I'm sitting in a hotel room in my undies and a white robe, bare toes in slippers. My husband, Mario, robe open at his chest, is gesturing. He's telling the blonde across from him how I take my coffee.
"And can you describe Karan's perfect day?" asks Ashley Howe, a family and couples therapist, as she leans forward, twisting a pen.
Mario describes a day at a museum, followed by a hike in the woods and then a family dinner, and, then, maybe, a movie.
Ding. Ding. Ding. I listen, smile, lean against him on the couch. He's right.
Move over hot stones, welcome to The Dating Game, spa edition. Spas, and the upscale hotels that house them, are always looking for interesting ways to help us relax and glow: warmed rainsticks rolled against tight calves, Russian caviar smoothed on brows, sugar and green tea rubbed between toes. And now this: a massage for relationships.
My husband wasn't originally enthusiastic. Talk therapy? That's the romantic getaway you booked? This is, of course, from a guy who enjoys it whenever I give him the silent treatment. The spa package - the Relationship Massage for Body and Mind, at Pillar and Post (vintage-hotels.com) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. - promised to rejuvenate our marriage and tend to our aching backs with a 60-minute chat with Howe, followed by a 50-minute couples massage.
And while other destinations, such as Hollyhock on Cortes Island in B.C., have long offered couples retreats, this one puts it on the spa menu.
"I just started noticing this emphasis on problem talk," explains Howe, who introduced the service at Pillar and Post. "I thought: 'There needs to be some conversations about where things are going fantastically - or even okay.'"
The Relationship Retreats draw on the discipline of positive psychology. And while it's a one-off session, it can still unearth new perspectives on how we relate, such as appreciating your partner's way of doing things. The context of a hotel spa, with its soothing palettes and space from the daily rush, is an ideal location for this kind of discussion, says Howe, who is also the relationship expert on the new Marilyn Denis TV talk show. "It's meant to be a positive spa treatment. It's meant to pamper your relationship, and each other."
Our break from routine started the moment we left our children in the care of their unflappable Nanna. It was the first night in seven months that we would be away, and I felt a little guilty leaving my littlest one, and excited too. With three kids and work and household duties, my husband and I rarely find time to connect.
The reality of our overnight escape kicks in as soon as we open the door to our suite in this front-porch tourist town in the heart of Ontario's wine country. Our room, decorated in calming browns and greens, is huge and Playmobil-free. The king bed is giant, and neatly made. No dishes, duties and exhausting bedtime routines await us. My husband does a little "happy dance," one I haven't seen in years.
The questions start with light ones that ferret out how well we know each other - whether we drink coffee or tea, our favourite TV shows - and then slip into more meaningful details, such as what first caught our eye about each other. Even after 15 years together, there are surprises. I never knew that my husband was first drawn to my "mysterious eyes." And I don't think I had ever told him how I loved his ability to grow a 5 o'clock shadow by 2.
The hour with Howe passes quickly as we take turns answering and listening and gleaning general therapy messages that crop up in the discussions, such as Howe's point that relationships change over time. When it's over, we head past the fieldstone walls and paintings of vineyards to our massage in the 100 Fountain Spa, recently named North America's top spa by SpasofAmerica.com.
We follow that up with a fireside dinner at the Cannery Restaurant. The room is decorated with agricultural artifacts, a nod to its past as Factory No. 13 when it processed peaches and tomatoes from Niagara. The cuisine is old-school with a twist: Marrakesh salmon with crispy curry on a bed of wilted rocket, or chicken supreme stuffed with mushrooms and feta cheese accompanied by pesto mash and salsa.
Both the massage and the hour of uninterrupted talk seem to imbue our moods with a lightness, even a silliness. When we head upstairs to our room, we even take a few Olympic-style dives onto the four-poster bed. What? Us? The "Stop-Jumping-on-the-Couch" parents?
Howe says the lingering benefit of this kind of spa treatment is that it provides a cushion for the next "arrgh" moment with your partner. "It puts you in a much better place to actually attack a problem," she says.
The next morning, before we head back to the city, I fill the coffee pot as my husband is showering, so when he emerges, he'll find java waiting. It's a small gesture, one I don't often have the energy for at home, but it's a start.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Relationship Retreats at Pillar and Post Hotel, 1-888-669-5566, vintage-hotels.com. Relationship Massage for Body & Spirit, $180 a person. Can be paired with accommodation.