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 teaches
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 similar treasures.

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 boil over.

"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 Spouse.

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 of dollars

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 notebook.

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 faiths.)

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 lives?"

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 us too?'"

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 back there."

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 therapist."

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 trouble.

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: http://members.aol.com/prepinc.

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: www.nire.org.

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.