Many couples are looking for a non religious marriage retreat that isn’t sponsored by a Christian organization or a nondenominational one, for personalized work with a therapist. Some couples don’t care if the facilitator of the retreat is, themselves, a clergyman. They just don’t want to be judged for having non-religious views. Some workshop leaders clear identify themselves as offering a couples retreat free of doctrine or prayer. Other couples prefer that the therapist doesn’t announce any spiritual affiliation at all (whether they have such affiliation or not). If that is the case, check the website for a “Statement of Faith” page.

This article covers 8 things to consider when you want a non-religiously oriented retreat, particularly when held by Christian organizations or those leaders who identify as having strong religious affiliations. You may also want to investigate science-based couples therapy retreats that has extensive research behind it.

1. What makes a marriage retreat secular?

Many individual and organization make an efforts to welcome a broad range of couples in troubled marriages. Some couples therapy intensives labeled “secular” may be run by religious leaders or those with strongly held religious beliefs, but these facilitators do not necessarily offer all couples a religiously-oriented message. Others are welcoming to others having differing spiritual beliefs, but an atheist may feel out of place. It can get confusing. Still other couples therapy retreat websites directly state they do not work with same-sex couples as it violates their religious beliefs about marriage.

What makes them non religious marriage retreats, then?  

Both the target audience (broad array of couples from any religious or non-religious background) and the content presented by the couples retreat are specifically designed to appeal to a broader lay audience.

2. Are all marriage retreats the same?

No. Some are group experiences with a set curriculum. Others are run by individuals trained in a particular model of couples therapy. And still other intensive retreats for couples are run by people of strong faith who open up their retreats to non-Christian couples wanting an intensive marriage counseling experience. The term “non religious” doesn’t indicate that the facilitator or therapist is agnostic. Only that the focus of treatment or the presentation doesn’t involves theology. This work can either be a science-based approach to helping couples or other model of therapy, or strictly psychoeducational.

3. Are atheists welcomed in all non religious couples retreats?

Atheists are typically welcomed in all but the most stringent or orthodox groups who run couples therapy retreats. However, not every person who is atheist or agnostic may feel comfortable in an intensive where the therapist might share personal faith-based experience, make scripture references as a source of truth, prays openly, or enjoys worship music.

If that’s not what you want, it is best for couples to look for organizations emphasizing a science-based approach, or models that announces themselves as having no religious ties.

4. What is the difference between a group and individual couples counseling retreat?

A group experience like The Art and Science of Love by the Gottman Institute invites groups of couples into an organized educational experience that has a science-based approach.

In contrast, individuals with or without clinical or psychological training may work with couples for several hours or several days in a one-to-one setting. It surprises many people to learn that while words like “therapy” or “counseling” are often regulated terms that can only be used by licensed professionals, many people offer “couples retreats” or “marriage retreats” without any clinical or counseling experience at all! This can be particularly true of lay counselors or ordained leaders who are free to offer pastoral counseling to those requesting it.

5. Does “ecumenical” mean it won’t require prayer?

One distressing article in Salon described a couple who went to a retreat labeled ecumenical. Although they had no interest in a religious focus (one was an atheist) they were allowed no TV, no computers, no cellphones, or pagers and expected to pray. Banners with religious symbols were everywhere. They told a comical story of uniting together to “escape” this experience they called “hell.” Be sure to ask about whether prayer will be required, alcohol allowed, and electronic entertainment devices discouraged.

6. Can you attend an intensive retreat if you aren’t married?

Yes. These secularly-oriented training or extended therapy sessions don’t discourage couples who aren’t married or engaged. The focus will be less on one’s marital status and more on the quality of the relationship and an organized approach to improving that union.

7. Gay, Lesbian, or Non-binary couples

Research done by one science-based practitioner, John Gottman, Ph.D., who has spent over 40 years researching relationships, has many relevant findings on his research targeting Gay and Lesbian couples. Those trained in the Gottman Method read and develop particular expertise in helping same-sex couples.

Many same-sex couples want couples therapists who specialize or welcome them, rather than simply “accepting” their affectional preferences. Many couples expect more than “tolerance” or “acceptance” in the sexual orientation. They want a therapist who has particular experience in working with GBLTQ couples.

8. Can a Priest, Minister, or Rabbi really be “secular”?

Yes, in the right context. These religious leaders can also be psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, social workers, or marriage and family counselors in addition to their religious ordination. This training enables them to take a broader look at issues couples present, and remain “judgment free,” even when working with issues that could violate their own religious beliefs such as ongoing affairs, non-monogamy, polyamorous relationships or gay and lesbian marriages. But other marriage retreats are clearly labeled religiously-oriented, despite accepting those not in or practicing the faith. 

Phrases like: “non-judgmental Christian Marriage Counselors” or “Open to all couples” suggest that despite labels that identify their services as having a Christian approach, they also work with non-Christians. These wouldn’t be considered non religious, but may work for couples with some spiritual leanings.