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Weekend Retreat: CPR for Marriages

May 12, 1990|LESLIE HERZOG | Leslie Herzog is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Forty married couples with problems checked into an Irvine hotel one Friday night. Some were combatants, just steps from divorce. Others thought their marriages were good, but they could be better. Forty-four hours later, every relationship had changed and the couples were on an emotional "high," they said.

"I love him again," said Kathy Tiesi, 31. "I came here hating him. Our 11-year marriage was just about over. We were at the bottom of the pit. There was so much hurt and pain that we couldn't even talk to each other anymore. There were such walls that I couldn't feel anymore."

"I had never before cried in front of my wife," said her husband Mike, 40. "But I couldn't stop crying all weekend."

In a county where more than 13,000 couples filed for divorce last year, these people beat the odds.

They did it by participating in Christian Marriage Communication (CMC), and by becoming among 10 million people who have graduated from a version of "Marriage Encounter," a technique to enhance communication among couples.

The program was developed by a Spanish Catholic priest in 1962 and brought to the United States four years later. It was adopted by more than a dozen other religious "expressions," most of which operate under the umbrella of Catholic-run Worldwide Marriage Encounter, based nationally in San Bernardino.

CMC, a nondenominational group, is not under the auspices of Worldwide Marriage Encounter.

"It's an experience, a process, a way of relating to (your spouse) which you'll enter into and work out," said Gail Wolfe, 51, an escrow officer who with her husband handles CMC registration and occasionally leads weekends. "So it's not a relaxing vacation, but a weekend of work requiring concentration and effort . . . a crash course in husband-wife communications that can be used for the rest of your lives."

There are at least 10 groups in Orange County that offer the program. Some groups have waiting lists, while others have branched off to offer similar programs for children, teen-agers and engaged couples.

Most popularly known as Marriage Encounter with its red and yellow heart design bumper stickers, the weekend goes under various names depending on which group is sponsoring it. In Orange County, churches that offer it include Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Seventh-day Adventist and United Church of Christ. Affiliation with the presenting group's faith or any other religion is not a requirement to attend.

"We are not affiliated with any church," says Wolfe, who completed her weekend in 1977, then became active in CMC. "We started simply as a group of concerned couples in Orange County. We do have a Christian commitment and we say that, but we also say 'take whatever you want out of it.' "

"We use the same outline (as Marriage Encounter), but we took out the dogma," said Wolfe. CMC removed the word encounter from its literature. The weekend is a private experience with no group sharing.

Wolfe said CMC workshops have helped more than 900 couples in the last decade. They are offered four weekends a year. It cost CMC about $150 per couple for two days' food and lodging. Couples make an anonymous donation at the end of the weekend, but no one has been turned away for lack of funds.

"We're not in it for money," said Wolfe. "We've had one couple leave three pennies because that's all they had. Others are affluent and leave enough to pay for four couples."

On this CMC weekend, participants check into the Irvine Host Hotel Friday night.

Four "presenting couples" lead the agenda and share "deeply out of their own lives, sometimes very painful ordeals" and describe how they resolved them, Wolfe said. Participating couples are then taught special communication tools called "dialoguing," a process of expressing their feelings without fear of reprisals.

After being told that every marriage goes through three cycles--romance, disillusionment and true joy--couples learn to share their feelings without fear of being faulted, attacked or ridiculed. This creates intimacy between the couples.

Communication exercises are practiced in the privacy of the couples' rooms. All meals are served on the premises with cooking and cleanup provided to eliminate distractions.

After the seminar, presenters advise couples to schedule 30 minutes a day to continue to strengthen communication skills. Many couples socialize with other "encountered" couples at gatherings that emphasize the family.

"In the world today, the family is not the center," said Jim Wolfe, 46, Gail's husband of 20 years. "Everyone is going their own ways. Commitment means you are going to stick to it, and that comes with communication. You are having two lives that were separated and mending them together to work as one."

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