Retrouvaille Volunteers Acclaim Program for Giving Spouses What they Need to Reconnect
Five years ago, Shannon and Sharon Winfindale’s marriage was in dire straits.
They were hurt and angry and argumentative, and they weren’t communicating.
Unsure of how to get help for their marriage, the Winfindales turned to their pastor, Father Peter Hahn, at St. Leo the Great Parish in Rohrerstown. Fortunately, he knew just what to do.
The priest recommended that Shannon and Sharon participate in Retrouvaille, a program that offers married couples the tools and techniques they need to help heal and renew their relationship.
Retrouvaille, the French word for “rediscovery,” begins with a weekend retreat for participating couples, followed by six weeks of subsequent sessions to assist them as they continue their journey toward restoring their marriage.
In the Diocese of Harrisburg, Retrouvaille is under the auspices of the Office of Marriage and Family Ministry. It is a ministry of the Church that underscores the sacredness of marriage, and is offered to people of all faiths. More than 700 couples have participated in the program since it began in the Diocese 31 years ago. For those who participate, upwards of 80 percent opt to stay together and work on their relationship.
The Winfindales are among the success stories.
“We weren’t communicating before we attended the weekend, and it gave us tools for communication that we didn’t know before,” Sharon said. “It gave us ways to begin to open up to each other, to let each other know what we were feeling and in a safe way.”
“It saved our marriage,” she said.
Mike and Bernie Rydock of St. Peter Parish in Elizabethtown are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this year. For half of their married life, they’ve served as presenters in the program and were one of two founding couples when it began in the Diocese in 1990. As advocates for the sacredness of marriage, they know personal struggles can quickly become roadblocks between spouses.
“Marriage is not wonderful all the time. Couples experience job loss, infidelity, addiction, illness, family issues,” Mike said. “After 60 years, even Bernie and I have our own misunderstandings and times when we shut each other out. Couples need to have tools to help get past those barriers.”
That’s where Retrouvaille comes in.
“Its purpose is to provide hope for people who are struggling. We try to do that by teaching a communication technique. It’s not therapy. It’s not counseling. But it is skills training,” Mike said.
“The idea is to help people reconnect,” he said. “People come in to their marriage with a natural enthusiasm and excitement, and they can’t get enough of their spouse. Over time, that spirit of closeness sometimes gets eroded and it needs to be renewed, because people get caught up in all the things life throws at them, and they sort of lose touch with each other. It might make them throw up their hands and want to give up on the relationship. The goal of Retrouvaille is to get them to a place where they can reconnect with each other.”
Whether married, separated or divorced, couples can find help through Retrouvaille – if they’re willing to work at it.
“The whole process takes work on their part,” Mike remarked. “We give them the tools and then it’s up to them to use those tools in order to benefit. We do ask that people who come to the weekend have a genuine desire to save their marriage despite the troubles they’re having.”
The Retrouvaille program begins with a weekend experience – Friday evening through Sunday afternoon – at a local conference center or hotel where couples stay for the duration. Teams of trained presenter-couples offer a series of talks while equipping participants with various communication techniques. Following each presentation, spouses have time to individually reflect on questions before coming together as a couple to privately share their thoughts.
The weekend is confidential; couples won’t be made to air their problems or participate in group sharing. Instead, they’ll attend presentations, spend some time writing in order to express their feelings, explore conflict management and learn how to effectively communicate with their spouse. A priest is also present during the weekend; Father William Forrey is the program’s chaplain.
Because disappointment, anger and hurt cannot be healed in one weekend, a series of six follow-up sessions takes place after the weekend program. The sessions assist spouses in further developing the skills they learned during the weekend, and in exploring additional areas of their relationship.
“If you’re married and the inability to communicate has been festering over a period of time, one weekend or even six weeks of follow-up sessions will not cure everything,” Bernie cautioned. “You have to work at it. But, there is hope with this program.”
“The Retrouvaille weekend is not a magic event that will solve all your problems. We all have problems; that won’t change,” she said. “But by starting to rediscover each other and using effective communication tools, you can better address the problems you’re struggling with.”
Motivation to Stay In It
The Rydocks and the Winfindales volunteer in the Retrouvaille program because it works. They’ve seen it first-hand.
“It’s such a joy to work with the couples and see their transformation throughout the weekend,” Sharon said. “When they come in, they’re very closed-off to each other. They’re holding in the anger and the hurt. Sometimes they’re even holding in the truth. You can tell there is so much going on inside them. We begin to slowly break that down. By the end of the weekend, they’re talking and holding hands, smiling. It’s amazing to be part of that renewal.”
Seeing that transformation – and knowing they were once in the same boat – is why the Winfindales are willing to share their personal story of past issues and eventual renewal.
“I think it’s helpful to hear the personal stories that the presenters share,” Shannon said. “You can see their emotions and hear all the bad things they’ve been through. Seeing the presenters break down and get emotional about their experiences helps the attendees let their guard down a bit.”
“If we have to air our dirty laundry to help other people in their marriages, then it’s worth it,” he added. “As presenters, we look out at the couples who are attending. They’re angry, they’re hurt, they’re crying. We can put ourselves back in those same chairs and see ourselves in them. We can relate so well because we’ve been where they are.”
For the Rydocks, who’ve been serving in the program since it started in the Diocese in 1990, the message is always one of hope.
“It gives us a lot of hope to realize that something can be done to help people who are in the most desperate shape in their marriage. That alone is enough to motivate us to stay involved in it. We’ve never seen this not work at some level,” Mike said.
“Even those who came to the weekend but whose marriages eventually ended, 99 percent of them said they were still glad to have had the Retrouvaille experience,” Bernie added.
“We hope people will take advantage of Retrouvaille because we feel like it’s one of the most effective healing experiences that the Church offers to couples who are struggling,” she said.
Spouses who are looking for an opportunity to heal and renew their marriage can find that hope at the upcoming Retrouvaille weekend in the Diocese, planned for September 10-12. For information about the weekend and its location, contact the registration team at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-356-2185.
“Ask yourself, ‘What do we have to lose?’ Look at where you are right now and give something a try instead of giving up on your marriage,” Sharon advised couples in need of help.
“I am extremely grateful for this program. It saved our marriage, I’m sure of it,” she said. “We’re so happy to be a part of it now and we want to give back and help other couples.”
Learn more at https://www.helpourmarriage.org/.
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness