The following article appeared in the September 2000 issue of
A Lifelong Commitment
A local group helps couples strengthen their marriage.
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 many others - there are support systems in place. 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 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?
Well, this 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 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.
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.
The weekend is supported by volunteers consisting of couples who have previously participated in a Marriage Encounter and want to spread the experience to others.
One of the many gifts to arise from Marriage Encounter -- and one that, perhaps, is a bit unexpected in the beginning -- is the effect it would ultimately have on the family unit as a whole. Madeline Louis, whose weekend with her husband, Rich, took place in 1993, concurs with this theory.
"The best gift a man can give his children, is to love their mother," she says. "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 impacts tremendously on the self-esteem of the children when the parents are in a strong, positive relationship as opposed to the opposite.
"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."
Jim and Diane Popp spent 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 Marriage Encounter, 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."
Eileen Shappert, who participated in the program 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.
"Family values are the essence of who and what we are," she says. "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 now to 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 shared, and hopefully, in time, they will be accepted or at least understood."
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, participated in a Marriage Encounter weekend in 1997.
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