Fife, who’s one of my most favorite mentors and teachers, taught all three days. We even had a country dance instruction night on Friday night! 

Emily and I find a lot of value in taking time once in a while to get away, even if it’s just for a weekend to just be us, to just be a couple, and to focus on our marriage. And doing a marriage retreat like this is fantastic because there’s an instructor that teaches you and helps you see things that you otherwise don’t see, and you’ll walk away feeling much more in love, feeling much more certain about what you need to work on in your relationship. It was fantastic.

I want to share two quick stories with you about what people said about the retreat. One man was going to cancel a week before because he and his wife said their marriage was over. “We’re getting a divorce. We don’t see the point in coming. I don’t think we’ll even survive the drive down there” he said. So, he was going to cancel. But, for whatever reason, they kind of made it work. They survived that drive and they showed up. And then after the retreat, they sent me this email where he said “Thanks for all your work with the retreat, the food was great, the location was awesome, and we had an excellent time. And this is coming from the guy who was debating canceling at the last minute.” Here’s the part I love: “My wife and I are now in our best spot in a couple of years. No kidding. Looking forward to continuing onward and upward.” Isn’t that so cool? From the brink of divorce to the best place they’ve been in in years. That’s what retreats can do for you. 

This is what another woman said. She said, “what a wonderful time we had learning from Dr. Jennifer Finlayson Fife in a beautiful setting with delicious food and quality couples that just want to be better and healthier. I realized going into the retreat, I was banking on my husband learning and changing A, B, C, and D. What I didn’t anticipate was a self-reflection and realization that I was at least as much to blame for our marital issues as he was. It was very humbling, but I’m thankful for Jennifer’s candor and directness that jolts people like me awake to my flaws. I’m happy to say, I am less resentful towards my husband and more ready to make changes in myself.”

Anyway, I took pages of notes and learned so many things that I’m working on to apply in my marriage. I wanted to share a few of those things with you today. 

The first aha for me is that intimacy is just as much about letting my spouse know me at a deep level. In other words, it’s a willingness to be no trouble. And if you’re new to this podcast, we talk a lot about how the very best type of marriage you can have is an intimate marriage. The very best kind of sex we can have is very intimate sex. But you can’t have intimate sex if you’re not willing to let your spouse know you at a deep and fundamental level. And if you’re not willing to know your spouse as they are at a deep and fundamental level, also. Amature person has the ability to kind of hold on to themselves and be solid in who they are while also being in a relationship with someone else. 

Can you think of anyone that you admire? That seems to be really mature in that they have this way of being totally okay with themselves. They’re okay with who they are, what they look like, what they believe. And at the same time, they’re also able to have relationships with others and relationships that matter a lot to them too. 

We sometimes hear or even joke about how a couple says “we just don’t communicate”. But the reality is you’re always communicating something, even when you’re stonewalling and upset and not talking, you’re communicating that “I don’t like you” and “I don’t want to talk to you” in that moment. Communication problems that people complain about are really more about whether or not you’re willing to let someone really know your mind and know your heart at that moment. It’s really hard to be open with someone that you really care about. Think about it. The more someone matters to you the more risky it feels to open up and take down some walls if you’re anxious about it. A case in point, have you ever told a complete stranger some intimate and deep things about yourself that you would never tell someone closer to you?

It’s a lot like getting on a chairlift when you’re going skiing. You get on the chairlift and you start talking to the person next to you. You might hear all about them, all about the affairs they’re having, all the crazy things they’re doing. And then you get off the chairlift and off they go and off you go never to see each other again. But they would never tell those things to their spouse. It’s kind of funny how the more someone matters to us, the more anxious we get about really letting them know us deeply because we have this fear. We think if they knew me better, they may not like what they see. But it’s impossible to have a deeply intimate and satisfying sex life if you’re always anxious about being known. You might be able to even get through the physical act of sex, but it’s not going to produce the kind of sex that’s good for you. The kind of sex where it’s a refuge to go to, a sex that’s nourishing and bonding and makes you really close because that kind of sex requires you to really let someone into your heart. 

To tolerate that amount of exposure of self, to really open up your heart and your emotions and your mind to another person it requires you to some degree to be strong within yourself first. So how do you develop a stronger sense of self? I have three ideas for that. The first is to realize that no matter what, you are a person of immense value; that’s intrinsic and doesn’t fluctuate like the stock market. You need to get it really deeply rooted into your heart that you have value you can contribute. You have gifts. For myself, I had come to learn that I had value. When I think about this, the Christmas message comes to mind. When we think about how a God himself was willing to condescend to earth, to be born in humble circumstances and to live a life ministering and teaching. And for him to take upon himself my sins and to suffer for me.  If I have that much value to him, enough for a God to want to do that for me, I definitely have enough value for myself. 

The second tip to developing a stronger self is for you to develop some self-respect, and this can be through developing your own talents. Remember, everyone has a gift or a talent. The more you can like and respect yourself and think, you know, I’ve got some pretty cool things that I can do and contribute to society. And to me, it makes life better for those around me, the better I am. It also helps occasionally doing things that stretch you, some things that scare you, some things that take you out of your comfort zone; all of those things help you develop your self respect and help you grow and develop and those things, my friend, will give you a more solid sense of self. 

The third is living a life of honesty and integrity. This is often undervalued in today’s culture. Can you work at consistently making good choices that are in line with your deepest and highest values? This might mean kicking a bad habit or apologizing when an apology is needed. This might be being willing to be open and honest and talk about the hard things that matter rather than continuing to run away from them or skirting the issues under the rug. All those things will help you develop a more solid sense of self. Our instructor, Dr. Jennifer Finlayson Fife had us do an exercise to illustrate this. She called it hugging until relaxed. And what we did is, my wife and I were to set a timer for about eight minutes. And we’re to stand on our own two feet solid. So we’re supporting our own weight with our own feet. And then we’re to come together and embrace in a hug. And the idea is, can you calm yourself down in the presence of another person? There’s full body contact in this hug, in this embrace. And can you really relax and melt into the other person? For some people that hug all the time, this might be really easy. But for others, it’s quite revealing how hard this actually is. The thing is our brain loves body learning and mapping. So when your body is up against another person, it’s very exposing. Do you close up? Or do you remain open? Do you think about “what is my spouse thinking right now?” Or does your mind jump to other things that make you escape from anxious situations? Being really exposed and close to another person can be very anxiety producing. So, can you calm yourself down while also being in the presence of another person? When my wife and I first did this at the retreat, I was anxious about the time. I was anxious about all the things that I had to do. I was worrying about the next things we had to set up and take down and take care of for the retreat. It was a little anxiety inducing, and I learned for me, I go to humor and become cynical to avoid anxious moments. 

So in my mind, I kept thinking of jokes I could say to get out of or kind of joke about the situation and not take it as seriously to kind of avoid the discomfort of being that intimate with someone. Anyway, it was really revealing to me because that plays out a lot in my own love life, where when there are uncomfortable situations in my marriage, I don’t take them seriously. Sometimes I like to get cynical or make a joke out of it instead of really confronting it, learning to calm myself down and really be in the moment with someone. I highly recommend this exercise to all of you that want to improve intimacy, and improve being known. Try hugging for eight minutes regularly and see if you can learn to really calm yourself down and melt into another person. 

The second big aha and take away from me at the retreat is sex as a form of communication. 

Anyway, the hugging to relax exercise was revealing to me about how much I communicate non-verbally. As humans, we can’t help but communicate. Think about it. If you really are in tune to your spouse, even the way they sigh, the way they shift in their seat, the way they gaze out the window helps you know what they’re thinking. After living with someone for many years, you get really good at picking up on all their cues and kinda not mind reading per se, but more like mind mapping. You get a really good idea of what they’re thinking. And this plays out in intimacy as well. The way we initiate sex or avoid sex says a lot about our willingness to know and be known. 

So I want you to think about the last time you avoided sex. What was the message you sent your spouse in that moment? Why were you avoiding it? What did you do to avoid it? 

And then think about the last time you initiated sex. What was the message you sent to your spouse in that moment? 

For me being the higher desire person in my marriage, I was surprised to learn that just by having higher desire, it doesn’t automatically mean I have higher maturity in my marriage, which was kind of humbling to hear because you can still be higher desire for sex in the marriage for the wrong reasons. 

For instance, the higher desire partner can communicate that they’re needy and desperate and depend on sex in order to feel good about themselves. Kind of like you look to sex for validation or to prop up one’s ego. Or in a more mature way, do you desire sex because it’s about wanting and desiring your spouse, because it’s an experience you want to share with them because you want to connect with them at a deep and fundamental level? Now, lower desire spouses have an immature version as well. For instance, an immature version can be being wantless and needless, and you’re lower desire because you’re busy suppressing your sexual desire, or you’re not taking responsibility for or owning your own sexual desire. 

Or are you depending on your spouse to do all the initiating, because you don’t want to own your own sexual desires? You don’t want to take responsibility for your own sexuality. So that is an immature side of it as well. As we develop our own ability to kind of be solid within ourself and to know our spouse and also allow them to know us, we can kind of mature and improve in the way we initiate sex and the things we communicate around that.

We are all responsible for our own sexual desire and fulfillment. It’s not our spouse’s job to give us sexual desire or to give us sexual fulfillment. That’s our own responsibility. And after we fall in love, sexual desire no longer just happens to us. Many of us don’t like the idea of taking full responsibility for sexual desires. We want others to turn us on.  We want it to be our spouse’s job to excite us sexually because we don’t want to take the responsibility to do that ourselves. But when we leave it up to our spouse to excite us sexually it only leads to a lot of disappointment and sexual emptiness. Dr. Jennifer Finlayson Fife says, it’s not that “I get turned on when”, it’s “I turn myself on when”, and that was a profound statement because it helped me realize that I have control over whether or not I get turned on or not. Things outside of me don’t turn me on. I choose to turn myself on when… and she asked for a few scenarios. Some of the women said “I watch a romantic movie”, “I turn myself on when I take time for myself, like when I have a bath”. Or some women said, “I turn myself on when I read a romance novel”. Some women said, “I turn myself on when I see my husband take care of our children” or “I let my husband hold me in his arms and gently kisses me”. “I turn myself on when I wear a flattering outfit” and so on. And then she asked the men, when do you turn yourself on? They said, “I turn myself on when I see my wife come out of the shower” or “when she holds my hand” or “when we have a deep conversation”. Or “I turn myself on when my wife is turned on”. Then she asked, when do you turn yourself off? And there was a lot of laughter around this one because we all know times when we purposely turn ourselves off. For instance, some of the women said, “I turn myself off when I start an argument intentionally right before bed so that I can avoid having sex”. Or “I turn myself off when he comes home from work”. That was funny. “I turn myself off when I bring up finances, budget, shopping lists, and so on and so on”. So you can purposely turn yourself off. And for some of the men they’re like, “I don’t know what off is”. I thought that was funny. 

So to illustrate how sex and touch is a form of deep communication, we had this exercise. You know how we had the hugging to relax exercise? This is a different exercise where we were to turn to our spouse and gently touch them. One was the giver and one was the receiver. It was the receiver’s job to pay really close attention to what is being communicated in every touch. So the giver was supposed to caress their spouses face or shoulder, arm, leg or something like that, just to touch. And as you touch to think about loving thoughts, enduring thoughts, how much you adore this person, how grateful you are to be with them, those kinds of thoughts. And then partway through the instructor said, okay. Those that are doing the touching, don’t stop the movement, don’t stop the touching, but now I want you to think about something stressful. Kids, work, sports or something distracting. And she asked the receiver if they could pick up on the difference. And it was so surprising, you can totally tell, even though the motion was the same and the way they were caressing, the rhythm was the same, you can totally tell that there was a difference between the first type of touching when it was loving and endearing. And the second, when there was some stress behind it. It’s amazing to me how much we could communicate with that. 

Another big aha for me was to realize that my wife’s entire body is her erogenous zone. I don’t have to just focus on genitals only to turn my wife on. It’s the way I can stroke her hair or touch her shoulder. Or the way I can kiss her cheek, the way I hold her hand. I can communicate through my touch so much that’s nonverbal, that shows that I love her. I cherish her and I just hold her dear. So, the next day at church, Sunday, my wife and I are sitting together. We don’t let our kids sit between us at church. I put my arm around my wife and just really gently touch her shoulder and the back of her neck. And with my other hand, I was caressing her wrist and just the knuckles of her hand. 

Anyway, after church, Emily was smiling and she said it was such a turn on to her the way I was touching her and holding her. You can have a very exciting church meeting by the way you touch your spouse and no one knows it! And so our whole bodies are erogenous zones. It doesn’t matter exactly where you touch, it’s the way you touch. And it’s the intent behind it that communicates far more than the actual touch itself. 

My third big aha and takeaway is about creating a marriage where there’s room for two people and being collaborative. This is when I learned nothing in life is really owed to me. And my spouse, she’s accompanying me in life. She’s a gift, she doesn’t have to do anything for me. She’s choosing to be in a marriage with me and I’m choosing to be in a marriage with her. And that to me is a wonderful, wonderful thought. 

Paul talks about this in the New Testament. He uses the body of Christ as a metaphor. That’s when he says, “does the head say to the foot, I don’t need you”, or “the hand to your other hand, I have no need of you or the eyes or the neck”. All of our bodies and different body parts are important. 

And when we look at our marriage in the way that my spouse is important for this relationship, I’m important for this relationship, her gifts and talents and her abilities and her way of thinking all contribute to this whole thing that is our marriage relationship. So when I think of it that way, it’s no longer saying to her, I don’t need you. I don’t need this part of you in our marriage relationship. . She contributes a lot and I need to invite her to contribute just as much to our relationship as I do. And there is something magical that happens when couples prioritize what’s good for the relationship above what’s good for themselves. We talk about how there’s this “you and a me” in a relationship, but there’s also a “we”, so you meet and then there’s a we, when you can prioritize the needs of the we above the selfish interests of the you or me, that’s how you can build a great collaborative marriage. And, among other things, think about other couples you admire. They’re really good at collaborating, working together and building a relationship that they can both be really happy with, but that doesn’t happen overnight. That happens when you really start to prioritize what’s good for the relationship over myself. I heard this story about a woman. She’s an over-functioner in her relationship. She is really good at doing the budget, doing the shopping, taking care of the kids. She has her own business too. While her husband also works, she’s doing all these things and she looks to her husband and wonders, how come you don’t do enough? I feel like you’re not pulling your weight in the relationship. How come you’re not doing enough? When in reality, she’s doing all of those things and extra because it gives her a sense of moral superiority. She’s doing those things because it makes her feel good about herself and lets her justify that she’s a better person than her spouse. But when she really stopped to think about it, she thought, am I really prioritizing what’s good for the relationship above what’s good for me? 

She was conflicted because she was really doing all of those things to prop up her own ego. And give her an excuse to point the finger, rather than really looking at how she can really build a great relationship with her husband in this instance. And once she realized that she can really open up to her husband, and say “I’ve been a real jerk. I’ve been pointing my finger at you. I’ve been saying you’re not good enough in these different ways. And I don’t want to build a marriage where it’s all about me and you’re just a sidekick. I want to be an equal partner with you. So how can we work together to build a relationship like that?” And the husband was flattered and so happy to have that conversation because he wants to feel like he contributes to it, but when he feels like, no matter what I do, no matter the way I load the dishwasher and no matter the way I fold the laundry, it’s not good enough. It really impacted the quality of their relationships. 

So they both had a lot of learning to do. It gave him an opportunity to grow into the relationship and her the ability to grow also by really putting the interests of what’s good for the relationship above what’s good for just her. 

And this concept applies to sex as well. When you think about initiating sex, you need to think about what is the kind of sex that I’m offering? Is it going to be exciting to my spouse? Is she going to be happy to participate in this? So at the retreat, because we were the ones putting it on, we were up really late cleaning and getting things ready for the next day. We have to wake up early in the morning the next morning, so that we can let the caterer in early for breakfast and just tidy things up. We’re kind of in a hurry, getting ready, but just in the circumstances I was getting quite turned on being with my beautiful wife, a new place, a new location, and I was starting to get aroused, or I was turning myself on. I suggested we take advantage of the moment, but I also realized when those words came out of my mouth, that this isn’t great sex I’m offering because the whole time she would have been thinking “is he done yet? Can we move on? I’ve got my hair to do. I’ve got makeup. We’re on a deadline. We’ve got to hurry and get things going.” That’s just an instance, and I’m not saying quickies are bad or there’s not a time and a place for them, of course there is. But when you’re offering sex, what’s your spouse’s experience going to be like, is it going to be good sex for them? Or am I only worrying about my own interests? When you can put what’s good for the relationship first, instead of your own selfish interests, you prioritize the we over the me and the you. It helps create a marriage that can’t be broken. 

Just last week, my wife and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary. This is the woman that I met in middle school. We lived in the same neighborhood growing up, so we were on the same school bus route. I had just moved to my town, and once in a while, there was an empty seat next to her on the school bus. She was so cute and also several social classes above me. And so the fact that she would pay attention to me, it was a really big turn on. When I look at my wife now, and I look at her from the side, she has this perfect princess profile. I just love that about her. She has a beautiful singing voice. She makes me laugh all the time. And I love her brilliant mind and her quick wit and her sharpness. She is just this beauty of a person. And to think that this is the girl that I’ve always admired since middle school and how lucky I am to wake up every morning at her side. Every day. I am still enchanted to be with Emily. And I love having this relationship with her, that she’s accompanying me in life and that we get to do life together. We get to raise children together. We get to build a kind of life and a marriage and a conversation that’s going to last for years and years and into the eternities. I am just so grateful and lucky to be married to such a wonderful woman as her. 

I hope this has been helpful. I hope some of the things we talked about have been great for you. About how sex is a form of communication, the need to really grow up and be mature, and that’s allowing someone to really know you fundamentally and a willingness to know them, and how important it is to prioritize the relationship over personal interests and that nothing in life is really owed to you. You don’t know what tomorrow might bring, so make the best out of today, and hold your spouse close. Love them, care for them, and let’s make this Christmas season one of the most wonderful, memorable Christmases ever. Thank you!

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<h3>Jaina Thurston</h3>

Jaina Thurston

Hi there, my name is Jaina (pronounced like Jay-Nuh) and I am so happy to be here! I am an outdoor enthusiast and love doing everything with my hubby and 3 dogs. I focus a lot on fertility in my own life and am learning to help other couple's on their intimacy journeys while struggling with infertility. I have a degree in psychology and absolutely LOVE helping others discover their greatness!

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