Marriage Enrichment in an Orthodox Parish

By Fr. Andrew Harrison

The problems of marital disharmony and divorce so common in our society have not left Orthodox parishes unaffected. Our Church is now facing these issues which other faith groups have been dealing with for a number of years already. Orthodox Christians, looking to the Church for help in these matters, too often find that clergy either give inadequate advice or send them to secular counselors anyway.

This article is intended as an initial exploration of the problem priests face in dealing with today’s marital conflicts and as an encouragement for priests to consider a marriage enrichment program as one means to help parishioners in this area. It is for parishioners as well, who would like to be of help or who are themselves looking to their Church for help.

To answer the question, “Why is marriage enrichment needed?” it is necessary to understand why there are so many people who are suffering from marital dysfunction. Either they are extremely dissatisfied with their marriages or they have suffered through divorce, possibly more than once. They are still having difficulty developing an intimate relationship, described by Saint Paul as “mystical oneness.” One must recognize that fundamental changes have occurred in the secular understanding of marriage.

Historical Perspective

Historically, marriage became institutionalized with the male in a dominant role, possibly related to a primitive understanding of procreation. The male possessed the seed deposited in the female for incubation, as corn is planted in the earth. The submissive role of the female is supported by numerous biblical references. The interpretation of these references is debated by many Orthodox theologians. It is the general opinion that male dominance from a biblical standard is related to order rather than power, as it is in the Trinity. God is the head but the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal. Hebrew, Greek and Roman culture supported male dominance by law. The husband had supreme life-and-death power over the wife as well as the children. Conflict was avoided because power was not shared.

The Church adopted the traditional male-dominant role even though equality of power was being taught theologically. The purpose of marriage was for the procreation of children, to control sexual license, and for companionship. While acknowledging all these purposes, the Orthodox wedding ritual places companionship as the prime purpose of marriage.

Legal and religious control of marriage and the family began to disintegrate at the beginning of the 20th century. This cultural revolution has created a state of bewildering confusion. The traditional family system with its built-in order is no longer enforceable. It cannot compel obedience. Even its traditional functions have been taken away. The building of homes, making of clothes, growing of food, recreation, education, secular and religious, as well as moral, all take place outside the family. Homes are empty on weekdays with both parents working while children are either at school or at day care. It has become rare for all family members to be home in the evenings or on weekends. Even leisure time activities are fragmented because of the difficulty of gathering the whole family.

It is no wonder that marriages are crumbling at an ever-increasing rate. The viability of marriage as an institution has been seriously threatened by experiments in alternate life styles. The trend may be slowing, but the misery and pain of unfulfilled marital relations continue.

Christ blessed the institution of marriage, and yet many people, both clergy and lay, fail to find fulfillment in “mystical oneness.” The purpose of marriage enrichment is to find out why. One important reason which has been discovered is the changing purpose of the family itself. Years ago, in a mainly hierarchical culture, the family’s purpose was to maintain social order. This led to closely-defined roles in marriage with little room for growth or change, according to Ernest Burgess who wrote about marriage in the 1940’s. He saw a new kind of marriage developing, in which companionship would be the main emphasis. This would lead to more fluid, creative, loving relationships in the family; there would be richer and deeper communication between husband and wife, parent and child. Since, as we have noted, companionship has always been seen as the main purpose of marriage by the Orthodox Church, we might say that while the purpose of marriage enrichment is for most people, to learn how to have this new kind of marriage, its purpose for Orthodox people is to learn how to have a truly Orthodox marriage.

Organizing a Marriage Enrichment Program

Organizing a marriage enrichment program in a parish can be one of the most exciting and stimulating programs for Church revitalization, but it cannot be a “do it yourself” program. The reason for this is that it requires a leader who has some experience in working with couples. It has been said that marriage enrichment can make good marriages better, but it also can bring troubled marriages to a crisis. The organizer of a marriage enrichment program has little control over who attends. This should not frighten anyone from attending. Even the most troubled relationships can make progress. The leader should have experience and knowledge in order to refer troubled couples for proper counseling.

A marriage enrichment program can take any of three basic forms: the intensive weekend retreat, the one-day seminar workshop, or the eight-to-ten-session study group. I have led both the intensive weekend retreat and the one day seminar workshop. (Being a parish priest limits the time available to do retreats longer than one day. This is where a trained lay couple is more ideally suited to lead these retreats). In this article the intensive weekend retreat will be described. The one-day seminar is a modification of the weekend retreat designed for larger groups. The ten-session study group provides the most lasting change but requires a greater commitment both from the group and the leader. It follows the basic format of the intensive weekend but with far more skill being taught and practiced.

A Marriage Enrichment Retreat


A retreat center with individual rooms for each couple away from the city and any outside interruption. A place where each couple can be alone in a pleasant country environment. This is the ideal, but many successful retreats have been held in other, less conducive surroundings.


Six to twelve couples would be the maximum. With a small group the program can be more flexible. As the numbers increase the program will require more structure and rigidity.


A trained couple with extensive experience would be the most effective. Both Marriage Encounter Inc. and ACME (Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment) certify facilitators. It would be good stewardship for an Orthodox lay couple to be trained as a resource. A trained clergy couple, priest or therapist could also lead a retreat.


The evening beings with dinner, if possible, and a prayer from the Orthodox wedding service. The group then gather in a large room, partners sitting in a wide circle wearing name tags with first names. The leadership couple introduce themselves and give a short presentation on feelings about attending the retreat. This concludes with a discussion of objectives and rules about voluntary sharing and avoiding confrontations.

To help the group get acquainted, the leaders ask each person to introduce his/her partner by name and give one or more examples of admirable qualities in the partner. Then each person is asked how it felt to talk about the partner’s qualities.

The lights are dimmed and the leaders guide couples into a remembrance of their first meeting, courtship, wedding and other peak events in their marriages. The group then discusses the feelings that come from remembering these experiences.

The group breaks so each couple can work on a drawing with crayons that in some way expresses their relationship with each other. Returning, they share the drawings with the group. The purpose is to help the group get to know each other more intimately. In the final activity before evening prayers, each couple is asked to compile a list of four things in their marriage which make them happy, pleased, or satisfied, and four things that could be better. The partners then share these lists with each other.


The day begins with Matin prayers and breakfast. After breakfast the couples are told that the day’s program will be built around their special interests and concerns, and are asked to privately discuss and generate a list of issues to be put on the agenda. After ten minutes the couples call out the issues which are then listed on a blackboard. From this list the group decides the order of priority on the agenda. Examples of issues would be male/female roles, quarrels, expectations, decision making, use of time, working wives, etc. A volunteer couple is then asked to dialogue about the number one issue with other couples listening. After each couple who wishes to volunteer has finished the issue, it is opened up for group discussion. About twenty minutes before lunch, a marital self-evaluation inventory is handed out. (The inventory sheets as well as other materials called for are available through the training groups.) Each person is asked to fill out the inventory. These inventories will be shared by the couple after lunch for one hour in private dialogue.


When the group gathers, an open discussion is started by the leader couple on the results of the hour of private dialogue. There may be some teaching and instruction by the leader couple. The group then returns to selecting issues from the morning agenda list for discussion using the same morning session format. The afternoon session concludes with Vespers.


When dinner has ended, the group gathers and deals with yet another issue from the agenda list. The Saturday program ends with the following exercise: In a more romantic atmosphere of dimmed lights and candles, couples sit facing each other, hold hands, and privately and warmly talk about what they appreciate in each other. The exercise closes with a prayer led by the leaders. The last couple leaving extinguishes the candles.


The day begins with Divine Liturgy and a special prayer service for a re-commitment to marriage. After breakfast the couples gather to finish the final and most important exercise of the retreat, the creation of a “caring days” inventory list. This list will help the couples develop lasting behavioral changes. They are instructed on a special form to list the caring behaviors that they would like the other to use. The behaviors are to be positive and specific, i.e. take the trash out without being asked, kiss me in the morning before I go to work, take me out once a week. It is this list that the couple will take home from the retreat and begin to practice. They are told to practice one or more of these behaviors for their partner each day, with the partner to acknowledge and encourage the behaviors. Nothing is forced or demanded. The list is to be modified and increased as part of sharing in a 10-minute daily dialogue. The retreat closes with a dismissal prayer.

List of Resources

Mace, David. Close Companions, The Marriage Enrichment Handbook, Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 1984.

Dinkmeyer / Carlson, Time for a Better Marriage, American Guidance Service, Circle Pines, MN, 1984.

Stuart, Richard B., Couples Therapy Workbook, Behavior Change Systems, Inc., 1983.

Retreats, Seminars, and Workshops

Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment, Inc.
459 South Church Street, P.O. Box 10596
Winston-Salem, NC 27108 (919) 724-1526

National Marriage Encounter
7241 N. Wipporwill Lane
Peoria, IL 61614

V. Rev. Andrew Harrison is the priest at St. Innocent Church in Tarzana, California. He is a Certified Marriage and Family Therapist, a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, and a Leader for Training in Marriage Enrichment.