Program Smooths Marriages On Rocks

January 30, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

John and Margie met in California on a blind date. Within the year, they were blissfully wedded.

The honeymoon heaven lasted a good 12years. They had three children and bought a house.

But by 1988, after nearly 30 years of marriage, their children had grown and left home. The house had become a tomb.

"We didn't have anything in common anymore. The silences were growing longer and longer. We'd sit there and stare at one another and not say a word all night," Margie remembers.

"We were hanging on by a thread," says John. "There was so much silence it seemed like our relationship was dead."

The Roman Catholic couple wanted to save the marriage, but didn't know how. A year of secular counseling didn't help. Margie visited a Christian counselor who helped a little, but still they foundered.

In September 1988, the couple attended a Retrouvaille weekend,designed to help people with troubled and broken marriages.

Today, their marriage restored, the Annapolis couple tries to help othersput their lives back together.

The program doesn't work for everybody, but an informal poll -- taken by group leaders -- of couples who've attended Retrouvaille weekends shows a 70 to 80 percent success rate in giving couples a working tool that helps them talk to each other, Margie and John say.

Retrouvaille -- the word is French for "rediscovery" -- consists of a weekend and six follow-up sessions. Three married couples and a priest lead the weekend discussions.

Couples go through a process called "dialogue," learning to talk about their feelings.

"You explore your inner self, things you brought to the marriage since childhood. You explore differences in your personalities," says Ronald Perron of Glen Burnie, who with his wife, Barbara, helps lead the weekends in the Baltimore-Washington area.

They listen to other couples -- not professional counselors -- share theirexperiences. "It's the couples talking that people can relate to," says John. "You realize you're not the only ones out there suffering and hurting."

Says Ronald Perron, "The key is that all three couples have been there. They're not professionals, not counselors. Just people who've been through a troubled marriage. And it's not fake. You can see the pain in faces. People sit through a weekend, and say, 'You're just like me!' "

Couples learn, says Barbara Perron, not to expect their partner to feel the same way they feel about life. "Couples think they have to be the same. But they don't. You can learn to live with differences in who you are."

A Roman Catholic priest in Quebec started Retrouvaille as a weekend for hurting marriages. By 1978 it was adapted to English and in 1982 was introduced into the United States.

Though the program is sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church's Archdioceses of Washington and Baltimore, the weekends are open to couples of all faiths or no faith at all.

Says Ronald Perron,"We do try to make people realize, if they're Catholics, that marriage is a sacrament. They have to bring God into their marriage -- not religion, but God. It helps to share the spiritual part of who you are."

About 300 couples have gone through the program in the Baltimore-D.C. area, says Ronald Perron, and now five weekends a year are offered. Everything from the registration procedures to handling the weekends is done on a volunteer basis by couples who have themselves been through the program.

The cost is free, although couples are asked to donate what they can. And both spouses who want to attend a weekend must call to confirm their interest.

"We want people to feel they can come, whatever their circumstances," says Ronald Perron, whobelieves Retrouvaille helped heal his own marriage.

Adds his wife, "We're not paid for this, but we get so much from helping other couples."

Ronald Perron says Retrouvaille helps people analyze what'shappened to their marriage.

"The average married couple spends 20minutes a week talking to each other. Then it's what's for dinner, or how was the traffic coming home, or how is Billy doing in school," he says. "There's a lot of pressure on people. It piles up, and it comes crashing down and they can't communicate."

Retrouvaille's success, according to its adherents, lies in teaching a person to help the other understand who they are and how they feel. And the program boasts remarkable success stories.

One county couple was divorced for eight years. After the husband, an alcoholic, stopped drinking withthe help of an Alcoholics Anonymous program, he and his wife went ona Retrouvaille weekend and ended up remarrying.

Another couple had been separated for six months before coming to a weekend. A month after that, they had worked out their problems enough to move back together again.

The problems that bring people to the program are mixed. Couples range in age from their 20s to their 70s, the Perrons say. Younger couples fight over money. Some may start fighting five to 10 years into their marriages. One partner may cheat on the spouse. Hidden problems such as drinking surface. Or, like John and Margie, trouble may come much later in a marriage,

after the children leave home.

The Perrons emphasize that Retrouvaille isn't a miracle cure. "You open a door, and you have to practice every day. Like anything else, it's hard work," Ronald Perron says. "But it gives people the communication skills to try. It saved our lives."

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