They called from their remote fishing village in British Columbia. They had been on the precipice of a divorce but had backed away in horror after getting a closer look at all the damage that would have followed. They were willing to try the radical alternative of a private seven-day sailing odyssey with a psychologist and his wife to various towns along the rivers and sounds of North Carolina. They had found our website and read some of my book before calling us for help.
Marriage counseling is rarely done on the deck of a Nauticat 40 sailboat or sitting in the sand on an otherwise deserted beach. But there couldn’t be a better place to untangle the snarls of a troubled relationship. Helen and I have been exploring North Carolina’s intricate net of waterways, once a favored hiding place for pirates, for the past twenty-eight years.
We were on that secluded beach, on a little bay behind Shackleford Banks and Beaufort Inlet, with the husband and wife who had crossed a continent to do an overhaul on their marriage. The two of them had come to a pivotal point on the next to last day of the cruise, and I had literally drawn a line in the sand between them, one which neither was to cross. Carol ambled down the beach; her assignment: to come up with a full list of her resentments of Jim.
Helen, Jim and I waited in our beach chairs. We could see when the memory suddenly struck Carol. She stopped short and whirled around with intense emotion on her face. We already knew she handled these assignments well, which was one reason why she – and they – had already made so much progress on this odyssey.
Carol ran up to the line in the sand, leaning over it but careful not to step across. “When you put me down in front of your family at the club, I was humiliated… just humiliated!” she yelled at Jim, and started to cry. Jim said nothing and stared intently. He was also following instructions. Absolutely no rebuttals! That was the rule.
“I’m your wife! You’re supposed to support me! We’re a team!” Carol lit into Jim about how betrayed she had felt. The list of resentments she held in her hand flapped in the early morning sea breeze.
Things were going well. Long-held grievances were coming up to the light.
The sun was just breaking and gave an orange glow to the billowing cumulus clouds on the horizon. A lone wild horse, descended from the mounts of Spanish explorers, grazed in the tidal flats on water-engorged succulents. A sport fishing boat pounded its way past the old Civil War fort in the inlet toward the Big Rock area offshore where it would troll for a prized blue marlin. But Carol and Jim and Helen and I were after bigger game. We wanted to save a relationship and we were making good progress. In truth, this was just the final piece of Jim and Carol’s marriage-saving venture. They had already accomplished most of their mission along the way.
Even before they flew into the airport at New Bern, we had mapped many of their problems from various questionnaires that we had mailed to them. We already knew some of their blind spots by the time we hosted a Captain’s dinner the night before sailing to Ocracoke Island. This embarkation celebration gave the women a chance to dress up and I donned my captain’s whites complete with epaulets. As we dined at the Neuse River Club in Oriental, we were able to talk with them about the emotional dynamics we already suspected were at work in the marriage. It was a perfect nautical setting in which to discuss some hard truths.
Salt Water Therapy
The itinerary was to depart for Ocracoke Island the following morning aboard our 1987 Nauticat 40 ketch “Dragon Lady.” The boat is a sturdy Sparkman & Stevens design with a pilothouse that’s perfect for couples counseling. The upper deck allows enough room for movement and fair weather counseling sessions. The pilothouse lets us feel connected to the water even when we’re inside. On early morning departures, Helen usually serves a sumptuous breakfast on the pilothouse table. On calm crossings, we can set up a large dry-erase board to help couples outline their joint vision statement for meeting mutual needs and goals. The lower teak lined salon-galley offers a less distracting private area for training couples how to do self-hypnosis. It may seem strange to imagine hypnosis in a cruising sailboat for the purpose of strengthening personal boundaries but it works.
The boat name “Dragon Lady” is a private joke. When Helen was the principal of a multi-handicapped program for blind and crippled children, she was nicknamed “The Dragon Lady” by state legislators because she would fight to get funding for her kids. I was proud of her earning that name. Carol, who tended to hide anger, later appreciated this story when I confronted her about how she needed to use anger to rebalance her relationship. She had suffered severe emotional damage through the years by avoiding anything that might lead to a confrontation.
Important changes were taking place and, at the same time, Jim and Carol were having a good time on their voyage to Ocracoke. They quickly adapted to the schedule we would employ the rest of the trip: two hours of counseling/training in the morning and two hours in the late afternoon. They had the rest of the time free to enjoy the quaint island B&B’s in which they spent each night. They could explore the numerous craft shops, beaches, museums, local restaurants and historical sites such as the British cemetery on Ocracoke where several seamen were laid to rest on “British” soil after losing a battle with a German submarine.
Novelty was an important part of the strategy. The odyssey from port to port is a powerful metaphor for personal change. The commitment to depend on each other while venturing to new places helps to liberate a couple’s mental outlook. It’s a break from the roles in which they’ve usually become stuck. We typically sail from Oriental to Ocracoke Island and stay two nights, then back to Oriental for another overnight stop. From there we head up the Neuse River to stay overnight in New Bern, home of a royal governor’s palace. Then we sail and motor down to the waterfront village of Beaufort for another two nights before returning to port. A day trip to majestic Cape Lookout and its lighthouse is also offered with the caveat that it limits counseling time that day.
Outside of time with Helen and me, Carol and Jim had exercises to practice: some involving holding and touching, others calling for writing to each other about delicate issues. We saw them diligently writing their letters beside Ocracoke’s Silver Lake harbor where we were docked. They both loved the marina deck area of the many-gabled historic bed-and-breakfast where they stayed.
Helen and I kept our clients in constant motion. On one day we ferried them to Springer Point on the sound side of Ocracoke. This remote beach was said to have been a favorite partying place of Blackbeard and his crew in 1718 when the pirates would anchor their ship in nearby Teach’s Hole. They would swill rum, barbecue hogs and make merry there on the same beach where we picnicked. A small overgrown cemetery was nestled several hundred yards into the scraggly oak forest behind the beach. We all wondered about the untold story behind a horse statue headstone over one of the graves. Back on the beach the four of us talked intimately while enjoying wine, cheese and fruit under the sun umbrellas we had brought with us. Helen and I shared some of our own struggles over the years because we wanted our clients to have no illusions. All relationships have struggles.
Jim and Carol made the most of the voyage in more than one way. Their exploring took them to the colonial Tryon Palace, home of the first colonial governor of the Carolinas. In New Bern they also stopped in for a taste of “Brad’s Drink” in the little corner store where pharmacist Caleb Bradham concocted his first Pepsi over a hundred years ago. In Beaufort, they were lucky to catch the annual boat show where teams of boat builders competed to build their little skiffs in less than a day. They viewed the old cemetery in Beaufort where interesting pre-Revolutionary stories were written on some of the headstones. One headstone revealed how one of the departed had been brought back to port in a pickle barrel. In the North Carolina Maritime Museum, they found artifacts from Blackbeard’s ship Queen Ann’s Revenge. The ship was still being excavated just offshore near Beaufort Inlet. In the evening, an acoustic rock group entertained a crowd gathered on the boardwalk in front of the legendary Beaufort Dock House.
Building the Fire
While Jim and Carol explored the sights, sounds and tastes of each town, they continued to do their relationship homework. One assignment called “micro-corrections” required that they randomly feign some disrespect toward the other so that they both could practice good repair techniques. All of their work seemed to naturally culminate in one final experience: their resentment burial ceremony at sunrise, their moment with the line drawn in the sand.
On the beach, they finished listening to each other’s lists of resentments as Helen kept time, periodically calling out the minutes remaining.
“Two” she said in a low voice as she raised two fingers.
Carol finished her last complaint and fell silent. We waited with only the sound of waves lapping on the shore but with many thoughts in our heads. This was important stuff. Two people were determining their future. Helen signaled that the time was up and I took over the ceremony from there.
Jim and Carol were instructed to crumple both of their resentment lists together and place them into a deep hole we had previously dug in the sand. This would be the grave site. They seemed to take delight in lighting the crematory fire together. Everyone stood watching in reverent silence as the fire burned. I couldn’t help but think of the years of resentment being consumed. When there were only ashes left, the grave was filled and the sand smoothed over. We then moved over to the water’s edge to complete the ceremony. Helen served as witness and I faced Jim and Carol to read the prepared vows.
“Do you, Jim, commit to the responsibility of burying your old resentments and protecting your relationship with Carol by focusing instead on present and future shared opportunities as best friends?”
“I do.” Jim replied.
“And do you accept the responsibility to help repair your relationship whenever you or Carol momentarily fail in your responsibility to protect it?”
“And do you, Carol, commit to the responsibility of burying your old resentments and protecting your relationship with Jim by focusing instead on present and future shared opportunities as best friends?”
“I do,” she replied.
“And do you accept the responsibility to help repair your relationship whenever you or Jim momentarily fail in your responsibility to protect it?”
“Then by the authority vested in me as captain of your Love Odyssey, I hereby pronounce these old resentments BURIED IN THE PAST!”
Jim and Carol embraced and stood kissing for a very long time while Helen and I uncorked the champagne. We toasted high to Jim and Carol’s future relationship but also to their living in the present. The ceremony was over.
As Helen and I packed up our gear, Carol and Jim held onto each other as they strolled slowly down the beach. We noticed when Jim separated for a moment and walked up into the dunes. Then he came back with a handful of some of yellow wild flowers. They were rather plain, but Carol seemed to receive them as the most beautiful arrangement she had ever seen.
As we boarded the dinghy I whispered to Jim that he might also want to find a bauble of jewelry in Beaufort as a memento for Carol. I later learned he took my suggestion. With the outboard engine droning in our ears, we motored back toward Taylor Creek and Beaufort. I noticed that Helen was gazing at me with an unusual expression on her face.
“Look at those moony eyes!” I teased. “You’re giving me those moony eyes aren’t you?”
Helen didn’t answer. She just put the biggest grin on her face and nodded her head from side to side as if to say I had caught her doing something mischievous. But I knew exactly what she was thinking. Our minds are really that connected. We were both thinking that this was the very essence of the rest of our lives. We would be combining our passion for sailing as well as our spiritual need to contribute to life beyond our own.
Jim and Carol became a bit complacent with their improved relationship following their Love Odyssey. They had felt so positive at the end. But when they hit some trouble during a crisis involving their children, they called us for a follow-up Skype session. We did some retooling and instilled more realistic expectations. After that they got back to work on their relationship with due diligence. We had another Skype session later while they were vacationing in Cozumel. Both Carol and Jim reported that they were maintaining and even thriving. The following year they sent us a smoked salmon for Christmas and told us how happy they were in their new relationship.