"A friend once told us that everyone he knew was either divorced, separated, or in analysis; he wanted to know what it was about us that was so different."
Lois Forster, 38, and her husband, dentist Norm Forster, 44, are different: They've been married for 14 years, have three children, and have the audacity to talk openly about how much they mean to each other.
The Forsters were one of three couples who met recently at a Potomac home to discuss their experience with Jewish Marriage Encounter. A week earlier in Bethesda, three other couples described their participation in the Catholic "expression" of Marriage Encounter.
The two gatherings were remarkably similar in the couples' responses. Frequently heard were such comments as, "I knew I loved my wife, but there was no time to show it" and "I never knew the difference between feeling and thinking."
For the past three to five years all six couples have been on, or "presented" several Marriage Encounter Weekends -- a dynamic experience that excites those who go, and threatens others.
Marriage Encounter is a highly structured "weekend" which shuts out the modern world and teaches a married couple how to communicate their "thoughts and feelings" to each other. In the process, they may discover a relationship which has been sleeping under layers and layers of job, family and everyday pressures.
"It's finding out what's in your spouse's mind and heart," says Dr. Frank Valcour, 41, Bethesda, who has been married 17 years, ". . . it has a very positive effect."
Father Calvo, S.J., originally created the system in Spain, and in 1967 brought it to the United States. Marriage Encounter now involves 10 faiths or "expressions" from 50 states and 46 countries. In 12 years, 1 1/4 million husbands and wives have attended weekends in hotels, motels and retreat houses. (The Jewish Weekend is from sundown Saturday to Monday evening.)
There are no membership cards or dues or rules about who can attend which Weekend: All faiths, including non-believers, can mix. Toward the end of the Weekend couples are told the cost of their 44-hour stay, and asked to contribute whatever they can afford. So far, this straightforward sealed-envelope system works, with Marriage Encounter being a successful nonprofit, volunteer, home-style organization.
During a Weekend a Rabbinic couple (or priest, or minister and his wife, depending on the particular "expression") and three "presenting" couples deliver 12 to 15 talks to an audience of 20 to 35 couples. All presenting couples are volunteers who previously experienced a Weekend and now agree to share their experience, but strictly according to the universal step-by-step talk outline.
Lois Forster has been presenting talks for 5 1/2 years. Before a Weekend she and her husband Norm spend long hours at the kitchen table writing and rewriting their talk until it satisfies them and a fellow couple's critique.
"During the Weekend we tell couples we are not trained to handle anyone's problems," says Lois. "All we tell them is who we are and we show them our technique of communication."
Common hearsay about Marriage Encounter is that it's the system "where couples write to each other for two days and don't talk."
Instead, couples separate for a quiet time after each talk, write down their feelings about the topic and questions just covered by the presenting couples. Each couple then meets in the privacy of their rooms to communicate or "encounter" each other on what they have discovered about their selves.
If you are by now picturing an ideal opportunity to corner your spouse in a hotel room and list his or her sins and shortcomings, forget it.
"This is not a problem-solving weekend," says Jim Meyers (not his real name), 36, a federal economist, who had his first Weekend in New York City five years ago. "It is not a retrospective experience. There isn't any opportunity for sharing historial problems couples may have had in their relationship. It's a very prospective thing."
For that reason alone, Marriage Encounter is mainly for good marriages, as all six couples stress, "to make them even better."
Engineer Elmer Robinson and Nellie Robinson have been married for 38 years and have two grandchildren. According to the Robinsons, both 58, "You need not have a super marriage to be in Marriage Encounter. All you need is more of an everyday marriage."
"The whole Weekend is geared to the good you see in each other," says Maureen Valcour, 40, who with her husband Frank recently gave a Weekend in South Africia, Maureen's homeland.
"Some people get very intimidated when we say it's for good marriages," adds Jim Myers. "The only real criterion is that you love each other, for no marriage is problem-free."
"In the very beginning we ask all couples attending the Weekend to respect each couple's privacy," points out Mitch Levine, 37, who is with a federal law-enforcement agency. He sees a need for more community understanding of the whole system.
"It's not a social weekend; it's work between you and your spouse. Therefore, we ask for silence, promptness (to the talks, meals, etc.), and an effort to shut out distractions."
The Jewish Weekend disconnects TV's and asks couples to remove their watches and put them in their suitcases. No phone calls can be made or received and any emergency calls are delivered to the presenting couple, who notify the unlucky parents.
The group does eat together, but no one asks the famed Washington question ". . . and what do you do?" Last names and job status are immaterial.
Meeting with these couples was little different from any other relaxed evening with friends. Husbands and wives interrupted each other, they argued, some talked too much, others brought up just one or two points. It wasn't a churchy or goody-two-shoes group, though at times the prosyletizing was uncomfortable.
The most remarkable difference -- from the stereotypical man next door -- was that the men were the most outspoken about their feelings. Without so much as a blush or puff of cigar smoke, they spoke of love.
The natural assumption was that they were not only unusual men, but they must have been extroverts before they ever heard about Marriage Encounter.
"Far from it," says CPA Irv Ross, 36. "Before Marriage Encounter I could never share emotions . . . while I felt my wife Bonnie (35, a teacher) was so sensitive. So for us as a couple, this was a great revelation."
"In a way," agrees Norm Forster, who also claims to have shed his silent cover, "Marriage Encounter is a man's liberation. Men are brought up to not show their feelings or express them, but a Weekend is a safe environment."
Mitch Levine finds that his ability to express himself carries over into his job. "People may think I am very outspoken and honest . . . it's really just because I'm able to openly express my emotions and feelings."
All of the couples felt that the communication process helped them to better relate to their children.
Obvioulsy, not all questions on Marriage Encounter are answered here: What is said in the talks? What does the outline consist of? What makes it work?
Questions like those were gone over and over, but with sparse results. There is a "mystique" about Marriage Encounter that its participants perpetuate intentionally. To an outsider who does not intend to sign up it can be annoying, and to couples who are undecided, it is extremely frustrating. c
The universal belief is that if they break down and tell a prospective couple about particulars in the talks, that couple then misses out on a spontaneous, or full experience during the Weekend.
"If you know too much about the Weekend beforehand," says Irv Ross, "you sit on the outside looking in."
Also, couples looking for the high their neighbors experienced after what is known as the Saturday-morning talk, may be disappointed.
"Saturday's talk may mean nothing to one couple, but everything to their friends," says nurse Mary Myers (not her married name), 34. "Each talk strikes something meaningful for each person."
Actually, the unknown of the Weekend was what "attracted" the Levines. "And now we don't want to lose that mystique for other couples," says Judith Levine, 36, a speech therapist.
"At no point in the Weekend is anyone ever told, 'Don't tell about the Weekend,'" says Lois Forster. "That is simply never said, but it's the type of thing that has to be experienced. You can't write about it, or read about it. You have to experience it."