by Edward Gross
Generational cycles are tough to break, with the abused often becoming the abusers, children of alcoholics picking up where their parents left off and those coming from broken homes finding it difficult to keep their own intact.
And for every one of these instances - as well as innumerable others - there are support systems in place. Look hard enough, and the odds are that you'll find someone willing to help, if that's what you're looking for. But what about the flip-side of that coin? What if you're looking to keep your family together or desperate to tackle life's difficulties and wrestle them into submission? What if you and your spouse decided right here and now that you were going to dedicate yourselves to each other and your family? That you were going to take stock of what really matters in your life and pass that generational cycle down to your children?
Fantasy has become reality, thanks to Marriage Encounter.
Introduced in Spain in the late '50s/early '60s by Father Gabriel Calvo, Marriage Encounter was designed from the beginning as a means of encouraging husbands and wives to become more open and honest in their relationships. In 1967, Spanish couples and priests came to the United States to introduce the concept, and two years later American couples and priests were conducting weekends on their own. Eventually, leaders in the New York area developed the core WorldWide Marriage Encounter movement under the guidance of Ed and Harriet Garzero and Rev. Charles Gallagher, a Long Island youth retreat master. The New York leadership placed a new emphasis on weekend follow-up and the development of "community" to provide support for living the values learned on the weekend.
The word spread, as did the concept of Marriage Encounter. Today, Marriage Encounter weekends are presented in more than 90 countries and 160 local areas in the United States. There are also versions of the weekend representing many different religious expressions and it is presented in a variety of languages. Through it all, the basic objective remains the same: strengthening the love, and level of communication, between husbands and wives.
The weekend is supported by volunteers consisting of couples who have experienced it and want to spread the news to others.
One of the many gifts to arise from Marriage Encounter -- and one that, perhaps, was a bit unexpected in the beginning -- was the effect it would ultimately have on the family unit as a whole. Madeline Louis, who made her weekend with her husband, Rich, in 1993, concurs with this theory.
"The best gift a man can give his children, is to love their mother," says Madeline. "I would say that Marriage Encounter strengthens that. The family life and the way you raise your children is strengthened when the love between you is deeper. It's all about setting a model by example. Let's take the other extreme. When a young boy sees his mother being beaten by his father, he grows up thinking that's okay to do, so he is more likely to grow up to be a wife-beater. But when he sees his mother being loved and cared for and cherished by his father, he grows up with that as a model and is much more likely to cherish his wife. And conversely with the daughters. The way a daughter sees her mother being treated by her father is what she thinks she's entitled to. Good or bad. It impacts tremendously on the self-esteem of the children when the parents are in a strong, positive relationship as opposed to the opposite. The other thing, of course, is that the deeper the love and the intimacy of the couple, the happier it is in the household.
"Of course," she adds, "when there's less fighting in the house, the children grow up stronger and, again, with greater self-esteem, confidence and security. If you grow up thinking that your parents are going to get a divorce, that undermines your security. Home is where you're supposed to be safe. When you feel safe at home, you can put up with whatever comes your way."
Pete Kelsch, who along with his wife Kathy made his weekend in 1988, firmly believes that his family has been helped tremendously by the influence of Marriage Encounter. "It gave our children the security of knowing that their parents would always do whatever they could to keep their marriage together," he explains. "That was one less thing they had to worry about. It concentrates on the family unit, and that's really the basis of everything."
Kathy agrees, pointing out that their kids have undoubtedly benefited from it, going so far as to try and recruit the parents of their friends to give it a shot. "Our kids saw a big difference in us and our home was happier, so, of course, our lives were happier," Kathy says. "I remember an instance where our son came home from his best friend's house and said, 'You better talk to Justin's parents. They're fighting and they need a Marriage Encounter.' So they really saw a difference in us and that's why they wanted us to talk to their friends' parents."
Jim and Diane Popp made their weekend in 1986, and for Jim it was a real eye-opener. Having grown up in a household that didn't encourage family members to get in touch with their true feelings and express them, Marriage Encounter was revolutionary in its approach.
"For us, the result was that we let our children get in touch with their feelings, and for us as parents, it helped us to accept them," he notes. "Before the weekend, we would always say to our kids, 'Don't feel that way,' and I was brought up in a home where you always denied your feelings. I remember my son was always jealous of his younger brother, and I would say to him, 'You shouldn't be jealous,' and changed the subject. After M.E., I changed it to, 'It's okay to be jealous, but you can't let it consume you.' Once we could accept his feelings, the jealousy kind of worked itself out. If I never let him accept his feelings, that would never have happened."
Jim also points out that his youngest son was quite little when he and Diane made their weekend, and the influence of M.E. has been most profound on him. "He doesn't have any qualms about telling you or anybody else how he feels," says Jim. "And he's very outgoing and popular, I think because of that. The younger, the better, because once they're teenagers they deny their feelings anyway. But if it's inbred in them, the earlier it gets in to the cornerstone of their development, the better it is."
Eileen Shappert, who made her weekend with husband Paul in 1995, approaches the subject from a different perspective. Her parents were encountered in 1971, and she and her siblings were the recipients of that weekend's impact throughout their lives.
"To be quite frank," Eileen says, "it wasn't until I was in junior high that I realized I came from an atypical family. I grew up in a family where we always had family meals, we always had family time, we always had family night. It was just the way things were and I thought it was the same for everyone -- until junior high when I got to know other kids and started going on sleepovers. Then I realized that these kids are all coming in from school and not kissing their mom and dad hello. They're coming in for a meal, but aren't really sitting down and having a meal."
Eileen details that her parents allowed she and her siblings to truly fight and "get it on" with each other and have open discussions, and while there was a lot of shouting and yelling, there were also just as many hugs and gestures of forgiveness. Again, it was a natural way of life, and she admits that she was surprised when she got to know her husband's family.
"I quickly realized that they really just kind of talked about external things and not internal things," she says. "You know, 'It's a good day', 'The weather's nice,' whereas in my home, if there were issues we addressed them and then they were over and done with. As much as my Paul is my saving grace and the love of my life, he has suppressed so many different types of feelings because he was never allowed to share them because you didn't want to walk on egg shells, you didn't want to rock the boat -- all of these other issues of not wanting to hurt another person. You would sit around the family table and his older siblings were bickering about all kinds of suppressed issues."
It wasn't until Eileen and Paul went on their Marriage Encounter weekend that she came to truly understand what her parents had gone through and the impact that M.E. had had on her family.
"It's because you're challenged to open each other up; to talk about not only the good, but the bad and the things that may not be easy between each other," she enthuses. "That was a really big thing for us as a couple, because I automatically thought -- and I shared a lot of tears on our Encounter weekend over this -- that I would have a wonderful marriage because I came from a family and a couple who had a wonderful marriage. I didn't realize the work -- the intenseness -- that was needed in order for a couple to be together as a unit and really share each other within each other and show that to the children.
"Family values are the essence of who and what we are," she closes. "It is such a beautiful thing to now be the adult, raising children and saying, 'This is what I used to do as a child, and how wonderful and beautiful it is to now give this to my kids.' I know how important it is to show our kids that we love one another; to show that affection and also to show them that not everything is all peachy keen. It's alright to have a difference of opinion. All range of feelings are allowed to be shown. All range of feelings are allowed to be shared, and hopefully, in time, they will be accepted or at least understood."
In essence, Marriage Encounter is a gift waiting to be opened. To obtain it, all you have to do is call (631) 321-6057, or visit M.E. on the web at www.WWMELI.homepage.com
Edward Gross is the editor of Life Story magazine, and the author of numerous non-fiction books on film and television. He and his wife, Eileen, made their weekend in 1997.