Syracuse Diocese offers The Third Option marriage program
“Listen to advice and
accept instruction, and
in the end you will be
wise. Many are the
plans in a man’s heart,
but it is the
Lord’s purpose that
by Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer
Lifelong support for marriage is a key effort for parishes and dioceses in the U.S., according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life. The survey found Catholics nationwide involved in preparation for marriage programs, post-marriage programs, celebrations of special anniversaries and workshops to address troubled marriages.
At the time of marriage, partners make a solemn vow to love and care for one another. Love and care requires intentional effort.
Marriage enrichment programs have been developed to teach couples the skills they need to make their marriages strong, satisfying and enduring. Unfortunately, very few couples take advantage of these programs. Most wait until their problems are severe before they seek help.
Whitethunder and Tanya Gomez, parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes in Utica, decided to work on some issues in their marriage two years ago by participating in The Third Option marriage enrichment program offered by the Syracuse Diocese. “We were experiencing some difficulties with disciplining our children and with our own personality differences,” said Tanya. “We didn’t want those annoying differences to become too big and destroy our marriage. We wanted to learn how to work through them. The Third Option has been an absolutely phenomenal experience.”
The Third Option is an on-going interdenominational program designed to build better marriages. It is open to all married couples and can be used as marriage enrichment or crisis intervention. For hurting couples, who see only two options (painful endurance or divorce), The Third Option can provide reconciliation. For other couples, the program teaches the skills they need to have happier, healthier marriages. The program combines skill-building workshops with sharing from mentor couples and a support group component.
The Third Option was created in 1988 by Patricia Ennis, M.S.W., director of Parenting, The Third Option and Separated and Divorced at the diocesan Family Life Education Office in Syracuse. She was inspired to write the proposal for the program after her personal experience with a close friend who was in the midst of a marriage crisis. “I could tell they were searching for something they couldn’t find,” said Ennis. “They wanted their marriage to be permanent but didn’t know how to make it work. I found myself asking, ‘Why couldn’t they make it work? What could their church have done to help? What was it they needed, they never found?’ Eventually the answer began to take shape: what hurting couples need most is hope, a belief in the enduring value of marriage. They need to hear from others who have been through difficult times and made it. They need to know it is possible to work it out. Stories from sharing couples can give them insight and hope.”
Ennis’ proposal called for a support group with sharing couples, but she sensed there was a piece missing. Ennis knew that many couples don’t know the skills that are needed for a successful marriage, so she added several skill-building workshops. Ennis completed extensive research while determining which skills needed to be included in the program. The workshop topics are: Handling Anger Constructively, Ending the Blame Game, Understanding Expectations, Dealing with Personality Differences, Breaking the Hurt Spiral, Communication Skills (Speaking and Listening), Redefining the Power Struggle, Childhood Issues and Emotional Baggage, Building a Climate of Respect, How to Fight Fair, Rebuilding Trust, and Control Issues.
The Third Option program is offered nationwide. In the Syracuse Diocese, the 14-session program is offered every other Sunday night at the Bishop Harrison Center in Syracuse and at The Good News Foundation Marriage and Family Center in Utica.
The format includes an orientation during the first hour at which a mentor couple who has worked through some marriage problems shares their story of hope and explains how to get the most out of the program. “All of our mentor couples are volunteers and have gone through the program themselves,” said Ennis. “They want to give back.”
After a coffee break, a half hour workshop is held on one of the skills. “It’s a state-of-the-art program,” commented Ennis. “The way we teach them is different — it’s interactive. The workshops include skits, games and discussions, which makes the material interesting and easy to remember.”
After that, a second mentor couple shares on the workshop topic. They talk about mistakes they made in the past and what they have learned to do — which works much better — and how much happier it makes them.
At the end of the meeting, each person receives a worksheet with a summary and two self-inventory questions. “I ask them, ‘What one thing do you think you can do that would make a difference in your marriage?’” explained Ennis. The questions are read and quiet time is provided for each person to determine what they will practice between meetings. (No one asks what others have decided to work on. This is personal time.)
At the next meeting, during the first hour (which the newcomers missed because they were involved with orientation) couples share what they are learning and what they are practicing in a support group. “They come back and talk about what they are learning about one another,” said Ennis. “This program is an ongoing process. We encourage them to stay through two cycles. They can come anytime they want and they can come without their spouses.”
The Gomezes are one of five mentor couples who volunteer at The Good News Foundation. The program began last fall at the center and has ministered to approximately 10 couples so far. Originally implemented to reach couples in Utica, couples from as far away as Cooperstown and Saratoga are also participating in the program.
The Gomezes were introduced to The Third Option by a friend who invited them to participate in the program at St. Thomas Parish in New Hartford. Tanya said that she and her husband feel a sense of community with the other couples in the program. “In the sharing of stories, there is a strong bond that is formed,” explained Tanya. “A lot of times in marriage we become disillusioned in our experiences because we think we are alone or we are experiencing something that no one understands. At the meeting, there will be someone who has had the same experience. Third Option is so very worth the time and effort in order for couples to enjoy their marriage.”
Deanna and Pete Pavlacka have been married 33 years and have participated in The Third Option since 2001. “I feel that our marriage would have been in very dire straits without The Third Option,” said Pete. “It has improved our communication immensely. We’ve come a long way on some of the issues we had when we first came in.”
“I had a lot of anger issues and I needed to learn how to deal with our personality differences,” said Deanna. “We came from different family styles. Pete comes from a family of two children who grew up New York City and I came from a family of six children who lived in the Midwest farm country.”
The couple tried to resolve their issues with private counseling but they weren’t satisfied with the outcome. Deanna also looked into marriage enrichment programs and Pete listened to the results of the research that their neighbor had done on marriage enrichment. “When I looked into The Third Option and heard about the 14 skills that we could work on one at a time, I thought it was something that was worth trying. When we went to our first meeting, we felt we were in the right place,” said Deanna.
The Pavlackas have served as an orienting mentor couple for the last five years. “When we do our orienting I point out the changes in our marriage,” said Pete. “We tell them we’re a work-in-progress,” said Deanna. “The intent of the program is to change yourself and to learn good skills.”
Karen and Michael Patrick, parishioners at St. John’s in Liverpool, have participated in two cycles of 14 sessions of The Third Option and have just recently completed the training to become an orienting mentor couple.
Both feel immeasurable gratitude for the program. They had separated and were about to get a divorce before entering the program. “I look at my husband now and think he is the most wonderful person,” said Karen. “I thank God I didn’t go through with the divorce — it makes tears come to my eyes. I would never have these feelings if I hadn’t gone through The Third Option.”
The couple struggled with personality differences and control issues. “Karen thought I wanted to control her and I thought the same about her,” said Michael. “I badly wanted to fix our problems but I didn’t know how to change my behavior. Third Option gave me the skills to change. Learning communication skills was the most helpful and the understanding expectations workshop was the most powerful for me.”
Michael said he and Karen enjoy keeping their relationship in top-notch shape. “What a difference it’s made,” said Michael. “Now there’s less arguing — our problems are resolved according to the practices we’ve learned. God saved the marriage and Third Option is
what makes it work.”
“I consider The Third Option a ministry and a gift to our diocese, our community and to married couples,” said Ennis.
For more information about The Third Option, call Patricia Ennis at the Family Life Education Office at (315) 472-6754.