LAFAYETTE - Sometimes married couples need time away from distractions and tensions of everyday life to revitalize their relationship. No children, no in-laws, no 9-to-5 “nattering nabobs of negativism” allowed.

That’s one of the reasons behind Worldwide Marriage Encounter, which bills itself as “the largest pro-marriage movement in the world” and frequently holds events in Louisiana.

There was a weekend for husbands and wives earlier this month at the Abbey in Covington. Another is scheduled for November in Baton Rouge.

Three Lafayette couples - Herb and Mary Ellen Boasso, Tony and Marcie Marty, and Mario and Maria Benoit - recently discussed their experiences in learning how to better their relationships by attending this marriage enrichment program.

The Boassos attended their first Marriage Encounter Weekend in 1976 while Herb was stationed with the Air Force in the Washington, D.C., area.

“One of my golfing buddies had gone on one and came back very enthusiastic about what they had done for his and his wife’s relationship,” Herb Boasso said.

“I had already seen the brochures in church and thought, ?He’ll never want to go,’ but I was surprised, he did,” Mary Ellen Boasso, 65, said.

Today, Herb Boasso, 66, is a retired Air Force colonel who serves as principal at a school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. His wife is a retired homemaker. The Boassos have three children, ranging in age from 35 to 43, and four grandchildren.

The program emphasizes communication between husband and wife who book a weekend away to concentrate on each other, but organizers caution that it is not a substitute for counseling.

“The Marriage Encounter Weekend is a weekend that’s for good marriages, that is, to make good marriages better, and that’s exactly what it did for us,” Herb Boasso said.

“It kind of knocked the dust off of what was a nine-year marriage at the time and just gave us (communication) techniques and ideas and concepts that we’ve used for the next 35 years after that.”

The Boassos have since served as weekend presenters in such places as the Washington, D.C., area; Hawaii; the Montgomery, Ala., area; and Louisiana.

“It’s been great for us, but we also see it as a way to help others enrich their marriages and make the world a better place,” he said.

Typically the weekends begin Friday night and end Sunday afternoon, Herb Boasso explained..

Some 14 presentation sessions are held with all the couples gathered in a big conference room.

At the end of each session, couples go back to their rooms to consider what was presented and to share with each other their thoughts and feelings about the topic before returning to the conference room for another presentation.

The Marriage Encounter Weekends are limited only by the size of the facility where they are held.

“We’ve presented Weekends with as many as 38 couples on it ? and then some facilities that we use you can’t get any more than 19 or 20 couples in there,” Herb Boasso said.

Mary Ellen Boasso noted how a priest is involved as a weekend presenter for Catholics.

“We see the priest as being part of our marriage - not that particular person, but he represents Christ ? it’s not just us - Christ is the head of our marriage,” she said.

Herb Boasso agreed. “If God is not a part of your relationship, then your relationship isn’t as good as it can be.”

Tony and Marcie Marty

Instead of celebrating their seventh wedding anniversary by going out to dinner - what Marcie Marty calls “the regular ole thing” - the Martys decided to do something different.

They were living on the West Bank of New Orleans at the time and chose to attend their first Marriage Encounter Weekend.

“I had known my parents had gone to a Marriage Encounter Weekend in the ‘70s and ? it had brought them closer together,” Marcie Marty said.

“We had no children at the time,” she said. “Our time was focused on our careers and taking care of many family members who needed a lot of health care, and so our marriage always came after the needs of sick parents and grandparents and great-aunts and uncles.”

The Marriage Encounter Weekend helped them embrace the need to reinvest in their marriage, Marcie Marty said.

“Our relationship was reignited, and we felt more comfortable realizing that we had to focus on one another, not just everyone that had needed us at the time,” she said.

Today, both now 42, they have four children ranging in age from 3 to 12. He is an outside salesperson, and she is a homemaker.

The Martys have hosted after-weekend sessions with fellow Marriage Encounter community couples to continue developing the dialogue skills learned as well as to enjoy a social time together.

“When we left the Weekend, it really changed our focus and renewed our commitment to one another and to our church, but it also gave us an opportunity to meet couples that had similar values,” Marcie Marty said.

While God is presented as the focus for successful marriages in the program, online sources cite “many faith expressions of Marriage Encounter Weekends - Catholic, as well as several Protestant denominations.”

Tony Marty described what typically happens as the presenters lead.

“They basically espouse topics to the group ? concerning money and listening and sex and all of the, I guess, pitfalls that can come to married couples,” he said.

“You can discuss each other’s feelings on these topics as an individual married couple,” he said. “It’s very intimate amongst the couples that are attending the weekend.

“It’s how you communicate, it’s how you hold onto your intimacy with one another and not let, as we say, let ?the world’ put a wedge between you and separate you with kids and in-laws and money and finances and those types of things,” Tony Marty said.

Marcie Marty added, “These are universal truths about love and respect and communication and building a strong marriage so that you have a strong family.”

While Marriage Encounter Weekends are for couples to strengthen already good marriages, husbands and wives whose marriages are in trouble can check online for help with a spin-off group at http://www.retrouvaille.org, and for couples preparing for matrimony, there’s http://www.engagedencounter.org.

Mario and Maria Benoit

“I would consider myself a Marriage Encounter kid,” said Maria Benoit, a 44-year-old insurance agent.

She and Mario Benoit, an architect who is also 44, are rearing five children (two adopted) ages 12 to 18.

“My parents made the Marriage Encounter in 1977 or ‘78, and then they participated and even went to a national (event) in Seattle, Wash., and had a wonderful time.

“When I was a teenager, which is a very formative time, I got to see what this group did, not only to my parents’ relationship, but the positive impact it had on my family,” Maria Benoit said.

Her parents integrated some of the Encounter’s communication techniques into their family, even to “have a family meeting every Sunday” to use the discussion skills.

During the 1970s, when the Marriage Encounters were especially popular, her family even attended Family Encounter sessions, Maria Benoit said, adding she grew up wanting to model her marriage on what her parents’ relationship was like.

The Benoits were married for seven years before attending their first Marriage Encounter Weekend in 1998, and a year ago attended a “renewal” meeting.

Each weekend becomes about whatever is going on in the relationship at the time, she explained. “It’s kind of like when you read the Bible - every time you read it, there’s a different story that comes to you, depending on what’s going on in your life.”

Their relationship “gained so much in that first time,” she said. “And then the second time we were in a different place, a different world - our kids weren’t babies anymore.”

Mario Benoit said that, “Your relationship with your spouse should be a daily endeavor into not just ?How’s the weather?’ but ?How are you feeling?’ or ?When you did that, it really made me feel this way.’ It deals a lot with feelings.”