Rediscovering marriage in Retrouvaille
By Emilie Ast Lemmons
Talking with Jeff and Donna Hensler is like listening to a pair of best friends. They finish each other's sentences, gently interrupt to correct factual points and laugh at each other's jokes. They're a far cry from where they were 15 years ago, when drugs, infidelity, religious conflict and emotional pain threatened to destroy their marriage.
In 1989, on the brink of divorce, the Henslers took part in a weekend that would change their lives. Called Retrouvaille, French for "rediscovery," the spiritually rooted program for couples in troubled marriages taught the pair to communicate and gave them a support network that in some ways has become thicker than family.
Now, the San Lorenzo, Calif., couple are the international coordinators for Retrouvaille, a two-year position they began in January 2004, after serving as deputy coordinators for two years prior. With support from a clergy chaplain (Precious Blood Father Jeffrey Keyes of Newark, Calif.), they oversee the worldwide ministry and try to address any problems that arise.
Taking the position was not in the Henslers' game plan even five years ago. In fact they were looking to ease out of their roles as coordinators for the Oakland, Calif.-area Retrouvaille chapter. They had been presenting their own marital story at Retrouvaille weekends for 10 years, leading the chapter because, as Donna said, "Nobody would take the job."
But then Jeff began having recurring dreams about the international deputy coordinator position. "I couldn't have felt more called in my life," he said. Donna agreed — hesitantly — to support him. "I said, ‘Who am I to judge that it isn't a calling?' It was so strong to him that it was scary to me," she said. Thus, as relative unknowns in the larger Retrouvaille world, the Henslers were nominated and "discerned in" as coordinators at Retrouvaille's 2001 International Council meeting in Kansas City, Mo. "My life has a purpose," Jeff said of the role. "Giving back, helping other people, is such a gift, far more than I could ever receive."
Even though they wear much larger hats now, Jeff, 51, and Donna, 50, still tell their personal story to Bay Area couples at Retrouvaille weekends a couple of times a year. Presenters are couples who have gone through their own marital turmoil and turned their relationship around. Couples who finish the initial live-in weekend continue to meet at monthly support sessions, an important component that sets Retrouvaille apart from other marriage enhancement programs.
When couples first arrive for the program on Friday nights, "there's always a lot of negativity," Donna said. "But their faces are lighter by the end of the weekend . . .. It's reassuring to know that you're not alone." The Henslers find that many troubled couples at those weekends have similar stories. In fact, Donna said, after hearing one couple at their own weekend 15 years ago, "We looked at each other. Oh my gosh, that's our story," she said. "We're going to be sitting there doing that talk someday."
The couple met as teenagers at the shopping center where they both worked, Jeff as a dishwasher in a restaurant and Donna in the caramel corn shop next door. He liked her beautiful smile, friendly personality and big family. She was drawn to his caring, compassionate nature. "The first time I saw Jeff, I knew he was going to be the man I married," she said. They fell in love despite their different backgrounds. Jeff was a rough-and-tumble public school kid, raised Baptist by alcoholic parents. Donna was a sheltered Catholic schoolgirl from a stable home. Her family counted many clergy as friends; Donna's uncle was even a priest.
They wed in 1974, after high school, and the first six months were happy ones. But trouble was brewing. Jeff had become estranged from his Baptist upbringing and sworn off religion, something that was important to Donna. And he had begun smoking pot, hiding it from his wife at first. "I can remember the day when I opened the door and smelled the smell, and it was very deflating for me," Donna said. She thought, "Oh my gosh, what have I gotten into?"
Their lifestyle evolved into what Retrouvaille calls "married-single." Jeff hung out with friends and went to so many rock concerts one year that he guesses he was away more weekends than he was home. On Sundays, Jeff stayed home and watched football while Donna went to Mass without him.
And then there were the affairs. Blaming Donna for their faltering sex life, Jeff turned to other women. Eventually, he was with eight different women during their marriage, he said. Having their three children brought life back to their marriage, but only momentarily. By the end of the 1980s, Donna had begun an affair of her own. They separated, hired lawyers and began divorce proceedings. But the divorce never solidified.
When the Henslers tell their painful story, they also talk about the moments of grace, the ways they believe God intervened and helped them pull their marriage back together. Jeff describes the spiritual wake-up call that compelled him to get his life together. He eventually became Catholic. Donna tells about the nun counselor who heard her hesitation about getting a divorce and put the information about Retrouvaille in her hands. Jeff shares the wisdom of their 9-year-old son, who told his struggling father what he needed to hear: "Well it's not that hard. You just make the decision to love." Most of all, they tell about how Retrouvaille brought them back together slowly over the years.
"We're more best friends now than we've ever been," Jeff said. "We still experience the highs and lows of any relationship, but we have the tools to work our way out of it. And we have the support of anyone in Retrouvaille."
Donna added, "Retrouvaille is a family. I feel closer to some people in Retrouvaille than I do to some people in my own family. The love is so unconditional. … It's pretty overwhelming."
For more information about Retrouvaille, visit www. Retrouvaille.org.