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What is the Heartbreak Hotel retreat?

BY Annie Dabb

27th Jul 2023 Wellbeing

What is the Heartbreak Hotel retreat?

Since your baby left you, have you been looking for a new place to dwell? Instead of heading down to the end of Lonely Street, founder Alice Harden and co-founder Ruth Field have a much more comfortable and luxurious Heartbreak Hotel offering, nestled within the picturesque countryside.  

This woman-only transformational therapy retreat delivers community, compassion and evidence-based psychological therapy, with the aim of transforming women’s heartbreak into power and purpose.  

Drawing on the power of female solidarity, the retreat combines group therapy with warmth, comfort, good food, yoga and nature, taking care of guests so that they can rediscover their clarity, focus and confidence, and ease the pain of their heartbreak in the process, to embrace the future with a new perspective, a renewed energy and hope.

Ruth was kind enough to give me an hour of her time to probe her with all the questions I had about why she and founder Alice decided to develop this intensive transformational therapy programme, the goals and values at the core of the heartbreak hotel and what women in search of care and healing from a broken heart can hope to experience at the four-day retreat.

What is the Heartbreak Hotel?

Alice Hadden and Ruth Field Founders of the Heartbreak Hotel: Alice Hadden (left) and Ruth Field (right)

Losing her mother during the COVID pandemic, psychologist Alice took compassionate leave from her practice, during which she thought about why therapy is often carried out in weekly sessions and whether this was working effectively. A combination of things led to the creation of the Heartbreak Hotel.

Alice considered the things she needed while she was in emotional pain: warm blankets, time, not to have to make any decisions, and a hot water bottle, all wrapped into a cocooning experience so that she could go through the emotions that accompany grief. Combining this with sympathy for women going through romantic heartbreak who felt like they had nowhere to turn, Alice knew exactly what she, and women in general, needed.

"Alice wanted to set up a place for women to be together in their emotional pain"

“After thirty years in private practice, she had seen threads to women’s experiences that all amounted broadly to the same experience when there’s a loss or heartbreak. She wanted to set up a place for women who are in emotional pain and who could be together in that pain.”

An alternative to the fifty minute therapy session, at the Heartbreak Hotel, professionals like Ruth and Alice shine a consistent therapeutic light on someone’s process for a whole weekend, as a way of accelerating the process of healing.

“Alice and I are coming into the space as experts but also as women who have suffered”.

What happens at the retreats?

Fair Oak Farm countryhouse Credit: Fair Oak Farm 

Without wanting to give too much away, Ruth explains that “women come, they are guided through a refined and carefully considered programme of evidence based psychological therapies and techniques.”

The retreat includes “elements of their past experience and attachment patterns, elements of their present experience in relation to their heartbreak, and looking to their future with purpose.”

As Ruth describes the process, she both verbalises and gestures the idea of a psychological arc which the Heartbreak Hotel is designed to guide women through which is mesmerising.

“There’s amazing food by our wonderful chef Genevieve, who is just so loving and nurturing, and we also have yoga classes by an amazing yogi.” Everything is done purposefully and is intensive, well thought out and most importantly, evidence based.

“People come and tend to be a bit anxious…but they very quickly share their story of heartbreak right at the start. In that way, everyone feels that they don’t have to hide anything” through a sense of shared vulnerability.

The Heartbreak Hotel’s environment “facilitates great strides in healing and progress”, in part due to the surrendering of alcohol and technology that can be used to “distract us from our feelings”, and the negation of tiring responsibilities in women’s daily lives.

However, Ruth acknowledges that, "of course, you have to go back to your life as soon as you finish and don’t have people looking after you in the same way. It’s important to prepare guests for this experience and arm them with the right tools to be able to be able to deal with this themselves.”

She tells me that all guests also get put in a Whatsapp group when they leave the retreat which has proven to be an incredible resource for everyone that comes; “they stay really connected and accountable to each other and remind each other what they’ve learnt.

It’s amazing what women can do for each other as well as what we can do for them at the retreat. They end up helping each other and standing up for each other in an amazing way because even though it’s only 3-4 days at the retreat, sometimes they’ve shared things they’ve never shared with anyone else, so they feel very seen and heard.”

Why women specifically? 

Heartbreak Hotel 3 women's faces Credit: the Heartbreak Hotel 

“It’s specifically women because we’re women”, Ruth tells me. While Alice and Ruth have both worked with men previously in their respective careers, Ruth suggests that “there is a particular experience that women have which extends far beyond the heartbreak that brings them to the hotel, which is the wider heartbreak of all women having been born into patriarchal systems.

"There is a particular experience that women have...the wider heartbreak of all women having been born into patriarchal systems"

There are these other threads that we context with women’s heartbreak experience that help to contextualise and situate it within this broader context.

“It's not that men don’t get heartbroken, they do, but we’re very happy for other people to take up that battle. We can’t do everything and we’d rather do what we feel we’re best placed to do and are passionate about and that is helping women at the moment.”

“Bringing people together who have a similar experience of heartbreak connects them in that story which makes doing the work easier in that group.”

How did you assemble your team at the retreat? 

Fair Oak Farm Farmhouse Dining Credit: Fair Oak Farm Dining Room 

Having previously practised as a criminal barrister herself, Ruth shares her view that “a criminal court is a heartbreak epicentre, and in that sense I felt well placed to help people that were in a really difficult situation and who felt that they were at the end of a life of something.”

“The reason that it’s very psychologically informed because not only does Alice have all of this experience in private practice and in the NHS, but she’s also an academic at a university and teaches the PhD psychology students so some of them intern on the retreats or work as well.”

In terms of the evidence-based psychological aspect, which is what makes the Heartbreak Hotel stand out from other well-being retreats, Ruth explains how rigorous data drives the hotel’s therapeutic aspect.

Guests’ feelings are measured periodically: at the beginning and end of the retreat, as well as 6 months and a year after their hotel check-in.

What values make a good relationship? 

Women standing together smiling Credit: SouthWorks

“As far as our guests are concerned in terms of the decisions they make and judging the person who has caused them this pain… we absolutely have no investment in decisions that guests make about whether to stay or whether to go or what to do.

But we are invested in them working out what they want to do. We’re just guiding them towards what it is they want.”

“As women…even as daughters and siblings, we lose something about ourselves at different stages of our lives. In a long relationship that goes sour, we can lose a large amount of ourselves, and it’s about what matters most to us as women and as individuals and is ultimately what will help move us forward in a way that feels good.

"As women…we lose something about ourselves at different stages of our lives"

When we’re operating in a relationship always to another, we lose what it is we want a bit, and women tend to do that a lot more I think.”

“When children come into the equation, that can get more pronounced, that loss of identity or what it is women really want gets subsumed in role of mother, wife, etc. If that goes on for an extended period of time, it can be a long time since women have really thought about who she is outside of a long marriage and motherhood.

You can’t do it soon enough as a woman, to reconnect with yourself, and I find that very much with the younger women, who feel it very powerfully when they get it, and want that for themselves.

It feels good to send them off after the retreat standing so strong in their own identity and keeping that going forward.”

“It’s all about getting back together with yourself” Ruth concludes, smiling. "Come and let us look after you for a little bit". 

The Heartbreak Hotel: The Book

Finding Your Self at the Heartbreak Hotel book cover

Credit: Alice Haddon and Ruth Field 

Passionate about helping all women, Ruth and Alice were approached by a literary agent following their very first retreat who persuaded them to write a book for women emulating the experience of the retreat.

The book, in addition to the work they’re doing online support to expand the Heartbreak Hotel globally, to connect women worldwide and to overcome affordability difficulties (at around £3,000 per retreat it’s definitely a treat yourself kind of programme), will be available to buy from February 1, 2024. You can preorder it here

Unlike your regular self-help book, The Heartbreak Hotel will guide readers through a retreat in real-time, immersing readers so that they finish the book “in a completely different relationship with the heartbreak that brought them to the retreat”, or that made them pick up the book in the first place.

If you want to find your self at the Heartbreak Hotel, Alice and Ruth are running the next retreat "Get Back Together With Yourself", at the Fair Oak Farm in Sussex from October 30 to November 2. 

There are options for an early bird discount if you book now, as well as a nurses discount and different room options at the venue itself. Click here to book. 

Photo credit: Alice Hadden and Ruth Field 

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