PHILADELPHIA (OSV News) -- About 10 years ago, Peter Piotti was anything but a fan of Valentine's Day.
"I hated it," he admitted.
So did his wife, Gae, who dodged the observance by hosting what she called "non-romantic family dinners."
The Wilmington, Delaware, couple, then married 25 years, told OSV News they had struggled with their marriage for a long time -- mostly due to "typical small stuff" that had led to "a communications breakdown," said Peter. "It was death by a thousand cuts."
Gae had been seeking counseling, but when their son turned 19, "we decided to separate," she said. "Our 13-year-old daughter took it fine, but our son was completely devastated."
Seeing his distress, the couple decided to contact a ministry they had seen listed in their church bulletin: Retrouvaille, from the French word for "rediscovery."
While Valentine's Day is culturally celebrated as a romantic holiday, attorneys have cited the week, and particularly the day after, as driving an uptick of people contacting law firms to file for divorce -- a phenomenon some call a "Valentine's Effect." But for the church, these same days around the holiday just might be the time to publicly invite couples to save their marriage instead of giving up on it.
"(Retrouvaille) is a lifeline for married couples, and the best-kept secret in the Catholic Church," said Mary Ellen Fattori, who along with her husband, John, oversees Retrouvaille session registrations for the Philadelphia metropolitan area. "It could help about 85% of married couples, because it speaks to the struggles they all face. Spouses rediscover a long-lost friend they haven't seen in a while."
Launched almost 50 years ago by lay Catholics in Canada, the ministry -- which has a Christian focus -- is open to married, separated and divorced couples of all faiths and those with no faith tradition.
Working with both Catholic and other Christian clergy, and a network of volunteers, Retrouvaille offers a three-phase approach: a weekend program, six to 12 weeks of follow-up sessions and a monthly support group. Templates for the sessions are prepared by the ministry's international board, with volunteer couples -- who themselves have navigated their own marital struggles -- leading the gatherings.
Facilitators stress that the format is neither a religious retreat nor a group sharing session. Instead, couples -- whose marriage lengths range from "six months to 55 years, to everything in between," Fattori told OSV News -- learn how to do something they have forgotten: communicate with each other.
"Many who come to Retrouvaille do not know how to share their most vulnerable feelings," Fattori said. "We may share anger, but what it’s often masking is hurt, pain, loneliness, rejection."
While men have typically been characterized as having difficulty expressing emotion, women are not always forthcoming, she said.
"Many have felt they have to be a lot more stoic to compete with the guys," Fattori said.
She added the demands of work and child care can often become "overwhelming" for couples, who can end up "turning their backs on their spouses."
Infidelity and addictive behaviors can also result when couples grow distant, Father Frank Berna, a professor of theology at La Salle University in Philadelphia, told OSV News. The priest has facilitated the ministry's weekend sessions in that area for the past eight years.
Prior to attending their first Retrouvaille weekend in August 2000, Fattori and her husband, John, "were living two 'single but married' lives," she told OSV News. "The arguments had stopped and we were not talking much. I was lonely in my marriage, and my husband was lonely in his."
Retrouvaille works to reorient spouses toward each other, explained Father Berna.
"Basically, the whole overarching work of the weekend is to help (couples) learn how to communicate with each other particularly on the level of feelings," he said.
The exchanges are not focused on "talk, but real dialogue," that allows spouses to "understand the other as 'other,'" Father Berna added. "The other is not me, and they might not perceive or value something as I do. You're not going there to change the other, or to have the other change you, but to both come to a better understanding of one another."
One technique used during the weekend sessions has participants first write out their feelings, using specific descriptions and comparisons to similar experiences, the priest said.
The results can be dramatic, he added.
At one session a few years ago, "you could feel the tension and the anger between one younger couple" when the session began on a Friday evening, Father Berna said. "By Saturday, they were holding hands."
When spouses heal the wounds of their marriage, everybody wins, said both Fattori and Father Berna.
"The most important thing you could ever give your child is the witness of a mother and a father who share God's love with each other," Fattori said.
Couples "who get their relationship back together engage with the world in healthier ways," said Father Berna.
Now married 35 years, Gae and Peter Piotti -- who help coordinate monthly Retrouvaille sessions in the Philadelphia metropolitan area -- agree.
"Now, we really make sure not a single event goes by unnoticed," said Gae. "Including Valentine's Day.