Sitting at a two-top inside Max’s Wine Dive, my husband and I found ourselves engaging in some deviant behavior. We were slightly tipsy, and we were...talking. I mean, really talking. We sifted through our passions, elaborated on long-term dreams. We didn’t mention our kids once. It was almost like we were on a first date. A decade into our relationship, the whole scene was more than a little exhilarating. And we had dinner therapy to thank.
The last time my husband and I had gone to marriage counseling was in 2010 — and then only because the Episcopal Church said we had to if we wanted to get married under its roof. It was Father Archie’s way or the highway, and much like court-ordered sobriety, our six awkward sessions of chapel counseling felt like a sham — a mere formality rather than a pathway to true marital enlightenment.
Blame it on the way the clerical collar fit Archie’s neck, but we never sought out any couple’s therapy after we’d left the rectory. And trust me: It hasn’t been for a lack of need.
Sharing a life with a husband, two kids and a cocker spaniel named Walter, the tedium of true love had entrenched itself deep inside me like colon cancer, and I was doing everything I could to keep it from bursting out into something terminal. That’s a fancy way of saying that Ben and I have all the normal and abnormal problems as most couples — the ones who don’t practice meditation or homicide.
So we were both a little nervous as we followed therapist Sarah Tie downstairs to the basement-level office of her business, Winding Path Counseling. Ben and I settled onto opposite ends of Tie’s couch, where we were relieved to discover that marriage counseling with a trained professional wasn’t going to be the bumbling chore it had been with a pastor.
“Most couples don’t want to go to therapy until they’re in crisis,” Tie explained. That realization was the impetus for her clever spin on the ubiquitous “dinner and a movie” date night that’s become the default for so many twosomes. The problem with seeing a movie together is that you still don’t connect with your partner in a meaningful way.
Now, just in time for Valentine’s Day, Tie is launching an alternative: dinner therapy. For $99, couples get an hour-long counseling session along with a $50 gift card to Max’s Wine Dive, at 696 Sherman Street, right across the street from Winding Path. Tie recommends using the card immediately after therapy — and if you don’t care about being outed to your waiter, she’ll even make your reservation for you.
Tie is clear from the get-go that dinner therapy isn’t intended for couples with major setbacks. “Big issues need concentrated work,” she says. But for couples wanting a quick tune-up, the package could be very beneficial. Maintaining a long-term relationship is kind of like keeping the house clean: If you do light tidying on a regular basis, you’ll never have a giant mess on your hands. Problem is, when it comes to maintenance, a lot of us don’t know where to begin.
Tie starts by emailing participants a two-page questionnaire that they should complete pre-visit. The worksheet asks each partner about the level of connection they feel and also their conflict-resolution style. On the big night, Tie will use that sheet to get the ball rolling. From there, she homes in on one specific area that could use extra attention.
“Every couple has what we call a gridlock problem,” Tie told us on our visit.
“Like when he’s a cat person and you’re a dog person,” I suggested.
Tie quickly offered an alternative: “The classic example is when an introvert and an extrovert get together.”
That really resonated, since I’m an extroverted introvert married to an introverted extrovert. “All couples have personality differences that cause friction,” Tie said.
For Ben and I, the friction tends to pop up in the budgetary department, mostly because Ben has the impulsive spending habits of a thirteen-year-old girl, which is what I told Tie when she asked what problem we wanted to talk about. Ben responded by looking at me the same way our cocker spaniel does when he’s had an accident on the rug, then calmly pointed out that I’d been wearing the same Gap maternity shirt for six years, since I was pregnant with our first son. But I hardly heard him, because I was busy asking Tie about putting a parental block on Ben’s computer to stop the online shopping, and if she was stealthy enough to sneak into his office at work and...
Tie stopped me to explain that “communication difficulties” are common for couples. Sensing my passion and Ben’s stoicism, she added, “What can be really helpful is to figure out how to be on the same level during arguments.” She then recommended a few techniques for calming down, and also asked us to come up with a code word to use when disagreements intensify. (I’m rooting for “Zac Efron,” but nothing’s set in stone yet.)
“When you’re on the same page, you can look at a problem differently — you can look at it as the couple versus the problem instead of one partner versus the other,” Tie explained. Simple, but smart.
Walking across the street to dinner a few minutes later, I was surprised by how genuinely satisfied I felt about our session. Sure, Ben and I still have all the normal and abnormal problems most couples have, but we’d had a good talk with Tie — and the rest of our issues were nothing a good bottle of wine couldn’t fix.
On general manager Chris David’s recommendation, we ordered Last Judgment, a jammy red blend out of California, one of Max’s Wine Dive’s proprietary bottles. Patrons have access to a handful of wines on tap, too, along with a well-sourced international wine list and all the requisite cocktails.
A far cry from an actual dive, Max’s is a tight, industrial-chic joint in the shadow of Racines. Based on proximity alone, the place was an obvious choice for Tie’s culinary partner. But the chef-driven menu, filled with approachable adaptations of down-home dishes, wasn’t likely to cause conflict, either.
As David pointed out, “The slogan is, ‘Fried chicken and champagne? Why the hell not?’” While my husband debated between the fried chicken and the balsamic short rib, I went for the plant-based winter special: sweet-potato capelli in garlic cream, topped with toasted pecans. (The go-to vegetarian dish is truffle Max ’N Cheese, according to David.)
“We try to source as locally as possible,” David shared, rattling off a list of Colorado purveyors that includes Tender Belly, City Bakery Cafe and Colo-Pac Produce. The restaurant also boasts a free jukebox loaded with classic rock. While there’s no room for dancing at Max’s, the music was still a way to connect — which can be a novelty when you’re married with kids and a cocker spaniel.
For couples who already have their you-know-what together, Tie recommends treating dinner therapy like well visits to the doctor: Come in annually or semi-annually for a quick evaluation and preventative workup. Tie’s definitely on to something here. If my general practitioner funneled me toward a wine bar with good eats after my annual exams, I know I’d be a much more willing participant.
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