The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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April 21, 2000 Issue
Jubilee 2000
Open Wide the Doors

New hope for troubled marriages

Retrouvaille uses a process to help couples to save their marriages

Last in a series

By Julie Sly

If a marriage makes it past the honeymoon period - a period some experts say can last as long as 18 months - the chances are good it will weather a storm.

But for many couples, marriage is like being slammed into by an unrelenting tempest - again and again and again. Where can these couples find help?

Many couples are discovering Retrouvaille as a "lifeline for troubled marriages." Sponsored by the Catholic Church but open to couples of every faith, Retrouvaille (French for "rediscovery") is an intensive marriage workshop stressing self-discovery, communication and faith.

Held for 44 hours over a weekend, with six follow-up meetings in the following 90 days, the program is run by couples who have been there, as well as priests who present the theological and philosophical bases for Christian marriage.

Surveys of the couples who go through it have shown that 80-85% are "still together a year later and still making progress," reports Bill Zwaan of Kelton, Pa., who with his wife, Peg, is the program's international coordinator.

"We call it a program, but it's really a ministry," Zwaan said. "It's a couple-to-couple, grassroots movement. That's part of its power. It's couples hearing from other couples who've been through it."

Retrouvaille began in Quebec, Canada, in 1977. It was an outgrowth of Marriage Encounter, a Catholic-sponsored marriage enrichment program. It operates on the same principles as Marriage Encounter but was designed for couples in troubled relationships.

Today, Retrouvaille is offered in more than 165 locations, Zwaan said - in Canada, most regions of the United States, South America, Mexico, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines, South Africa and Thailand. Zwaan estimates that some 50,000 couples have participated in the program since it's inception and the number is growing.

The Zwaans participated in Marriage Encounter for 15 years and were actually separated when they were asked to be the coordinators for Retrouvaille in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

"We were in a broken marriage," Peg Zwaan said. "We had drawn a line in the sand and we didn't cross over it, but when we found Retrouvaille, we could go back and revisit those hurtful times and begin to heal our relationship."

The peer ministry of Retrouvaille is a process like the Alcoholics Anonymous "12-step" program and is designed to help an increasing number of marriages and families to remain whole, said Ed Gleason, who co-directs Retrouvaille with this wife, Peg, in the San Francisco area. He says self-disclosure stories are the key to the process, as they are in all 12-step programs.

Gleason said there are some differences between using self-disclosure stories and professional marriage counseling. The most radical difference is the stories told by the presenting couples and priest, "give the troubled couples a yardstick to measure the degree of their own dysfunction," he said. "The stories let them evaluate their chances for recovery and also counter the denial that exists in any troubled relationship."

A second difference is that couples are able to practice the sharing of feelings in a protected environment over an entire weekend rather than in one-hour sessions with a therapist.

A third difference is time. A counselor "would usually spend several one-hour sessions before couples could sense their own progress," Gleason said. "The Retrouvaille weekend gives them this sense of progress quickly and gives them motivation for attending the follow-up meetings."

A final difference is that the priest and the presenting couples in Retrouvaille are unrestrained by any requirement that a counselor not "impose" values, Gleason said. "What we give the couples that counseling doesn't is hope. Couples want to hear about ways of resolving their problems; they're looking for hope and reconciliation."

How vital is faith to the Retrouvaille experience? Peg Gleason says faith is an instrumental, but not indispensable component of the program. The communication skills learned are non-denominational. Retrouvaille emphasizes "there's a spiritual disconnection behind the marital discord," she noted.

"We have seldom found couples with psychological problems," she said. "The disconnection came from values or behaviors that were incompatible with family and marriage. And usually there is faith somewhere in their background. Most couples connect with God or realize they need a higher power, a third party in their relationship, if reconciliation is to take place."

(Sly is editor of the Catholic Herald in Sacramento.)

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