Todd and Barbara Furniss are both 57. Come June, they'll have been married 30 years. For the second time in two years, they have signed up for an afternoon of workshops on how to improve a marriage and withstand the social, religious, emotional and economic storms that threaten that institution.

And so Todd and Babara Furniss are wristwatch-deep in finger paint, two of a dozen participants in the "Finger Painting Exploration Into Your Relationships" seminar. Glancing at her dark-green palms, Barbara Furniss says calmly, "We try to do one 'play thing' every year."

The Furnisses were among over 1,100 married, single, divorced and widowed registrants of the Festival for Marriage Ii, scattered yesterday accross the campus of Catholic University. As veterans, they found none of the topics surprising.

"The enjoyment, of course, is in this kind of thing-puddling around in the paint," said Todd Furniss. "Last year we raced around a gymnasium.

"What's important is talking about things that are potentially important. It's not a hands-down confessional posture.I find these little nuggets I pick up here really helpful."

"We were a little bit dubious last year," his wife admits, "but it opens lines of communication."

"I created my expressive painting counselling approach to increase my own sense of aliveness, which diminished during my four years on the Cornell University faculty," begins the fingerpaint instructor's brochure. "Please call me if you would like further information . . ."

What with est and "active listening" and the primal scream, Americans have shuffled off the mortal coil of repression at least far enough to enjoy talking about their problems in public. It's the cocktail party brand of confession, the stuff of which New Yorker cartoons are made.The Festival for Marriage was created according to one of the organizers, because "we believe marriage is too hard to do alone in our time." It is a very serious project, even though some of the workshops ("The Zen of Being a Significant Other") smack of the trendy.

"Let's run the same role-play again,"suggests the leader of "How to Get What You Want in Marriage." You take the medical model."

Ken, 36, and Joan, 31, are generally skeptical about what Ken calls "instant gratification therapy." Ken is a lawyer, Joan is studying to be a psychiatrist. Both are divorced; they have been seeing each other for a year.

Ken was put off by the word "marriage" in the title: "I talked to my mother today and didn't tell her where I was going," he shrugged. "I said Joan and I were doing something this afternoon."

But after the first workshop-they screened the catalogue carefully looking for well-known therapists, etc.-they decided the experience was "worthwile."

"It's sort of like a survey course in college," Ken said, but Joan disagreed. "No, there's some psychotherapy in it, too, so it's more than just a survey."

"Anyway, at $10 for three workshops, it sounded worth it," Joan conceded.

Some seminars were marked "couples only," like the workshop on "Massage: Try It, You'll like It." The classroom smelled like an overripe fruit basket.

"These oils are lime, pineapple and raspberry," called out the demonstrator. "Now these oils aren't edible, but there are lotions available that are. One comes in chocolate mint . . . "

Maribeth and Arben Shank are 27 and 26 respectively. They have been married for four years. They seem quiet, thoughtful, well-educated-the kids-next-door of the counter culture.

To Maribeth, the workshops suggested a framework on which to build a lasting relationship. "Sometimes you care about a relationship a lot, but you don't know where it's headed, she said, absently straightening her triangular scarf. "I thought this kind of structure might be useful."

Arden added, "Our society tells us that it's wrong to talk about relationships with our partners, married or not, to outsiders. Here the leaders talk about themselves, and the models a way of sharing that you don't often see."

"They're talking to me, it's not some textbook, you know?" said a middle-aged man to his silent fiance.

Traditionally, being self-centred is a bad thing," a therapist is saying gravely. "So leths redefine that - there are times in life when you have to be self - centred, and that's beautiful." CAPTION: Picture 1, Grant Mitchell and his wife Sheila Manes in a massage workshop; Picture 2, Stoddon and Patricia King in the "Stopping the Blaming Game" workshop, by Linda Wheeler-The Washington Post; Picture 3, Sue Floris, left, and Virginia Margan in the "Stopping the Blaming Game" workshop; by Linda Wheeler-The Washington Post