For Matt and I, EE was mandatory to be married in our church. Although I am Catholic, I don’t consider myself to be religious. I was truly dreading the weekend, concerned about how much religion would be present in the talks. The website claims EE is applicable to all couples, religious or not, however I knew some church-related issues like Natural Family Planning and sexual abstinence would be covered. I was skeptical.
My skepticism was compounded when we reached the retreat center. It was only about 45 minutes from home, but we were required to stay over both nights in large dormitories: girls in one room and boys in another. The room of 50 creaky twin beds looked like something out of a horror movie. I knew it was going to be a rough couple of nights.
I am going to include a breakdown of our EE weekend, in hope that it will be helpful for others facing the same fears I was. I had a hard time finding out any definitive information about what the weekend entailed through searching online. I believe that the more informed and prepared you are, the less anxiety you will feel. So here’s how the weekend went:
We started around 8 p.m. with introductions of the two couples who would lead the weekend. They were local volunteers through the national program. Usually a priest is also involved, but ours became ill the day before and wasn’t there for the weekend. The couples leading our EE weekend were sincere and kind, but very hard to relate to.
After introductions were the first two sessions: Encounter with Me and Encounter with We, examinations of who we are as individuals and as a couple. It ended with a prayer session and we were in our separate beds by 11 p.m. with a 7 a.m. wakeup call.
Saturday dawned on some very grumpy EE attendees. Although most of the boys seemed well-rested, the girls all grumbled about getting very little sleep in our sparse accommodations. I personally remember checking the time at least once every hour throughout the night. I dozed a bit in between, but the morning was a struggle.
Saturday was a long, drawn out day of 10 sections that almost all went like this:
- 20 minute personal story from the couples leading EE on the topic
- 20 minutes of individual writing on the topic with questions to consider
- 20 minutes sharing our writings and discussing with out partner.
Over and over and over...
The process of writing and sharing wasn’t bad, but the topics seemed redundant and some required much less time than was allocated. Saturday’s topics included:
- Disillusionment & True Joy
- Openness in Communication
- Signs of a Closed Relationship
- Decisions in Marriage
- Human Sexuality
- Natural Family Planning
- Unity: Called to be One
- Morality in a Christian Marriage
- Forgiveness in Marriage
- Becoming a Family
The Natural Family Planning (NFP) presentation was especially comical as the presenting couple failed at it, which led to their first child. TOO FUNNY! I am actually open to using NFP, not because the church approves it (which I could care less about, my body, my decision!) but because I hate the concept of being on medication indefinitely for any reason. I like the concept of knowing your body well enough to be able to make educated decisions about your ability to procreate at any particular time in your cycle. TMI, I know. But I did find this to be one of the more interesting presentations, outside of the religious pressure to stop using contraceptives because some old man called the Pope tells us to. But I digress...
Although the day got better as it went one, overall Saturday was long and drawn out. By the end I was emotionally and physically exhausted, mentally checked out and begging Matt to make the 45 minute drive home and back in the morning so I could sleep in my own bed. Just after he finally agreed we had our final two scheduled events: a group discussion and prayer session. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these were the highlights of the weekend. They both went well, so we decided to stay the night and I slept much better (thanks to a couple glasses of wine after the evening ended!!! Alcohol fixes everything... LOL).
Sunday felt, if possible, even longer. The priest conducting our closing mass couldn’t be there until 2:30, so the remaining three sections were stretched over about 5 hours. We were all ready to be on our way home and I doubt any of us gave much thought to our responses, resulting in an unproductive day. We covered the following:
- Two-by-Two: Marriage as a Vocation
- Wedding: The Beginning of our Sacrament
After mass, we were finally free. Luckily I left Monday morning for a work trip to California. I think Matt and I needed the break from each other and constant one-on-one conversation about our relationship.
In summary, here is my critique of our Engaged Encounter weekend and the program in general:
The material is a bit outdated and out of touch with modern couples. About half of the topics were interesting and half were redundant. Matt and I had already discussed about 80% of the questions and topics covered, which made us feel really good about our relationship and the foundation we are building on. I can see how EE might initiate important conversations for those who may not have already had them. For those conversations, the program is worthwhile.
A weekend is too long. If you have the option to do a one-day version or a series over several evenings, choose that one. The marathon sessions just leave you exhausted and at some point you will mentally check out. It’s not productive to hit that point.
If you do a weekend version, check out the venue. I hope it was cushier than ours. Sleep was impossible.
The presenters make or break the program. I doubt this is information you can search out ahead of time, but if possible, ask for reviews from previous attendees. Although I know our presenters meant well - they were volunteering an ENTIRE weekend to a program they believe in - they were not easy to relate to. They were religious to a level we weren’t and married much later in life, both of those issues clearly shaped the majority of their decision making throughout their marriage and made it difficult to apply their experiences with ours. Their efforts were appreciated, but the weekend would have been much better had the couples leading been more “like us” and the other couples there (who seemed be be “younger” and Catholic, but not overly religious). And a little bit of training on how to speak in front of an audience couldn’t have hurt either.
The topics included God to a point that made me uncomfortable a few times, but not too many. I definitely think most Christians and Catholics would understand and appreciate the inclusions. If you aren’t particularly religious, it wasn’t hard to just ignore those questions or change them a bit to be more applicable.
I will rarely recommend EE, except perhaps to younger couples who would benefit more from the discussions. The little we got out of it was just not worth the time or effort. There were a few redeeming factors, but just not enough.