Saturday, August 1, 2009

Marriage Encounters - Part Four (Final)

As usual, this follows on from Part One, Two and Three. If you haven't read these, you really should go back and read them before moving forward - otherwise it might not make sense.

At the end of the last marriage encounters session, we'd listened to a couple who talked about their recent past experiences bringing up small children. We were then given a bunch of questions to choose from which got us to talk to our partners about our feeling with negative emotions.

It was time for the next couple to take the stage.

Middle Age
The next couple was a bit older, though not by much. They talked about how whenever the conditions around them change, their marriage must change too in order to survive.

Their discussions picked up when, after years of supporting their children, the kids were beginning to need them less often. For years, they had lived almost separate weekends organised around their children's sporting events. Now finally, those sports were beginning to finish. They used to have a a lot of family outings too but increasingly, their children were refusing to go - or going out with their friends instead. Mom and dad were becoming redundant.

The couple needed to fall back on their own relationship for support but they quickly discovered that they no longer had anything in commmon and worse still, they hadn't talked properly to eachother for so long, that they'd forgotten how to talk.

Again, we were given lessons in communicating with eachother but this time the emphasis wasn't so much on resolving conflict as "getting over those embarrassing hurdles where you don't seem to know eachother anymore". I'd love to tell more about this but in reality while it was all helpful information, my wife and I were so focussed on our own problems that by this time, we weren't taking as much in as we should have. Still, it's nice to know that should these problems arise in our marriage, there are answers that we can seek. We'll probably go back to marriage encounters when these problems start to occur.

The sorts of questions we were asked to consider for our exercises included;

  • How do I feel when I'm alone with you?
  • What are my favourite things that I love us to do together? (and how do I feel when we do them?)
I'm afraid that I can't remember the other parts. This was the end of day two. It was late in the night and we were exhausted.

The Priest
Day three started with a mass. I'm not sure whether we could have gotten out of it or not but at least it was fairly short. Day two had also started with a mass but we'd been told to leave shoes outside our door if we wanted to be woken up for it. Initally put my shoes out because I was feeling so grateful but my wife told me to bring them in again... we needed our beauty sleep. She was right - we were exhausted but we made great use of the time and talked until it was time for breakfast.

After breakfast, we were all ready (even eager) for the third couple to get up and talk but instead the priest got up. I groaned inwardly, yes.. I still had a big predjudice against clergymen. What could he tell us about relationships? I'd heard enough priests on Sundays talking about their "sister's children" to know that they had no concept of reality.

He surprised me by ignoring the relationships thing altogether and talking about his life. He told us about his decision to become a priest, the training, how his family reacted. It was all interesting and despite ourselves, we were quickly sucked into his story.

When he did finally start talking about his observations of other people's families, we were mostly under his spell, but not so far that a little spark of irritation didn't raise its head at first.

This time however, the priest wasn't passing judgement on other families. He was still talking about himself. He talked about the wonderful times he had with his friends and family. He talked about how cute those children were, how supportive the couple were and how warm the family atmosphere had been.

Then he talked about how he felt when he got into his car to drive home to his lonely place. He wished that he could take some of that warmth with him but he knew he had to leave it. The priest talked about how Sundays were hard work for him and how much he enjoyed mingling with his congregation afterwards. He also discussed his loneliness as those people went back off to their homes. Sunday afternoons were a very lonely time for him because he knew it would be a whole week before he got to see those people again.

The priest also talked about self-doubt. He talked about how sometimes he felt resentful of the lonely life that he'd chosen but that he had nobody else to blame. Those choices were his own. God didn't make him feel this way - it was his own emotional interpretation. Finally, he talked about regularly needing to re-negotiate his relationship with God whenever his life changed. He cited the deaths of his parents as an example of this. His relationship with God was eerily like a marriage with an uncommunicative partner. Many of his colleagues had failed to negotiate an ongoing relationship that worked for them. Many had left the priesthood, this made him sad, not because of the loss to religion but because those priests were the only "family" he had. Certainly, they were the only people who could truly understand his situation.

I had never heard a priest talk like this before, particularly not a Catholic one. I was impressed. This guy had charisma and as he finished speaking I realised that I and my wife were in tears. His was not a life we would choose and we were glad to have eachother.

The grass always looks greener over the other side but in truth, it's more or less the same everywhere. Sometimes when marriage is tough, the single life starts to appeal. It helps to hear the negative points about life on the other side.

I can't remember the questions we were asked to answer but they all dealt with our feelings and things that we liked to do alone. The point of this section seemed to be to teach us how to ask for time out with or without our partner.

For aspies, alone-time is critical. Aspies need to know how to ask for it without offending their partner. Similarly, our partners need to understand that our need for alone-time isn't simply us running away from them and their problems. We do it to recharge. Neurotypicals need alone time too - and they need to know that it's ok to ask for it.

Old Age
When the last couple took the stage, I was thinking that there wasn't much left to discuss. We were ever so tired by this stage and we'd assumed that it was all going to be about the kids leaving home and retirement. Once again, they followed the pattern of marriage encounters and completely bamboozled us. They ignored the kids leaving home and started with retirement and moved in surprising directions from there.

Retirement was a shock. Suddenly, as a couple they were spending a lot more time together than they'd ever expected. They needed a way to fill in the hours without getting on eachothers nerves. That, I could understand - in fact, I was currently seeing the same pattern in my own parents.

What was unexpected though was that they also started talking about death. Supporting eachother as their close friends and relatives died, knowing that the line was growing shorter and they were moving closer to the front. They loved eachother to bits. Truly, as "encountered couples" from their early years, here was a couple who were amazingly close and yet they were facing a terrible crisis. Neither wanted to be the last to go but they were well aware that they were living on borrowed time. Everytime one of them got sick, it could be the end.

Like all the presentations, this one moved us to tears. We could feel their pain. Who says aspies have no empathy? It was burning me up inside - and a quick glance at my wife's face was all that I needed to confirm that she was feeling it too. Sometimes I think that we couples need to see eachother cry. We need to remember that we have emotions and we need to be able to let all those thoughts of problem solving disappear - sometimes there are no solutions. Sometimes we just need to hug eachother and let it out.

The questions? I'm not even going to talk about the last questions suffice to say that the human body is about 70% water. It's amazing just how far you can push past the point where you think you've cried that last tear.

Wrap up
The weekend changed our life. We went in expecting a patchy last ditch attempt to save our marriage. We expected a group-therapy kind of crap counselling we'd already had from a marriage counsellor. Instead, we got a life changing experience that we'll carry with us forever. We walked in almost separate but came out forever entwined - all thoughts of divorce gone. The things we'd said and done during that weekend had revitalised our marriage.

I'll admit though, it almost killed us. I'd never had such a strong emotive experience before - or since. It was tough - even recounting it here is tough and I've been moved to tears by the memories several times during the writing of these posts. The weekend was so tough that in some ways, I'm a little scared to do another but I know that one day we will. One day, perhaps sooner than we expect, we'll reach the next threshold of marital change.

There were couples in the encounter who were on their third or fourth weekend. They said to us; "You think think this weekend is good for you when your marriage is having problems... you have no idea how great it is when your marriage is perfect".

I think I want to find out.

Most importantly though, my wife and I came out armed with our exercise books and pens and ready for any curveballs that life throws at us. We're better communicators now. We listen to eachother, we talk about our feelings and our arguements - we do still have them - aren't laden with blame. We accept our part in our own marital difficulties and move on.

Most of the time we don't write letters to eachother - we're mature enough now that we can apply those conversational rules just by talking. Funnily enough, marriage encounters has had a big effect on our general note writing. We used to leave eachother post-it notes like, "can you take the garbage out" but now, even these notes are prefixed with "Dear...", they contain "please and thank you's" and they always, always end in "love you".

When the going gets too tough for conversation though, the notebooks come out. If either partner feels the need to talk - the rule is that everything stops. Everything. If I have to take the day off work ... fine. We work it out. Our marriage is more important than everything. More important even than our kids, who will one day leave the home for lives of their own. In the end, it come full circle and it will only be my wife and I.

Most of the time I'm deeply in love (and in awe) of my wife... but occasionally, I have to work at it.


The Rambling Taoist said...

I really appreciate the care and openness you put into this series of posts!

One thing that stands out for me from this last one is the fact that we aspies DO get emotional and cry. A lot of people have told me that this is atypical, but I don't think it's atypical at all. Though our emotional make-up is definitely different, that doesn't mean we don't have them.

Rachel said...

Beautiful post, Gavin. I'm so glad that you came away remembering why you got married in the first place!

Stacia said...

Loved this series! Thank you for sharing it. Gave me lots to think about :)

Linda04364 said...

This series brought back some awesome memories... Bob & I went to an Engaged Encounter for marriage prep, the program is based on marriage encounter program. It was great. I think it served us well, too - I remember our first few years of marriage, reading anniversary cards, things like "We've had good times and bad" and thinking "we haven't earned those yet!" Boy, we have NOW! Having children can stress a marriage, as can layoffs and unemployment... but I think that our basic training at the Engaged Encounter helped us. I've often thought we would someday do a Marriage Encounter - and now I'm even more encouraged to do so!

Elizabeth said...

Thank you so much, Gavin! I'm tearing up from that last part. I really appreciate your sharing your experience and am sure to come back to it numerous times to take it all in.

Marita said...

Thank you for posting this series about Marriage Encounters. It has really made me think about where my marriage is at.

Elizabeth said...


I have been reading and re-reading this. I realized that we did a one-day Engaged Encounter where they used the papers in the same way. First in the group and switch, second sent away with time to answer and then switch, with the couples giving their experiences, etc.

We had no idea about my husband's Asperger's at the time. I remember now that when he gave me the papers back, they were blank. He couldn't think of answers to any of the questions.

Our primary problem at the time was my mother-in-law's interference in our lives and what we were hoping for help with so I kept trying to bring it up and they kept getting frustrated with me and getting back to the script. I realize why now because they were following this model, which wasn't explained to us at the time. They talked about finances and working or staying home and adding children and we just tuned it out and took the attitude that we had to check off the box of attending, but wouldn't get more out of it.

That's why I didn't think much about my husband's lack of answer at the time and only now remembered it. I realize now that his not having answers wasn't because he didn't care as I assumed at the time, but because he's unable to internally reflect on abstract ideas like feelings or values, which has repeatedly shown up through our marriage.

We've since then done some similar exercises with our counselor. They were completely dropped because Andrew never had an answer for what he wanted, what would make him happy, etc. He would sometimes give a random answer that sounded good, not because he really felt that way but just to have an answer. He really couldn't think of a single thing I do that annoys him. It isn't that I'm perfect, but that he's alexithymic.

I am thinking right now that addressing his alexithymia would be a necessary pre-req to Marriage Encounters being worthwhile. Do you have any thoughts?

Gavin Bollard said...

Elizabeth, You obviously need to deal with your husband's Alexithymia before you can derive any benefit from Marriage Encounters.

Rather than going to a therapist though, I'd actually recommend starting things at home with really simple questions.

Things that have yes/no answers, then multiple choice, then one word, a sentence and then a letter.

I'd also suggest that you start with neutral subjects, move onto fictional and then eventually to abstract and emotional questions.

Of course, all of this assumes your husband's compliance.

If you're getting blank sheets of paper, I'd be starting with really simple questions like;

If you had to take a job as a "driver" which would it be;

a. Bus Driver
b. Limousine Driver
c. Taxi Driver
d. Pilot
e. Train Driver
f. Ferry Captain

Make it multiple choice so that he HAS to choose. Set a time limit and make it clear that the answer doesn't have to be perfect - but it can't be blank.

Talk about the answer afterwards.

This technique is fun and it works well with children who have expression issues too.

Eventually, you'll be able to move onto emotive topics - even if they have to start as "multiple choice".

You need to be getting answers from your husband in order to readdress the balance in your relationship. A counsellor will help once you get part of the way but I doubt they'll have the experience to deal with Alexithymia.

Anne Marie said...

Funny, when I first read that you were writing about marriage encounters, I thought it would be boring, but you had me intrigued and moved to tears by the end of part four.

You actually moved me to discuss doing this with my husband. Do they allow nonpracticing Catholics to take the course?

Gavin Bollard said...

Anne Marie,

I never saw any indication that non-practising Catholics weren't able to attend Marriage Encounters. In fact, I've since discovered that many other religions also run the program.

One of the reasons why I did a post stating my position on religion immediately prior to my discussion of marriage encounters was to clarify that I wasn't a practising Catholic and that the course hadn't changed me in that way.

The fact that it was run by the Catholic church had no bearing on what I got out of it.

I hope this clears things up for you. It's well worth doing.

Rachel G. said...

Gavin, I'd like to thank you (and your wife) very very much for posting these beautiful articles on Marriage Encounters. You have spread their message far further than they originally managed. I hope I will be able to apply it gradually in our lives.

When you wrote about the multiple choice question, to a previous commenter, I tried to answer it, but my mind suddenly went blank, and the only answer I could come up with was "Bus Driver". Why? Because it's the first of the list. Not much of a reason. So although I sympathize with this women's problem and her husband's, I am not sure that your suggestion is really stage by stage - getting him from not being able to answer questions, to being able to.

Also, I tried to do another exercise you described, and I was trying to think of a nice time we had together - I'm sure there were many but again I "blanked". I wonder whether perhaps there is something psychological going on here, for example, that I worry I am going to be asked to say something inaccurate, or to deny bad memories happened. In the driver scenario, which type of driver would I want to be, I feel threatened, because who said I want to be a driver? Or perhaps this blank feeling is just that I can't get my head around remembering an experience from two points of view at the same time - his and mine?
So all in all, I'd like to reassure your reader that it's possible to get all the benefits from this program without asking the questions and needing to answer them. Just reading this article has been enlightening for me, without doing any of the exercises.
Although the goal of the Encounter was to get marriages to be successful, they used rules to remind people that they wanted to stay married. For each marriage there may be a different order to success. For some, they need to learn the rules first, for others, they need to learn how to get calm, and how to trust first.
For some people it might be more helpful to ask them to invent a memory. It's less threatening, because there's no fear that the other person will judge you.
And you don't have to do sudden unwarned swapping, you can instead say, that some people like to share what they wrote, and others don't, and either is OK.
Perhaps Gavin's way worked for him cause he and his wife are similar in some way, but other ways can work for others, because everyone is similar to their spouse in some way.
someyimes, if just one spouse thoroughly understands the principles from learnig them, the other spouse can sort of soak them in without officially learning them.