World Marriage Day is celebrated on Feb. 13, the Sunday before St. Valentine’s Day. For 20 years, Claude Lenehan, OFM, a friar with the HNP Ministry of the Word, has been ministering to couples in troubled marriages through the Retrouvaille program. Retrouvaille is a weekend retreat for couples, and a growing ministry for the Church, according to Claude. On Holy Family Sunday, whose feast day is Dec. 28, Claude spoke at parishes in northern New Jersey about marriage. Here, he offers some condensed thoughts on the subject.
I have worked with couples in marriage programs like Retrouvaille for years and have some observations to share. My experience is that American men, and maybe men in general, are badly trained in relationships. Men are socialized to put little value on feelings, which only results in emotional blockages, or emotional constipation, as I call it. Garrison Keillor, the popular storyteller and humorist, speaks on his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” of a Norwegian farmer in Minnesota, who loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
Marriage has several stages. No. 1 is the romantic stage when engaged couples are incurable optimists about love. That’s OK; they need a running start. Couples in this stage are often heard saying, “We finish each other’s sentences. We are so in sync.” In five years, these same couples say, “Stop interupting me.”
After reality sets in, what might have been endearing in courtship wears thin. This leads to stage No. 2: disillusionment. This is the time when couples can become miserable and thoughts turn to separation or divorce.
I find culture today to not be supportive of marriage. This was not the case 50 or 60 years ago. But today, our culture should be sued for non-support. Reminds me of the line in an old song, “you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all.”
Donald Trump recently said this: “Love is easy. If it takes work, it must not be love.” I couldn’t disagree more. Marriage takes work.
Sometimes couples decide that they should live together to see if their potential marriage can work. Studies by the University of Colorado have found that couples who live together before marriage had higher divorce rates.
Anecdotal research also found that at 10 years, couples who didn’t live together before marriage, but who had the same faith backgrounds and practiced their religion, had much lower divorce rates.
In Michigan, for example, judges are given some latitude in divorce hearings, and often recommend programs like Retrouvaille. As a result, couples will often withdraw their divorce papers and restore their marriage. As priests, we often hear couples who say, “It’s too late.” I don’t believe that is ever the case. If there is even a spark left, I think that couples owe it to themselves and to their children to try again. Retrouvaille works.
I’m sometimes asked about the success rate of this marriage program. While we have no scientific study, follow-up phone surveys show that 80 to 85 percent of couples who attend a Retrouvaille weekend are still together after two years.
A recent Retrouvaille questionnaire sent out in the Detroit area five years after the program found that 80 percent of couples were still married. Asked to rate their marriage from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, 75 percent gave it a 5 or better. The average was a 7.
I recommend several books for friars dealing with parishioners’ marital issues. “The Five Languages of Love” by Gary Chapman, and “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,” by Julia M. Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee and Judith Wallerstein. The latter was written after a long-range study following a cohort of children of divorce from age 5 to 35. Previous studies were short-term, after a year or so, and found most parties saying that everything was fine and back to normal after a divorce.
I’d like to conclude with a quote from writer Madeline L’Engle from “Two-Part Invention,” the story of her 45-year marriage. She wrote from the bedside of her husband who was dying of cancer:
“Our love has been anything but perfect, and anything but stale. Inevitably, there have been times when one of us has out run the other, and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to each other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage in which this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage, there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes, those desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.”
— Fr. Claude lives at St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J.