I tuned into Marriage Boot Camp on TLC last night and got a funny feeling watching the show. Couples with serious marriage problems gather for weekend seminars and air their dirty laundry to participants while Dr. Phil sound-alikes stand behind them and tell them what to say. Though Marriage Boot Camp claims they are not affiliated with Dr. Phil, a few of their "marriage experts" were very involved with Thelma Box and others early on or they have been trained by Dr. Phil's coaching instructors. They have gone on to develop a very LGAT-ish marriage boot camp, sans therapists, marriage counselors, and anyone else with training in psychology.
Marriage Boot Camp all about tough love
Idea has drawn thousands to area seminars, and it is about to be on TV
03:02 PM CDT on Tuesday, October 9, 2007
By JAKE BATSELL / The Dallas Morning Newsjbatsell@dallasnews.com
PLANO – Five couples amble into a meeting room, take their seats and anxiously eye one another as Joe Cocker's scratchy voice belts out an urgent plea:
Love lift us up where we belong.
It's time for another Marriage Boot Camp at Plano Centre.
Over the next four days, these couples will try everything from blindfolded dodge ball to group revelations in hopes of improving their marriages. An army of facilitators in dark suits – both men and women – will lead a regimen of intense, sometimes confrontational drills that diverge sharply from traditional marriage therapy.
"They're going to stay in your face," camp director David Bishop says. "We're going to be targeting hot spots in your marriage."
Mr. Bishop and the camp's founder, Jim Carroll of Richardson, don't claim to be licensed therapists – Mr. Bishop is a retired Dallas firefighter; Mr. Carroll, a security company executive.
But the duo's program of tough-love drills, competitions, games and interventions has drawn nearly 3,000 people to seminars in Plano and Richardson since 2002.
Later this month, their methods will gain even more exposure when the reality TV show Marriage Camp debuts on the Learning Channel.
There's the Parachute, an exercise in which spouses on a doomed plane must decide which one will live. Or the drill where spouses swing giant foam noodles to "beat" undesirable qualities out of one another.
Other exercises put campers on the spot in front of the group, including forgiveness drills that force spouses to confront painful moments.
In advance footage of the television show provided by the network, Mr. Carroll and Mr. Bishop single out a couple grappling with infidelity.
"Is it OK what you did?" Mr. Carroll asks the woman as dozens of others look on.
"No, it's not OK," she replies, grasping her husband's hands. "But I didn't do it to hurt you. I did it because I was hurting. I'm truly sorry I hurt you. If I could take it back, I would in a heartbeat."
Organizers say such emotionally intense drills distinguish the boot camp from a crowded field of marriage seminars and retreats. They say they give couples fair warning that the boot camp won't be gentle.
"You tell them ahead of time, 'Hey, we're going to be rough and tough. You're probably going to hate us,' " Mr. Carroll said. "If they know to expect that, then they roll with the punches."
But organizers say the success of their blunt approach is evident in a constant stream of referrals by program graduates. And while the boot camp stopped keeping follow-up statistics last year, Mr. Bishop said 16 of the 18 couples filmed for the show last fall are still together.
"We don't counsel," Mr. Bishop added. "We don't give advice. They find their own answers as they're going through these games and drills."
Both directors say the boot camp is shaped in part by their own divorces and their experience with Christian ministry groups. But the seminar is nondenominational, and its alumni include atheists, Muslims and same-sex couples.
Mr. Carroll, who once trained under celebrity psychologist Phil McGraw, began developing the program five years ago during his honeymoon with his current wife.
He held the first boot camp in Plano in September 2002. Ever since, people have been flying in to attend the seminars from as far away as Africa, often sponsored by previous attendees.
Angie and Jared Zuniga had separated several times before they volunteered to be filmed for the show.
When the Zunigas drove up to Richardson last year from Leander, an Austin suburb, both expected that they would end up divorcing after the seminar.
"This was the very last thing on the list that we hadn't tried yet," Ms. Zuniga said.
Mr. Zuniga said the boot camp helped him resolve personal issues that other forms of therapy couldn't fix. Camp leaders constantly turned the tables by forcing him to account for his own behavior rather than blaming his wife.
"It just exposed who I am, 100 percent," he said. "I would not be married today if it wasn't for that."
Keith Hammond, a retired Marine master sergeant who lives in Allen, said the boot camp's four-day progression of drills allows attendees to delve deeply into personal pain that may be hurting their marriages.
"The problem with typical counseling is, you just don't get enough time to get into the meat of what you need to resolve before the time is up," said Mr. Hammond, a boot camp graduate who now works as a facilitator. "You don't have the kind of intensity over a period of time, like the boot camp affords."
Not therapy, therapeutic
Leon Ashley Peek, a Denton psychologist who works with divorcing couples, said boot-camp-style seminars can be helpful if they spur couples to communicate better with each other.
But if a spouse is suffering from depression or another serious mental illness, Dr. Peek said, it's best to seek out a trained mental health professional rather than a seminar led by lay counselors.
"This stuff isn't therapy," he said.
Prospective participants should be aware that all-consuming programs like the boot camp can trigger deep-seated emotions, said James Campbell Quick, a University of Texas at Arlington professor who specializes in stress management.
"You can have problems break out or surprise you," Dr. Quick said.
Mr. Carroll acknowledges that the boot camp is not therapy and that its leaders "have no titles, no paperwork, nothing behind our names." But he said the seminar's intensive format leads to breakthroughs that couples can't achieve in traditional therapy.
"We think counseling's good, but if you go to counseling, it's almost like you have to start over every session," he said. "And then the counselor really can't get into people's faces, because they won't go back to the counselor anymore."
Maryanne Watson, a Plano psychologist who refers clients to the boot camp, said the seminar is "not therapy, but it's therapeutic."
"There's so much feeling and intensity, they really rebond," Dr. Watson said. "They also get rid of a lot of anger."
The success of any marriage seminar depends on how well couples follow through once they get home, Dr. Peek said.
"It's easy to get together and get all gung-ho about being a good communicator and telling your partner what you feel," Dr. Peek said. "But to get that to transfer so you do it at home is much more valuable."
The Zunigas said they've been able to maintain the momentum since turning the corner during last year's filming.
"It's more like two best friends who love each other and know they're going to be together forever," Mr. Zuniga said. "Those little problems that come up, they're just kind of trivial."
MORE ABOUT MARRIAGE
ABOUT THE SEMINAR
The Marriage Boot Camp, held monthly at Plano Centre, costs $600 a person for a four-day workshop and $400 a person for an evening-only workshop. For more information, visit www.marriagebootcamp.com.
ABOUT THE TV SHOW
Marriage Camp debuts on the Learning Channel (TLC) at 6 p.m. Oct. 24.