The reason I didn't remember that my hostess this past weekend is legally blind, after knowing her for eight or nine years, is because of the context in which I know her: our Marriage Encounter group. My husband (W.) and I are one of five couples who've been meeting monthly as a followup to the Marriage Encounter weekends we all went through almost a decade ago. Marriage Encounter is a worldwide organization that was started by a church - I think by the Catholics in the Fifties - to support marriage. It does this by holding weekend gatherings where couples go and learn methods of communicating with each other, using open-ended questions (that can't be answered with yes/no), active listening, and writing letters to each other addressing a shared question. You're supposed to use these methods regularly after the weekend, integrating this "dialoguing" into your life on a daily basis. Couples who led the weekend vouched for this daily practice, and their testimony was authentic enough to overcome W.'s and my skepticism about other aspects of the weekend, which - as the only non-religious couple in a gathering headed by a Catholic priest who wrote letters to Jesus in lieu of a wife - was considerable. W. and I don't dialogue daily or even weekly, but we do meet with this monthly group, which is the only venue we've found to learn how other couples handle issues that come up in every marriage, and to tease out and support what works. An example of a Marriage Encounter tenet that works whenever you get mad at your spouse, regret or romanticize roads not taken, or even consider shedding all baggage and going off on your own, is "love is a decision." If you're lucky enough to believe this, you know the relationship is at least partially under your cognitive control. It's not a mystery or a hidden, subconscious force. You can then - in the next minute or hour or day - decide again to love the life and spouse you have over all the unknowns and might-have-beens.
In our monthly meetings, through open-ended questions that the hosting couple writes up, we dialogue about issues ranging from "How do we control our money?" or "How do we handle our in-laws?" to "How do we behave towards each other when we feel overwhelmed?"
Perhaps because our emphasis is on celebrating and supporting our marriages, there is very little complaining in our group. That's why I'd all but forgotten that my hostess of last weekend is legally blind. Members who have chronic health problems or even worse, don't focus on specifics, but find some global aspect of their situation we all can share, such as trying to find ways of being more independent, putting less burden on spouses, etc.
When we first joined this group, with my sixties bias of "letting it all hang out," I distrusted this emphasis on the positive, thinking people were avoiding or denying problems. But over the years, I'm learning that marriages aren't stories; they don't need conflict to make them interesting or remarkable. And I'm also learning that focusing on problems makes them grow, at least in my mind, and that there's a way to let them go by that isn't the same as denying that they exist. So I'm appreciating the celebratory aspect of our group's meetings more. In this way, the group has hoisted me above my usual cynical and skeptical stance, at least for the duration of our meetings, and I'm grateful.