As part of marriage preparation many engaged couples who wish to marry in the Catholic Church attend a weekend retreat, where they have the opportunity to think about and discuss things they've not discussed before--perhaps finances, what values and traditions from their respective families they want to bring to their new family, and even discuss issues they had not completely addressed or resolved previously. It's an opportunity to open up like you never have before, and is sort of a foundation building weekend that has you digging deeper into yourselves as individuals, as well as yourselves as a couple, and thus falling deeper in love with your partner. Even when you think you know everything about your partner, you'll learn something new.
The weekend is led by a priest, and married couples who share their experiences of getting through good and bad times, how they learned to communicate with one another, and how they make the decision to love each other everyday, even when it seems difficult. Ideally you'll have a couple who has been married many, many years, and a couple that is relatively still in the earlier part of their sacrament of marriage. These presenting couples don't just give you broad and surface level examples of the topics you cover, but they really dig deep into their personal lives to share their stories with you.
Last weekend, my fiance and I attended such a retreat, and we are most certain this was single handedly one of the most important things we'll do for our marriage. Before we were required to go, we knew it existed and I don't think either of us cared to go. One couple we know did an abridged version that was one day instead of an entire weekend, and we were hoping to have that option. I think for us we thought, we talk about everything and tend to have the same values, so why go away on a retreat just to talk about the same things and affirm what we already know about each other.
After we signed up, I started hearing how helpful it was for some couples. I even Yelped it--though that was largely with the intent to find out how the accommodations were going to be. I was surprised to find out how enthusiastically people responded to their experiences on the retreat. Many said this was the most important three days they've spent together, even for couples that had been together a decade. So, that got me excited and curious.
We attended the retreat at St. Mary's Seminary in Santa Barbara, which is tucked high up and away in the Santa Ynez mountains overlooking Santa Barbara. It also happens to be in the middle of Rattlesnake Canyon, so I was very conscientious of all the critters around us.
When we got there Friday evening at 7.30pm, we signed in, put our water in the refrigerator and our snack contribution on the long table littered with all kinds of goodies. Each couple was asked to bring water or other refreshments, and snacks to share. Already, we knew this was going to be a very communal experience. Not to mention, we were sleeping dorm-style. That was the one thing I dreaded most, because I can't stand communal showers.. They gross me out and I was hoping I had left those days behind me when I moved out of the dorms after my freshman year of university.
We had no idea what was in store for us for the evening...or the weekend for that matter. No agenda was ever provided, only instructions to get to the Seminary, and what to bring. After we were all checked in and settled, the evening finally began. I figured we'd get a quick intro then be off to bed, but no, we dug right into what would turn out to be a most incredible experience.
Father Norm was the priest with us for the weekend. This man is the jolliest, goofiest priest I've ever met, I thought he was Santa. He even had a big belly and beard. I'm so glad to have met him. Only twice have I ever met someone and thought, this is an angel on earth--once was when hanging out with one of my colleagues, and the second time was this weekend meeting Father Norm. Next we met the two presenting couples. One couple has been married 50 years, while the other 25 years; so, in our case, we had two couples who have been married for quite some time.
The way this weekend worked was that there were 16 "chapters" to cover, and we spent an hour on each. Each hour consisted of about 20 minutes of the presenting couples sharing with us their stories related to the topic and Father Norm speaking on the topic as well, 20 minutes of us responding to questions on the topic in a journal provided, and 20 minutes discussing what we wrote with our partners. What was so special about the way this works is that we're asked to write throughout the 20 minutes--just keep writing even if you think you've got no more to say--and we wrote as if we were writing a love letter to our fiance. Also, the men and women alternated leaving the room to go write. This prevented distraction and pressure while writing. When the 20 minutes to write was up, we regrouped with our fiances and traded journals. After reading what each other wrote, we talked about it. There's really something magical about getting to write our deepest feelings and thoughts down on paper to share with our most beloved.
Sometimes you were able to answer all questions, and many times you did not answer the questions in order. What was interesting for my fiance and I, was that we tended to answer the same questions. We addressed them similarly, though with different depth and often answering each other's questions. I won't speak for him, but for me that was always neat to encounter, because I didn't have to ask him, and he answered my thoughts. Things I've tried asking him about before, but never could get a proper answer, or conflicts that were never fully resolved, were addressed and resolved.
Logically, the weekend started with us taking a look at ourselves--what kinds of personalities are we and thoughtfully examining our own upbringings. We are clearly two different types of people and come from two different families and upbringings. We took a quick personality test at the beginning, and one of the presenting husbands happened to be the same type as my fiance: T-type. A T-type is one who tends to be fact/detail-oriented, a perfectionist, careful/conscientious, and diligent. I am largely a P-Type though a bit of a mix of a P and an A. P-Types are sociable, emotionally expressive, talkative, and persuasive. Neither of us were surprised when we saw each other's results. The presenting husband who is a T-Type told us about how his T-Type personality has affected his relationship with his wife, and in what ways he's learned to tone it down some, or alternatively, use it to enhance their marriage. I don't remember his exact words, but as he was talking about how he and his wife deal with conflict based on their personalities, a light went off in my head. He was describing my fiance when he was describing himself. I thought, o my gah, it all makes sense now. Sometimes I feel like my fiance is so hard-headed and closed-minded when it comes to certain arguments, it frustrates me so badly. Some might call it stubbornness, but in fact what he is, is a fact/detail-oriented person, and he supports his arguments with facts/details he believes are correct. So in the past, I'd feel like he would not even hear my side. Often, I'd say, "I don't need you to agree with me, I just need you to understand where I'm coming from." It felt like I was being unheard. There is a certain hard-headedness to this T-type personality, and a need to always be right. Realizing this helped clear a road block in my head and made me laugh. I realized I wasn't being unheard, it was simply that he was insisting on his correctness. After we discussed this, I felt I would now be able to better handle arguments knowing what he is "really saying," and he also promised to be a better listener and not so hard-headed about being right all the time. Just in that first hour, I felt I was already understanding my fiance better.
The first night ended late at 11pm, and we were told we had to be in the chapel at 7.30am for mass. I think everyone's mouths dropped when we heard that. This was the most "boot camp" aspect of the weekend. Breakfast was at 8 though, so I was looking forward to the fastest mass I've ever experienced.
The first topic the next day was about communication. I was completely caught off-guard when my eyes started to water a bit in our discussion after we read what we wrote to each other. It wasn't necessarily the words he wrote that moved me, but what he said when he elaborated in our discussion. He opened up in a way that he does not normally. I still had to dig it out of him a bit, but it was not such a battle as it sometimes can be. I have no doubt that this weekend showed us both how to better communicate with each other, and while the presenting couples examples were certainly helpful and comforting, it was really us digging deep into ourselves and sharing ourselves completely with the other that got us there. They didn't give us any secret tools or formulas. It goes back to us knowing ourselves, knowing the other person, and uniting ourselves like pieces of a puzzle. Of course, it certainly helped that we were in a setting where we were supposed to be talking about everything we were talking about, and communication was not only welcomed, but an integral part of the weekend.
One of my favourite parts was when we talked about "a Life-Giving Marriage." There are those who are life-draining, and I call them energy vampires; then there are those who are life-giving. Being a life-giving person can be as simple as doing a simple chore that you know will help your partner out and the s/he will appreciate it. There was a day once when he stayed home while I went to work, and when I came home, the entire apartment was tidy and clean. I was in such joyful shock I practically jumped into his arms. So, over the weekend we were asked to think of one thing we would like to ask our partner to do in any given week. He wrote, "I would like you to REALLY watch the Rugby World Cup coming up." DONE. That made me smile and grateful he truly wanted to include me in this beloved activity of his. I've always tried to be interested in his interests, but I never realized it meant something to him for me to actually take interest. I on the other hand, took my chances and asked him a couple things. I asked him to cook once in a given week, and draw on my back...everyday of the week 0:). The reason being life-giving is so important is because it shows generosity, support, sensitivity, and selflessness. Those things add up to a fuller life. On top of that, it's the little ways we're able to show our loved ones we love them. The husband of the older couple joked, "Unfortunately for me, what makes her feel loved is when I do the dishes."
Overall, this weekend was so significant, because it taught us that love is a daily decision, not just a feeling. Our modern society may try to tell us differently, but the illusion is not that marriages are forever; the illusion is that marriage is easy. Our two presenting couples told us about troubles they had with miscarriages, making difficult decisions related to giving up on a lifelong dream for the betterment of the family, and even dealing with a child that came out to them as a lesbian. I'm so grateful to these presenting couples for the deep honesty they shared with us over the weekend. They're examples of the love our faith teaches us, and I believe even the non-Catholics got a lot out of the weekend, because it all just comes down to love. That's all.
I learned things this weekend I never even thought to ask. For example, my fiance and I were both baptized Catholic as babies, but neither of us had very deep religious upbringings. I was definitely the more "practicing" Catholic of the two of us, and my faith is very important to me. He is Catholic and he believes, and that was always good enough for me. He'd go to Church with me, only because he knew it meant a lot to me. What I never expected was that my faith would influence his faith. I never pushed it on him, nor did I ever think about it. However, I learned for the first time this weekend that his faith has grown because of me, and I never knew how much that could mean to me until now. To be united in our faith and in our love is a strength like no other.
We covered other topics like financial fidelity, forgiveness, how will we raise our family. Something I bet most couples don't talk about is, what if we can't get pregnant? An interesting one was thinking of the traditions and values each of us have, and then which we wanted to bring into our new family, and which we wanted to leave out. There was a lot of working together in decision making. My fiance and I have known that we have communication skills that we need to work on, but I don't think we ever really knew how that would happen. We figured it would just happen with time....and a LOT of patience. Now I'm confident it will happen with time, because all weekend we communicated as we need to with each other and really listened to each other.
Towards the end of the weekend, we learned the difference between "engagement" and "betrothal." A betrothal is a promise, it's a pledge that "I will be there for you." It doesn't end like an engagement does. We were given 30 minutes to write a betrothal to one another. I wrote and I wrote trying to pour everything in my heart out, ignoring how poorly written it was. This time, instead of trading journals, we each read what we wrote to the other. As he read his betrothal to me, my eyes became a bit misty. When I read mine to him love flooded out of my eyes in tears like a sudden southern summer storm. I could hardly look at him as they kept coming, because I was afraid they wouldn't stop and I wouldn't be able to read what I wrote.
I had no idea the true impact this weekend would have on me and us, and now I wish that every engaged couple was required to go on this retreat--perhaps there'd be less divorce and discord in the world. Heck, even couples who aren't engaged should do this. In fact, there was one couple there that was not yet engaged.
I started the weekend taking notice of all the mushy gushy couples around us, thinking this all felt a bit silly. I left the weekend feeling like there's hope in the world, because these couples will remember to choose love everyday, even when they don't feel like it. I even felt bonded with some of them, which is such a nice feeling. I feel connected to them, even if it's just remembering them in my prayers.
Something really key to this weekend was how raw and real it was. There was nothing idealistic to fill our romantics hopes and wishes about love and marriage. There was nothing preachy about it--though I think Catholics in general are not a preach kind. We're taught to just live as an example of Love. Something Father Norm said really brought it all down to earth, and made me feel grounded even when I felt like I was flying, because I was filled with so much love. Never have I heard anyone say that there are days you do not want to love your spouse, but because we've made this commitment and betrothal, we choose to love our spouse everyday. To hear Father Norm say that was like, "Wow." Some of us, including myself, grow up believing in fairytales and live for good love stories--even when we become jaded, we want to believe that love exists. What no one tells us is that even in the greatest love stories, there are days when the tank feels empty. This one statement suddenly made love and marriage a real, tangible, human experience--not a fairytale that takes work, not centuries old tradition, or an old-fashioned notion that a few of us still believe in.
More importantly, WE left this weekend with a renewed and affirmed confidence that we are truly a united team that has chosen and pledged to one another to decide on love every single day for eternity, that our union is a blessing from God, and that through God's love, we love, and may that love spread throughout the world. It has only been a week since the retreat, but we can already see and feel how it has helped us become a stronger couple. At the end of our prayer service Saturday evening, they asked us to face each other and hold each other's hands as Father Norm said a prayer. Something he said towards the end of his prayer rang loud and clear with us. He said, "Your hands are the hope for humanity, because your hands can change the world." We hope that our hands, as a team, will in fact change the world.
Thank you, Catholic Engaged Encounter, for a most enlightening weekend.
BIG LOVE & HUGS,