Article originally published by The Irish Times on 9th September 1997, available (log in required) in the The Irish Times archive →
Ireland may now have divorce but many troubled couples still want to stay together if they can. Aine McCarthy reports on a new programme that helps them at least try.
Joe and Mary Murphy had been married for 20 years but at least 10 of those had been what Joe describes as "a silent hell". They were full of resentment towards each other, Joe because he felt Mary didn't understand his deep unhappiness, Mary because she felt she had to be strong and hold everything together while Joe moped.
"If we did try to talk, our voices would instantly go up a couple of octaves and in two seconds we'd be heading for a row," says Mary. "Everything was empty and joyless. We had built a wall between us."
It was the attempted suicide of their daughter that jolted them into trying to repair their destructive relationship. A child therapist recommended a programme called Retrouvaille, described as "a lifeline for troubled marriages". Within hours of beginning, they felt the emotional wall between them begin to crumble.
Sustaining a happy marriage has never been easy and now that traditional marital secrets like violence and sexual abuse can be aired, most Irish people recognise the need for divorce. But according to Joyce Clark, a US co-ordinator for Retrouvaille, many contemporary marriages fail not because of such serious problems but simply because people are poorly trained in sustaining longterm relationships.
She describes the three stages of a flagging marriage as first romance, then casual irritation (he's never considerate, she's always nagging), and finally total disillusionment. "This is when many couples decide to bail out," she says. "They don't realise that they can still work back to romance."
Retrouvaille (French for "rediscovery") originated in 1977 in the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada, and from there has spread to a number of other countries, including the US, Australia and New Zealand, Mexico and the Philippines. It was introduced to Ireland last year.
Steve and Gayleen Jacobs, an American couple now living in Dublin, were initially sceptical about the programme. Gayleen in particular felt their marriage was over and doubted that Retrouvaille could help. "I hated him," she says of her husband. "I had gone past all the anger, I didn't care any more. I just wanted out." She had got to the stage of writing an unposted letter to her mother asking for financial help to escape the marriage when a priest friend persuaded them to try Retrouvaille as a last-ditch effort.
Arriving at the appointed venue, she was not impressed. "The presenters were American and were professionally cheerful in the way that only Americans can be," she recalls. "Everybody was wearing name badges. The men were sent off into a separate room from the women and we were told to write to each other.
"My letter to Steve said: 'I am only writing to you because I have been told to and the vultures are watching me. This isn't going to work.' I wanted to leave that first evening but was persuaded to stay. By mid-Saturday, I was beginning to change my mind."
By the end of the course she was convinced, and one year on their marriage is good and getting better. "We have 'rediscovered' one another," says Steve.
"We are enjoying one another's company again and a day doesn't seem complete unless we've had a good conversation together. And when problems do arise, we are now confident we will be able to work them out. The tools we learned in Retrouvaille have been a major factor in helping us to grow in our relationship." They were so impressed that they have trained to be a "team couple" and now run the programme in Ireland. "We're 'spread-the-word' sort of people," says Gayleen. "This has been such a wonderful thing in our lives that we want others to benefit as we have."
Retrouvaille consists of a two-and-a-half-day weekend session and six follow-up meetings over six weeks. It is essentially a course in communication techniques, many of which are common to other forms of couples counselling. But it differs from counselling in a number of ways.
It is run, not by a therapist, but by a team of married couples who have previously been through the course. Couples are not expected to share their problems with a sympathetic listener or in groups. They communicate only with each other and work together, using techniques that enable them to listen and speak to one another in such a way that trust can be reestablished.
The programme operates under the auspices of the Catholic church and though it is open to those of all religious affiliations and none, some people might find the Catholic emphasis somewhat off-putting. Their Internet site, for example, carries the following "mission statement": "We, the members of Retrouvaille International, are united in the belief that the sacrament of marriage deserves an opportunity and has a God-given right to survive... "We believe that the presence of God can make a difference in any marriage and that a reconciled marriage is preferable to divorce."
This ethos underlies the programme. Marriage is not just a human relationship, it is a "sacrament". A priest is involved in the presentations. One follow-up session is entitled "A place for God". "There is a spiritual element," says Mary Murphy, "but it doesn't take over. The priest's contribution to the programme is very much at the human, personal level rather than the religious. Couples with no belief would still benefit enormously from the communication methods that it teaches."
The core method, called "dialoguing" in Retrouvaille-speak, requires the couple to write out their feelings on a particular issue and then exchange these writings. They are shown how to make such communications on a "feelings basis" rather than on a "solution-to-the-problem basis", with each partner describing his and her own feelings in specific terms in the letter.
"I find it difficult to express how I feel verbally," says Joe Murphy. "But when I write these letters to Mary it all flows out."
Having completed the programme, couples are encouraged to continue to dialogue regularly, at least three times a week. "From August 24th to September 16th we didn't do it at all," says Gayleen Jacobs. "Steve was back from a holiday and we were both extremely busy. By the end of that three-week period we were feeling on edge with one another again. When we did get around to dialoguing again, the feeling was like 'Oh yes, there you are'. We promised each other we would not leave it so long again."
Retrouvaille's premise is that most troubled marriages can and should be saved. While this may overstate the case a little, there is no doubt that many couples are enjoying the benefits the programme can bestow, together again in a way they never thought they could be.
"We were the best of buddies when we first met," Joe Murphy recalls. "We wanted to spend every moment together and when we weren't together we were on the phone to each other. It was lovely but it all fell away from us. Now, after years of silent hell, it's wonderful to be reclaiming some of those feelings."