Joseph Albino, Catholic News Service


SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Third Option Program had its beginnings in the mid-1980s when it was founded by Patricia Ennis to save troubled marriages.

It was operated under the auspices of the Family Life Education Offices of the Syracuse Diocese and now has spread throughout the United States and to foreign countries.

The catalyst for Ennis to start such a program were the remarks a close friend made to her.

“The first was, ‘Where is the Church when you really need the Church?’ she recalled.

Her friend maintained that while the Church teaches marriage is ideally a permanent arrangement, she somehow felt the Church wasn’t providing support for her and her spouse when they were experiencing marital difficulties. In fact, the friend felt that if the Church had had a support system in place, the outcome to their marital difficulties might have been different.

The second remark that Ennis’ friend made to her was that now and then this friend would meet someone she and her husband knew. And that person would say, “My spouse and I also had some really tough marriage problems, but we’re OK now, and we are praying that matters will work out for you, too.”

‘Back from the Brink’

So, Ennis, who has a master’s in social work from Syracuse University, concluded hurting couples needed to hear from other couples who had successfully overcome marital difficulties. She called them “Back from the Brink” mentor couples.

Ennis wrote a proposal for a marriage education program and shared it with Father Robert Yeazel, who at the time was her pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville, New York. Impressed with her proposal and seeing it could fill a real need, he encouraged her to pursue it.

The main point of her proposal called for an ongoing support group for hurting couples who would benefit from hearing from the “Back from the Brink” mentor couples, who could provide testimony to their marriage problems, how they had worked them out and were now happily married. In a word, these couples would be a sign of hope.

Her pastor wrote an introductory letter for her to the priest who was then head of the diocesan Family Life Office, Father Joseph Phillips.

After Ennis received grant money to put her program in place and she went to work at the Family Life Office. Beyond bringing mentor couples together with hurting she couples, she wanted to give the later couple more practical, concrete help through skill building. She developed 14 workshops to be incorporated into the program.

The Third Option finally came into existence after a four-year process of developing a proposal and getting funding. Since then, the Third Option has been continuously refined.

Why it’s the ‘third option’

Ennis explained she decided to call her program the Third Option because she felt the “first option’ was for a couple to continue to live in an unhappy marriage. The “second option” was for a couple to end their marriage and to divorce. The “third option” was for a couple to resolve their differences and to live a great marriage.

In the beginning to find the “Back from the Brink” mentor couples, she asked pastors and marriage counselors to refer couples to her. She also asked couples who could help hurting couples step forward by placing advertisements in Church bulletins. Gradually, such couples began to offer their services.

Couples attend a weekly meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. Each meeting focuses on one of the 14 workshops Ennis developed. The topics of the workshops are recycled; couples are encouraged to participate in each workshop twice. All participating couples operate strictly on a first-name basis.

During each meeting there is time for sharing, for reflection and for goal setting. There also is a half-hour workshop session within the meeting with games and skits and with volunteers from the group to demonstrate concepts, such as self-respect or control. There is a question- and-answer period as well, and the group also breaks for three 10-minute informal periods.

Meetings open with a spontaneous prayer and close with the Serenity Prayer.

There are always two “Back from the Brink” mentor couples at each meeting. When couples are new to the Third Option, they receive an orientation from one of the mentor couples.

Helps the whole family

Ennis has found that each time a marriage is improved as a result of a couple attending the program, the whole family benefits from the improvement.

A typical comment she hears is: “You know we realized our marital difficulties were affecting our children, and we now notice how much better our children are behaving.”

According to Ennis, Third Option participation also helps to break a family cycle of marital problems. If a Third Option married couple’s own parents were divorced, they haven’t learned good relationship skills from them.

When Third Option couples learn new relationship skills at the meetings and begin practicing these skills at home, they’re breaking a generational cycle, she noted.

Many Third Option couples who have sought marriage counseling and have found it to be a rewarding experience talk about their marriage counselors in a positive light during the meetings — which then leads some couples at these meeting to see marriage counseling as still another way to improve their marriage.

Editor’s note: For more information about the Third Option, contact Andrea and Mike Buckley at 855-624-9476 or visit the website