Couples Retreat: Meet Real-Life Love Experts


Israel Helfand

Couples Retreat: There is a new movie and then real life with retreat experts Israel Helfand and his wife, Cathie Helfand.

Traveling to a remote place can help loved ones rekindle their relationship.

Couples struggling with their relationships have long traveled to faraway destinations to try and mend their wounds. And this weekend such trips are likely to take center stage thanks to Vince Vaughn’s new comedy, “Couples Retreat.”

The comedy, which also features Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Kristin Davis, and Kristen Bell, centers around four couples who travel to a tropical island resort for a vacation. While one couple is there to work on their marriage, the others are unpleasantly surprised to learn that the resort’s therapy sessions are not optional.

That premise leads the crew through numerous, painful exercises in counseling craziness, including 6 a.m. couples skill-building classes, a swim in the ocean surrounded by sharks, and an exercise where they’re asked to undress in public. But the folks who run real couples retreats are quick to point out that this is just Hollywood’s comedic take on their business.

Couples Look to Retreats to Heal

For a more intense experience, couples can meet with Israel Helfand and his wife, Cathie Helfand, who run private one-on-one counseling with couples at their 1848 homestead in Vermont.

Most of their clients have had affairs and are trying to save their marriages. The bulk of their clients come from Texas, Florida, and California.

“The way the majority of them are in crisis. It’s very rare — and that’s unfortunate — that we get couples that have an OK marriage and are looking for ways to improve it,” Israel Helfand said.

The Helfands said their rural setting helps with the process. There is no cell phone service or BlackBerry service, and most of the nearby bed and breakfasts that they suggest don’t have televisions. (The Helfands said they are always amazed at how many people can’t fall asleep without their TV on.)

“When they come here, there’s this instant decompression. You’re coming to the end of a dirt road. It’s very quintessential Vermont. We raise chickens, we have pullets, we sell eggs,” Cathie Helfand said. “I think it’s very important for couples to leave home, leave their e-mails, their children, their work, even the dishes in the sink, and just focus on the two of them alone.”

The first day is four hours of intense counseling, giving the couple the rest of the day alone. Day two is just three hours and the final day is just two hours.

“We want them to have some fun because that’s important for most couples, and they don’t typically do that in their everyday busy lives,” Cathie Helfand said. “We want them to spend time talking to each other in a way that we’ve trained them to so they are practicing that skill and seeing where they get stuck.”

Israel Helfand added that they work as sex therapists for many clients.

“They have related, appropriate homework assignments,” he said.

So what do the Helfands think about the movie?

“It will turn more couples who are doing OK on to a retreat where a group would be useful to them because they can learn some kind of generic skills, have some fun with each other, and have some laughs and cries,” Israel Helfand said. “It will really serve that type of population: Couples that are OK, but just need something more.