I Went On A Heartbreak Retreat & This Is What I Learned

Artwork by Anna Jay.
It’s 10am and a woman is recalling in hushed tones an intimate detail about how her husband of 34 years betrayed her. The woman is my assigned buddy, Maggie*, at the UK’s only heartbreak retreat, and we’ve just met. So why am I here? Surely it’s better to cry in the privacy of your own home or with friends than with a bunch of strangers, especially when the bunch of strangers option costs £699?
Sharing your pain publicly is the premise of the two-day 'Break-Up Recovery Retreat' created by Sara Davison, the Divorce Coach and author of Uncoupling: How to survive and thrive after breakup and divorce. There are eight of us in a room at Ashdown Park Hotel in East Sussex, ranging in age from 25-66. There’s even a man in our midst. I’m not sure why that surprises me; heartbreak is universal.
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But seeing it like this, in its messy, raw, human form in a roomful of strangers, is still unexpected. In the Instagram age, break-ups seem to stretch on forever; if, on the one hand, you decide to remain civil with your ex, then you have to contend with seeing snapshots of their life without you; if, on the other, you decide to block or unfollow, then the temptation of open profiles, tagged photos and sneaky peeks can be excruciating. In today's digital culture, where all the raw feeling is hidden behind profiles and untraceable online activity, meeting real people at the retreat, still reeling from the after-effects of a toxic or abusive relationship months or years down the line, is refreshing.
One of the key things Sara focuses on during the retreat is the transition to single life, and preventing people from making the same mistakes (such as picking the same type of partner time and time again). "We need to stop thinking of the stigma of a break-up or divorce and start thinking about how to make it less painful, supporting them through the transition," she says. It’s particularly personal for Sara, who created this retreat to provide critical support that she felt was lacking in her own divorce. "There’s lawyers and financial advisors but where’s the emotional help?"
You’d be mistaken if you assumed this was two days of crying (although, admittedly, crying does feature – particularly during the discussion of narcissist husbands and exes). Instead, Sara makes us commit to taking back control and focus on moving positively forward. Although I no longer cry over my ex, some questions still linger. When my boyfriend of less than a year cheated on me during a lads’ holiday to Amsterdam, the constant ‘But why?’ became the soundtrack of my everyday life. Why wasn’t I enough? What else had he lied about? It was particularly jarring considering that I thought the intimate side of our relationship was where we had no problems. Sara aptly calls this ‘Hamster Wheel Questioning’ – questions to which those who’ve been betrayed will never get the answers.
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In a bid to stop ruminating and holding on to the negativity, Sara puts us through our paces with an exercise on letting go of our baggage. We draw a picture of the baggage we carry around with us, what it looks like, and whether we drag it behind us or in front of us. At this point, I’m nervous. I don’t think I’ve actually confronted what kind of baggage I carry and suddenly have an urge to escape to the loo, even though I don’t really need it. We’re forced to stay in the room though, so I sit and write out all the things that I carry deep down, and I’m surprised to find it comes quickly.
We are then instructed to quite literally shred the baggage in the shredder and walk around the room three times with our chins up. Initially, I’m sceptical – does Sara really think putting a piece of paper in a shredder will somehow eliminate our baggage? I try it though, and as soon as I do, I feel lighter, as if I’ve disposed of something. I’m clearly not the only one who finds the exercise cathartic – there’s a real transformation in the room and many people’s tears have turned into laughter.
After the last session on rehearsing what to say or do if you bump into an ex finishes at 5.30pm, Sara offers all of us one-to-ones. By 8pm, many of us are sitting down for dinner after hitting the gym, the spa and the bar (the facilities are included in the retreat’s price, but food and alcohol are not). I underestimated the power of the group format, because, although we’re all from completely different walks of life, we all understand each other’s pain and trauma. It’s relieving to be in a place where I don’t have to explain what gaslighting is or the aftermath of dating a narcissist; they get it.
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The hotel isn’t solely for the heartbroken; on that weekend alone, it played host to several weddings and birthday parties. Given its remote location, I ask Sara whether it was a conscious decision to host the retreat somewhere so removed from everyday life. She answers yes: "I wanted to get people out of their routine and their normal environment. A lot of people going through break-ups focus on other people – instead, this is the chance to focus on you."
When I wake up the next day, I’m surprised to find that I’m in a bad mood and feel forced to go on my Instagram positive affirmation pages. The hotel staff have really spoiled us – there’s strawberries and chocolate, a card welcoming me and, upon my arrival, The Sunday Times is delivered to my doormat. But the vast luxuriousness of the room just reinforces the fact I have no one to share it with.
Back in the conference room for the second day of the retreat, I realise I’m in the minority – everyone else seems cheery and the room has a lighter energy, despite most of us hitting the bar the night before. One woman has literally transformed; on the first day, she hid behind her hair but by the second, we’re able to see her smiling. So why did I have bad dreams about my ex all night? All I seem to do is think about the past.
During an exercise on self-limiting beliefs, Sara makes me see that I’m stuck in a perpetuating cycle of ‘everyone’s out to hurt me’ and my immovable belief that everyone is a cheater. This is the first time I’ve come to the realisation that there’s some comfort and security in being engulfed in this cycle. In one sense, wallowing in it is easier than confronting my own fears about dating or being in another relationship.
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Another buddy also makes me see that I have a ‘never put your bag down’ mentality. She says that when she’s clubbing, she never leaves her bag as she doesn’t know who’s around. She says I do this with my life and she’s right – my fear of never wanting to be hurt or attract a narcissist again has stopped me from embracing new experiences. I’m uncomfortable, but I’ve realised that I need to allow myself to be open to meeting new people instead of staying in this vicious cycle, no matter how secure I find it.
In the final exercise of the day, ‘Stepping Stones’, we’re asked to envision our future and I’m intrigued to find that a lot of my goals include holidays! As Sara explains: "Many people see a break-up as the end of something, but it’s a golden opportunity to redesign your life and that is up to you to determine. You decide whether you take that baggage with you and you decide whether you’re going to be happy."
When we leave the retreat, we're all part of a WhatsApp support group and we’ve already decided we’re going to meet again in a few months. I'm worried about how the others will fare, considering many still live with their exes, but I find I return home with a new mindset. Yes, it’s expensive, but the lessons I learned to take into my next relationships are priceless. Now the only thing I need to do is put my bag down.
*Name has been changed
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