Diana’s I Do’s: An Engaging Encounter

Diana and Ben go on a weekend retreat to learn about love and marriage.

Diana studies up on life and love during her premarital counseling retreat.

My dad’s side of the family is very Catholic, and it was important to him that Ben and I get married in the Catholic Church. This was a bone of contention because we wanted to be married outdoors, which the Church doesn’t allow. So after we saw a priest on the vendor list at Antrim 1844—which does primarily outdoor ceremonies—I decided to do a little research.

Turns out the priest is part of the Eastern Rite, a sect that will perform ceremonies outside. And it’s still valid in the Catholic Church because the sect answers to the Pope. This was great news for us and the perfect compromise with my dad.

Part of getting married in the Catholic Church is going to a marriage-prep program. We had the option of going to a class that would last six weeks, meeting with a mentor couple through the Church up until the wedding, or going on a weekend retreat. Between planning a wedding; working full-time; making time for family, friends, workouts, and “us time”; and keeping sane, we certainly didn’t have time to go to a six-week class. Plus, the idea of a retreat where we could meet other engaged couples was really appealing. So we signed up for Engaged Encounter.

Ben isn’t Catholic and was a little hesitant that he might be pressured to convert, but I assured him that he wouldn’t be forced to participate in some strange initiation ritual. This made him feel better, and after a while he began to get excited about the idea of “getting away” and meeting new people.

Our weekend arrived, and we checked into the hotel in Elkridge, Maryland, got our room assignments, and met our roommates. Engaged Encounter acknowledges that many couples who attend already live together but requests that each person room with another member of the same sex.

After dropping off our things, we went into the conference area and took a seat among 25 other couples. There were lots of different kinds of people, and all of them seemed excited and a little nervous. The retreat is led by two couples—one that had been married 17 years, and one that had been married 41 years—and a priest. They introduced themselves and each said one thing they loved about each other, then asked that we go around the room and do the same. Some stood sheepishly and spoke as fast as they could, while others teased their partner for a moment before sitting down. As we got toward the back of the room, it was fun seeing the couples try to think of attributes that no one had said yet (trying to find 50 different lovable attributes can be a little tricky).

For the rest of the evening, we listened as the two host couples read from booklets they’d written on different relationship topics. Then they asked us to flip to a page in our workbooks and separate. Each of us would write answers to the questions in the form of a letter to each other. After 20 minutes, the couples would leave the room, read each other’s responses, and talk about what we’d written.

After a couple of hours of intense discussion, we were released to go back to our rooms and get some rest. Instead, a bunch of us decided that we could use a beer and went to the pub next door. After getting to know the other couples a little better and having a few laughs, we called it a night.

Bright and early, we grabbed breakfast with some couples we’d become friendly with, then spent the rest of the day with our workbooks. We covered lots different issues such as children and family planning, what role religion will have in our relationship, and our preferred methods of communicating. Ben and I thought there wasn’t a subject we hadn’t talked about, but there were questions here we hadn’t considered. If we have our desired number of children but not the gender we want, do we keep trying or stop? I’d never thought of that.

The more we wrote and talked, the closer to Ben I felt. It was wonderful to see that we were on the same wavelength for the majority of issues, and I loved how seriously and thoughtfully he answered each question. I love the way he thinks.

After dinner, the couples gathered in a circle, the ladies sitting with their backs resting against their fiancés’ legs. Our host couples sat outside the circle and read questions that various couples had submitted earlier in the day. This was the time for us to talk with each other about what we’ve been going through and ask advice on how other couples handle certain issues. Whether it was about how to handle sticky family issues or how to make the mental transition from “me” to “we,” each person was able to state an opinion that sparked a friendly conversation.

The next morning, we once again spent the afternoon in intense communication, then went to Mass after lunch. Afterward was a little graduation ceremony where we each received a certificate stating we’d completed the program. We exchanged numbers with a couple we’d made friends with, then hit the road.

The whole experience left us exhausted but exhilarated. The weekend allowed us to completely focus on each other and our relationship, and the structured format helped facilitate really thought-provoking conversations. We’ve always been good at communicating with each other, but after this weekend we felt an even stronger bond.

Of course marriage will have its ups and downs, and there is a lot of pressure out there leading marriages to fail. We live in a fiercely independent, largely egocentric society and are used to putting ourselves, not our relationships, first. No two people can live with each other for decades and like each other all the time; that’s an unrealistic expectation. When things are stressful, it’s important to take a step back, block out the white noise in your head, and choose your battles. You don’t lose yourself by compromising, but you build a stronger foundation for the two of you to stand on. You have to actively choose to love your spouse for who he or she is—the person you’ve chosen above all others to share your life with.

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