How a marriage can be good even after an affair By Nancy Scherzing

FAITH Magazine published Virginia and Nick's story four years ago. Readers told us how this story inspired them to save their marriage through the Retrouvaille program. FAITH went back to Virginia and Nick to go into more detail with their story and share how it feels to help others.

True story: Nick O'Shea's aunt had been married 56 years when Northern Ireland's government proposed legalizing divorce. In the course of a newspaper interview on the legislation, a reporter asked Mrs. O'Shea if she had ever considered divorcing her husband. “Divorce?!” she asked, with a look of horror on her face, “Never!” Then, her face softening slightly, she leaned toward the young reporter and continued in a conspiratorial tone, “But, murder? Many times.”

As she hears her husband tell that story for the thousandth time, Virginia O'Shea can only laugh. There was a time when she identified with her husband's aunt. There was a time when she actually had filed for divorce. Looking back on 47 years of marriage, she could see that six children, two jobs, separate interests and different agendas all posed typical challenges to their relationship. Yet, beyond these stressors, deeper challenges had eaten away at their marriage's foundation – the cancer death of their youngest child, withered marital communication, isolation from one another, years spent married solely for the sake of their children and Nick's two affairs.

Nick's responsible young bride had become a devoted mother, which left her with no time for fun, no time for him. When their 4-year-old daughter, Eileen, developed leukemia, the doctors said she had a 50/50 chance of survival. Virginia threw herself into saving their desperately sick child, fighting against the negative 50 percent chance. Nick, unable to face the thought of losing his baby girl, focused on the positive 50 percent. Virginia's life became a constant struggle for Eileen's survival – taking her for doctor's visits, holding her down for tests, agonizing over the results, wiping away tears. Nick devoted his life to keeping spirits high at home, participating with the older children in Irish Folk Dance competitions, never missing a chance to have fun with Eileen. He began having an affair with a fellow Irish Dancer. Virginia filed for divorce.

By the time the battle against Eileen's leukemia ended with her death at age six, Nick and Virginia were completely isolated from each other.
Though Nick had ended his affair and Virginia rescinded the divorce papers, she didn't trust him and would not forgive him – despite claiming and believing she had. Though Nick wanted to make their marriage better and heal the deep wounds, he couldn't communicate his needs and feelings to Virginia without becoming defensive or angry. They worked with a marriage counselor for six months before the counselor threw up his hands and referred them to a colleague who specialized in helping Roman Catholic couples work through divorce. After seeing this counselor for a few months, Nick and Virginia decided they would stay in their marriage until their remaining children were grown.

For the sake of the children, they spent the next 14 years “in a sham marriage,” as they like to say. Eating together, sleeping together, parenting together, Nick and Virginia O'Shea raised their children and performed all the outward rituals of a happy couple. Inwardly, however, they remained desperately alone.

“There was no comfort. No communication. No meeting of the minds,” Nick explains about those years. “We both had our own agendas, and when we started to talk about needs, we backed off as soon as we encountered any resistance. I'd want one thing and Virginia would want another, so I'd back away from it without ever talking it through.” Virginia agrees, “The only time feelings came out were in anger or defense.

“And I spent a lot of time figuring out how I could get him to come around to my way of thinking, without making him too angry,” Virginia adds. “God knows, I wore a path to the church, crying and asking ‘When are you going to straighten him out, Lord?!' There was so much manipulation, and I never recognized it.”

As their youngest surviving child's high school graduation approached, Nick reached out to a female co-worker who offered him much of what was missing at home.
They began a friendship, which deepened and became an affair. Nick expected Virginia to file for divorce again now that the children were independent. While he was away on one of his many trips to Ireland, Virginia discovered this second affair. She knew it was the last straw. However, though she clearly had grounds to divorce Nick, she didn't automatically file. Instead, she followed the familiar path to their church, and asked the diocese for help. The person who answered her call recommended Retrouvaille – pronounced “retro-vye” – a faith-based program for couples struggling with troubled marriages. The program gets its name from the French word meaning “to rediscover” or “to find again.” True to its name, the program has helped thousands of struggling couples rediscover the reason they married in the first place. Beyond rediscovery, Retrouvaille gives them tools to reconnect with each other and strengthen their marriages. The program is based on three core beliefs: marriages deserve an opportunity to succeed, God's presence can make a difference and reconciled marriage is preferable to divorce.

Couples of all beliefs and stages of marriage are welcome to participate in Retrouvaille.
Follow-up surveys from various programs throughout the country show that about 80 percent of Retrouvaille couples are still married two years after completing the program. These include couples of all faiths, many already separated or even divorced before entering the program.

In November 1989, Nick and Virginia O'Shea attended a Retrouvaille weekend retreat.
To their surprise, they spent the next two days working to try to save their marriage. Listening to facilitating couples who had struggled through unhappy marriages enabled them to feel less alone. Gaining insights into their own behaviors and what prompted them gave them something to think about. Learning powerful new techniques for communicating their feelings without judgment or fear gave them hope. Opening themselves up to the presence of God as the binding element of their marriage gave them faith. They emerged from the weekend with a sense that they could work to save their marriage, and that it was worth the effort.

Over the course of 12 follow-up sessions prescribed by the Retrouvaille program, Nick and Virginia began utilizing new tools to work on their marriage.
They talked to one another honestly about their needs and feelings. They listened openly without judging, rejecting or bringing up past hurts as they had so often in the course of their marriage. Those early sessions helped Nick and Virginia establish a new pattern of communication in which they can talk openly with each other about any situation, stating what each needs without fear or defensiveness. While they once backed off from an issue if they encountered any resistance, now both Nick and Virginia express their needs and thoughts, knowing that their spouse wants to understand and honor that need or idea, because it is essential to their partnership.

The O'Sheas came to realize they each needed to grow in self-knowledge before focusing on correcting their partner.
“When you're in pain,” Virginia explains, “you can't see anything besides your own pain. I was incapable of seeing how deeply Nick was hurting.” She laughs when she thinks back to all her tears in church beseeching God to “straighten out” her husband. Now both she and Nick recognize, and often repeat, “The only person you can change is yourself.”

Now, 15 years after entering the Retrouvaille program, Nick and Virginia O'Shea have logged 12 years as Retrouvaille facilitators.
They share their stories with couples in troubled marriages and tell of their own experience. For example, they say it was a mistake to just stay together for the sake of the children. They recommend couples dig deeper and find additional reasons. In keeping with the Retrouvaille program, Nick and Virginia say divorce is rarely the best choice for couples struggling in marriage. “Nine times out of ten,” Nick explains, “you're going to go out and look for another person with the same traits that attracted you to your spouse in the first place. It's not going to work because you're still the same person, and you never get away from yourself. That's the one person you can change!”

When asked how many marriages they think they've saved through Retrouvaille, Virginia snorts. “Oh, I have no idea. We don't think we've helped them. We believe the Holy Spirit has helped them and that the couples have done the work with God. Our prayer every weekend is ‘Dear Lord, let us stay out of your way,' and we do what we can.”

<Whether they stay out of the way or manifest God's presence, the O'Sheas have changed countless lives through the Retrouvaille ministry. In their years as facilitators, Nick and Virginia have told their story hundreds of times throughout the world. They have established Retrouvaille chapters across the U.S., Ireland, South Africa and, most recently, in American Samoa. They help spread the message of Retrouvaille to anyone whose marriage needs healing. An avid cyclist, Nick has even done several long distance rides – up to 1,400 miles – to publicize the program.

Virginia laughs, “We joke and say Nick would never cycle on the road when I was driving up in the van. I might have run him over! But not now.” Now, when they're not working in Retrouvaille, they often cycle together, meet for picnic lunches, and rest under shade trees reading, watching wildlife or just talking. “There was a time we never thought we'd be in one another's company – let alone enjoy it,” Virginia continues. “God and time have been good to us, but then we worked at our relationship to get here. And it's worth it! We thank God daily for Retrouvaille and one another.”

For information on Retrouvaille, a program for troubled marriages, log onto www.retrouvaille.org or call the Michigan Coordinators in Lansing (517) 669 6631, Detroit (313) 237-6052 or Grand Rapids (616) 752-7004


^