I clearly recall when Tinder launched, a little over a decade ago. It coincided with the breakup of a relationship I thought would go the distance. I was heartbroken and a little lost in life, and found the gamification of dating a fun distraction. Every new match came with a little dopamine hit and a glimmer of hope that maybe this time I had hit the jackpot.
My early 30s are a blur of drinks, dinners, gigs and gallery visits that rarely led to much more than another few dates (if that). Occasionally I felt a connection with someone yet things never progressed further than a summer fling. Meanwhile, the years passed and I grew increasingly frustrated that finding my person should be this tricky. Dating felt like a game I couldn’t crack and I desperately wanted to figure out where I was going wrong.
In my search for answers I turned to the plethora of advice offered by dating coaches and matchmakers who somehow made their way into my social media feeds. I watched their YouTube videos, read their books and listened to their podcasts for guidance. All of this was helpful up to a point — it made me aware of red flags to watch out for and, in some ways, more assertive about what not to put up with. But consulting so many different sources meant some of the advice seemed contradictory and I ended up confused about which approach to take. Despite my efforts, I was still single and now suffering from a serious case of dating fatigue. I suspected I would need to delve deeper into my own psychology if I were to have any sort of breakthrough in my love life.
I found a retreat called The Heart of Relationships, run by the British husband-and-wife facilitator team Emma and Matthew Pruen. Reading about how they help people transform their relationships with a unique combination of techniques including constellation therapy (a form of family therapy and nothing to do with astrology) and shamanic rituals, I was intrigued. And so one sun-soaked afternoon last summer, I turned up at the Pruens’ retreat in France (as part of a press trip so I didn't pay for my experience) an old manor house surrounded by sunflower fields a couple of hours’ drive from Bordeaux. The setting for our workshops was a converted barn, which was also where I slept, in a rustic-chic bedroom overlooking the countryside.
The moment I arrived I felt myself relax, both mentally and physically, intuitively knowing that coming here had been the right choice. Any qualms about signing up for group therapy were put to rest as I received a warm welcome from Matthew and Emma and met the other participants. Knowing we were about to bare our souls to each other, we ditched the small talk and opened up about why we were there.
I wasn’t the only single person but our group was mostly made up of couples in their 40s who had been together for many years and had hit a bump in the road. I felt a sense of trust and understanding form between us as we sat in a circle, taking it in turns to introduce ourselves and our stories. We were about to share thoughts and feelings we had perhaps never voiced before, and relive memories we normally did everything to suppress. "I’m massively outside my comfort zone right now," one guy admitted. We all were, we reassured him. That was the point.
Over the next few days Matthew and Emma guided us through exercises designed to help us better understand our relationship patterns and underlying needs, and — crucially — how to express them effectively. The most tangible way we explored this was through constellations: a form of therapy that uncovers the dynamics between people, such as family members. It reminded me of doing improvisation theatre in drama school, except this time we were portraying real people to help each other revisit past experiences.
One by one we were invited to share an issue that was troubling us, which was then acted out by the rest of the group, guided by Emma. When it was my turn, I asked for help figuring out how I could date more intentionally. To get a sense of the core issue, Emma probed me about my dating history, my family and childhood. She asked me to pick someone in the group to represent me, then picked out a male participant to represent a potential love interest. He approached my alter ego, smiling. "How do you feel?" Emma asked her. "I feel a bit nervous, like a horse that wants to bolt," she said. Sitting among the rest of the group, I held my breath as I watched the scene unfold, which now also included my unhappily married parents. I couldn’t believe how aptly two virtual strangers were portraying my mother and father, with barely noticeable direction from Emma. Somehow their improvised lines recreated real-life scenes, poking my deepest wounds. I was in floods of tears but felt the support of the group around me. In the final act, when my alter ego told her potential boyfriend that she needed to take things slowly and he expressed his understanding, I felt calm and relieved. It was like watching the happy ending to my own story. That may sound cheesy but it was a powerful way to learn that while we can’t change the past, we can reframe it, break old patterns and let go of limiting beliefs.
I had arrived at the retreat hoping to find out where I was going wrong in the dating process but came away with a much more fulfilling insight: far from wasting the past decade on bad dates, I have been working out what I want in life and from a partner. I don’t need to stress about being single because forming a good relationship isn’t the end goal; it will be a lifelong practice.
The retreat also helped me see that while books and podcasts can provide inspiration and food for thought, we can only really learn and grow from experience. I feel a lot more optimistic about the future and excited to date again but this time I’m ditching the apps in favour of seeing who I might meet in the wild.
The Heart of Relationships retreat will take place again in France from 4th to 7th June 2023. For more info, visit retreat.fr/making-relationships-work.