Ties That Bind: Program to Keep Marriages Together
Good Housekeeping, Bonnie Rubin
Everyone's against divorce -- but staying married seems harder than
ever. Here, an inside look at an innovative program that
feuding couples to keep love alive.
You can see the anxiety in their tight little smiles, in the way
one woman is picking invisible lint off her jacket, while her
husband is tapping out Morse code with his foot. Their name tags
(first names only) reveal nothing about what brought them
here--about the number of wounds to the heart they've accumulated
over the years. All you know is that there is still
something--maybe just a tiny spark--that makes them think their
relationship is worth preserving.
"I didn't know if there was anything left," Susan Miller
confides. "All I knew was we had to fix this...or not stay
together." The Millers are one of two dozen couples united by
little more than a commitment to spend the next 4X hours in this ER
for marriage. The program is called Retrouvaille, a French word for
"rediscover"--as in rediscovering what attracted you to your mate
in the first place--and the setting is a pastoral retreat center
outside Chicago. Retrouvaille is not for couple whose relationship
has lost a little "zing"; rather, it is aimed at those teetering on
the brink of divorce. These couples- -most in their 30s and 40s,
and many already separated--will spend the weekend learning
strategies for airing grievances, resolving conflict, and
sustaining intimacy. Free c,f everyday distractions--including
phones and TVs--they hope to focus on each other and begin the hard
business of reviving their marriages.
Marriage-education programs have been around since the 1960's.
Now, though, they are stacking up like sandbags against America's
relentless tide of divorce. Unlike traditional therapy, which can
he a slow, murky process, the goal here is very clear: Marriage is
a skill-based proposition; give couples the proper tools, and they
can keep slights from escalating into disagreements and
disagreements from hardening into bitterness.
In recent years, antidivorce fervor has swept the country, as
concern about deteriorating family life has intensified. Programs
like Retrouvaille are the centerpiece of a three-part attack. At
the front end is premarital education, designed to teach couples
what to expect from marriage- -and prevent poor prospects from ever
reaching the altar. Last year, Lenawee County, MI, made headlines
when a district court judge refused to wed couples who had not
completed such classes. Now, 20 other states are considering
At the back end, there's a move to dismantle no-fault divorce
laws in effect since the 1970's. Restoring the old requirement of
blame, the thinking goes, will make it more difficult for a husband
or wife to just walk away from a marriage. But this idea, in turn,
has spawned a backlash of its own. Turning hack the clock won't
preserve marriage, critics say--it will only trap partners in
unions that are despairing, dangerous, or both.
For the Millers, who have been married for seven years, the
debate is much narrower: I low do we balance our needs in a
household with three young children, four jobs, a mortgage payment,
and a mountain of other obligations? That, at least, is the issue
when they're talking. Most of the time, by their own admission,
they're caught in the crossfire of bickering. The triggers can he
different--wet towels on the floor, the kids up too late, a splurge
at the mall--but the result is always the same.
"It got so, we could scarcely say a civil word to each other,"
says Susan. "We were just worn out by it all."
Susan, 33, holds a full-time job in real estate. Joe, 32, is in
marketing, and also cobbles together jobs in construction and as a
security guard. "It was as if we were married but single," Susan
says. "Either he's home and I'm not, or I'm home and he's not. On
the rare occasions we're together, we always end up arguing." If
Joe disciplines the kids, Susan undermines him. If Joe comes ho,me
to chaos, he criticizes Susan. Sometimes, conflicts simmer for days
before the Millers get around to addressing them. Eventually, they
"When you,'re courting someone, you always do nice things for
each other," says Susan. "Maybe he quit doing them, maybe I quit
saying thank you...but somewhere along the line, those little acts
of kindness just stopped."
When they met, Susan was attracted to Joe's honesty and his
strong work ethic; Joe admired Susan's exuberance and
self-confidence. After a year as pals, their friendship blossomed
into romance. In 1989, Joe took Susan's father to dinner and asked
for her hand in marriage. Ten months later, the couple had a
storybook wedding at a bucolic Wisconsin resort, surrounded by nine
bridesmaids and nine groomsmen. "Who could have predicted we'd end
up here?" Susan asks now.
Like the Millers, few of the more than 10,000 couples who enroll
in marital-skills programs each year ever imagined they'd find
themselves in these circumstances. Yet their frustrations are
completely predictable, experts say.
"The research shows that the couples who stay madly in love
disagree to the same degree as couples who divorce," says Diane
Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples
Education (CMFCE), an umbrella group based in Washington, DC. "They
argue over the same topics--money, time, sex, kids. The difference
is, they know how to handle it."
Last year, the CMFCE held its first conference, attended by 700
therapists and religious leaders, among others. Armed with
videotapes and reams of research--even EKGs of mates in
combat--they concluded that marriage skills can be cultivated.
"If you split up, it doesn't mean you didn't love each other,"
Sollee insists. "It means you weren't skillful at keeping love
alive." Instead of making divorce tougher, she'd like to see us
make love smarter: "We don't learn by our mistakes; we learn by
education." Sollee is so sold on the concept, she's been giving
friends and relatives wedding gifts of marital-skills classes. "A
few people were insulted, " she admits. "Everyone thinks `Not us,
we're never going to have these problems.'"
But lots of people do, judging by the way staying married has
turned into a growth industry. In 1997, more than two dozen how-to
manuals hit the bookstores; and at the CMFCE Web site, the
matrimonially challenged can learn about 100 different
audiocassettes with titles like Hot Monogamy and Dating Your
The programs, with catchy acronyms like PREP (Prevention and
Relationship Enhancement Program) and PAIRS (Practical Application
of Intimate Relationship Skills), were conceived for the most part
by pioneering psychotherapists. Some courses last just one day and
cost almost nothing; others require an intense 120-hour commitment,
spread over four months, with a price tag that runs into thousands
With the PAIRS program, you can do a weeklong session on a
Carribean cruise. Or you can sign up for a course in a
community-center basement where you and your spouse sit on folding
chairs and the equipment is no more elaborate than a spiral
The no-frills Retrouvaille format is fairly typical one intense
weekend and six weekly follow-up sessions, all in a classroom
setting. A series of presentations--on everything from infidelity
to forgiveness- -is given by three married couples, all past
participants who have experienced marital breakdowns of their own.
Everyone is a volunteer, and the fee is a modest donation--no one
has ever been turned away because of money. (Retrouvaille is a
Catholic-affiliated program but welcomes couples of all
So do these programs work? And doesn't the very act of lavishing
time and attention on your relationship almost guarantee that the
satisfaction needle will jump?
"There is a certain placebo effect," concedes Peter D. Kramer, a
Providence psychiatrist and author of Should You Leave? (Scribner),
a book that mostly counsels couples to hang in. "Anything you do
seems to help-at least in the short term--because it gets you to be
more self-aware and think about the complexities of your
relationship. The question is, Do these programs work because they
teach real concrete skills? Is it because they inspire hope? Or do
they make partners feel as if they have some control over their
All of the above, say participants.
All I know is that we'd be divorced without it--and that it
takes so much hard work," sighs Rita Rogers, a dental hygienist and
mother of three. Despite Rita's eight-month separation from husband
Jim in 1996, the Indiana couple recently celebrated their eleventh
wedding anniversary, with the scaffolding of two therapists,
Retrouvaille, and a monthly support group.
Jim and Rita are here as a mentor couple, illuminating the flaws
in their relationship so that participants can turn a spotlight on
their own. But they hardly present themselves as a perfect pair. "
This is no fairy tale," says Rita, who looks like a Talbots catalog
cover girl. "You see other couples, and it seems so easy for
them...and you can't help but wonder, `Why can't it be that way for
The Rogerses' son, Austin, was born in December 1987 20 months
later, a daughter, Hillary, came along. During this time, Jim also
started his own advertising agency, and they bought a new house,
which quickly became mired in a mortgage lawsuit. Says Rita: "It
was the start of a three-year suicide."
In February 1996, during the heat of an argument-they. can't
even recall what it was over-Jim unleashed a torrent of rage,
unlike anything Rita had ever heard before. It was as if a cork had
been unplugged, according to Jim: "Over the years, there were so
many things I had to swallow, and I just didn't want to anymore. I
felt as if I had been mistreated, and it was payback time." Jim
left for the weekend. He returned, but one month later, Rita helped
him pack for good. In April 1996, he filed for divorce.
"It was the hardest time of my life," says Rita? who lost 22
pounds in four weeks during the ordeal. "I never, ever want to go
Ironically, a minor disaster nudged them toward reconciliation.
Rita was in Europe with her sister in May 1996, and Jim was staying
at the house with the kids. On her last day abroad, Rita lost her
wallet--including her plane ticket, passport, and all her
identification- and frantically called home.
Jim sprang into action, helping his estranged wife straighten
things out. "I'm not sure whether it was the fact that I felt sorry
for her or that I was back with the kids in the home we had built
together, but it allowed me to reassess," he says. "Maybe we could
put this back together in a way that worked for everybody."
Jim called off the divorce, but the couple lived separately
throughout the summer. Rita had heard about Retrouvaille from a
patient, and she asked a mutual friend--who also happened to be
Jim's biggest client- -to help persuade him to try it. In September
1996, the Rogerses made the 100-mile trip to Chicago for a weekend
that they both credit with keeping them together.
Like many participants, the Rogerses had been through
traditional marriage counseling; what attracted them to
Retrouvaille was the candor of the lead couples. "When they shared
their own pain, well, it just nailed me to the floor," says Rita.
"These people really understood what we were going through. There
was a powerful connection, which I had never felt with a
Like alcoholics in a 12-step program, the Rogerses still take it
one day at a time and expect to be involved in the Retrouvaille
community forever. At the end of a busy workweek, they drive three
hours to attend monthly follow-up sessions, which help them deal
with prickly issues, such as the two-year anniversary of Jim's
filing for divorce.
"It dredged up all the old hurt, and I just felt like stewing in
it," says Rita. "It was very tough, hut we got through it."
At this Retrouvaille weekend, Tom and Sharol Roering,
coordinators for the Chicago area, are in charge of breaking the
ice. "Your very presence is a big step toward healing," Sharol
tells the group reassuringly. But one glance around the room at the
participants--arms folded, eyes straight ahead, jaws set in
granite--and it looks as if it could be a very long two days.
First on the agenda: to introduce your spouse to the group,
including his or her best quality. Comments such as "He's a good
provider" or "She's devoted to the family" are common, hut a few
hint at something darker.
"Her best quality is that she hasn't killed me yet," says one
man. you wonder "What did this guy do?" But we'll never know,
because other than this simple exercise, there is no group sharing.
At no time are participants asked to air dirty laundry.
After each talk, couples are assigned a question to reflect on
and answer in a notebook. Questions run the gamut from "What do I
need to do to bring about healing in our relationship?" to "What is
your reason for wanting to go on living?" Spouses separate to write
their responses. Then they return to the privacy of their room to
discuss their answers.
The couples use a communication technique called "dialogue,"
which encourages expression without blame or judgment. They learn
to convey their feelings in a non-threatening manner and to listen
in a way that elicits compassion. If the conversation gets too
contentious. either spouse can call a time-out.
Some people have buried their feelings for SO long, they need an
emotional "cheat sheet" just to articulate them. Cards with
synonyms for every conceivable sentiment--including two dozen
variations on the word angry--are distributed so that participants
can he as explicit as possible. "Your feelings are neither right
nor wrong," Tom explains. "They are simply your feelings."
The couples are ready to return to their rooms to discuss their
first assignment: "Why did I come and what do I hope to gain?"
Sharol advises the group to "read the answer twice--the first time
with your head, the second with your heart."
When describing a spouse's behavior, participants are instructed
to ask themselves, "How does this make me feel?" By the end of the
weekend, this phrase has become a verbal plaything. Upon
discovering an empty coffeepot, one man turns to the group and
asks, "I low does this make me feel?"
But excavating feelings can be a treacherous business,
particularly for those unaccustomed to it. By Saturday afternoon,
there are two empty chairs in the meeting room, signaling
The Millers, back in their room, need more time. Susan, in fact,
is ready to go home. "What's the use?" she yells, throwing clothes
into a suitcase. "You're not going to change, I'm not going to
change. Let's just leave." The Roerings go to retrieve them. They
soothe the couple, walk with them...and after half an hour or so,
the Millers agree to stay. "That was a turning point," Joe later
acknowledges. "They were like two angels sent to our door."
Sometimes, though, people do bail out. "It just shows you," says
Sharol, "what a struggle this can be."
NOTEBOOKS AND CATCHPHRASES HAVE AN artificial quality. And yet
marital- skills exercises do seem to pave the way for partners to
achieve real intimacy. Diane Sollee says she often sees couples who
chalk up their problems to simply not being in love anymore. "But
as partners listen, share, and start showing appreciation, they
reconstitute their love. The tank fills up again."
Monitoring the long-term success of programs like Retrouvaille
is another matter. Only those couples who are successful tend to
keep in contact. Retrouvaille reports that 78 to 85 percent of its
participants are still together--but that's just one year after
completing the course.
The Millers don't know if they will succeed, but they do feel
they' ve tipped the odds in their favor. Ten months after the
Retrouvaille session, they both report that small gestures are
making a big difference: Joe calls Susan during his break at work,
just to see how her day is going. And he marvels that Susan is
giving him good-bye kisses again in the morning. Each clay, they
practice the Retrouvaille technique of devoting 20 minutes--ten
minutes writing, ten minutes talking-- to staying close.
"It would have been far easier to walk away," says Susan. "And
there are clays when it's shaky. But right now, I'd have to say
divorce is not an option."
RELATED ARTICLE: WHERE TO GET HELP
How popular is marital-skills training? More than 50 different
programs are listed on the Web site of the Coalition for Marriage,
Family and Couples Education (www.smartmarriages.com). The programs
listed below are long established, widely available, and often
cited as standouts by mental-health professionals:
PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) is a
12-hour course offered at locations across the country. Call
303-759-9931 for local classes or check the Web:
PAIRS (Application of Intimate Relationship Skills). Options run
the gamut from a one-day workshop to an intensive 120-hour program.
Available in many U.S. cities and abroad. Call 888-724-7748 or
check the Web: www.pairs.com.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF RELATIONSHIP ENHANCEMENT: Available in
weekend workshops or through a phone-coaching format accessible
from anywhere in the country. Call 800-432-6454 or check the Web:
THE MARRIAGE SURVIVAL KIT: University of Washington professor
John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, and his wife, Julie,
offer weekend workshops three times a year. Call 206-523-904Z.
RETROUVAILLE and MARRIAGE ENCOUNTER are taught by trained
couples rather than mental-health professionals. The programs share
a similar curriculum, except that Retrouvaille is designed for
deeply troubled marriages, while Marriage Encounter is geared
toward "stale" relationships. Retrouvaille: 800470-2Z30 or
www.retrouvaille.org. Marriage Encounter 800-795-LOVE.