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Hope for Troubled Marriages
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Hope for troubled marriages
By Mark Udry

Marriages may be made in heaven, but they sure take a lot of work on earth!

On the surface, it seemed Ed and Ceci Birk were a model couple of the American Dream. They were both highly educated, successful in their respective careers. They lived in a beautiful home a short walk from the beach, a young daughter they adored. They were devout Catholics, active in their parish. Ed and Ceci seemingly had it all.

But looks are deceiving. The Birks had everything – but each other. Over the years their increasingly acrimonious relationship had pushed their marriage to the brink, and they seemed destined to become part of the ugly statistic that is so often quoted about marriage – that half end in divorce. Instead of taking the easy way out, they chose to fight to save their marriage. How they did it is both a testament to their faith and their love for one another.

Ed and Ceci first met in 1992 while both were attending law school at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Both were starting second careers; Ed had worked as a journalist for several years, Ceci an administrator for some investment firms on Wall Street. They became friends and the friendship evolved into romance. After graduating from law school, they married in May of 1996. They were both in their late 30s and by Ceci’s admission, set in their ways.

“We were married when we were older, and when you’re older you have your own ways, and suddenly you’ve entered into a partnership,” she said. “We went from the romance stage to the everyday life stage and we both realized marriage was a lot of work.”

Everyday life took over, and picked up steam. A year after their wedding the couple moved to Jacksonville for Ed to begin his new career as a lawyer in private practice. A month after the move, Ceci gave birth to their daughter. The dual pressures of marriage and motherhood left Ceci frustrated. She was no longer working in a professional setting, in a new city with no friends and a newborn daughter. Bored and feeling alone, her frustration grew into a constant, simmering anger.

Three years after the birth of their first daughter, Ceci suffered a miscarriage. The Birks endured another heartbreaking loss in 2002. Ceci was pregnant with their third child when they were told the baby had Trisomy 18, a fatal chromosome disorder. Ceci carried their daughter to term, only to lose her during childbirth.

To cope, Ceci started getting more involved in volunteer activities at their parish – Our Lady Star of the Sea in Ponte Vedra Beach. She developed friendships there, admitting that she was closer to a select few friends than she was to her own husband.

“Instead of turning to Ed, I turned away from him,” she said. “I just kept going in the opposite direction – away from our marriage.”

They would have fierce verbal firefights, mostly over trivial things; dishes left in the sink, burnt crumbs in the toaster, a comment laced with a hint of sarcasm.

“I know in my own mind I had reached a point where there was a sense of real hopelessness,” said Ed. “It got to the point that if one of us spoke, the other would be unreceptive, in a bad mood or just angry.”

A Marriage Encounter weekend at Marywood helped somewhat, but “it was more for couples whose marriage needed strengthening. Ours was breaking,” said Ed.

“If we could have fixed one thing, like an affair, we could have pointed to it and said, ‘this is what we need to fix,’ said Ceci. “We didn’t have any real big problems. It was a simmering resentment.”

“When we argued, I would call her awful names and say some terrible things,” said Ed. “And afterward, I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t forgive me.” With their marriage disintegrating, they openly talked of separation. “Each of us constantly threatened to move out,” Ed said.

However, as angry as they were, both wanted one last chance to save their relationship. Ceci saw an announcement for Retrouvaille in the church bulletin and Ed called to inquire about the program and enrolled both of them for the October session in 2003.

The word Retrouvaille means “rediscovery.” It began in Quebec, Canada in 1977 as a live-in, weekend program for couples with troubled marriages. Retrouvaille provides couples a set of ground rules, communication techniques and the freedom to hear and be heard by their spouse. A team of three couples – former Retrouvaille participants – together with a priest present a series of talks focusing on a specific area of a relationship; rebuilding trust, forgiveness, how to fight fairly and putting God back into their relationship.

Bill and Trudy Hehn have coordinated the Jacksonville Retrouvaille ministry for 19 years, and are one of the three couples that speak to the group three weekends a year.

“We call this a peer ministry because the team couples share everything about their relationships with the attending couples,” said Bill. “By the time the weekend is over they know more about us than our families and friends do. What this does is bonds them to us. We don’t preach to them because we’re just like they are.”

Holy Ghost Father Patrick Carroll, the diocesan chaplain for Retrouvaille since 1986, says he and the three couples tell their “resurrection stories,” and lay the groundwork for the weekend.

“We teach them how to communicate, how to really listen to each other without prejudice. We give them hope – for themselves and for each other,” he said.

After each presentation, the couples reflect on its meaning, individually at first, then together in private discussions. They are given workbooks to write down their feelings about themselves, their marriage and each other. The emphasis is for each couple to put the past behind them and “rediscover” one another again. Afterward, couples attend a series of six follow-up sessions expanding on the basics learned on the initial weekend.

Ed and Ceci checked into a hotel near the Jacksonville airport with 26 other couples for their Retrouvaille weekend. What they saw and heard over the course of 48 hours changed their lives and ultimately saved their marriage.

“The (team) couples were sharing with us personal tragedies about physical abuse, affairs and addictions,” Ed says. “It put our own problems into perspective. If they could get through those tragedies, we felt like we had a chance to turn things around.”

“To see hurting couples come in on a Friday night, full of hate and anger, you can actually see all the tension in the room, feel all the pain and disillusionment,” said Trudy. “But you see them soften and change through the weekend – by Sunday afternoon you can feel the joy in the room.”

Throughout the weekend Father Carroll stays up often until 3 or 4 in the morning to talk with and pray with the couples. He says that each Retrouvaille weekend leaves him physically and mentally drained but considers it one of the highlights of his ministry.

Ed and Ceci left Retrouvaille a transformed couple.

“It was the first time in a long time that I felt Ed and I were together,” said Ceci. “It’s so much easier now, we can be vulnerable with each other, we can open up emotionally to each other. That has been the biggest difference in our relationship.”

They completed the six post-weekend sessions, and believe so much in the program that they have volunteered to become one of the team couples, to give back to Retrouvaille for what it gave them.

During the interview at their Ponte Vedra Beach home, Ed and Ceci sat side-by-side on their living room couch, hands interlaced. They frequently turned to each other, smiling, as they talked, sometimes finishing each other’s thoughts. The couple they describe when talking about their past seemed like strangers. They admit that they do have disagreements, but nothing like the way it was before their Retrouvaille weekend.

“When we fought, our daughter would tell us to stop fighting,” said Ed. “She hasn’t had to tell us to do that in a long time.”