Tightening the Ties That Bind

Rod Spratley and his wife, Jenifer, of Vienna enjoy a moment together at the
Rod Spratley and his wife, Jenifer, of Vienna enjoy a moment together at the "Weekend to Remember" Christian marriage-boosting conference. Megaministry Family Life hosted the event at the Crystal Gateway Marriott. (Richard A. Lipski - The Washington Post)
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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

The assignment: write each other a love letter. The setting: a Christian marriage-strengthening conference at an Arlington County hotel.

Not the most romantic of backdrops, but there they were yesterday, on Valentine's Day, 530 people spread all over the first floor of the Crystal Gateway Marriott with the late-morning assignment. Body language hinted at intimacies. A couple squeezed close together on a big chair, reading to each another. Another sitting shoulder-to-shoulder beside a lobby fountain, talking but looking straight ahead.

Then there were Brad and Dana Riley, who stayed in the cavernous conference room after most people scattered, scribbling away amid the empty chairs. About their nine-month-old marriage, already tested when Dana's daughter and grandson moved in last summer. About how they dated briefly a quarter-century ago, when Brad was not a believing Christian. About their random reconnection at church two years ago.

"When we re-met, something told me you and I would be together," wrote Brad, a 44-year-old tradesman from Stephens City, Va. "In some ways I not only admired your commitment to God but envied that part of you. . . . My past has been a hard part of my life. Do you know how long it's been that I could actually place my trust in someone?"

Every pair walking around with orange workbooks and name tags had a tale at the "Weekend to Remember" conference, run by the megaministry Family Life, headquartered in Little Rock. This was the first of 130 such conferences across the country this year.

A pair of lieutenant colonels married 23 years said divorce looked "very attractive" to them until they came to one of these events a few years ago. A chic-looking couple in their late 40s said they do spiritual retreats every year with a list of life and marriage goals; they gave off a happy, we're-at-camp vibe.

Two Alexandria newlyweds said they want to focus less on their differences. "When you first meet, you think you're so alike, and then it's like, 'He's from Mars!' " said Deborah Davis, 32, a computer programmer who has been married "one year, four months and two weeks."

"But we really are from the same place, the same creator. We need to appreciate that the other is a gift from that creator and why," she said.

Family Life began in the 1970s, an outgrowth of Campus Crusade for Christ, a largely Protestant ministry that includes tens of thousands of people on campuses worldwide. Its marriage conference program has grown every year, and experts say it is now the largest faith-based marriage conference program. Family Life's biggest event ever is this weekend in Dallas, with 4,000 attendees.

Even in a recession and at $260 per couple, enrollment hasn't gone down, said Bob Lepine, chief content officer for the conferences. "People are waiting later to make the decision to come, but they are coming," he said.

Much of the Arlington conference was composed of snappy multimedia presentations with speakers using clips from such movies as "When Harry Met Sally" and "Father of the Bride" interwoven with biblical references. The audience was told that keys to a happy marriage involve establishing independence from your parents (the workbook cites Genesis), embracing the man's role as family leader (Corinthians, 1 Peter, among others) and understanding that Satan -- not your spouse -- is your enemy.

A belief in gender differences was a theme, with one speaker discussing the economy and saying that a woman's profession is not her identity, as it is a man's. Another speaker and the workbook said communication can be boosted by understanding that a man's highest priority is respect and that a woman's is love.

The Rileys said they came to the conference for time alone -- he had planned the trip as a secret Valentine's Day gift -- and to talk through their newly shaped household. He wants them to be prepared for future challenges, or for what he called "the next attack."

Deborah and Clifton Davis, a 30-year-old cable installer, wrote their love letters in a hotel bar that hadn't opened yet. She wrote about the months before they met in person, when they had communicated online and on the phone. He talked about his faith and encouraged her to keep hers together.

"Every time you talked to me about the word of God, you ministered to my spirit, called me back into God's love," she wrote. "That was the quality that first drew me to you."

The workbook asked couples to write not only about qualities that drew them together, but also those they have come to appreciate since being married.

"Our differences are teaching me how to give love," Clifton wrote. "And to communicate in a way that's not normal for me. To express myself and to give love."

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