Founded in Spain in 1962 by The Rev. Gabriel Calvo, Marriage Encounter came to this country in 1967, according to The Rev. Jim Young, who teaches family ministry at Catholic University.
The Christian Family Movement, an ecumenical, progressive movement in the Catholic community, sponsored the first Marriage Encounter weekend in this country (at Notre Dame University), then founded National Marriage Encounter (NME) to spread it around the country. About 11 years ago, The Rev. Chuck Gallagher, a New York Jesuit priest, developed an offshoot organization, Worldwide Marriage Encounter (WWME) -- now the largest -- that took Marriage Encounter "in a more conservative direction," says Father Young, in which it was no longer ecumenical.
"He thought you shouldn't mix people from different religions, and each Christian denomination should have its own separate encounter group.
"National and Worldwide weekends are both run on the theory that the main problem in marriage today is communication," says Father Young. "And both groups try to create religious enthusiasm on the principle that will help keep the marriage going."
Worldwide weekends are fairly standardized, essentially the same everywhere in the world. Each National weekend, according to Jerry Sexton, St. Paul, one of NME's chief spokesmen, is different.
Competition between Worldwide and National was sometimes bitter in the early to mid-1970s, but now there are more than a dozen different marriage encounter groups, many affiliated loosely with different religious denominations.
One of the most important new groups of the broader movement is Marriage Enrichment. The movement, following the Quaker model of founders David and Vera Mace, makes use of small-group dynamics, with one couple presenting marital issues that concern them and other couples giving feedback on their communication process. The point of the group, says David Mace, is to overcome our culture's "intermarital taboo," that "unwritten rule that married couples should never, never talk to other married couples about what is going on in their interpersonal relationships."
With both National and Worldwide Marriage Encounter, a couple's exchanges are strictly private. According to Sexton, it was Father Gallagher who saw the power of the "written feeling dialogue," which wasn't important in the original Spanish Marriage Encounter.
"In this culture, communication on the feeling level was a real breakthrough," says Sexton. "With Spanish and Italian people, when they're upset you know they're upset. Americans are more northern European, less in touch with our feelings. The male especially is taught not to express or acknowledge feelings -- even to deny them.
"To see a male of age 40 reveal his feelings was a real biggie . . . A lot of people came off those first weekends flying high. That's what got Marriage Encounter going."
Father Young's theory is that the Marriage Encounter weekends in the late '60s were popular with couples who had learned the traditional view of marriage from their parents.
Although official figures are hard to come by, participation in Worldwide Marriage Encounter is down, for example, well below the estimated 100,000 Americans that "made" Worldwide weekends in its '70s heyday.
Those first enrichment programs, says The Rev. Tom Lynch, of the Family Life division of the U.S. Catholic Conference, "took all the ripe apples off the tree. People who sensed an uneasiness were consciously looking for something to enrich and deepen the relationship. That first surge filled that first need.
"Now, for the marriages that are anesthetized, that haven't even begun to face the intimacy question, there needs to be a whole new round of consciousness-raising."
Says Father Young: "I think the issues today are issues of developing lifetime commitment and of adult development: 'How do we continue to grow somewhat in tandem but at different paces in different areas?' This is something that people doing work in life-cycle fields are just learning about."
"The need is there," says Sexton. "People want to do something about their marriages. And there isn't anything taking its place."