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Retrouvaille - a marriage ministry
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

For the Skjolsviks, one weekend changed everything.

 

After 19 years of marriage, things were looking pretty bleak for the Minneapolis couple. “I had made a poor decision to abuse alcohol during the first 19 years of my marriage to Jan,” Mark explains. “During our 19th year I made another extremely poor decision – to start a romantic affair with a female co-worker. I convinced myself I was in love with the woman, believed I would start a new life with her, told Jan of my affair and stated I no longer loved her. I separated and filed for divorce.”

 

But Jan sees plenty of blame to go around. “For many years prior to this, we had gone our separate ways,” she says. “I was involved with the kids, friends, and even went back to school without discussing these things with Mark … I judged Mark was unhappy with his life. Reflecting back, his daily drinking was an indicator of his unhappiness and dissatisfaction with all aspects of his life.”

 

Jan and Mark, who had two children, had already tried the conventional route of marriage counseling. “A marriage counselor had handed me a 20-page info sheet on how to obtain a divorce after meeting with her for 20 minutes,” Jan recalls.

 

Enter Retrouvaille, an international faith-based organization that helps people preserve their marriages – even during separation, sometimes even after divorce.

 

Retrouvaille (pronounced RET-row-vi, French for “rediscovery”) allows couples to rebuild loving relationships. It starts with an intense and structured weekend retreat, then a series of follow-up sessions over three months.

 

Group leaders understand the hurt, anger and frustration of participants because they are “graduates” of Retrouvaille, and they credit the program with saving their own marriages.

Roman Catholic in origin, Retrouvaille serves couples of any faith (or no faith) in the United States and abroad. It is unapologetically Christian, and it’s ecumenical, with participants and leaders from a variety of denominations. The leaders make it clear that participants won’t be “recruited” for any denomination.

 

One Sunday, Jan was putting a prayer request into a request box at church, and saw the Retrouvaille brochures in the cubby above the box. Was it an answer to prayer? Jan wasn’t sure anything could help their situation. But, five months into the separation, Mark says, “I was beginning to question my actions and started realizing I was making a devastating mistake. Jan had the courage to show me the Retrouvaille brochure.” Mark spoke with a Retrouvaille volunteer several times over the phone. He says, “It became evident to me that I really wanted to attempt to reconcile with Jan, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted us to attend the June weekend and would do anything to get us there.”

 

So what is Retrouvaille? “Graduates” feel it’s easier to describe what it is not. It’s not a church. It’s not counseling or psychotherapy. It’s not a replacement for professional help in cases of chemical addictions or spousal abuse. And it’s probably not like anything the estranged couples have tried.

 

Retrouvaille comes from a rather unusual vantage point – that it is possible, even worthy, to save a marriage. American society, say participants, is more supportive of ending a marriage than saving one. The organization’s mission statement says, in part: “The sacrament of marriage deserves and opportunity and has a God-given right to survive in a society that does little to support marriage. We believe that the presence of God can make a difference in any marriage and that a reconciled marriage is preferable to divorce.”

 

Couples who attend the Retrouvaille weekend will run a gamut from those who really want to save their marriage but don’t know how, to couples where one wants to attend and the other really doesn’t want to be there. Leaders say it’s not necessary for both to WANT to attend, but that both must be WILLING to attend.

 

Before the weekend retreat, both husband and wife will have spoken to Retrouvaille leaders and agreed on some basic ground rules. Later, during the weekend, they’ll have plenty of time alone together to work on a series of communication exercises. They’ll also hear several Retrouvaille graduates discuss their own marriages and how the program helped keep them together.

 

When the “presenting couples” tell their own stories, each individual discusses only himself or herself. There is no throwing stones. Today, the Skjolsviks, who have become leaders in the organization, each speak about their own shortcomings – and the fact that their situation had seemed hopeless. “I believed we had nothing to lose by attending the program,” she says. “I felt like I was at the bottom of a pit and my life could not get worse.”

 

Couples who attend won’t be asked to share their personal stories with others, and everything that takes place is confidential. The organization’s web site explains, “As the team couples talk about the very intimate and deep hurts they have experienced, participants can find the courage to express some of their own pain. In sharing their values and insights, team couples offer a message so different from society’s model of independence and selfishness. Hurting couples are invited to see how listening, forgiveness, communication and even fighting are healthy tools for building a stable relationship.”

 

At the weekend workshop, says Mark, “A safe method of communication is taught. Attending couples hear their own story through the presenting couple’s stories and are given a communication tool. Unlike marriage counseling, attending couples are not given any advice or opinions. Attending couples are given hope for the possibility of a better relationship with their spouse.”

 

The Skjolsviks began to communicate differently, and saw their marriage transformed. Although there have been ups and downs, “I can honestly say that our relationship has continually grown positively over the last 10 years and I am very excited about our future together. I am completely at peace that I made the right decision in my life to stay married to Jan and share my life with her.”

 

Jan, of course, agrees: “Marriage is journey and our Retrouvaille experience is a big part of that journey. We have learned the skills to maintain a healthy marriage through improved communication and listening skills, sharing of our feelings, thoughts and needs. We work at affirming each other daily and being respectful of each other. We have forgiven each other.  We have developed a deep sense of trust in each other. We have fun together. We laugh together.”

 

A few years later, the couple decided to become a presenting couple, and then took leadership position. “We have both felt the need to give back to the Retrouvaille ministry for what it had given us,” Mark says.

 

In the end, Retrouvaille won’t make any difference for some couples. But for others, it will make all the difference in the world. Those who credit Retrouvaille with saving their marriages admit there is still conflict, but they talk about a new love for one another and new tools for resolving the conflict. As Mark says, “Retrouvaille may be the one program that might start a couple on a healing and relationship-rebuilding journey, rather than the journey through a divorce.”

 

To find out about the Retrouvaille ministry in the Twin Cities, call (763) 425-3120.

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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