Healing a hurting marriage

Healing a hurting marriage Photo: Ilovebutter/Flickr

Retrouvaille offers hope for couples on the road to divorce

One-quarter of all Catholic marriages end in divorce, according to the most recent data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Chances are, at some point, most Catholics will encounter a family member, friend or fellow parishioner suffering distress in their marriage, even if they do not experience it themselves. The good news is that there is a successful Catholic program specifically designed to help heal and rebuild hurting marriages. Named Retrouvaille, a French word meaning rediscovery, it is offered several times a year in the Seattle Archdiocese.

Mick and Deanna Maddock coordinate Retrouvaille in Western Washington. I had often heard about the program and knew it had a proven track record of saving marriages. However, I wanted to know more. What happens on retreats? How do couples who attend find out about the retreats? Exactly how effective is the program? Mick and Deanna graciously answered these questions for me, as well as one more I had: Seeing what they see, what advice would they give married couples?

Three main components

I learned that Retrouvaille can transform marital misery into intimacy and joy because of three main components of the weekend and, perhaps more importantly, because of what happens after the weekend.

First, during Retrouvaille weekends, presenting couples share their stories. These can include affairs (“third-party relationships,” as Mick put it), addictions and estrangement. While the specifics of the presenters’ stories might not correspond with those of the retreat attendees, hearing them witness to their healing can spark a connection, inspire hope and stir a new openness in the attendees’ hearts. They model attitudes of humility, vulnerability and forgiveness.

Second, the retreat gives couples communication tools and skills they can use to rebuild their relationships. It presents information about the stages of marriage, which normally passes through cycles of romance to disillusionment.

Third, Deanna explained, the retreat offers hurting couples a safe environment to begin to rebuild the ability to communicate, relate and connect. It creates an intimate space in which couples can step back from the combative postures of accusation and defense, or thaw a bit from the icy chill of stonewalling, denial and isolation. Call it a marital DMZ or temporary truce which allows the establishment and warming of diplomatic relations.

Perhaps one of the greatest reasons Retrouvaille works is the strong follow-up support after the retreat. Couples participate in a six-week post-program. They can also receive the ongoing support of monthly CORE meetings. As Mick put it, “Marriages take a long time to fall apart. They also take time to rebuild.” The program certainly provides the structure and support to help that rebuilding process succeed.

Advice for couples

Gauging the effectiveness of Retrouvaille is not a precise science. One article claims that Retrouvaille saved 100,000 married couples from divorce over the last 30 years. Another small study claims that 80 percent of couples who completed the post-program were still married two years later. Deanna pointed out that it is hard to judge exactly what the success rate is, but their confidence in the program keeps motivating their ministry.

Many couples come to Retrouvaille through the recommendation of a priest, or find out about the retreat from a parish bulletin advertising “Marriage Help.” More than half the couples come to Retrouvaille through word-of-mouth referral. Informed family, friends and parishioners can offer real help to hurting couples by recommending this program.

After working with couples in unhappy marriages, what divorce-preventing advice would Mick and Deanna give? Mick mentioned certain times in a marriage that are most vulnerable to divorce: five to seven years after the wedding, the 20-year mark, and a few after that. These times usually signify important shifts in the marital and family life cycle.

“These are times when it is really important to do something for your marriage,” Mick counsels. “Schedule maintenance for your marriage, and just do it.” He mentioned making a marriage retreat; my column “Take your marriage beyond OK,” in the April edition of Northwest Catholic, contains suggestions for other marriage enrichment activities.

Deanna’s advice to couples is simple but heartfelt: “Never give up hope.”   

Northwest Catholic - July/August 2015

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is www.drsarahbartel.com.

Website: www.drsarahbartel.com