[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on Feb. 8, 2014.]
By Roxane B. Salonen
Fifteen years ago this month, my husband and I accepted a challenge to join a movement promising it could make good marriages better.
Our Marriage Encounter weekend in February 1999 happened at the former Queen of Peace Retreat Center in north Fargo, and modeled the global, faith-based Worldwide Marriage Encounter initiative.
Our commitment meant rounding up a sitter for our two young children for three days and spending much of the weekend in a room … together … with just each other. At that point in our lives, uninterrupted discussions had become elusive. Were we up to this?
“Encounter” seemed a fitting word for the event. Heading into the weekend, I’m pretty sure we both felt like we’d just entered the 1977 hit movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” approaching our time together like we might a mysterious, unidentified flying object appearing upon the horizon.
Sleep-deprived and consumed by daily tasks of young parenthood, a “good” rating for our marriage might have been a stretch. Without knowing it, we’d begun losing sight of what had brought us together eight years earlier.
But something life-changing happened that weekend. And nearly every month since, through the highs and lows of life, we’ve traded in a Sunday afternoon nap to leave home with a notebook in hand, snack to share and hope in our hearts.
You might think of it as a marriage support group, though we freely share first and last names, and rather than meeting to overcome an affliction, gather simply to remember our roots and celebrate the decision to love.
Central to our gatherings are prayer and love letters we write each other – thus, the notebooks. After being given a topic, couples go off together to compose their letters in solitude before exchanging them.
We focus on writing more from the heart than head, and though it might seem basic, there’s something sacred about having space to communicate with one’s spouse in a non-confrontational atmosphere.
The subjects we discuss aren’t ones we’d necessarily bring up in everyday conversation – certainly not in the midst of carting the kids around and trying to get dinner on the table – but sharing our thoughts in this manner has been transforming.
Marriage Encounter has helped us become aware of the traps we can face in today’s frenetic world, like falling into what the movement has dubbed the “married singles life.”
Married singles are couples who are married but acting out their lives as if single. We’re nearly all susceptible, especially when children enter the picture. The intensity of child-rearing can distract, leading us to neglect our family’s core relationship – each other. And we forget that if the foundation crumbles, our children could end up harmed, too.
If you think about it, marriage is the only civil institution that unites children with their parents. We don’t always get it right, but it seems worth pulling out all the stops to try.
So we gather to remember the cornerstone of our unit; the two of us, man and woman joined in marriage. We share wise sayings, like, “The best gift a husband can give his children is to love their mother,” and encourage one another.
Despite the seriousness of our quest, there’s plenty of knee-slapping, too. Each December, our group has a “glogg and nog” party requiring we show up in crazy “head gear;” a zany wig or hat.
At the culmination of this annual festivity, we partake in a rousing version of the old TV game show, “The Newlywed Game,” to see which couples are most in sync. This last year’s competition turned downright raucous when the two top contenders rallied voraciously for the grand prize.
I won’t name names, but I’m fairly certain the losers are already plotting how to claim next year’s winner’s seat, even while knowing the real victory comes in recognizing our burdens are less so when tackled together.
Mother Teresa once was asked how to attain world peace. “Go home and love your family,” she answered.
At times we’ve agonized over whether to pry ourselves from the couch to interrupt a football game or good book to attend our monthly gathering. But in the end we go, fairly convinced by now that there’s nothing more valuable than a close encounter of the married kind to help make our little corner of the world the best that it can be.
By the way, tomorrow is World Marriage Day. Have you hugged your spouse lately?