PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. - Twenty-nine couples with the 198th Infantry Brigade laughed their way to a better marriage Nov. 20-22. Sponsored by Strong Bonds, a chaplain-led program designed to enrich and strengthen marriages, the weekend retreat centered on the theme of laughter with Mark Gungor's "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage" teaching curriculum.
"He pointed out stuff we never thought about looking into ... like my nothing box," said SSG John Massey on Gungor's theory that each man has a space in his brain where he can truly think about nothing.
"Oh, he definitely has something like that," said John's wife, Laura. "(When) he gets home from work, he just immediately goes into that. But now I understand why he goes into it. I'm not going to push so hard."
Laura said the presentation was interesting and recommends it to every married couple.
"We thought of it as time away together to make things better," she said. "We all go through the same obstacles, the same deployments. You don't have to have problems to go to a marriage retreat."
A marriage influences other aspects of a person's life, like kids or career, so it's important to keep it healthy, said John, a drill sergeant with 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.
"It affects everything in your life," he said. "If you're happy with each other, you're going to be a lot happier with everything."
Gungor's program covered a variety of marital facets, from communication and conflict resolution to romance.
"The way he presents it in the videos, it's hard to walk away," said Chaplain (CPT) Andrew Ropp, who facilitated the retreat. "You could turn the lights out and you could heat up the room, and no one will be sleepy."
Tools learned at the Strong Bonds retreat have real application, especially for military couples, he said.
"With all the deployments, the family separations ... Soldiers are faced with challenges in their marriage relationships that are unequalled in most civilian sectors," said Ropp, who has been married 24 years.
"I've had a number of couples who've come to me and said the things they learned at this (retreat) have really made a difference in their marriage relationships. Some have said it has even saved it."
Gungor's video series, titled A Tale of 2 Brains, is just one aspect of the weekend. Couples also completed an online personality test to learn more about their spouses. The result was a "flag page" showing the talents and interests important to them and a detailed write-up of how those characteristics affect their behavior.
"These things that are unique about us as individuals are easily things that can get in the way of us getting close to each other," Ropp said, explaining the flag page to the couples after they had finished the online quiz. "They become points of conflict that we argue and debate and fight over."
If both people in a relationship consider each other's unique differences with love and respect, those differences can be the "glue" that binds them together, he said.
In the third portion of the retreat, couples were allowed personal time to reflect on what they had learned and discussed. Professional care providers provided an on-site kids camp with plenty of activities for children, so parents could enjoy time alone.
That was the most important part of Strong Bonds for 1LT Kafui and Vivian Avotri, they said.
While Kafui serves as the executive officer for B Company, 1st Battalion, 330th Infantry Regiment, Vivian and the kids live in Canada with family.
"You come here and you don't have to worry about anything besides being together. Your only responsibility is to be a couple," said Vivian, who was recently separated from her husband while deployed.
"We've been married three years, and I think sometimes we take it for granted that that person is there for you," she said. "I think (Strong Bonds) taught me I have to appreciate the marriage, and I have to appreciate my husband. I think I have a renewed sense of my own marriage."
The 198th Infantry Brigade typically completes about six Strong Bonds retreats each year. Accommodations at the Bay Point Marriott Resort, meals, the kids camp and marriage-related books are included free of charge for military couples who need only pay for transportation.
Strong Bonds is Armywide and many units on post participate in the program. For more information, call the Chaplain Family Life Center at 706-545-1760 or visit www.strongbonds.org.
"It's a safe environment," Vivian said. "Everybody's laughing. There's no pointing fingers. You can't lose."