While Jim and Jill Serpe were dating, their teenage daughters seemed to get along great. But when they wed in 2000 and blended their families, things did not go as well as they had hoped. They thought that as long as they loved each other, it would be enough to work out any issues they faced as a family.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy for the couple.
“We loved each other, but it was not the loving relationship that we always talked about having,” Jim said.
The Serpes, members of St. William Parish, Waukesha, struggled in blending their family – each had two teenage daughters – and functioned as separate families for years, splitting the family for holidays and special occasions. When the couple couldn’t reach an agreement on their family, they always took the easy way out.
“We tried counseling, we tried a lot of different things – nothing seemed to work, so we kind of gave up basically,” said Jim.
Six years after their wedding day, after some online research, Jim came up with a solution – the Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekend. Worldwide Marriage Encounter, which began in Spain in 1952, is a marriage enrichment program that focuses on enhancing communication between husband and wife.
Jim, 61, scheduled a trip on Valentine’s weekend and gave Jill, 53, the tickets as a Christmas present, thinking he found the perfect romantic gesture. Jill, who had been hoping for plane tickets to a belated honeymoon, was not pleased.
“I opened it up and I started reading this and my heart sank,” she said. “I was less than excited. Actually, a little upset, because my initial reaction was we don’t need to go on a weekend to get counseled.”
Although Jill tried everything in her power to convince Jim not to go on the weekend in Rockford, Ill., Jim insisted they go.
“Looking back, I believe the Holy Spirit was talking to me and for some reason gave me willpower to say, ‘No, let’s go,’” he said. “And she pulled out the tears, I mean everything. Normally, I would have easily crumbled, but for some reason I didn’t.”
When they arrived at the retreat center, it was dark and uninviting. Jill remained skeptical of the weekend until Saturday, when the Serpes’ lives were changed. During a Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekend, couples witness a series of talks presented by three couples and a priest. They are then given time to themselves to reflect on their relationship with each other and with God and the church.
Unlike the group counseling sessions Jill had expected the weekend to be, the weekend provided the couple with an environment where they felt comfortable opening up to each other and learning how to work together to solve issues in their relationship.
“It’s always focused on just the two of you,” Jill said. “There are a lot of times where you go back to your room and you’re sharing just with your spouse. It’s nothing like what I had imagined in my head.”
Their relationship as husband and wife wasn’t the only thing that changed that weekend. The couple built a stronger and better relationship with God and the Catholic faith. Hearing a priest present on the weekend changed their opinion of the church and strengthened their relationship with their priest.
“We learned how to communicate on a totally different level. We learned how to put our relationship first. We learned to put God in the center of our marriage. And we learned how to live our faith,” Jill said.
Coming back from the weekend, their daughters saw a change in their parents’ relationship, especially the daughter who still lived at home. She could see them treating each other with love and respect, and even their communication with her changed. They were finally able to reach agreements as a family.
The couple admitted struggles still arise, but after going on the Marriage Encounter Weekend, they face them in a different way, working together to communicate and find a solution that works for everyone.
Jim and Jill took what they learned on the retreat a step further, and became presenters themselves for Marriage Encounter weekends.
“Our intimacy continues to grow and it changed everything in our life,” Jim said. “We feel we want to give back because there are some couples that helped us and so we want to give back.”
The Serpes rotate with a handful of other couples, presenting during three or four weekends a year for the Madison, Milwaukee and Rockford dioceses.
The couple gives back to other couples not only through Marriage Encounter weekends, but also with smaller scale presentations that focus on helping couples learn how to communicate more efficiently with each other and which are tailored to the needs of interested parishes in their area.
“We believe it’s important to teach others the same tools that we’ve learned,” said Jill. “Unfortunately, in the real world, marriage is so disposable and we want to turn that around to get it back to where marriage isn’t disposable like it is today.”
Jim and Jill recently hosted a presentation in Elkhorn, giving couples who can’t commit to an entire weekend the opportunity to witness a glimpse of what the weekend is about.
The couple’s presentation revolved around Gary D. Chapman’s book, “The Five Love Languages.” Chapman categorizes the way people feel most loved into five love languages: words of affirmation, acts of services, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch.
It is important for couples to discover their own love language and their spouse’s in order to build communication and understanding.
Jim’s love language is physical touch. Whether it be holding Jill’s hand or a simple back rub, he loves being able to reach out and touch his wife. However, Jill’s love language is quality time.
“I like having that time with him, because he’s a workaholic, so for me it’s getting that time even just to take a spontaneous lunch date or him going to the grocery store with me, that’s important to me,” she said.
In order to live out the sacrament of marriage, the couple has learned to pay attention to what is important to each other. In teaching others, they learn even more about their own relationship.
Jim revealed that his favorite part of giving presentations is the opportunity to really see the Holy Spirit working. As for Jill, her favorite part of the weekend is watching other couples experience the same transformation she did on the weekend.
“A lot of them are like me on Friday night and then to see the difference in them Sunday afternoon when the weekend is over, it just amazes me. If they’re open to the weekend, they realize the love and the type of relationship and the intimacy that they can have because of what they just learned on that weekend.”