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Committed couples: International Retrouvaille weekend

By Julie Pfitzinger
The Catholic Spirit

In his keynote address to the International Retrouvaille Council meeting in St. Paul on Oct. 10, nationally known marriage and family expert William Doherty spoke about a very special wedding he had attended the week before: the marriage of his daughter, Elizabeth.

Doherty, who has been married for 32 years, said he was especially struck by the fact that Elizabeth and her new husband were beginning their own journey into married life and, as a father, he felt an urge to protect them from the struggles all married couples face.

“I gave them my blessing for both the good times and the bad times,” Doherty said, his voice edged with emotion.

This particular audience was well versed in the “bad times,” for as members of national and international Retrouvaille groups, they have experienced deep suffering in their marriages but discovered a “lifeline” in the Retrouvaille program that has helped them heal their broken relationships.

Established in Quebec in 1977, Retrouvaille weekends offer couples an opportunity to learn about listening, forgiveness, communication and dialogue by working closely with married couples who have faced similar challenges.

Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota and author of “Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together In A World That Pulls Us Apart,” believes the disintegration of many marriages is rooted in what he calls the “pervasive consumer culture of entitlement.” He said some spouses perceive each other as “marital service providers,” and as they would switch a phone service that no longer meets their needs, they feel they deserve to find someone who will make them happy at all times. This is impossible, Doherty said, since “nobody feels ‘in love’ every day. Love is a decision.”

As a marriage and family therapist, Doherty often hears couples complain they’ve grown apart.

“What I really want to say to them,” he said emphatically, “is just grow together.”

Doherty said he thinks it’s dangerous for couples to get into the habit of continually focusing on the negative aspects of their marriage relationship.

“I believe you can blow up a perfectly good marriage in a year or two by emphasizing what you’re not getting out of it and insisting that you deserve better,” he said, explaining that this cycle brings out the spouses’ worst behavior: Before long, friends and family members “jump on the bandwagon” instead of supporting the couple; eventually, the marriage ends in ruin.

Acknowledging there are marital situations that are “intolerable and tragic,” such as violent relationships, Doherty said couples often are swayed by the “soft reasons” as they allow their marriages to deteriorate.

“Staying and working it out is not a foolish path,” he said, adding that many couples whose marriages eventually end in divorce find they have traded one set of problems for another. In a study of several couples who had been involved in very unhappy marriages, Doherty reported those who divorced were no happier than those who stayed married and, on average, said their lives had not improved.

“The majority of couples in this study worked through their problems and reported they were now happily married,” Doherty said. “They were glad they had hung in there.”

At that point, Doherty invited members of the Retrouvaille audience to share their own experiences of turning their marriages around, or “hanging in” when times were difficult.

One woman faced the crowd and said, “At the lowest point in our story, there was forgiveness. I asked God, ‘Why should I forgive infidelity?” she said. “He said to be Christian, you have to forgive and act forgiving. So that is what I chose to do.”

Another woman, attending the conference from the Philippines, said she and her husband of 11 years “believe and act on the belief that marriage is a sacrament. We are God’s best gift to each other.”

Doherty said it’s important that the perception of marriage in our culture focus on commitment instead of consumerism. “As a ‘consumer’, I’m only committed to something as long as it’s working for me,” he said. “Marriage with a long view comes with the conviction that nothing will break us up, that we will share leadership for retaining and renewing our marriage and that we will accept each other’s weaknesses.”

Eileen and Bob Saylor of Harrisburg, Pa., agreed with Doherty’s assessment of the role our culture plays in the perception of marriage. As parents of two children, ages 20 and 14, they expressed particular concern about the way marriage is portrayed on television.

“It’s not promoted, and I think kids pick up on that,” said Bob. “I’m afraid for what that says about the future.”

More than 500 people were expected to attend the International Retrouvaille Council meeting at the Radisson St. Paul to participate in workshops and attend the organization’s annual business meeting. Kim Doyle and her husband Shawn, who are the Twin Cities’ deputy coordinating couple for the Retrouvaille council, also looked forward to fellowship with Retrouvaille members.

“We’ve all experienced some pain and resurrection in our marriage relationships,” said Kim. “This is a time for us to refresh and renew our relationships and draw support from one another. This weekend is a time for us.”

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

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