Dr. Israel Helfand ’80 and his wife Cathie, ’81 not only met at University of Bridgeport, the power couple also found business partners in each other after taking an introduction to counseling course at UB’s seaside campus. The Helfands are the driving force behind Marriage Quest, a 25-year-old practice that hosts retreats focused on marriage therapy, marriage repair, intimacy, and sexuality. The dynamic duo sat down with us and shared their story, the work they do, and insight into what the future holds for them both.
Israel and Cathie met during the fall of 1979. At the time, Israel’s job working in construction kept him quite busy, so he didn’t know many folks at UB. “I knew very few people at the university because I was so busy during the day,” said Israel. “With a full work schedule, my earliest classes started around five o’clock, and I rarely had time to go home and change before class. It was kind of challenging going to school at night in full uniform after a long day of work, but I think she (Cathie) liked the look!” At the time, Cathie was working as a counselor of youth services in Danbury, Connecticut, and decided to attend UB to obtain her master’s degree after receiving her undergraduate degree in Human Development and Family Studies at Ohio Wesleyan University. “After our first day of class together, Israel and I started chatting and learned that we lived 5-10 minutes apart, both an hour away from campus.”
At the time, both Israel and Cathie were married to other people but they stayed in touch. After learning that they both separated from their partners years later, they then began working together as a couple, helping other couples. “Cathie was living in Danbury, and I was living in a little log cabin in New Fairfield, Connecticut, and we decided to turn her apartment into an office” said Israel. “I was renting space from a chiropractor’s office, and I was doing all kinds of counseling from hypnosis to marriage counseling to sex therapy. I was also running programs for IBM, Boehringer Ingelheim, and other big companies where I was spearheading Employee Assistance Programs. Cathie eventually took over and our business took off.”
Over time, the Helfands continued to grow their successful practice in Danbury and started a family. As the dynamics of their neighborhood began to change, they considered other locations in which to grow. “We were starting to do more programs with our marriage counseling and wanted them to have more length,” said Cathie. “We started the journey of looking where to move to, and it took some time. Every time we went to a conference, we would think ‘Is this our home?’ and we eventually ended up in Vermont and built a home here.”
The Helfands purchased a forty-acre farm in Cabot, Vermont, that boasts wooded spaces for their outdoor retreats, a counseling center, farm buildings, and personal gardens. The property gave them the opportunity to expand upon the successful foundation they had already created. “We moved into a 150-year-old farmhouse and decided to heavily focus on marriage counseling by marketing marathon weekends around 2003,” Cathie said. “The website we put together took off immediately, we had people from all over the world coming to attend our retreats. We were so busy, we could have appointments back to back to back. In 2008, we hosted about 60 programs.”
Marriage Quest organizes private 3-day intensive retreats that identify common challenges within relationships and address issues that pertain to couples, all while developing new skills for couples to implement moving forward. Their unique approach came to fruition after Israel, a New York native, had an idea for speedy, intensive treatment sessions that directly address the problems couples face. “When I was going through my divorce, I talked my therapist into doing marathon weekend sessions. I like warp speed marriage therapy, so I designed a treatment plan that he was willing to try. It ended up being our blueprint.”
The successful business has accomplished so much since launching the retreat formats, but like many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark: all of their programs were halted due to safety concerns last year. Yet, their traditional approach hasn’t stopped them from helping others, as they enlisted the help of their son, Dr. David Helfand, to provide virtual retreats for couples willing to meet remotely. David has followed in his parents’ footsteps, boasting an impressive resume that specializes in clinical psychology, bio & neurofeedback, NeuroMeditation, Kripalu Yoga, hypnosis, and sex therapy. Together, the Helfands have observed how the pandemic has impacted clients from far and wide: “Covid has just exacerbated what we’ve always seen,” shared Israel. “It’s made it bigger and more present. If a couple is having a hard time being together, then now they have a harder time being together. If a couple really enjoys their time together, then they are finding their time together enriching.”
When asked what their “recipe for success” was for a happy marriage, both Israel and Cathie shared their top takeaways: “When speaking with your partner, share what you want, not what you don’t want,” said Israel. “Also, don’t rely on questions as a form of communication, instead make statements. Questions become punitive and can make the other person feel defensive.” Cathie also shared: “Spend time together. We call it ‘happy hour’: we get outside, we talk about projects and make time to walk on our paths and sit by our ponds and brooks. It amazes me how little time couples spend together. Many couples live in this divide-and-conquer world, and when they do get back together, they spend time with friends, with family, and with other couples. That is not time spent with each other, alone. Having that date night where you are truly having fun is so important.”
As businesses continue to re-open and the Helfands are now making in-person appointments once again, Cathie has a book coming out on Amazon.com titled “The Yummy Marriage.” The resource serves as the Cliffs Notes to the work that they do.
“It really is our life’s work. We have so much information that we teach, and we don’t want the knowledge to end with us.”
For more information about the Helfands and Marriage Quest, visit www.marriagequest.org.