Busted Halo
feature: sex & relationships
July 6th, 2009

M.E. and Me

Memories of my Marriage Encounter childhood



Growing up, I was mortified by my parents’ public displays of religion. I’m still convinced that from the years of 1982 to 1986 my parents were part of a cult; others called it “Marriage Encounter.”

One fateful Friday afternoon in 1980, they packed one suitcase and prepared to leave for the first of many retreat weekends; weekends that would become the bane of my existence; weekends that would become the main reason I fled to therapy at the ripe age of ten.

“We’re not getting divorced,” they asserted repeatedly, often in unison, when I questioned their decision to join such a mysterious organization. Of course, deep down I suspected that was the reason they were going. “What are you hoping to encounter?” I asked sarcastically.

“Marriage Encounter helps turn a good marriage into a great one,” they’d say chipperly, having memorized the tagline of the brochure, which featured the M.E. symbol — a heart above two intertwined circles united by a crucifix. Even though I was in fifth grade, I remember the Sunday evening that they arrived home in our purple Plymouth as if it was yesterday — it changed my childhood from a semblance of normalcy to something otherworldly. My parents pledged their full allegiance to the United States of Marriage Encounter and all of the rites and rituals that came with it. The burden of my adolescence was simple: I was mortified by my parent’s public display of religion.

Marriage Encounter stickers soon made their insidious way into our home. I considered them an infestation as my parents placed them everywhere — on the refrigerator; in the back windshield of the Plymouth, replacing the triple-A sticker à la “Who needs a tow truck when you have the Lord?”; even on the outside of the front door of our house. Whenever any of my friend’s parents drove me home from school and were curious as to what the sticker represented, I would lie and say “It’s for UNICEF; just ignore it.”

In 1982, I turned ten and asked for Michael Jackson’s Thriller album for my birthday; I got Godspell.

What fresh hell is this?

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they inevitably did. That year, our home became the holy headquarters when my parents were elected “team leaders” of the upstate New York chapter of Marriage Encounter. “What fresh hell is this?” I remember asking at the age of eleven when I arrived home from softball practice one spring evening to our living room, full of hand-holding strangers and reeking of Sanka and polyester.

I remember looking around the transformed living room — a sea of strangers smiling at me — hoping my scowl of scorn would fend off a group hug. (It didn’t.) I met the cast of characters who would shape my adolescence.

Father Al: a gregarious Italian priest who had dinner at our house at least twice a week — my Mom and Dad now went everywhere with him. (This would become my personal definition of a threesome: two parents and a priest.)

Tony and Joan: the coolest of the bunch, in that Joan wore tight jeans and Tony swore and smoked cigarettes — certainly not typical of holy rollers.

Frank and “Chickie”: I never knew Chickie’s real name, though I suspected it was probably Mary Frances, Mary Ellen, or Mary Elizabeth. They were the oldest of the group, attended daily mass, and had eight children. Frank said “I love you” each time I saw him.

Ray and Theresa: to me they looked more like twins than a married couple, as they both had crooked teeth and stood no more than 5’2″. Even though Ray gave me money for ice cream or school supplies at each and every meeting, I still had no problem in making fun of his belt buckle, a gold carving of the Marriage Encounter symbol that dutifully held up his pants. “Why don’t we all just go downtown and get the Marriage Encounter logo tattooed on our foreheads?” I asked the group at the beginning of the second meeting. Everyone laughed, except my parents. (I was grounded for a month.)

Hugh and Anne: their daughter Maggie became my idol after I stayed with them one weekend, and Maggie and I were allowed to stay up and watch both The Love Boat and Three’s Company, television shows that were forbidden at home.

Henry and Nancy: soft-spoken and intellectual; Henry was a chemist, Nancy a social worker. Because they didn’t have children of their own, they faithfully attended my brothers’ and my sports games, plays, concerts, communions and confirmations for the next two decades.

I dreaded going to “Charismatic Mass.” It was held once a month and was always longer than forty-five minutes. It featured the polyester parade replete with microphones and guitars, a veritable Catholic Woodstock, minus the sex and drugs.

Yet it wasn’t just the weekly meetings at our house or the many weekends my parents spent traveling around the country, like Deadheads on tour, to attend retreats; it was the lack of what I considered a normal life. I dreaded going to “Charismatic Mass.” It was held once a month and was always longer than forty-five minutes. It featured the polyester parade replete with microphones and guitars, a veritable Catholic Woodstock, minus the sex and drugs. I begged to sit in the back pew by myself, preferably with a paper bag over my head.

They always ended with the couples standing in a circle on the altar, singing the Marriage Encounter song, a heinous spectacle for my twelve-year-old eyes to behold:

“There’s a new world somewhere, it’s called the Promised Land
And I’ll be there someday, if you would hold my hand
But if I should lose your love dear, I don’t know what I’d do
For I know I’d never find, another you…”

The group would substitute the final word of the last line to a resounding “US!” loud enough that it was probably heard in Bangladesh.

I remember scrutinizing the brochure that was stuck on the front of our refrigerator, via a ME sticker. I was grounded (again) after crossing out the answers to the frequently asked questions for new members and substituting in my own. The brochure listed questions such as:

  1. “Is there any age limit?” (No, couples as old as Yoda are invited to attend.)
  2. “Is Marriage Encounter for all faiths?” (No, only those who foolishly collect stickers.)
  3. “What does a weekend cost?” (Only your dignity!)

Pages: 1 2

The Author : Carolyn J. Martone
Carolyn Martone is a graduate of Fordham University and the State University of New York at New Paltz. In 2012 she received a three-month artist-in-residence fellowship to the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, where she finished the screenplay, "Upstate," which is in development for television. She lives in Los Angeles.
See more articles by (16).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Bogie

    We just attended a ME weekend for the first time and despite the interesting content the delivery was very cult-like…we escaped just in time and don’t intend on going back!

  • Tim

    Very touching. I laughed and almost cried. Obviously a story from the heart and dripping with love and lessons of love. Thank you for sharing.

  • CherylK

    This post is both incredibly funny and incredibly touching. I’m stopping by to congratulate you for having this post chosen as Post of the Week from The Smitten Image. Hilary is very selective in her choices so this is indeed an honor.

  • land of shimp

    This was very touching and brought a tear to my eye towards the end.

    I remember being in the car not that long ago with my son, and the car in front of us had a “If the Rapture comes, somebody grab my steering wheel!” sticker on it.

    My son said, “I kind of want to rear-end them.”

    And I, not quite done raising him yet although he is twenty, said that life can be very threatening and confusing. That those people had found their lifesaver in this sea of life, etc. etc. and then ended with:

    “But I still kind of want to rear-end them.”

    I didn’t, of course :)

    I’m so glad your parents had such a wonderful group of friends, who clearly were very loving, but the bumper sticker stuff still drives me insane.

  • Cricket

    Hi Carolyn –

    Wonderful post. I passed it along to a friend (http://thesmittenimage.blogspot.com) who selected it for one of her “Posts of the Week.” Just in case you were wondering what that was about.

    I had a few laughs over this one. My parents did “Cursillo.” Not quite the same, but close enough. I get it. I really do.


  • gaelikaa

    Some things are just not for everyone…
    congrats on POTW mention..

  • gaelikaa

    Some things are just not for everyone…

  • Ann-Marie

    This was such an entertaining look at a throughly wacky situation. You put so much heart into it. Lovely. :)

  • rosiekg

    I was just laughing with a singing friend of mine this morning. She sang “I love you truly” at a funeral recently. I told her, if it was his choice, he would have, as I told her, “some goofy song about never finding another you” at my Mom’s funeral… And then I found this. Beautiful. Heartfelt. Touching. It’s good to know there are other people in the world tortured as I was in my childhood by parents who loved each other. And I love you, too!

  • Ed & Dee Grahan

    We made our Weekend in ’76 and it truly changed our lives. It reminded us of why we got married — to be with each other, not against each other.
    We were involved in leadership in Philly and were going out to speak to couples in a Church to encourage them to make a weekend. Our 12 yr old dtr was really upset, “you’re going to that ME thing again!”
    We sat here down, and said “you knew us before our Weekend, and you know us now. Which way do you like us, — we will become that couple.” She liked us better since our Weekend. “Do other children deserve what you now have?” “Yes.” “Well we are going out to talk to parents so their children can have what you have. You decide, do we stay or go.” “Go” And She never complained about ME again. She and her husband have made a Weekend, as well as one of our sons. We are working on our other daughter and our other son to make a Weekend.
    Great story, by you. We have met so many couples as the ones you wrote about. Much success in your writing, and wish us success as we continue to work to invite couples to make a Marriage Encounter Weekend.

  • Anni of Finland

    I also felt the pain of M.E and the failing marriage of my parents during my early teens. Luckily, despite the effort, it ended up in divorce.

    My dad found his current spouse in M.E. so it wasn’t a total waste of time after all, at least someone got laid!

  • Eileen Marr

    Stumbled on to your site and account of your parents encounter. I read it because my daughters experienced a lot of this stuff when growing up. To read it from your point of view has helped me to understand that they were right all along. My unrealistic expectations of them to join in all the lovey attitudes mustve confused them because they had already experienced love within our family. So what was mum going away to all these retreats. It was the Beginning Experience I went to after my marriage broke up for the second time.I tried to join in all the activities, entertaining others life experinces, wheeping and whailing to Bridge Over Troubled Water. Oh yes I did it all. Till the last evening, when viewing how more than cudly some of the priests and team were! my experience fell appart and I thought what have I got myself involved in now. Catholic Woodstock! What a perfect description I can’t stop laughing. Thanks so much for bringing us back to reality. God Bless

  • Shannon Greenhaw

    I am one of the kids from the above posted guy. (hi Dad, study hard) Loved the artical!!
    Along with our 3ft ME sign in the livingroom, we also had pesonalized M.E. plates on our big green van. My parents had bright yellow shirts with the ME sign and “We are Lovers” on the front and “Pat loves Judy” and “Judy loves Pat” on the back that they wore. I have also never known them to leave in the car without giving the three car horn honk.
    (the one ringers did drive me nuts. To this day I do not get up to answer the phone till it rings twice!!)
    We still talk about the Garrets, Browns, Blumes, Shepards and so many others that were as close as family.
    I grew up thinking that Fr Chuck Gallager was darn near as important as the Pope! I will never forget the National Convention in LA that us kids got to attend. I think it was theamed “Year of the Family”. My parents loved each other deeply and had an unshakable Faith, and I know ME helped shape that.

    Shannon (Cunningham) Greenhaw

  • Pat-n-Judy Cunningham

    What a story. I found out about from your dad. I am now a seminarian with him here at Blessed John XXIII. I am from ND but when we were in ME it was when we lived in Kansas. Our kids grew up in a home just like you. We had a 3ft x 3ft ME sign hanging in our living room. We were the first executive couple for the Dioceses of Salina Ks. It was the most wonderful time in our lives. Our kids now in their 40’s still talk about it with great affection. I have sent the article to them. We believed we could chance the world… and we did. On our headstone will be the ME motto.. Love one another. And next to it will be .. We did.
    Keep Writing!
    Patrick Cunningham

  • Carol Mungo

    There’s a New World Somewhere” how many
    meetings and prayer groups did we sing that song, the laughter, the sharing, the
    weekend planning, the phone calls, busy,
    crazy busy at times, Fr. Chuck and Fr. Harry, Bro. Ben and Fr. Jack, I have to
    admit I miss those times and HDIF dialog.
    Thank you so much for that beautiful sharing Carolyn and thank you Kevin and Winnie for forwarding this to Judy and Al, I love you and God Bless

  • Marilyn

    I smiled; I laughed; I cried. Thank you.

  • twoinlove

    Our kids also grew up as children “of the movement” in both germany and the U.S. They learned to express feelings and ‘fight fair’ and be embarrassed by the public displays of affection that their parents shared. You eloquently shared the gift of love that your parents gave to you. We hope that it will be the same with our kids.

  • Kevin & Winnie Athaide

    As team leaders for several years in upstate NY, we identified with everything written. We remember Tony & Joan & Fr. Al well. Those were memorable years for us, thanks for the memories.

  • Lori

    well-told,accurate,funny and serious- WWME has moved and affected so many and our larger family is one we treasure!

powered by the Paulists