Insider's Guide to Spas
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Fundamentals

The Relationship Spa Where You Disconnect to Reconnect

Juliet Heeg


At the Larchmont Sanctuary Spa in Los Angeles, the massage is part of the message of relationship repair.

Can we ever really see ourselves and our relationships? Maybe love is blind, but love over time can become, well, removed—especially in the age of social “ME”dia. Photographer Eric Pickersgill, captures this in his exhibit entitled “Removed.” In his photo “Angie and Me,” we are asked to consider who we are to each other, without our smart phones. Here we see Eric and and Angie entranced. Entranced, not with each other, but with what has been “removed” from them. What has been removed from them is more than their devices alone. As their backs turn comfortably away from each other, they may not even know that what is missing is not outside of them: it is between them.

As Angie and Eric stare into space, we might wonder if another kind of space might inspire more connection. Perhaps, a space that asked the couple to tuck away their devices and tuck themselves into the soft linens of a massage table and the healing hands of a massage therapist would be a start. “Disconnect to reconnect” is the motto of the Larchmont Sanctuary Spa in Los Angeles. Husband and wife co-owners, Scott Buss and Tina Figueroa, walk the walk of spa connection.

Over a decade ago, the couple traded high-stress, 90-hour work weeks for 90-minute treatments and created a “relationship spa.”

They are avid enthusiasts of the relationship-building approach of the Gottman Institute. Drs. John and Julie Gottman say that a big predictor of a couple’s stability is if they can make “cognitive room” for their relationship, as well as their partner’s world. A resilient couple makes space for getting curious about each other . . . again . . . and again . . . and again. To get the conversation going, the Gottman Institute has created a card deck called the “Love Map” exercise and “Ask Open-Ended Questions.” It’s a game, but before you can really play you may need to do some deep-tissue work. Relaxation is key to creating more security and flexibility in all of our relationships, as we can easily fall into reactive emotional cycles with each other. At Larchmont Sanctuary Spa, spa-bonding is not limited to romantic couples. Pairings of friends, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and siblings can make use of rejuvenating treatments and the Gottmans’ Love Map cards. Once you have kicked back and put some cards on the table, you may discover that the deck is not stacked against your relationship.

The massage is part of the message of relationship repair. If you can take in a massage, you can begin to get in touch with yourself and your relationship.

Without a Whisper of Wifi in the Air

Before a stressed out couple gets into the Q & A mode, it helps to get into a more receptive state. To that end, a signature couple’s treatment “Date Night” offers partners a soak in a copper jacuzzi tub, and an aromatic outdoor massage. (See more treatments here: larchmontsanctuary.) Without a whisper of wifi in the air, couples can slowly turn to each other and begin to reconnect. Instead of asking your partner If he/she finally changed cable providers, or the linens, as you had asked, or some mundane, everyday thing . . . In the spirit of relationship building a la “Love Map,” you might pull an Open-Ended Question that asks: “If you could change into an animal for 24 hours, what would it be, and why?” It’s a way of getting out of the deadening couple-y cage and tapping into something more imaginative in yourself and in your partner. Or maybe pull a card that tests what you think you know about your partner: “What is your partner’s greatest fear or fondest dream, yet unachieved?” Can you allow yourself to “not know it all,” to be a little surprised? The Gottmans believe that continuing to learn about our loved one’s needs, experiences, wishes and worries, fosters resiliency which makes for a more secure and vital attachment.

The catch, of course, is that to create more secure attachment you need to take some risk. And, being human, we are prone to what behavioral economics calls “loss aversion,” a concept that means that we are more likely to perceive the downside of giving up something than the upside. So giving up your irresistibly all-knowing, glowing, dopamine-enhancing smart phone for some downtime with your main squeeze, can feel really uncomfortable, even dangerous!

A Spa Visit Can Help Reset & Repair Your Relationship

With a little digital detox nudging and indulging from a place like Larchmont Spa Sanctuary, you will find that the rewards of investing in your relationship outweigh the risks. The Gottmans call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. This foursome spells big trouble for couples. A spa visit could be just the thing to help you reset and repair. Gottman research has confirmed that it is the ratio of positive to negative interactions that helps to make a couple more secure. Roughly, if there are five positive interactions to one negative one, the relationship is deemed stable. The ability to rebound from conflict with a positive conversation is an important marker of emotional regulation in a couple. In over 40 years of research, the Gottmans discovered that most couples never resolve their conflicts, but more successful ones learn how to regulate their dynamic and nurture the relationship.

In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for Couples, founded by Dr. Sue Johnson, the idea is “the negative cycle” is the enemy—not you and not your partner. If the two of you can track the distressing cycle you are caught in, then you don’t have to “be” the cycle. Maybe it looks like: “When you get quiet, I think you don’t care about me.” This might then prompt the response of: “I get quiet because I don’t know how to help you when you are distressed.” This in turn, opens up more layers to the relationship and creates an appreciation of the depth of each other’s attachment. Even if things are wobbly, if you know that your partner cares, then things don’t feel so bad, so out of control. The couple can learn to get curious about how to work with each other in good times and trying ones—to connect, even when disconnected.

You can look at a negative cycle; “unpack” it and share the deeper needs beneath the protest. Once partners get more comfortable speaking from a place of deeper feelings and longing, they can find the strength and support they were seeking. After all, a “fight” is often a wish for more connection and a protest over disconnection.  We are often caught in a double-bind where we need each other’s influence so much that our need has to be denied, defended against, to feel less vulnerable. And that fear and/or anger, for example, comes out in ugly ways, sabotaging the relationship. When vulnerability is protested, opportunity is lost. Both the Gottmans’ and Sue Johnson’s approach have much to offer. The importance of a softening, relaxing stance is where spa comes in. In spa, physical and emotional vulnerability can emerge as strength, not weakness. On this subject, Larchmont Spa Sanctuary’s Scott Buss notes: “How powerful it is to receive a relaxing massage in the presence of your partner. You’re undressed, you’re vulnerable, and receiving this great treatment in a safe environment.”

That kind of care and healing can rub off on you and your relationship. It can create “a facilitating environment”— a term connected with British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott.

The massage is part of the message of relationship repair. If you can take in a massage, you can begin to get in touch with yourself and your relationship. Left to our own “virtual” devices, we may keep on tuning into cyber space and tuning out the opportunity for a more real and inviting space between each other. Maybe making “cognitive room” for our relationships, starts with a room, shared, live, in person, at the Larchmont Sanctuary Spa. And without a flicker of wifi, let the cards fall where they may.

Juliet Heeg

Juliet Heeg

Juliet Heeg, LCSW-R, is a psychotherapist who practices in Manhattan. She is a member of The International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (IARPP). Juliet looks forward to expanding her work with those who are struggling with loss, meaning, and the journey towards healing. For more information: http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/44591.