Gail and Jim are looking into each other’s eyes, taking deep breaths. They’re nervous, sitting face to face, with a therapist next to them. The therapist looks at Gail. 

“Share something you appreciate about Jim,” he says in the deep, soothing tones of a veteran psychotherapist.

There’s a tense pause as she breaks eye contact with her husband to think. 

“Jim,” she finally says, “I appreciate how you’ve supported me, and how you’ve been faithful to me for 37 years.”

The therapist turns to Jim. The husband clears his throat.

“If I got that,” Jim says with the same stilted earnestness, “you said you’re grateful that I’ve supported you and been loyal for 37 years.”

Gail shakes her head. “That’s not exactly what I said.”

Then she repeats what she appreciates, stressing the word faithful this time. And again, as Jim tries to mirror his wife, he uses the word loyal instead. It’s getting awkward. She’s not happy.

The crowd seated around the couple can’t help but snicker. It’s a Friday evening, and there are about 100 couples here. We’re in a high school cafeteria in West Dallas as part of a free, two-day relationship counseling workshop put on by the Oprah-endorsed self-help author-cum-couples therapist Harville Hendrix and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt. Harville is guiding Gail and Jim through a dialogue exercise, reassuring them as they struggle to connect.

Helen is in her early 60s; Harville his late 70s. He’s wearing a striped shirt tucked into pleated slacks. With his dark beard and hairline, he looks like he belongs on a book jacket, donning tweed. She’s wearing glasses and a purple cardigan, and has the demeanor of a kind librarian. They’re both warm, enthusiastic—bordering on cloying.

Before you roll your eyes, you should know: this isn’t about selling books or products or programs. It isn’t about pushing religion. It certainly isn’t about notoriety or money. Harville has been on The Oprah Winfrey Show 19 times. And Helen is the daughter of H.L. Hunt, the richest man in the world when he died. In fact, Harville and Helen have been counseling parents at some of the poorest schools in Dallas, the couples least likely to seek therapy on their own. The vast majority of people in the cafeteria tonight speak little to no English and are wearing headsets with live translations into Spanish. A few of the people here can’t read in any language.

Their goal is nothing short of world peace. As Harville told me before the workshop, “We believe that if we can reach enough people, we can end divorce, end domestic violence, end public crime, and reduce medical bills.” 

This is part of an expansive, ambitious project Harville and Helen have been working on for nearly five years. They bill themselves as social revolutionaries, bringing  “relationship science”—the tools and technologies of couples therapy—to the masses. Their goal is nothing short of world peace. As Harville told me before the workshop, “We believe that if we can reach enough people, we can end divorce, end domestic violence, end public crime, and reduce medical bills.” He has studies showing that healthier families can have a positive effect on all of these things, and he adds: “You can extrapolate that if we had relationship-wellness talk globally, we could end war, but you obviously can’t study that.”

In 2010, Harville and Helen called together relationship experts from across the country: theorists, writers, clinicians, and specialists who vie for the same keynote spots every year and have competing theories on how to help couples. “We wanted to check our egos and logos at the door and come together to educate the public,” Helen says. 

They decided to target a single city, “to raise the joy index” of one major metropolitan area. They picked Dallas because a study at the time showed that it had the ninth-highest divorce rate in the country, and because Harville and Helen both have history here. They’ve been given support from city officials and the Dallas Independent School District to reach parents specifically. (Children of healthy families tend to do better in school, too, Harville points out.) They’re joining with dozens of local mental-health professionals and counseling organizations, and planning massive workshops, open to any couple willing to put in the time. They want to teach basic communication models—helping partners have “safe conversations”—with the belief that better communication will lead to healthier relationships, that healthier relationships will breed healthier children, and that healthier children will bring about a better world.

Harville and Helen invited my fiancée and me to participate in one of the first of these public workshops, and to write about it in advance of a giant event they’re planning for Valentine’s Day. I was intrigued enough by their backgrounds and lofty goals—and Tara, my fiancée, is supportive enough—to at least check it out. And that’s how we ended up watching Gail and Jim, a white, minivan-driving couple married 37 years, squirm and discuss their relationship in a room full of strangers.

Soon it’s clear Gail and Jim aren’t paying attention to the other couples. They’re fixed on each other. Gail says she appreciates that Jim makes her feel safe. She says it reminds her of the feeling she got when she was with her mother as a child. She says she didn’t feel safe with her father. She didn’t feel safe at the beginning of her relationship with Jim either.

“I’m just glad I feel safe with you now,” she says, her voice cracking. “I’m glad we made it. I’m glad we stayed together.”

•••

Tara and I have a good relationship. She’s 29; I’m 32. We met when I was in grad school at UNT. I was her TA. We’ve lived together for six years, been engaged for two. We have a comfortable life: good families, nice friends, a house we like, an adorable greyhound, and some delightful chickens in the backyard. She’s a book editor and a freelance writer—she will read and approve of this before you see it—and we both work from home. Occasionally we drive each other to a level of insanity I thought existed only in Victorian novels, but when I travel for work, the hardest part is being away from her.

Between the two of us, we have two degrees in English and two in journalism, so we didn’t think communication was a problem. And though Tara agreed to come with me without much convincing, as the workshop night got closer, she talked about it with skepticism and dread. “What exactly is this thing again?” she asked more than once. “Feelings,” she joked, “sounds a lot like weakness.” (I should also point out that sometimes Tara has to press a wet washcloth to her eyes before bed because an ophthalmologist told her she has a disease that literally prevents her from producing enough tears.)

When we show up to the high school that night, there are signs directing couples with children and couples without children in different directions. Free child care is part of the workshop, and while the parents are learning how to have respectful, considerate conversations in the cafeteria, the children are in other parts of the school going through a similar workshop geared to kids.

Inside the cafeteria, there are large screens set up in front of the painted, cinderblock walls and hundreds of plastic school chairs lined up in concentric rings. We take our seats near the back. There’s Coke, bottled water, and dozens of pizzas from Domino’s. Each of us is supposed to fill out a survey asking us to rank things like how much we love our partners and how often we do things together. Each couple is given a pair of workbooks. There aren’t any in English, so Tara and I flip through ours looking at the pictures, understanding only a few words on each page.

We notice the interesting mix of people, what seems like a broad range of ages and occupations. The men wear polos, hooded sweatshirts, business slacks, wing tips, tennis shoes, and flip-flops. There are women in suits and pumps, in jeans and boots, in sweatpants and sneakers. At least one woman, we agree, is wearing conspicuously out-of-place nightclub attire. Everyone, though, is here to better their relationship.