In December of 2005, I related the story of my friend, Olencia*. She had struggled for most of her 15-year marriage, living without sex and eventually without love. Many dollars spent on years of individual and marital counseling, a marital retreat, seminars, books, and everything the Internet had to offer on the subject left her completely drained and devoid of any answers. Her husband’s distance was relentless, her every effort was for naught, and their marriage was dead in the water.
She wrestled with the decision to file for separation, and was beside herself when she finally resigned to divorce. Her marriage ended amiably enough in that both of them, with nothing left to give the marriage, were too exhausted to do anything more than sign the papers.
As her friend, I was supportive of whatever decision she made because I knew how dark and tumultuous her marriage had been and the toll it took on the entire family. As a wife, I hoped they would find some kind of resolution because I am painfully aware of the cost of divorce, both financially and emotionally.
Shortly after she divorced, Olencia had said she would provide me with a follow-up that I could in turn share with all those who had read the story of her disastrous marriage. True to her word, I received the letter I hoped would contain some measure of solace and peace of mind. It did, but not for any of the reasons I thought it would.
For years, we’d both heard it and said it ourselves: If only one person in a marriage is willing to makes changes, there’s still hope. In direct, if not assaulting, contradiction to this useless platitude, I took one very important lesson from her letter: A marriage is two people, not one person. Therefore, it will always take two to tango.
Here then, is the rest of Olencia’s story – so far:
I hope you will read all the way through even though it is quite long. I would ask, too, that you not jump ahead. It’s important to me that you understand how I got to each point, and how I ended up where I did. Without all of this, the end result will make little sense.
As you know, I struggled for years and years with my husband. Our relationship started out so strong, and it became a farce so quickly. I lived in a lonely, dark, cold, and desperate marriage without love and sex until we separated and eventually divorced. The dollar cost notwithstanding, the emotional devastation has been incalculable. That said, the freedom and relief of getting out from under that blanket of despair is indescribable and did much to temper the pain of the divorce itself. Mostly it was the relief. I had no idea how heavy the weight of that marriage was until it was no longer my burden.
My now ex-husband did something rather uncharacteristic a couple of months ago in that he called me on the phone – and not just to discuss custody or child support. He wanted to know if I'd be interested in attending a marriage retreat. Of course I said absolutely not and hung up. I was disgusted with the suggestion and could not believe the audacity of this man to ask me this — of all things — when we’d already been down that road only to end up in divorce court. In my mind, it was because of his unwillingness to change anything.
We now live in different cities, so imagine my dismay when he showed up at my front door. He was insistent, but polite. I didn't let him in; we went out for coffee instead. I gave him five minutes to talk, and he did.
At the end of the five minutes, I tentatively agreed to attend the retreat because he not only described a relaxing environment, he also agreed to pay for it. Mostly, I wanted time away from work and children, and it would be a kind of closure for me to prove to him once and for all that our marriage never stood a chance because of his abject refusal to change.
I was determined that whatever he was trying to pull at that moment wasn’t going to work. I knew from years of living with him that any nice thing he did was temporary and would be followed by anger, deep emotional rejection, and more distance. I told him I was still too exhausted from that long haul, I was still healing, and mostly I saw no reason whatsoever to even consider his point of view when he could've changed at any time during all those years. It'd all been worked out in a court of law, and that was good enough for me. It was simply too late. I had nothing to offer but indifference.
I finally conceded to go only because I desperately needed time away from my own life and could not afford to do so. That I could eat food I didn't have to cook was a bonus. When he said he’d pay for the entire cost of the retreat, that sealed the deal. I would later find out no one is turned away from this particular retreat because of an inability to pay.
When we got there, I was surprised to find that, of the 30 couples in attendance, four of them were also divorced. Half of them were separated and came in different cars. Every marriage there was in trouble, and I couldn’t fathom what would compel a divorced couple to attend – other than the reason I was there. Still, I knew our marriage had been the worst and saw no reason to make any effort at all because of how bad it had been. I knew there was no chance of reconciliation and was only there for the rest.
Even though all 60 people were in the presentation room, it was made clear from the get-go that we were there for the person we came with and ourselves. There was to be no socializing between presentations, nor were there going to be exchanges in the group during or after the presentations.
I almost got up and left. No amount of free food and time away from the kids was going to be worth spending the entire weekend with someone I’d just divorced. I stayed only because I don’t drive at night – and it was already 8:00 in the evening at that point.
The retreat presentations started as soon as we were settled in on Friday evening. By the end of Friday night (after two presentations) I started to rethink my reasons for being there; rather I started to rethink my reasons for wanting to leave. I would discover at breakfast the following morning that the other ex-wives felt the same way. There was a strange bit of camaraderie to be had in our “group” decision to stay and see how things went.
By midday Saturday (after several presentations), I felt a compassion for my ex-husband I'd not felt in years. It was an unexpected feeling and most disconcerting. I had no idea what the hell was going on with me, but I had no faith in it. It was surely situational and would go away like any other emotion. At first I didn't share this with him, but by late afternoon it was clear there had been a definite shift in both of us. I felt — dare I say it — close to him. He shared some things he’d felt (who was this man?) and from this I felt comfortable enough to share how I felt (was this me?).
By Saturday evening there was more than a shift. There was a sense between us that we had just leapt a huge gorge – together. By late in the evening Saturday — and I know this is going to sound crazy because of everything we’ve been through and the sexless years and the divorce — I felt attracted to him.
I found myself looking at him longer each time I looked at him. At 10:00 on Saturday night, he winked at me. I know what time it was because I’d just checked the clock and noticed how much later it was than I’d thought. Normally I would be tired by that time of night. I felt strangely energized.
As if that weren’t unbelievable enough, we had sex that night. Seriously. The man who wouldn’t and then later claimed he couldn’t all those years, made love to me – and not a wham-bam kind of sex and not the going-through-the-motions kind. The actual sex act itself lasted only about 10 minutes, but a lot went on before that, and after – a lot of good stuff that fondly rumbles through my mind even as I write. I was shocked and completely broadsided by my own feelings about him and my desire for him. I couldn’t believe he started any of it. It was that wink, and then some awkward gestures that, in light of what he’d shared throughout the day, I now saw as sweet rather than repulsive.
This is very important to note because not 24 hours prior, I all but hated the man. Our divorce was amiable because I’d already spent years grieving the loss of love, sex, and our future. We lived for years as roommates, two people in the same house with the same last name. That was the extent of what we had in common, and by the end of it that was fine by both of us.
The program somehow shook that up. He hadn't changed, per se; rather he showed me a side of himself I’d never seen before and never knew. He would later tell me he was showing me things he hadn't even known about himself, so it wasn’t that he had changed – and it wasn’t just him sharing. I found out a lot about myself – and here I thought I’d been through enough counseling and done enough reading, writing, crying, and grieving to know everything about myself. I was wrong.
My biggest complaint in the years after our wedding was that he had quickly changed into a brooding, sexless, and cold steel pillar of a man. I didn’t know why this had happened, and he was resistant to my every attempt to find out what was wrong and fix it. I longed for the man I’d married – who doted on me endlessly and expressed his love for me in many ways, the best of which was a full and satisfying sex life. I never got over the pain of his numerous rejections and I never stopped wondering where things went wrong – until this retreat.
The program called for several follow-up sessions, and we are at the third one this week. The retreat location was closest to my house. He not only traveled for the retreat, he has traveled to attend the follow-ups. We are now discussing the possibility of him moving to this city (he already telecommutes) to spend more time with the kids.
We have discussed the time we’ve spent together – time that has been unbelievably intense, intimate, and emotional. I’m not ready to reconcile to the point of him moving in or remarriage, and I told him as much. He said he didn’t want to live with me unless we were remarried and that he felt no pressure or rush to decide one way or the other. At first I felt that old doom – sure, we’d remarry, he’d move in, and the deadly cycle would start all over again. It took everything I had during that conversation not to knock him out cold and flee.
I had to tell him how I felt and what I thought. Things had been going eerily well, and I didn’t want that doom feeling to trash everything we’d accomplished up to that point. I thought for sure he’d hightail it out of there once I spoke my piece, but instead he agreed about the doom and expressed confidence in our effort to make sure it didn’t destroy what we’d done so far. I was floored. He said he wanted to take time, get to know each other again with the new knowledge we had about each other, and maybe discuss it later this year.
I can’t believe I’m saying this: I’m looking forward to that discussion. I’m also looking forward to the coming weeks with him – and with the kids, who were excited about how “different” we were when we came back from the initial retreat. Kids are funny that way, even teenagers. They really do take everything at face value and they don’t try to read into anything or look for hidden agendas. They saw how we looked and acted — as individuals and how we were with each other — and they felt excited about it. As an adult, I would see a couple like us (divorced, but loving toward each other) and wonder what drug they’d used.
I haven’t looked forward to anything with him in over 15 years. These feelings aren’t unfamiliar in that I do remember them vaguely from experiences over a decade ago, but they sure are nice and a welcome salve to the pain I have tried — by myself, with limited success — to heal. This is, I have to say, a much more effective, productive, and useful way of healing.
I can’t stress enough that there wasn’t change in either of us, per se. It wasn’t that; it was that we were able to share with each other things we’d never said before, things the presentations allowed us to see, mull over as individuals and then — eventually — share with each other. The first few presentations were not about the person we came with or the two of us as a couple. They were about “me.” Because of that, I was focused on myself and he was focused on himself. When we did share, we were sharing of ourselves. It wasn’t “Let me tell you what I think of you.” It was “Let me tell you what I think of myself.”
The thing about the retreat I liked most was that, even though there were 60 other people there — and the presenters — it felt like it was just me, and then it felt like it was just us. The rule about no socializing was crucial, and now I see why they do it that way. I definitely noticed changes in the people around us – even though we only talked with other couples at mealtimes. I say “changes” even though I just emphasized that isn’t what took place. I mean I saw changes in other people’s expressions. With each mealtime I saw less frowning and fewer wrinkled up eyes. By dinner Saturday I started to see smiles, heard laughing, and could see couples talking who just the night before were clearly wanting to be somewhere else.
They didn’t allow us to have separate rooms, although there were two beds in each room. The bizarre thing was that by the end of the weekend, I didn’t want separate beds, much less separate rooms. Other couples — who had arrived separately and who were clearly antagonistic toward each other — left the retreat holding hands.
It was the most bizarre transformation I’d ever seen, and here’s the kicker: the presenters were not mental health professionals. They were all couples who had themselves gone through the retreat and follow-up sessions about two years ago. We heard from one couple who, I swear to God, had had a worse marriage than ours. As they spoke I thought, “There is no way they’re together or that they were able to resolve, much less move on from those kinds of problems.” Then they talked about how they did it. To say it was inspirational is an understatement.
In this day and age, the word “inspiration” has a short-lived feel to it. In this, their story was not inspirational, and was instead very grounded, very solid. One could almost glean from them their strength to use as one’s own. I felt more than inspired; I felt stabilized and centered for the first time in many, many years.
The once-troubled presenting couple took us through their process. What they did was doable – even for someone as closed off as my ex-husband, and even for me, someone who thought she knew herself and didn’t need to do anything else.
I did do it, though – and so did he. We came together with what each of us had done and then shared that with each other. Please don’t misunderstand: what we did as individuals was monumentally important. More importantly, however, was that each of us had something to share at all – and then did.
At the end of the weekend, everyone once again came together, this time for the final presentation. We were invited to express our feelings and thoughts about what we’d experienced. It was the first and only formal group activity. I felt startled when my ex-husband raised his hand to speak. This is a man who had embarrassed me at parties by always retreating to the corner and kept only to himself. He rarely introduced me to people at his work functions, and he had no use for friends. That he had something to say, much less felt the need to say it, was surprising. What he said was shocking.
“I feel angry about all the time and money we’ve spent on marriage counselors when this program has been here all along. The phone number to someone with this program should have been the only thing handed to us at our first marriage counseling session years ago. I can’t believe it’s this easy, and I don’t really mean easy because this was a lot of work. I’m not a ‘feeling’ guy. Until this weekend I didn’t even think I had feelings. I sure had no way of knowing how to say them, much less to her. I have hope and encouragement I’ve never felt, ever. I now realize I love this woman, and I feel loved by her.”
I cried tears of release and relief – the kind of tears you cry and know you’ll never have to cry again because they are tears acknowledging that something has finally, finally been resolved. He held me – something he would never have done before the retreat, and something he had not done in over ten years.
I wasn’t going to speak, especially in light of my tears, but many has been the time when I didn’t say anything nice to him — or about him – even when I wanted to, and I wasn’t going to let the opportunity get away again.
“As it turns out, it wasn’t all his fault. In this respect, the weekend was a profound disappointment.” The room filled with laughter, but I knew it was time to get down to business. “The fortunate thing is that I no longer care about fault. I thought I knew the person I came here with, but now I realize I brought only my own delusions. I will leave here with a very different and much healthier perspective of myself, and I am leaving with a real man – not an illusion.”
Before I tell you the name of the program, I want to first tell you something important about my ex-husband and myself. We are both diehard atheists. We have no spiritual background and have no need for it. We bow only to the laws of physics.
The program we attended is a product of the Catholic Church. It began in the province of Quebec, Canada in 1977 in the French language. It was later adapted to English and then spread through the United States. There are about 230 individual program communities throughout 26 countries, with about 150 locations in America.
To say we two atheists were dubious about attending what we knew had a religious agenda is another understatement. My ex-husband, however, had heard about it from co-workers who said the religious part of it was not relevant unless you wanted it to be. Again, I attended for the time away from work and kids. I didn’t care if they preached. I could ignore it while I ate food I didn’t have to cook or clean up after.
My ex-husband’s friends were right: the religious aspect of the weekend was minimal, and only relevant if you wanted it to be. We did not feel put out, excluded, or lectured to in any way. Those couples who were religious said they felt empowered by the religious references. In this, the program is win-win regardless of your beliefs. The religious references were not gratuitous, and they were relevant to the subject of marriage and healing pain born of love gone awry. In this, the references were generic; they could’ve come from fables or mythology, and still — as presented and in context – they were useful to us, even though they did not stem from our particular beliefs (in our case, physics and general science).
I don’t know what the future holds for us. All I know is that, for now, there is an us. That’s more than I could’ve hoped for; and how it feels now is more than I ever dreamed of, even as a young bride. We now have a marriage of sorts, even though we’re not married and are in fact divorced. Frankly, I feel uncomfortable referring to him as my ex-husband. We’re friends — and inconceivably — sexy, vibrant, close friends. Now, though — and he said it best — our marriage then was on paper and so is the divorce. What we have between us now is real. If we do put it to paper, it won’t be for the legality of it; it will be for the celebration of it. Again, I don’t know where we’re going from here, but I do know it’s an honest road paved with hope, love, and encouragement.
We owe all of this to the wonderful couples who volunteered their time to share their stories and the tools they’ve used to heal their marriages through Retrouvaille, meaning rediscovery.
(*Olencia is not her real name. It has been changed to protect her privacy and the privacy of her children.)
What a powerful story. My husband and I are on the road to divorce. His priest has recommended we attend Retrouvaille. I can only hope that he will agree to go, and that we can have as profound an experience as this woman and her husband. Thank you so much for sharing her letter.