There I sat, with our two-monthold daughter strapped in the baby carrier, discussing my rights and options with a divorce attorney, while my parents watched our two-year-old son at their home.
I was on the brink of divorce, fed up with our marriage of seven years. I was through. I was in misery.
And I wondered: Where was the marriage that had started out so well? How had things gone so wrong?
I was nineteen when I met my future husband in college. Dave was the life of the party—handsome, entertaining, smart, witty, and very confident. I was taken aback that someone so charming would choose me, but as we grew to love one another, we seemed the perfect pair.
After five years of dating, we were married and living a wonderful life. Dave and I had both attended graduate school, were involved in successful careers, and had purchased our first home. We lived in a fashionable neighborhood and enjoyed traveling. We credited our good fortune to hard work and dedication.
God was somewhere in the background. I went to weekly Mass, and although Dave wasn’t Catholic, he would sometimes accompany me. I prayed at night occasionally, always by myself. There was no real sense of God’s presence in our life together. Yes, we had been married in a Catholic church, but did we believe that God was a present and active partner in our marriage? Not really.
A Terrible Mistake? As the years passed, Dave maintained the party image I had once loved. That image, however, was becoming increasingly unattractive. We argued a lot, especially about how to spend our weekends. I preferred to stay home and watch a movie, whereas Dave preferred to go to a bar with friends.
At first, I figured that the late nights and heavy drinking were just a bad habit. Yet although Dave seemed remorseful at times, his behavior not only continued but increased. I responded by slowly withholding my love and trust. Gradually, we became more and more detached as a couple. With our individual choices moving us in opposite directions, we were living two separate lives under one roof.
In 2003, our first child was born. Certainly, this will change things, I thought. The only change was that Dave’s drinking became even more frequent.
Five years into our marriage, I was fearful that I had made a terrible mistake. I was disgusted with myself for not having seen the drinking for what it was: alcoholism. I felt cheated out of the marriage I always wanted. My parents had set a positive example of a healthy marriage. Why couldn’t I have that, too?
Separately Seeking. Two years later, feeling hopeless and alone after the birth of our second child, I started to consider my options. That’s when I visited the divorce lawyer. Dave and I sought help from a marriage counselor, too; we both realized that our marriage was falling apart and that neither of us knew how to fix it.
I also began reading about alcoholism and talking to people who had experienced its ravaging effects in their own families. I came to see that our marriage, too, had become a casualty of this terrible illness. Finally, after speaking with my parish priest, a counselor, and friends, I made the decision to remove myself and the children from our home and to separate from Dave for an indefinite period.
It was a fruitful, though difficult, time. While separated, each of us sought understanding and healing through various community resources, family, and friends. All of this was instrumental in our individual recoveries from alcoholism and its consequences; it allowed us to gain perspective and acknowledge the roles we each had played in the decline of our relationship.
Still, our marriage was in disarray. How could we put it back together?
An Unexpected Message. Just then, a couple from church offered to meet with us. They too had experienced the painful consequences of alcoholism in their own marriage. But there they sat, smiling and joyful as they shared.
They directed us to the program that had helped them: Retrouvaille, a French word meaning rediscovery. From its Web site, I learned that Retrouvaille provides couples in crisis with the tools for rediscovering a loving relationship and putting their marriage in order again. The program, which consists of a weekend and follow-up sessions, emphasizes “communication between husband and wife.” It provides the opportunity to “examine your lives together in a new and positive way.”
Though it sounded too good to be true, Dave and I took the couple’s advice and signed up for a Retrouvaille weekend. We were both anxious as we arrived. If this didn’t help us, where would we turn?
As the weekend began, the leaders—three couples and a priest— encouraged everyone to “put the past behind and start rediscovering each other.” To be honest, I was determined to remember the past. I wasn’t going to forget or forgive so easily.
Then, during one of the communication exercises, I found myself sitting alone in a room composing a letter to Dave. Suddenly my pen wrote, “I forgive you.” I was stunned. I had never made a conscious decision to write these words. In fact, I supposed it would be years before I would even consider forgiving my husband.
As I finished writing this unexpected declaration, my body began to tremble. Tears flowed from my eyes, and I experienced an indescribable sense of calm. Examining the words I had just written, I was amazed to realize that I truly did believe them. In that moment, I knew I had been touched by the Holy Spirit.
Gone were the despair and hopelessness that had consumed me for so many years. In an instant, God removed the pain of the past. And though I remembered the disappointments, I now saw them as stepping-stones to the deep joy that swept over me. Surprisingly, I actually felt grateful for every one of those distressing events, for they had brought me to this point. Without them, I would never have experienced the healing grace of gratitude.
It’s a Loving Plan. God’s healing grace has brought many beautiful things into our marriage since that weekend more than five years ago. We now pray together every day. Dave has decided to become a Catholic and is enrolled in RCIA classes. We work with couples in our parish who are preparing for marriage, and we have counseled married couples who are in crisis. In 2007, we welcomed a third child into our family. And this year, we are celebrating six years of sobriety and thirteen years of marriage.
Since that amazing Retrouvaille weekend experience, I have often reflected on the words that turned our marriage around. And I came to understand that the message— “I forgive you”—was not only for Dave: I had been forgiven, too. I had doubted God and written him off. I couldn’t trust that he had a loving plan for my life and marriage.
God was with us, even when Dave and I were not especially present to him. In his mercy, he took what I considered a curse and made it the greatest of blessings. And the despair and hopelessness that once threatened our marriage? It laid the foundation for greater trust and deeper love.
Does God have a loving plan for us all? I don’t doubt it anymore; I only try to follow. I’m so grateful, for it is through God’s plan that I found—and keep finding—the marriage I always wanted.
Julie and Dave Baxter reside in Northeast Ohio. To learn more about Retrouvaille: visit www.retrouvaille.org; or (in the US) call 1-800-470-2230.