After being dumped, can a $4,000 breakup boot camp help you heal?

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When filmmaker Tito Molina told his business partner and ex-girlfriend that he was attending a breakup retreat to help him heal from their recent split, she offered to help him pay for it.

Molina’s ex ended their relationship in early September, a couple of weeks before their nine-year anniversary. Molina said the breakup was sudden and devastating. But leading up to it, he had felt as if they were the happiest they’d ever been given how well their production company was doing. After their breakup, he realized that his attention to work and not his ex’s needs had caused a strain in their relationship.

Tito Molina wanted to attend the retreat after going through a devastating breakup with his former girlfriend.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

Molina, 35, had experienced previous breakups. However, he said this one hit him differently.

“I thought [she] was my life partner, so my identity was attached to her,” he said while sitting inside a lodge in mid-November during a 96-hour breakup retreat in Philo, Calif., about 130 miles northwest of San Francisco. “When I lost that, I lost myself and I was like, ‘I need help finding who I am.’ We live together. We have a dog together. We have a business together. We share friends. We share everything. Our lives were completely entangled, so it just felt like too grand of an undertaking for myself. I just knew I didn’t have the tools to get myself out of this.”

The day after their separation, Molina, who lives in Los Angeles, enrolled in therapy and began searching for wellness retreats. He came across Renew Breakup Bootcamp, a twice-yearly retreat for people who’ve gone through heartbreaks or struggled to find romantic partners.

“Some people would think this was a waste of money, but it’s because we value material things,” Molina said. “We don’t value ourselves. We don’t value our mental health.”

The recent retreat took place over four days at the Land, a 162-acre Northern California retreat center. Retreat founder Amy Chan hosts another version of the boot camp in upstate New York during the spring.

Since Chan launched the experience in 2017, the retreats have welcomed dozens of female attendees who have participated in workshops and shared their personal stories in a safe space among strangers. This fall, Chan decided to welcome men and nonbinary people for the first time.

“I don’t think it’s as taboo as it once was for a guy to go to therapy or to go to a wellness retreat or to attend a community or men’s group. In fact, it’s kind of cool,” said Chan, 40, a relationship columnist for more than a decade for a Canadian newspaper, HuffPost and her own blog. “Like if you go to therapy, you’re going to be more attractive. So it’s interesting how the culture has changed, and I think that’s amazing.”

A woman poses in an Adirondack chair outdoors

Amy Chan, founder of Renew Breakup Bootcamp and relationship expert, started her retreats in 2017.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

Amy Chan conducts a lecture in front of a group of people.

Amy Chan conducts a lecture during a recent retreat in Northern California.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

Chan, who lives in Vancouver, said demand from men wanting to attend the retreats increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the release of her 2020 book, “Breakup Bootcamp.” Therefore, she asked participants at two previous gatherings if they’d be comfortable with her opening the boot camp to men and nonbinary people.

For the fall retreat, Chan prescreened those individuals interested in attending and selected 21 people, including four men, to participate. The group that gathered in Northern California ranged in age from 22 to 61 and covered a variety of backgrounds and geographies — some participants traveling from as far as Alberta, Canada; New Jersey and Texas.

Some had been through recent breakups like I had, while others were navigating custody battles with their ex-spouses.

The book "Breakup Bootcamp" on an Adirondack chair.

“Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart” was written by Amy Chan, founder of Renew Breakup Bootcamp.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

The retreat, which typically costs $3,495 to $3,995, included three nights of lodging in a cabin, three meals per day cooked by a private chef and a busy schedule of programming and activities. In addition to being drug and alcohol free, the boot camp was digital free.

Prior to arrival, participants — myself included — were told only that they’d be engaging in workshops with therapists, coaches, movement and yoga instructors and a dominatrix. However, there were two ground rules that Chan made clear early on: We weren’t allowed to bash our exes and we weren’t allowed to give unsolicited advice.

We didn’t sit in a circle, repeating affirmations and rant about our exes before going home. What we did do was work on ourselves during a series of sessions, some of which stretched over the course of 12-hour retreat days with limited free time.

Along our four-day journey, Chan and a team of experts discussed the science behind what happens in the body when you go through a separation, how dopamine pushes you to want to, say, check your ex’s Instagram account multiple times a day after a breakup, look through old photos or find excuses to see or contact them.

Chan also shared her own breakup story, which inspired the boot camp: Her ex-boyfriend cheated on her with one of her co-workers, and it took Chan more than two years to heal from their split.

A woman sits on the ground in front of a room at a microphone while other people lay down on the ground in front of her.

Cypress Dubin, a vocal artist and a sound healer, leads boot camp participants in a therapeutic sound meditation.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

She went to a yoga retreat in Mexico after her breakup, but when she returned home, she realized that she hadn’t started the deep interpersonal work that can lead to healing. “I didn’t learn anything about what I was going through,” she said. “I just had a relaxing time. So I felt great, but I was procrastinating my pain.”

She craved a safe space where she could get support while learning about valuable tools and gaining insight into how to deal with her feelings related to her breakup. “I wanted something where I would come out a little different,” she said.

I completely understood. My ex-boyfriend dumped me suddenly this fall, less than a week before our one-year anniversary. I thought this retreat would be beneficial, so I participated in the full experience as an observer and a participant.

Exercises during the workshops included doing primal screaming and ecstatic dancing to release grief, anger and other emotions from the body; participating in a burning ceremony in which we tossed letters we had written to our exes in a fireplace; practicing how to discuss boundaries with our loved ones; and doing breath work.

We also learned about power dynamics through the lens of BDSM from Colette Pervette, a professional dominatrix who holds a PhD in education from UC Berkeley. It was a workshop that many participants, including myself, felt offered an “a-ha” moment.

“I’m going to domme you today,” Pervette told the group. At the start, she wore black casual attire, but she eventually stripped down to a corset with cut-out panties, tights and stilettos.

A woman in black lacy clothing and a black mask poses in a forest

Colette Pervette, an educator and a professional dominatrix, was one of the experts who worked with participants during the recent Renew Breakup Bootcamp in Northern California.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

After asking for a volunteer to play the role of a submissive, she began pulling out toys from her bag one by one, including handcuffs, a leash, a collar, an eye mask and a ball gag. Then she asked the volunteer if they were comfortable with her putting on the items. The volunteer gleefully consented as the class watched intently.

Although the exercise was PG-13, the purpose of it was to show that although it looked like the submissive was powerless, the volunteer actually did have control. The person could’ve ended the demonstration at any point by saying the agreed-upon safe word or by giving a nonverbal signal. Pervette then challenged us to think about the bondages in our own lives that hold us back, such as fear of judgment or rejection, and to look at the ways that we had given away our power.

Two images side by side, one of a leather whip, right, and the other of a notebook showing the acronym for BDSM.

Colette Pervette discussed power dynamics through the lens of BDSM with participants of the Renew Breakup Bootcamp.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

“You might not be able to see it as clearly as these gold handcuffs,” said Pervette, who has taught at 10 of the boot camps over the years, but “we’re all in bondage in some way. If not, we’d be saying what we want to say, doing what we want to do and being who we want to be in every moment.”

During her session, Pervette also spoke about how to work with your pain and alchemize it into power. It was a message that resonated strongly with Andy Heil, 50.

The father of two lost his wife to breast cancer in 2018. He asked Chan to extend the retreat to men after he and his girlfriend — she’s a widow — ended their relationship during the summer. The San Diego resident and his ex-partner met on the dating app Bumble, and despite living more than 100 miles away from each other, their relationship quickly evolved.

It began to flounder when Heil revealed something to her a few months after they’d been dating. Although he had told her that he was working at a bank, he actually didn’t have a job at the time. He confessed that he left his former job for another business opportunity but was furloughed shortly after due to the pandemic.

She accepted his apology. They continued dating for several months, but he eventually decided to call it quits.

A few people sit in a circle on the floor talking

Andy Heil, left, Valentina Cuadros and Jenelle Wensley participate in a group session during the recent Renew Breakup Bootcamp.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

“That’s on me,” Heil said with regret in his voice. “I didn’t love myself enough. I wasn’t secure enough to say, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at.’ I was functioning on fear, and when you make decisions based on fear, it never works.”

Having lost the person who he thought was his “life partner,” Heil wondered if this one’s not going to work. “What the f— is it going to take?”

“That’s what scares me,” he said. That’s why he began to seek help.

He told Chan that he wanted to attend the retreat because he felt as if men were left out of grieving spaces, which he said tended to be catered to women. “[Men] have some processing to do,” he said. “We could use the help too.”

A man standing amid green foliage.

Daniel Ellenberg, a leadership coach and team facilitator, was one of the experts who worked with participants during the retreat.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

Therefore, he was grateful that instructors such as Owen Marcus, co-founder of an organization called Evryman that teaches men about emotional wellness, and Daniel Ellenberg, a leadership coach and team facilitator, were teaching at the boot camp to offer a male perspective.

Another participant, Jenelle Wensley from Lethbridge, Alberta, reached out to Chan about attending the retreat after her ex-fiancée broke up with her one month before their wedding.

Within the first year of dating, the couple moved in together and got a dog, and Wensley proposed. Shortly thereafter, Wensley began noticing her partner pulling away, which caused her to overcompensate. Wensley said she thinks her ex-fiancée had become overwhelmed by the pace of their relationship.

Her partner eventually broke up with Wensley in June, saying she didn’t love her anymore.

“I’ve never done cocaine before but I felt like I was in withdrawal. I hated myself,” said Wensley, 32. “I was crying every day for hours. My work was suffering, and I just couldn’t function.”

Following their breakup, Wensley began going to therapy multiple times a week, listening to podcasts, reading books and watching TikTok videos to try to understand what happened. That’s when she came across one of Chan’s TikToks, which mentioned her book and the retreat.

Wensley initially came to the boot camp wanting to gain tools that could help her mend her relationship with her ex-fiancée, whom she has since reconnected with. Wensley said she’s hopeful they’ll get back together but now realizes that even if it doesn’t work out, she’ll be OK.

Melissa Sharp, 41, wanted to attend the retreat after dating a man for several months before discovering that he was married with children. She said she decided that she needed to take a different approach with her healing journey. Therefore, she started reading Chan’s book but stopped a quarter of the way through because she wanted to learn more at an in-person retreat.

Two women sit in Adirondack chairs, in a circle with three other empty ones

Amy Chan checks in with retreat participant Melissa Sharp.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

“I think that I’ve handled previous breakups well,” the Riverside resident said. “I just let time go by, thinking that time is the healer of those things. So when I noticed that I was still dating and not having success, then having this situation happened made me think, ‘OK, let me figure something out.’”

Sharp said she initially came to the retreat hoping to receive tools for healing from her recent breakup.

A hand writing in a notebook.

Participant Valentina Cuadros fills out a worksheet about values during the Renew Breakup Bootcamp.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

“I understand what he did was not right, but what did I do to contribute to this?” she said. “Could I have made a better choice? I had a bunch of questions. I think that I can control myself, but I couldn’t control him.”

She learned more about herself and how to date in a healthier way, which was Chan’s goal for participants of the boot camp. For those reasons, Sharp said the retreat was worth the price tag.

As someone who had never been to a retreat before, I was initially skeptical about Renew Breakup Bootcamp. I wondered how a four-day boot camp in the woods could help me heal after being dumped. But what I took away from the experience was much more valuable than getting over my ex.

Silhouettes of people walking toward a lit-up cabin at night.

After attending a class, participants of Renew Breakup Bootcamp walk to the lodge for dinner.

(Andri Tambunan / For The Times)

By listing out my values and nonnegotiables in a relationship, I learned how to weed out potential partners. I also recognized and put a name to the bondages — many of which were self-inflicted — in my life that have been holding me back from living authentically.

But most important, I realized that although breakups undoubtedly suck, it’s a common experience that we don’t have to go through alone. In addition to the skills that I learned from the retreat experts, it was the other 20 people there — experiencing pain similar to mine — who ultimately helped me get to the next step in my healing journey, and for that I’m grateful.

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