Faith Can Help Marriage

Faith Can Help Marriage

Faith: Retrouvaille, other Religious Programs Can Help Couples Save Marriage

It was Friday night and the couples sitting there looked like couples always look on Friday nights “” grief-chiseled faces were turned away from spouses and arms were crossed over chests to protect breaking hearts from any more pain. Then, after an opening Mass, Bob and Joyce Gillespie and the Retrouvaille team began telling their own stories of when they were living in misery, too.

Over the next two and a half days, the team of three couples would give 13 presentations sharing about when their own marriages were in trouble and how learning what it means to belong to each other and to a faith community led to a re-awakening of their love. The team’s priest would talk about his own relationship issues. In the beginning, it was almost imperceptible, but, somewhere between the talks on Encountering Yourself and The Journey Ahead, the thaw began. It was hands held here, a hand on a knee there, a head on the shoulder in the back row.

The before and after is incredible,” said Joyce Gillespie. On Friday night, the faces look like the saddest people in the world. At some point, you see people touching tenderly “” it puts chills up your spine.”

Started in 1977 in Quebec, Retrouvaille (pronounced re-tro-vi with a long i) is a Catholic based marriage recovery program that is open to people of all faiths or no faith at all. Some of the couples arrive for the weekend with divorce papers in their pockets. A number have already filed for divorce and some are divorced. Most are so angry, they don’t even really want to talk. When the Gillespies made their weekend, Bob hadn’t spoken to Joyce for two years.

Bob had lost his job and gone into a deep depression that went on for years. We had every issue “” financial issues, anger issues, you name it, we had it,” said Joyce. The only reason we lived together at that point was because we had no money for either of us to leave.”

Just like the other couples on their weekend, it wasn’t that the Gillespies, who’d been married for 23 years, didn’t want to break through the stony silence, it’s that they didn’t know how.

“The research shows that the couples that stay madly in love disagree to the same degree as couples that divorce. They argue over the same topics – -money, time, sex, and kids. The difference is, they know how to handle it,” says Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education (CMFCE), an umbrella group based in Washington, D.C.

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While 86 percent of U. S. marriages are officiated by clergy, teaching couples the relationship skills necessary to make love last is a recent development for most churches. Traditionally, churches have stressed men and women staying in certain roles as the key to marital happiness.

In June 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest grouping of Christians in America (Catholics being first), issued a statement calling on wives to graciously submit to the servant leadership of her husband.” A full-page ad in USA Today’s August 26th, 1998 edition voiced the affirmation of 131 evangelical leaders, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. “At a time when divorce is destroying the fabric of our society, you have taken a bold stand for the biblical principles of marriage and family life. We thank you for your courage,” the ad stated.

Meanwhile, a survey by the Barna Group found that Christian divorce rates were equal to that of the general population and higher than that of agnostics and atheists. Barna found that Catholics were substantially less likely than Protestants to divorce (25 percent versus 39 percent, respectively). Among the largest Protestant groups, those in the more conservative denominations are most likely to divorce. Forty-four percent of Pentecostals were divorced while Presbyterians, at 28 percent, had the fewest divorces. Meanwhile, only 21 percent of atheists and agnostics are divorced.

We are the most religious of nations,” said nationally syndicated columnist Mike McManus. Forty percent of our population attends church on Sunday. Two-thirds are members of churches; but, we have the worst divorce rate in the world and the highest out of wedlock birthrate”

People like Sollee took note. I realized we weren’t getting the job done,” said Sollee. We were training and licensing tens of thousands of therapists every year. Yet, marriages were failing at high rates. A reporter asked me ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ That question made me think.”

Sollee left her position with the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists to found
Smart Marriages. When couples go to therapy, they typically talk about how bad everything is. Well, that approach doesn’t work. The studies show couples who go to therapy are more likely to divorce than couples who don’t,” said Sollee. At Smart Marriages, you don’t talk about what doesn’t work, you learn about what does.” What works is communication and conflict resolution skills.

Successful couples disagree in a way that makes their relationship stronger,” said Sollee. They also have other skills, knowledge, and attitudes that help them build and maintain long-term happiness and satisfaction. The good news is that anyone can learn to do it better and smarter. Couples can unlearn the behaviors that destroy love and replace them with knowledge and behaviors that keep love alive.”

Mary Meade, President of Programs for Marriage Recovery (PMR) agrees. As a lawyer, Meade often had divorcing spouses come to her for legal assistance. I had been through the horrors of divorce,” said Meade. I knew what it does to children and I really didn’t want to be part passing that misery on.” Meade went to Richard Burke, a deacon in her church, and talked about her concerns. Burke told her, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

That’s exactly what Meade did. Often couples don’t know where to go for help,” said Meade. To provide that help, she developed a three-tiered approach to marriage recovery that involves intensive weekly mediation, a mental health evaluation and counseling from a counselor on a PMR approved list, as well as spiritual direction with someone of the couple’s faith. If there are addictions, they must be addressed. If there is abuse, it must be reported. Every step of the way, assistance is sought through prayer and Scripture. The program, which started in 1984, has worked with 600 marriages. Only five couples did not complete the program. Every couple that did opted not to divorce.

Other faith-based programs have had similar success.Retrouvaille has an 85 percent success rate. We found that 85 percent were still happily married after five years,” said Gillespie. And, these were the hard cases. Prior to attending Retrouvaille, these weren’t people who were saying, ‘well, I’m not really happy.’ These were people who had been really unhappy for years.”

Asked what makes the difference, Gillespie is quick to give credit to God. I attribute it to the power of the Holy Spirit, which is alive and well on the weekends, helping couples work hard and realize they’ve become self-centered,” she said. Prior to attending, they thought all their problems were caused by their spouse. Then, they come to realize they equally contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. Once they realize that, it becomes a way forward and many leave the program with a whole new outlook on life and hope that they can make it. Many even get remarried.”


Encouraged by the success of these programs and others like them, 10,000 clergy members in 220 communities have worked together to implement community marriage policies (CMPs). Developed by McManus, who founded Marriage Savers, CMPs involve programs for marriage preparation, enrichment, restoration (if both people are willing to work at the marriage), and reconciliation (for separated couples, or if one person doesn’t want to work at it), as well as programs to strengthen stepfamilies.

In CMP communities, there are no more quickie marriages. Engaged couples are required to take a 151 question pre-marital inventory with statements such as: Sometimes my fiancé gives me the silent treatment when we disagree;” and I’m hoping my spouse will change certain behaviors.” For this statement, there is a follow-up question: Could you live with this behavior for 40 years if there is no change? The inventory can predict with 80 percent accuracy who will divorce. The purpose is to help surface issues couple needs to talk through, so marriage can go the distance,” said McManus.

After taking the inventory, couples are paired with a mentor couple that works with them over a period of four to six months on the issues raised. If your boyfriend is maxed out on credit cards, an older couple will ask, ‘Who’s going to cover this debt before the marriage?’ It’s the kind of practical advice that can be passed from one generation to the next,” said McManus.

Through Marriage Savers, Mike and Harriet McManus have prepared 135 young couples for marriage. There have been broken engagements but no known divorces. For existing marriages, CMPs offer enrichment programs such as Marriage Encounter and Ten Great Dates where participants learn how to talk with and encourage each other.

There are also programs for children who are distraught over the turmoil in their homes. Community marriage policies are working. In Modesto, Calif., 95 pastors, priests and a rabbi signed America’s first Community Marriage Policy in 1986. In their CMP Covenant, the signing clergy said it was their responsibility to set minimum requirements to raise the quality of the commitment in those we marry.”

Since then, the Stanislaus County (Modesto’s metro area) divorce rate has been cut 56 percent.This was the finding of the Institute for Research and Evaluation in comparing the rate during the three years before the CMP was adopted to the rate for 2001 (the most recent date covered by the data). This means the Modesto area is saving more that 1000 marriages a year that likely would have ended in divorce.

Richard Albertson of Live the Life Ministries in Tallahassee, Fla., reduced the city’s divorce rate by 23 percent. He built a CMP with a budget of $800,000, raised locally. His ministry also won a $500,000 per year, five-year federal grant. Rev. Jeff Meyers & Pastor LeRoy Sullivan created a suburban- urban CMP in Kansas City, Kansas, that cut the divorce rate 63 percent.

Pastor Sullivan transformed his inner city church from one with mostly women and children to one with mostly couples and kids. After churches in Peoria, Ill., adopted a CMP, the city experienced a 20 percent drop in a year. Every divorce destroys a tiny civilization,” said McManus.

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