The Third Option

JOHNSTOWN – For Jenna and Mark*, their one-year-old marriage was already on rocky terrain. The fights were mean-spirited, loud and often. Neither one was listening to what one another was saying and the same arguments kept occurring. The couple was beginning to wonder if they had made a mistake getting married.

“I was getting my nails done and I started talking to Debbie [Pennock] and it all seemed to make sense,” said Jenna about The Third Option, an nationwide, award-winning organization that helps couples build stronger and more intimate relationships.

At first, Jenna said, her husband was reluctant to attend the Sunday night meetings.

“He was a little stubborn in the beginning,” said Jenna, “But now I think he is more into it than I was.”

Debbie and Ken Pennock of Fultonville heard The Third Option through the military.

“My husband is in the Army and he saw one of their presentations and said he wanted to know more about it,” said Pennock, who travelled to attend sessions in Utica.

They went and the couple immediately knew it was something they wanted to be involved in and bring to Fulton and Montgomery counties.

“We all walk into our marriage with our own DNA,” said Pennock. “And couples rarely talk about their marriage expectations and then the problems start and it becomes the blame game.”

Pennock, who retired from Semens on Friday, started the non-profit A Beacon of Love to help military families with their unique challenges. A Beacon of Love sponsors the 14-session Third Option classes at no cost to participants.

Mentored by couples who have all been through the courses and run by Debbie and Ken, the support group meets every other Sunday at the Shirley Luck Senior Center in Johnstown – the center donates the space to the group.

“Everything is strictly confidential and we strive to make our couples feel safe,” said Pennock.

Jenna echoed the same sentiment.

“It is very comforting and they don’t judge you. They make you feel so comfortable,” said Jenna.

Pennock said the on-going sessions offers couples, married or not, the opportunity to turn their relationships around.

“For couples who see only two options – his way or her way – The Third Option teaches the couple skills and techniques they can use to have a healthier and happier relationship,” said Pennock. “The sessions teach the couples how to develop a better understanding, greater sensitivity to their partner and develop trust.”

She said the sessions give the couples tools they can use to have better listening and speaking skills.

“People learn to grown and to communicate,” said Pennock. “The impact is huge on a marriage. Some people chose to come individually because once you understand where you are coming and what problems you are bringing into the relationship, you can work to change how you handle the problems.”

She said the first hour of the two-hour session for new couples involves orientation and the second hour is on the scheduled topic. Once the 14 sessions are over, it starts new, so anyone can join at any time.

Session topics include “Recognizing Childhood and Emotional Baggage,” “Coping with Control Issues” and “Breaking the Hurt Cycle.”

“During the sessions, we try to keep away from the finger pointing and rather than ‘Why are you doing that?’ we show the couples to express themselves in how they personally feel,” said Pennock.

Another benefit, she said, is the couples gain a support group and learn they are not the only couple struggling.”

“In the classes they learn they are not alone,” said Pennock.

Jenna agreed.

“The others couple that go, we can relate to,” said Jenna. “You don’t feel so all alone and everyone talks to you. We all kind of relate to one another and see we’ve all been in the same kind of situations.”

Continuing, Jenna said the way the Pennocks and mentor couples run the program also is what helps make the sessions so enjoyable.

“Debbie and Ken who do the program are awesome,” she said. “They didn’t have to do this and they are giving us something we didn’t have. It’s very comforting and they don’t judge you – they make everything so comfortable.”

Jenna said she has noticed a big difference in her own marriage with three sessions under their belts.

“We tend to talk to each other more instead of just blowing up,” said Jenna. “We communicate better and don’t fight like we did.”

Pennock said the courses give a couple a new beginning in their relationships.

“The legacy a couple leaves their children is important. Are they going to leave them a legacy of fights, arguments and blame or one where the kids see the commitment and sharing and learning to bring it into their marriage,” said Pennock.

She said unlike the original The Third Option sessions, the Johnstown sessions are non-secular so everyone would feel comfortable.

“We chose to keep it non-secular because we didn’t want those who don’t practice [a religion] feel any pressure – we even changed some of the wording so it wouldn’t pressure anyone,” said Pennock, adding each session ends with a quote about respect.

“Each week we come up with something about respect and we close the session with a positive quote on respect,” said Pennock. “The bottom line is we are helping couples to communicate, to work on themselves first and even a couple whose marriage is not that bad can learn something through the sessions.”

The Third Option meets every other week at the Shirley Luck Senior Center in Johnstown from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. For more information, call Pennock at 894-5683.

The following is The Third Option schedule:

Tonight: Coping with control issues.

Aug. 21: Listening beyond the words.

Sept. 4: Appreciating personality differences.

Sept. 18: Recognizing childhood and emotional baggage.

Oct. 2: Handling anger constructively.

Oct. 16: Speaking the truth in love.

Oct. 30: Learning how to fight a fair fight.

Nov. 13: Breaking the hurt cycle.

Nov. 27: Practicing forgiveness and repair.

Dec. 11: Rebuilding trust.

* Jenna and Mark are not their real names.