“The Spa Date is not therapy,” insists clinical therapist Ashley Howe. “It’s meant to revitalize and celebrate all that is wonderful about you and your relationship. Spas are all about mind, body and spirit. This focuses on the mind.” Well, you can dress it up however you want—in this case, in robes and slippers in a spa room—but it’s still two people talking about their relationship in front of a professional.
Howe, who has a master’s degree in couples and family therapy, founded Spa Date last year. “I don’t believe that traditional couples therapy works,” she says. “Couples will show up and just end up hammering out their issues in a last-ditch effort or because one party feels guilty and figures they should at least try to save their relationship with counselling.” After years of working with couples on the brink, Howe realized, “This sucks.” And, also, that traditional couples counselling was “not helping to encourage the relationship.” She thought couples needed a more “positive way to look at their relationship.”
It can’t hurt that couples going to see her (or one of her trained professionals) on a Spa Date are offered a glass of champagne and a cheese plate. Still, I’ll admit I was skeptical. Wouldn’t men feel less comfortable talking about their relationship in a robe in front of a stranger? Most importantly, I wondered, “Does she not know I’m naked under here?”
“You’d be surprised,” says Howe. “Most of the bookings are done by men. They get it for their wives’ birthdays or anniversaries. The men are only too happy to come.” Still, she admits her clients are usually nervous. “People always ask, ‘We’re not sure what this is,’ and I just tell them that it is light and you can’t get it wrong. I make small talk with them, ask them if they’ve been on wine tours, or to any good restaurants, just so they can see this is supposed to be fun.”
Howe’s Spa Dates are offered at vacation resorts and spas and at hotels, including the Vintage Hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They’re mostly booked by people on holiday. “When people are away from their everyday, they are more receptive to appreciation and celebration of their relationships. So it’s not only restorative but it can have long-lasting effects,” she says.
Howe starts the session with what she describes as a quick “warm-up.” It kind of feels like the Dating Game. Howe takes my boyfriend and me through a set of questions inspired by “therapeutic models.” She starts by asking my boyfriend to answer questions about my likes and dislikes, including what my favourite time of day is, favourite season, place in the world, what annoys me. I’m happy when my guy answers correctly. I can see he’s been paying attention and I’m surprised at how well he knows me. When it’s my turn, I realize I didn’t know his favourite season. I should.
The second part of the session gets more serious. She asks him what my three best qualities are and what he sees as my top three physical qualities. Then it’s my turn. (It turns out most women answer “hands” when it comes to what they find sexy about their men.)
“Couples are out of the habit of liking each other, so when they are asked to say nice things about each other it really gets to them. A lot of men will actually tear up and cry when I ask their wives when they were last proud of their husbands. And women will respond like you, like, ‘Awww, really? You feel that way?’ ” says Howe.
She also finds that couples love talking about when they first met. “If you’ve been married for 15 or 20 years, they love to share that with you. And it helps them remember how in love they are.” Not once has a couple left angry, she claims.
The hour goes surprisingly quickly. Howe assumes most people leave the spa and head to the nearest bedroom. (As the hour progresses, I find myself leaning more into my guy and he’s touching me more.)
So why can’t we just make up questions and do this at home? “It’s like a wedding. It means something different when there is a witness,” says Howe. “It’s a treatment that lasts longer than a pedicure will,” she laughs as she leaves the room. Here’s hoping.