Looking back on 47 years of marriage, Helen Whelan could see that six children, two jobs, separate interests and different agendas all posed typical challenges to their relationship. Yet, beyond these stressors, deeper challenges had eaten away at their marriage's foundation - the cancer death of their youngest child, withered marital communication, isolation from one another, years spent married solely for the sake of their children, and Peter's two affairs.
Peter's responsible young bride had become a devoted mother, which left her with no time for fun, no time for him. When their 4-year-old daughter, Irene, developed leukaemia, the doctors said she had a 50/50 chance of survival. Helen threw herself into saving their desperately sick child, fighting against the negative 50 percent chance. Peter, unable to face the thought of losing his baby girl, focused on the positive 50 percent. Helen's life became a constant struggle for Irene's survival - taking her for doctor's visits, holding her down for tests, agonising over the results, wiping away tears. Peter devoted his life to keeping spirits high at home, participating with the older children in Irish Folk Dance competitions, never missing a chance to have fun with Irene. He began having an affair with a fellow Irish Dancer. Helen filed for divorce.
By the time the battle against Irene's leukaemia ended with her death at age six, Peter and Helen were completely isolated from each other. Though Peter had ended his affair and Helen rescinded the divorce papers, she didn't trust him and would not forgive him - despite claiming and believing she had. Though Peter wanted to make their marriage better and heal the deep wounds, he couldn't communicate his needs and feelings to Helen without becoming defensive or angry. They worked with a marriage counsellor for six months before the counsellor threw up his hands and referred them to a colleague who specialised in helping Catholic couples work through divorce. After seeing this counsellor for a few months, Peter and Helen decided they would stay in their marriage until their remaining children were grown.
For the sake of the children, they spent the next 14 years in a "sham marriage". Eating together, sleeping together, parenting together, Peter and Helen Whelan raised their children and performed all the outward rituals of a happy couple. Inwardly, however, they remained desperately alone.
There was no comfort. No communication. No meeting of minds," Peter explains about those years. "We both had our own agendas, and when we started to talk about needs, we backed off as soon as we encountered any resistance. I'd want one thing and Helen would want another, so I'd back away from it without ever talking it through." Helen agrees, "The only time feelings came out were in anger or defence. "And I spent a lot of time figuring out how I could get him to come around to my way of thinking, without making him too angry," Helen adds. "God knows, I wore a path to the church, crying and asking 'When are you going to straighten him out, Lord?!' There was so much manipulation, and I never recognized it."
As their youngest surviving child's high school graduation approached, Peter reached out to a female co-worker who offered him much of what was missing at home. They began a friendship, which deepened and became an affair. Peter expected Helen to file for divorce again now that the children were independent. While he was away on one of his many trips to Ireland, Helen discovered this second affair. She knew it was the last straw. However, though she clearly had grounds to divorce Peter, she didn't automatically file. Instead, she followed the familiar path to their church, and asked the diocese for help. The person who answered her call recommended Retrouvaille - pronounced "retro-vye" - a faith-based programme for couples struggling with troubled marriages. The programme gets its name from the French word meaning "to rediscover" or "to find again". True to its name, the programme has helped thousands of struggling couples rediscover the reason they married in the first place. Beyond rediscovery, Retrouvaille gives them tools to reconnect with each other and strengthen their marriages. The programme is based on three core beliefs: marriages deserve an opportunity to succeed, God's presence can make a difference and reconciled marriage is preferable to divorce.
Couples of all beliefs and stages of marriage are welcome to participate in Retrouvaille. Follow-up surveys from various programmes throughout the country show that about 80 percent of Retrouvaille couples are still married two years after completing the programme. These include couples of all faiths; many already separated or even divorced before entering the programme.
In November 1989, Peter and Helen Whelan attended a Retrouvaille weekend retreat. To their surprise, they spent the next two days working to try to save their marriage. Listening to facilitating couples who had struggled through unhappy marriages enabled them to feel less alone. Gaining insights into their own behaviours and what prompted them gave them something to think about. Learning powerful new techniques for communicating their feelings without judgment or fear gave them hope. Opening themselves up to the presence of God as the binding element of their marriage gave them faith. They emerged from the weekend with a sense that they could work to save their marriage, and that it was worth the effort.
Over the course of the Retrouvaille follow-up sessions, Peter and Helen began utilising new tools to work on their marriage. They talked to one another honestly about their needs and feelings. They listened openly without judging, rejecting or bringing up past hurts as they had so often in the course of their marriage. Those early sessions helped Peter and Helen establish a new pattern of communication in which they can talk openly with each other about any situation, stating what each needs without fear or defensiveness. While they once backed off from an issue if they encountered any resistance, now both Peter and Helen express their needs and thoughts, knowing that their spouse wants to understand and honour that need or idea, because it is essential to their partnership.
The Whelans came to realise they each needed to grow in self-knowledge before focusing on correcting their partner. "When you're in pain," Helen explains, "you can't see anything besides your own pain. I was incapable of seeing how deeply Peter was hurting." She laughs when she thinks back to all her tears in church beseeching God to "straighten out" her husband. Now both she and Peter recognise, and often repeat, "The only person you can change is yourself".
Peter and Helen Whelan have logged 12 years as Retrouvaille facilitators. They share their stories with couples in troubled marriages and tell of their own experience. For example, they say it was a mistake to just stay together for the sake of the children. They recommend couples dig deeper and find additional reasons. In keeping with the Retrouvaille programme, Peter and Helen say divorce is rarely the best choice for couples struggling in marriage. "Nine times out of ten," Peter explains, "you're going to go out and look for another person with the same traits that attracted you to your spouse in the first place. It's not going to work because you're still the same person, and you never get away from yourself. That's the one person you can change!"
Peter and Helen have told their story hundreds of times throughout the world. They help spread the message of Retrouvaille to anyone whose marriage needs healing. An avid cyclist, Peter has even done several long distance cycles to publicise the programme. Helen laughs, "We joke and say Peter would never cycle on the road when I was driving up in the van. I might have run him over! But not now." Now, when they're not working in Retrouvaille, they often cycle together, meet for picnic lunches, and rest under the shade of trees reading, watching wildlife or just talking. "There was a time we never thought we'd be in one another's company - let alone enjoy it," Helen continues. "God and time have been good to us, but then we worked at our relationship to get here. And it's worth it! We thank God daily for Retrouvaille and one another."