Because of the demands of family life, husbands and wives often learn to converse in shorthand. They keep track of what needs to be done—groceries purchased, bills paid, gate opened for gardener, children taken to sports practice and medical appointments—as they each tend to their respective roles in the family.
Taking a break together can give such couples a chance to reconnect and rekindle their love. They also can start to unravel the misunderstandings that may have begun to undermine the fabric of their marriage.
That is the opportunity offered by Worldwide Marriage Encounter, a Catholic ministry designed for couples who have good marriages that could stand improvement.
Marriage Encounter couples can spend a weekend at a hotel close to home where they learn communication skills they can use the rest of their lives to express their sacramental love to one another and those around them.
“People come out of the weekend and are euphoric. They feel they have found their best friends again,” says Bob Durham, who with his wife Lisa is in charge of coordinating five Marriage Encounter weekends a year in Orange County.
Marriage Encounter was developed by a priest in Spain in 1952 as a series of conferences for married couples. The conferences became a weekend retreat that under the guidance of Father Chuck Gallagher, a Jesuit priest, spread worldwide, arriving in Southern California in the early 1970s.
Worldwide Marriage Encounter is coordinated by volunteers, including couples who have attended Encounter sessions, and priests. While most who attend are Catholic, there is no faith requirement.
Some priests and other religious also attend to strengthen their ability to relate lovingly to the people of God to whom they minister.
Topics vital to relationships, many dealing with aspects of communication, are presented to the Encounter audience by three couples and a priest who draw on their personal experiences.
Father Perry McCoy, the 79-year-old prior of a Servite religious community in Anaheim, says his attendance at a Marriage Encounter weekend more than 20 years ago saved his priesthood when he was hurt and ready to leave. Father Perry says that the weekend taught him that “dialogue” with the people of God was the best way to heal his hurts and deepen his sacrament of commitment, just as he saw married couples reconcile with one another.
The roughly 20 couples who attend the weekends are certain to learn more about one another, whether they have been married a few years or decades, says Maggie Lee, who has been both a Marriage Encounter attendee and organizer with her husband John.
There is no counseling on Marriage Encounter weekends. Nor are attendees expected to talk about their problems in public. Couples listen to the speakers, write their thoughts on the topics in workbooks, then go to their hotel rooms to discuss those thoughts with one another.
“The focus is on feelings involved in areas of married life such as family life, work life, relationships, finances, sexuality and children. It is up to the couple what they want to talk about,” says Father Kerry Beaulieu, pastor at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach and a presenter at Marriage Encounter weekends.
“The concept is presented that being married is a responsible and intimate relationship,” Father Kerry says, instead of husbands and wives living separately under the same roof as if they were roommates.
Jose Calderon, 37, of San Clemente, says he and his wife Vanessa discovered through taking a personality quiz at a Marriage Encounter in 2012 that she is an “organizer” who likes to plan, while he is more laid back. That difference became a source of conflict in their marriage when Jose’s unplanned spending would conflict with the household budget that Vanessa handled alone.
Calderon says that now he and his wife jointly review their finances. “It takes me out of myself and allows me to look at it from Vanessa’s point of view,” Calderon says.
John Guijon, 49, of Irvine, scheduled a Marriage Encounter with his wife Olga this year as a Valentine’s Day present. Olga says the experience made them understand how important they are to one another, a realization they now regularly express with a hug, kiss on the cheek or text message.
“Even our children have noticed the difference. We are more loving to them, too,” Olga says.
After their weekend, couples are invited to join a community of Marriage Encounter alumni who gather for evening meetings and family events like picnics and baseball games.
Marriage Encounter also has motivated many couples to become active Catholics who embrace their sacramental role as a sign of God’s love to others.
“It was a conversion experience,” says Shirl Giacomi, who credits the weekend she and her husband Pat attended in 1978 for launching her career of service in the Church. She currently serves as Chancellor of the Diocese of Orange. “Not only did we fall in love with one another more deeply over the weekend, we fell in love with our Church,” Giacomi says.
Participation in Marriage Encounter has cooled since the 1970s when there were enough interested couples to fill hotel conference rooms eight weekends a month.
Bob Durham says couples “are so busy now they have difficulty finding a weekend to cut out of their life for reconnecting to their spouse.”
To accommodate parents who can’t arrange to be away from home overnight, an encounter weekend is organized in the summer that enables them to go home each evening.
The price of the weekend is also flexible. Couples pay $90 to reserve a spot and donate whatever more they can afford before the closing Mass on Sunday afternoon to help cover costs. “We tell them the cost (for each couple) is $445, but we never turn anyone away for lack of funds,” Lee says. The cost of the daytime only sessions is $225. Meals are included in the fees.