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
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
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
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.)