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Learning to talk and listen to each other... all over again

Article taken from The Irish Independent, 29th February 2000

Retrouvaille is a different concept in relationship counselling - it empowers couples to sort out their problems by helping them to re-learn to communicate meaningfully with one another.

Unlike relationship counselling, where a couple share their difficulties with a third party, usually a counsellor, this method is short, sharp and, according to those who run the programme, extremely effective.

"There are few couples whose lives and relationships are not adversely affected by the increasingly frantic pace of life. Many couples can and do lose the art of communicating with each other because they spend so much time on the other parts of their lives - work, rearing children and running a home - and before they know it they no longer communicate with each other on anything but a superficial level," according to Pat Keenan, one of the facilitators on this marriage saver programme which first originated in the US.

He says that familiarity does breed a certain distance in relationships, and that Retrouvaille, which literally means to rediscover or find again, is designed to help couples to learn to love and care for each other again. He says that the trials and tribulations of life can impact on relationships and that what was once a loving union can all too easily become an empty arrangement designed more to meet the needs of children than anything else.

"With Retrouvaille, couples help other couples to rediscover their love for each other, mainly by helping them find a method of communicating with each other which does not lead to argument, conflict, hostility, anger, blame or resentment. It is designed to be the first step of a marriage repair programme where participants are empowered, by means of communication skills, to repair and heal their relationships for the long haul," according to Pat Keenan.

The programme starts with a live-in weekend followed by a number of update talks. During the weekend, three couples tell the story of how they repaired their marriages and help the attending couples, usually up to 16 per session, learn a new and constructive way of communicating with each other. Couples are not required to publicly talk about their own relationship difficulties in front of the group.

Pat says that the Retrouvaille approach is now more relevant than ever in post-divorce Ireland, where increasing numbers of couples feel that the love has died in their relationships and that separation and divorce is the only way out.

He says that there is no typical couple attracted to Retrouvaille; they can be from two years to 45 years married and they can come from any socio-economic grouping. The weekend is open to those from all religious persuasions and no couple will be turned away if they cannot afford the fee, which is charged to cover the cost of food and board.

Dividing line

Geoff and Liz (not their real names to protect their three teenage children) were typical of many couples who had grown apart. But according to Geoff, they didn't realise they were the stereotypical couple who no longer spoke to each other in a meaningful way until a friend badgered them into seeking help to save their marriage.

"To most outsiders we seemed like a normal busy couple with two jobs and a time-consuming job raising our three children. We used being busy as a means of explaining away the fact that we simply didn't communicate with each other as a couple any more." A combination of factors, including a career dip, dented Geoff's self-confidence and esteem which didn't help matters on the home front either. "We basically experienced a breakdown in communication as our work lives went in different directions and we no longer discussed things together in the evening".

"It was a slippy slope and we had to face the fact that after 20 years of living together we were, in real terms, like two strangers who had nothing in common but our children. I regularly went through these grim times thinking that if I won the Lotto I would have been out of there like a bolt of lighting."

Geoff says that, like a lot of men, he did not relish the idea of raking over the coals of his marriage with a stranger looking on. However a persistent friend suggested that Retrouvaille could prove to be the answer. In retrospect Geoff says it turned their relationship around and taught them how to respond differently to each other's needs and how to insist on communicating with each other as a couple rather than as parents.

Geoff says that it was only after they had taken part in the programme, and succeeded in turning their relationship around, that they realised that, far from being good for their children, the tension in the relationship had caused real anxiety and worry to their children.

"We were suffering on in the mistaken belief that we were doing the right thing by our children. In fact they had discussed among themselves that we needed marriage counselling but had not disclosed this to us until after we had been to Retrouvaille."

Geoff says that it was particularly reassuring to Liz that other couples were going through a very similar experience to them, that they were not alone in being strangers who were together for more than two decades. He also says that being away from home, the children and their normal responsibilities also helped them to focus on each other and their individual needs.

"Although I would never have thought that writing down my thoughts would help, we actually found it to be very helpful to just write down our thoughts on the marriage for 10 minutes and then discuss it. Meeting with the other couples and listening to the presenting couples talking about their problems also helped to put our own in perspective too."

Geoff says that in his view a combination of things helped to kick-start their marriage into the loving relationship it had been all those years ago.

"By going away it gave us the space to contemplate where we were at. The facilitators showed us how to communicate effectively and to me it was very important that there was no blame apportioned to either party. As we worked our way through our marriage over the weekend, I realised that the barriers we had put up between us started to crumble before our eyes and for the first time in a very long time I began to believe that the relationship did have a future and that we had the tools at our disposal to fix the bits that were broken."

Geoff says that he wouldn't like to underestimate how much work the whole process takes because it is not just a one-off process but one that needs to be integrated into your life on an ongoing everyday basis.

"Probably the most important thing which we took away with us at the end of the weekend was hope for us, hope for the future and a feeling that we could work it out."

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