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Short version: Therapist and author Dr. John Grey is an expert in the issues that stymie couples. Using his background in neuroscience and attachment theory, Dr. Grey dispels the myth that all healthy couples need is love, when, in fact, relationships require a sustained effort. For nearly 30 years, he has helped fast-track the healing process by hosting retreats to teach couples how to repair their relationships. These three-day retreats, which include a small number of couples, offer them the chance to work closely with Dr. Grey on the problems they face in their partnerships.
Imagine taking a vacation to a rural coastal California town where you’ll drink wine, hike through a redwood forest, and reconnect with your partner. The trip will also have one more significant component: learning the tools to stay connected and happy once you return home.
That is the format of the Healing Couples Retreats developed by Dr. John Grey nearly 30 years ago. He takes clients about an hour outside of San Francisco to the small town of Sebastopol to work on their relationship issues during an intensive, three-day weekend.
How can such a short period make such a dramatic difference in their lives?
Dr. Grey said the changes are based on the neuroplasticity in the brain. Instead of encouraging his clients to simply talk about their issues, he instead gives them tools to rewire their feelings for one another. Afterward, they often feel happier spending time together.
One couple who attended a retreat detailed the changes that happened in their relationship:
“This is our one-year anniversary of renewed happiness and wedded bliss thanks to our retreat with you,” the couple wrote in a testimonial on Dr. Grey’s website. “Before we came, we fought all the time and had no intimacy. You taught us how to understand each other and communicate. We’ve learned to love and laugh again. We cannot thank you enough.”
But Dr. Grey, who trained as a research psychologist at Stanford, didn’t start his career by hosting couples retreats. The idea came to him thanks, in part, to a famous song by The Fab Four.
“About 35 years ago, I had a personal epiphany. I realized the core thing we were all seeking in life, above all else, was love,” he said. “It was as if that Beatles lyric, ‘All you need is love,’ landed fully in my heart. And I also realized love alone wasn’t enough. Like a garden, you need to know how to nurture and maintain it.”
Dr. Grey’s scientific and research backgrounds make him unique among couples counselors, but he thinks his skill set helps him perform his job more effectively.
“I have always had a practical, evidence-driven approach to understanding people,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to understand how they perceive things, how language works, and why people think, communicate, and interact the way they do.”
But he didn’t leave behind that interest — or focus — when he went into private practice. He brought a similar outcome-oriented approach to his work to give couples practical tools they could use to get results in their relationships.
“I wanted to understand how to overcome those blind spots that block us from reaching our full potential in lasting love. This initiated a deep dive and focus on intimate partnership, the biggest challenge of all,” he said.
In part, Dr. Grey finds that cultural attitudes about romantic relationships mislead couples. He said that many couples think their love for their partners should be enough, but they don’t have the skills to work on the struggles inherent in their pairings.
“Returning to my scientific roots, I started translating my research in relationship satisfaction, attachment theory, and neuroscience into practical tools for couples,” he said. “I aimed to offer practical tools to help couples meet the inevitable challenges of a long-term relationship.”
This development dramatically affected the couples with whom Dr. Grey worked. He started seeing results in his weekly sessions that often would take months or years.
That is when he knew he had developed a uniquely effective form of treatment.
“The results were more profound. Couples who were on the brink of splitting found their way back together. Marriages were not merely saved — they were upgraded in their capacity to collaborate as partners in making decisions together,” he said.
Dr. Grey developed the intensive couples retreats and workshops that have become his signature coaching method in 1990. He began by experimenting with the format with one couple at a time before adding more couples to the group.
Today, Dr. Grey’s retreats take three to five couples to Sonoma County, California, for three to five days. He typically holds retreats every six weeks throughout the year.
The couples who attend all want to improve their relationships but are quite diverse. Most participants are married, though some are not. Many have been together for 10 to 30 years, though a few have just started out in their relationships. Others have broken up but want to get back together.
These retreats are so useful that Dr. Grey conducts most of his counseling in this format.
Though retreat couples often tackle long-standing issues, Dr. Grey believes that significant changes in a relationship can be made over a short time. While fully integrating these tools can take time, couples can learn the strategies over a long weekend.
“In this mini-workshop format, over the course of a weekend, I found we could dive far deeper into what was really happening with that couple,” he said. “I had the time and space to educate them in the tools they specifically needed.”
In these retreat sessions, couples learn strategies to communicate, collaborate, and resolve issues. These tools can help couples better negotiate problems and build renewed trust with one another.
Though Dr. Grey’s career has diverged from the research path he started on, he isn’t surprised that his life work focuses on helping couples develop better partnerships.
“It is part of my personality to bring harmony to discord and help people get along better,” he said. “You could say it’s built into my DNA, the motivation and skill set to help people understand each other better, express what they want and need to each other, and assist them to collaborate successfully and reach win-win solutions.”
“Everyone has a phone with them these days, so it’s interesting to use the technology for better relationships, since, so often, it can detract from relating.” — Dr. John Grey, Founder of Healing Couples Retreats
Now, as he considers the future, Dr. Grey has found a new way to encourage couples to connect – through a mobile app.
“Everyone has a phone with them these days, so it’s interesting to use the technology for better relationships, since, so often, it can detract from relating,” Dr. Grey said. “I’m working on an app that helps couples quickly repair discord and get back to a positive connection. So far, I’m experimenting with retreat clients, where it is very successful.”
Like the innovative retreat format that he developed years ago, Dr. Grey wants to bring his relationship coaching to a new platform. He plans to develop an interactive website to convey the principles he offers in his retreats as part of a multimedia experience. This site will also build on the self-help books he has authored by being more immersive.
“I want to create powerful, effective ways to teach people tools — something far more effective than the self-help books I have done in the past,” he said.