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Healing Troubled Marriages

Retrouvaille: Healing Troubled Marriages
by Anne McFadden

Retrouvaille is an intense Catholic program designed to help troubled marriages regain their health. It helps spouses uncover or re-awaken the love, trust and commitment that originally brought them together. The program is highly successful in saving floundering marriages, even bringing reconciliation to couples who have already separated and divorced.

Retrouvaille (French for rediscovery) began in Quebec, Canada, in 1977. The program soon spread to the United States and other countries. It's largely a lay-run, peer ministry. Couples who have already been through the program present it to couples currently going through it.

"The importance of Retrouvaille and its part in Church life can't be overstated," says Father Marc Roselli SJ, a member of the board of directors for the international Retrouvaille program. "I think Retrouvaille is the best thing the Church is doing. It is needed, as marriages go largely unsupported, and more needs to be done to maintain and sustain marriages when difficulties happen. The consequences of this neglect have been felt throughout society."

Father Roselli says the program reflects the enormous changes in Catholicism following Vatican II, especially in the areas of lay involvement in the Church and the understanding of the sacrament of marriage.

"Before Vatican II lay people were in a passive role," he explains. "They were expected to go to Church, receive the sacraments, and then everything will be all right. This is a very simplistic view."

Many married couples, trying to be faithful to the teachings of the Church regarding the permanence of marriage, found themselves isolated and confused when serious marital problems occurred.

Ashamed to Talk

They often felt they had nowhere to turn for help. They also felt no one else suffered as they did. Or they were ashamed to talk about their problems. Or when they did, they were told it was their cross, and they must accept it without complaint.

With Retrouvaille, couples have the opportunity, not only to face their problems openly, but to do it with other couples who share their troubles and offer much-needed support and encouragement.

Father Roselli believes the peer ministry - married couples reaching out to other couples - is a large part of the program's success. Not only do couples receive the tools to help them save their marriage, they can also count on the continued support of other couples who have been through troubled times and were able to survive.

The Jesuit stresses the spiritual nature of the program. He says Retrouvaille helps people to see their marriage in the sacramental sense - the couple jointly enters into the central mystery of the faith, the mystery of the cross and resurrection. In this way, all that happens, good and bad, can be drawn into the mystery of redemption and thus lead the couple to a re-discovery of love and faith.

"The Paschal mystery is what all Christian people have to internalize and live out in their own experience," says Father Roselli. "For too long, it was just a stated doctrine: Christ suffered, died and rose from the dead. We have to believe that this is the way for us to find our faith, to find God and to draw close to him. It is to take the suffering and the dying in our lives and make sure it is headed towards resurrection. Our actions must be life giving; we must surrender being a victim, living in fear or the decision to bury ourselves in pain. To do this takes courage, and it takes faith."

This can be a very hopeful aspect of Retrouvaille - the realization that the sacrifices and sufferings in marriage can draw a couple closer to each other and to God.

Couples in a troubled marriage come to the program by many routes. Some seek help by contacting their parish priest. Others are referred by family and friends. Still others participate in a Marriage Encounter weekend and discover that the weekend is designed more to strengthen solid marriages than to deal with marital problems.

This was the experience of Peg and Bill Zwann of Kelton, Pa. They went to a Marriage Encounter weekend in 1976. They worked as a presenting couple with that program for 15 years before hearing about Retrouvaille.

"We realized we had shoved all the rough stuff under the rug and never dealt with it when we went to Marriage Encounter," recalls Peg Zwann. "It was through Retrouvaille that we learned to forgive each other and to heal our marriage."

The Zwanns have been involved with Retrouvaille since 1990. They are now the coordinators of the international Retrouvaille program. The Zwanns have been married for 41 years and have dealt with many changes during those years.

Peg Zwann says most couples come to Retrouvaille "searching for something that will help them out of the pain and misery they feel."

Couples come at various stages of marriage and have a wide variety of problems. Some are recently married and are just beginning to experience difficulties. Others are separated or divorced. Some couples are referred by the legal system because of violence, abuse, drug or alcohol addictions. Other couples are involved in infidelity. Some are mired in problems involving finances, children or sexual behavior.

Lack of Communication

Although the difficulties couples face can vary, one consistent problem is the lack of communication. Many couples lack good communication skills or are incapable of addressing directly what they feel and experience. This has a profound effect upon the way the couple relates to each other and the amount of love they are able to express.

"When communication breaks down, intimacy in the relationship begins to slide," says Peg Zwann.

Learning new skills on how to communicate, how to listen, how to express feelings, how to be honest, are essential parts of Retrouvaille.

Before the couple can start the program, however, it's essential that both spouses be willing to work on saving the marriage. If one partner is unwilling to face the issues or is in denial, then he or she isn't ready to commit to Retrouvaille. Additionally, if there is substance abuse or infidelity, these behaviors must stop before the program is entered.

Retrouvaille for a couple begins with an interview about them and their marriage.

The weekend phase of the program comes next.

During this period, a series of presentations is given by three couples and a priest. The presenters share their experiences with the audience. This sharing is designed to help troubled couples understand their problems, see how other people have dealt with similar issues and learn to hope that their marriage can also survive.

The presentations deal with various marital issues. Examples include learning to articulate feelings and emotions, understanding patterns of behavior and the effect they have on the spouse, taking responsibility for one's actions, understanding the influence society has on marriage expectations, encouraging couples to regain trust and to forgive each another, teaching good communication skills and helping the couples see their marriage from a spiritual perspective.

After the presentations, the couples are given some questions, and are asked to separate and write down their answers. They later meet in their room and discuss what they have written. They don't share their problems in a group session with the other couples.

Writing things down allows the couples to think clearly about what they feel. They can also express this without being interrupted or intimidated by the spouse. This method encourages a dialogue that allows each spouse to fully express what he or she feels without judgment.

After the weekend, there is a follow-up phase that lasts for three months, with the couples usually meeting each week. The "post-weekend" is presented by other couples, not the same ones from the weekend. The follow-up is very important since it allows a couple to put into practice the skills they learned on the weekend along with the support of presenting couples.

The final phase of the program is called CORE, or Continuing Our Retrouvaille Experience. This is an ongoing support group for couples in the program. Couples continue to help and support each other, since the healing process usually takes a lot longer than just the initial weekend and follow-up period.

Zwann believes the program can really help couples if they are willing to work at it.

"Good marriages don't just happen," she stresses. "You have to work at it, every day."

One of the reasons people have to work so hard is that everyone entering a marriage brings with them learned behavior from their own families. The spouses have expectations on what the other should or shouldn't do based on what they experienced in their own lives.

Family Influences

This can be a great cause of strife unless both spouses are able to accept each other and allow each partner to be who each really is and not who the spouse want them to be. Retrouvaille helps in this process by teaching couples to reflect upon their family life, how they interacted with other family members and how they are behaving the same way now with their spouses.

Zwann also believes that couples need to understand the difference between feeling love and being willing to love. She says that love isn't a feeling as much as it is a decision, a decision to love the other person and to accept him or her. Once this decision is made and a spouse acts upon it, then the feelings of care, romance and tenderness can follow and endure.

But, even when these feelings aren't there, when there is anger or even hatred for the spouse, the decision to love still remains and influences the actions of the person toward being loving.

Zwann has seen many miracles happen with Retrouvaille, both in her own marriage and in the marriages of numerous other couples.

"To see couples blossom, to see them turn toward each other instead of away from each other, this is a miracle," she says. "The Holy Spirit is really present in this program."

Zwann notes that Retrouvaille has enabled her and her husband to understand the true sacramental character of marriage. Although she went to Catholic school and was married in a Catholic church, she says that she didn't fully understand the true nature of the grace God was giving to her in this sacrament.

"When I was married in 1955, at the time I didn't think about the fact that God was pouring all the graces of the sacrament into me," she recalls. "God gives us all the graces we need, we just need to look at that and call on those graces when we need them. I believe we are the ones who puts a stopper in front of the necessary grace."

The success of Retrouvaille was documented in a study conducted by Ed and Peg Gleason of San Francisco. The Gleasons have been married for 42 years. They are co-directors of Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and are a Retrouvaille presenting couple.

The study was done on couples who had been through the program a year to five years previously. Ed Gleason says it concentrated on couples in the San Jose, Sacramento and San Francisco area; 677 couples were contacted, with 180 couples responding to the questions.

Struggling for Reconciliation

The study found that 73 percent of the couples were still married, 18 percent were divorced and 9 percent were separated but still struggling for reconciliation.

"The 73 percent still married was higher than we expected," Gleason admits.

The study also found that 97 percent of the couples who responded said they were happy with the program. Even 98 percent of the people who had divorced said they liked the program.

Gleason says he was surprised by the fact the divorced couples were also helped by Retrouvaille. Although the program's goal is to save troubled marriages, its organizers recognize that not every marriage will survive.

However, the divorced couples said that Retrouvaille enabled them to realize their marriage wasn't like the marriages of other couples in the program, that their marriage wasn't going to last. They also said that when divorce did occur, the former spouses were able to live on better terms than they had before the program.

The study also showed that 91 percent of the couples in the program had reconnected spiritually by going back to church and deepening their relationship with God.

"The couples we work with have a spiritual dysfunction," notes Gleason. "They realize they are out of balance."

He believes the outward problems in a marriage are really symptoms of underlying spiritual troubles. Addressing these spiritual issues is an important part of Retrouvaille and what makes it different from marriage counseling, which is often used by the couples either prior to or following the program.

"The difference between Retrouvaille and counseling is counseling doesn't offer any hope," says Gleason. "A counselor isn't supposed to give a judgment, but couples want hope, they want to believe their marriage can survive. We offer them hope because we have been through it and have survived."

Gleason has also seen many apathetic couples. They believe their marriage is dead. They exist as "married singles" - living separate lives, rarely talking or interacting.

It's a challenge to re-ignite the love the couple used to feel and to remove the layers of hurt, bitterness or anger that obscures the trust between them. Retrouvaille can make this happen, but it usually takes time and a real commitment on the part of a couple.

Many of the couples who previously felt hopeless are very excited after the Retrouvaille weekend because they believe they know the source of their problems. Gleason notes that the presenting couples often have to be "wet blankets" and dampen their excitement with reality.

"The only thing we can promise on Sunday night [of the weekend]," he says, "is you will have a good view whether your marriage can be rectified and what you have to do to solve the problems."

Realistically, true healing takes a great deal of time and effort. The Retrouvaille weekend is only the first step in a long, but very fulfilling journey toward a true and God-centered marital union and love.

For more information on Retrouvaille, telephone (800) 470-2230.

[Retrouvaille International Home Page]

Anne McFadden is a CATHOLIC TWIN CIRCLE contributing writer.

Or call 1-800-470-2230 in the United States