Irene and Mark Mehlos, Merrill, pose for a picture on their 38th anniversary. Eighteen years ago, on the verge of divorce, they attended a Retrouvaille retreat. Now, they are dedicated to helping other couples save their marriages. (Submitted photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Twenty years into their marriage, Irene and Mark Mehlos had all but given up.

“I judged that our marriage was beyond repair, and I worried how a divorce would affect our three teenage children and also the boy in foster care who came to live with us,” Irene said.

Parishioners of St. Francis Xavier, Merrill, the couple had struggled for years with stress, hectic lifestyles, communication problems and conflict management.

Irene was at a conference in Oconomowoc when she first saw the book “Courage to Love … When Your Marriage Hurts,” by Fr. Gerald Foley, one of the first priests to get involved in the Retrouvaille movement.

At the time, Retrouvaille – French for “rediscovery,” a retreat program started in Quebec, Canada, for married couples in crisis – hadn’t made it to the area.

Two years later, when Retrouvaille finally came to central Wisconsin, the Mehloses signed up.

Irene remembers how she felt at the time. She couldn’t communicate without being defensive. Neither spouse knew how to express feelings or needs in a constructive way.

“There was just a wall built up between us that we just couldn’t get over,” she said.

In the beginning

The couple’s marriage had started out normal and happy. They had a loving relationship, common interests and family support, as they explain in their Retrouvaille-promoting pulpit talks.

“I felt like God had blessed me with the man I had always dreamed of,” Irene told listeners. “I felt sure that together we could conquer any challenges that came our way.”

“It was not long before those challenges got the best of us,” Mark continues. “Shortly after we were married, time with Irene did not seem to be as much fun anymore … I began to deal with the stress of work by spending more time away in my own activities. I felt unappreciated and useless, and Irene judged that she was being taken advantage of.”

The retreats

Couples come to Retrouvaille retreats at the St. Anthony Spirituality Center, Marathon, with a variety of troubles. Some have basic communication or money problems; other couples’ relationships have deteriorated to the point of infidelity. Some struggle with addiction, disability or abuse.

For the Mehloses, the daily grind of life – Mark’s busy career as a dentist, Irene’s work inside and outside the home, the challenges of raising three teenagers and fostering a child – had become overwhelming.

“It seemed to be too much,” she said. “Everything was too much. I just couldn’t keep doing it the way we were doing it.”
Counseling had provided short-term relief over the years, but they kept falling back into old patterns. What they needed was to rediscover their love, and one another.

Retrouvaille is a three-phase program. In the first phase, couples attend the weekend retreat together. They listen to presentations, then go off on their own for discussion.

No one is compelled to share their struggles with the wider group, and the presenters – all couples who have benefitted from Retrouvaille and returned as volunteers – share their stories, and some very serious problems.

Irene believes the power of the retreat is in the stories.

“You feel so raw, like your problems are so huge, almost insurmountable, and here’s a couple in front of you, talking about what problems they had,” she said.

Even the priests talk about the difficulties of living out their vows.

“Everybody is pretty vulnerable,” she added.

When the Mehloses were on their weekend, some couples tore up their divorce papers.

“People go in tense, and come out holding hands. That’s the amazing thing. It’s not a problem-solving program,” she explained. “It’s a relationship-building program.”

In the second phase of the program, couples attend six follow-up sessions to continue their relationship-building.

Teaching the session on conflict management is what finally forced the Mehloses to confront their different conflict styles; Irene is a fighter, and Mark is an avoider.

By working through their differences and sharing their stories with others, they have changed the pattern of their relationship.

“As someone who presents in the follow-up, you basically have to be honest and vulnerable,” said Mark. “If you aren’t, they can see right through you.”

In the third phase of Retrouvaille, couples can join CORE (Continuing Our Retrouvaille Experience) support groups and, later on, volunteer for the program if they wish.

Support for marriages

The Mehloses feel both inside and outside the church, there is not a lot of support for struggling marriages.
Through his practice, Mark has gotten to know three generations of families in a small town. He finds in general, people are quick to take sides and encourage divorce.

“Divorce is far more work than fixing a marriage,” he said.

Although confession and Mass are offered at Retrouvaille retreats, the events are ecumenical, and the Mehloses have met couples of other Christian denominations and even atheists looking to save their marriages.

“Whatever your faith is, building on that,” Irene added.

Atheists struggle a little with the faith talk, she said, but most still say the retreat was helpful.

Couples who join Retrouvaille need not be at a crisis point, although Irene believes it is easier to commit to the follow-up sessions if they are motivated.

Despite the success of the program, the Mehloses feel not a lot of people know about it, and they spend a lot of time promoting Retrouvaille both through bulletin, newspaper and email announcements and by giving pulpit talks.

A deacon once told Mark marriage crises were some of the most common problems he encountered in his parish.

“Even people who go through it and don’t stay married, it still helps them with other relationships,” Irene said. “It really does help you in a general way – in your work life, everything.”

St. Anthony hosts two Retrouvaille retreats every year – one in August, and the other in February. The center can accommodate 25 couples, some of whom travel from other dioceses and states to attend.

The retreats are also available in Madison, the Twin Cities, Green Bay and Milwaukee.

“It’s easier to be successful when you’re not too far from the post sessions,” Irene commented.

The Mehloses have just celebrated their 38th anniversary, and they are still going strong in their marriage and volunteering to share that gift with others.

“We’re spectacularly unqualified,” Mark joked.

“We’re wounded healers,” is Irene’s description.

At Retrouvaille, she added, “There are people from all walks of life, all levels of education, and all levels of misery. You can always find something to relate to in the story and in the people.”