The crisis of the couple
Useful ideas to not succumb under inevitable challenges

Marina and Gianni Vegliach

Crises in a couple relationship are not always indicative of misfortune, but sometimes they are sign of the need to grow in a more true and generous love. But we must recognize and live through the crises as such, recognizing the early signs of deterioration in order to prevent negative developments, without hesitating to reach out for help in situations which otherwise would be difficult to resolve. This article offers some suggestions, developed during a marriage preparation course promoted by the "New Families Movement" at the Mariapolis Centre in Castel Gandolfo (Rome, Italy). Marina and Gianni Vegliach, married for 43 years, with three children and seven grandchildren, are collaborators with the Central Secretariat of "New Families". Together with other couples - each with specific expertise - they have launched courses to help couples going through particularly difficult periods. These courses are held annually at the Loreto School in Loppiano (Italy).

It might seem strange to talk about crises in the context of a marriage preparation course: you are not only in love, but you have also decided to stake your whole life giving yourself to another to the point that you are preparing to celebrate a Christian marriage. Therefore, you have made a radical choice that involves your whole life and you desire, by getting married in the Church, that God, somehow, be present in your future family. Why then the talk about crises that evoke the specter of difficult days?

We like to remember that the word crisis has its origin in the context of the Greek rural world. This term was used to define the time of threshing the grain of wheat that was separated from the less useful chaff. In time, there was an evolution of the term and today we define crisis as more or less radical or traumatic change that happens in various contexts. We have chosen a distinguished scientist, non-other than Einstein, to tell us how he defines crisis.

Stages of Growth
Even in married life there are changes, developments, and each stage of growth occurs through a more or less conscious, more or less painful time of crisis. Bader and Pearson, two American authors, have formulated a five-stage growth model for the couple inspired by Margaret Mahler’s pattern on the emotional development of the child in relation to the child’s caretaker. This development starts as an initial type of symbiotic relationship with the mother (first months of life) and changes slowly as the child differentiates him/herself from her, and discovers that the mother is someone distinct from him/herself.

Even the start of a two-people story has many features similar to the symbiosis experienced by the child with his/her mother. When we fall in love we idealize our partner: we become inseparable. Often people cut themselves off from their families and friends and they want to spend much time together. They tend to emphasize the similarities between them, neglecting the differences. The purpose of this phase is to establish a bond or attachment.

This phase is short. Some say it lasts a year, some scholars even reduce it to 6-9 months. Then the differences between each other come to the fore; the mutual idealization fades away; some disappointments come up. Each one begins to refocus on his/her own needs. The relationship moves somewhat into the background and one feels limited in one's autonomy.

Like the child who, if he or she is not prepared for separation, cries when his/her mother leaves him/her, in the same way for a couple, if one of them is not ready for this step, he or she attempts to maintain the status- quo of the symbiosis at all costs and every change is seen as a signal of deterioration of the relationship, rather than as a natural evolutionary process.

External factors of crisis
On the path of life of the couple, external causes can also trigger a crisis.

One of the most common causes is a wrong setting of the relationship with their respective families of origin. It is important for parents to feel our love, but it is equally important to establish a clear distinction: the budding couple is a different entity from being son or daughter, and this is a message to be communicated by showing that the two of us together take the decisions that affect us and that we set boundaries so that there is no possibility of interference into the life of the couple.

Even the birth of a first child or perhaps two children close together is a delicate moment: tiredness, sleepless nights ... The woman sometimes forgets to be a wife besides being a mother and the man, feeling sidelined, forgets about his wife's need for attention, affection and support in those circumstances. It is always very important to continue to nurture harmony, unity between husband and wife. This is the real "first child" of two people who have chosen each other.

We could list many other causes that can trigger a crisis: job insecurity that forces constant change, or a heavy workload, a desired child who does not arrive, the loss of a loved one, moving home, etc.

The need to communicate
In fact, crisis for a couple is always born from a deep need for greater knowledge and mutual communion.

Sometimes, in these moments, we make the mistake of not expressing our discomfort to our partner for fear of hurting him or her or because, in our history, we have not learned to communicate mindsets and emotions that cause us pain (e.g. men do not cry; you have to be strong; etc.). So it happens that these emotions accumulate and can cause serious conflicts, until the point where we feel that we made the wrong choice with that person. Today, often, couples separate when they go through these stages.

Indeed, these are valuable moments to achieve full understanding, through the difficult process of getting to know ourselves and the other and, thus, share projects and prospects. Like the child who does not cry anymore when his/her mother leaves him/her because he/she has now internalized that his/her mother will be back, so the couple mutually reinforces the certainty of the other's love that he or she carries now within himself or herself with all his or her being.

Beware of signs of crisis
What matters is to pay attention to the signs of the crisis: as the red warning signal on the dashboard of the car makes it clear that we must go to a mechanic, so we need to ask for help if one or more of the following instances occur frequently:

      Ways to help
      Experience makes us say with almost absolute certainty that it is difficult to overcome these moments of conflict on our own.

      It also happened to me in the early years of our marriage when I saw my love for Gianni, which I had considered previously as the most beautiful, greatest and strongest love that existed on earth, collapse miserably, so much so that I came to wonder why we ever got married. At the same time I did not have the courage to admit this state of affairs even to myself, let alone to talk to him about it. Finally, I shared the situation with an older couple who had followed us during our marriage preparation. It was then that I began to see my difficulties with different eyes; I saw that they were similar to those of many other couples; from that point, a deeper communication with Gianni was established. A renewed communion enabled us to overcome that trial.

      Most of the time simply to network with other couples and more mature families, helps melt many tensions. For more serious situations of crisis, in the last six years we have established a path for helping at the international little city of the Focolare Movement in Loppiano (Tuscany, Italy): a week lived together in dialogue and sharing with other families and experts.

      Sometimes we need to enlist the help of a specialist, particularly if there are serious wounds from past history, but most of the time we have found that in a relaxed climate, one regains the courage to face one's own problems; the couple establishes a deep dialogue between the partners and with other couples; thus it becomes a lot easier to get close to each other again.

      We have seen couples of various ages and from various backgrounds, who had reached the threshold of separation, rediscover in this climate the desire to continuously engage with each other, to find again intimacy and support, and to express themselves without fear of showing vulnerability, losing self-esteem, losing autonomy, or pushing away their partner. And we saw that, having overcome even a serious crisis, they reached the phase of mature love. Loving the other for what he or she really is, with his/her own strengths and flaws. It is the stage when we discover that the other's shortcomings make us smile, when, if we argue, it is about the content and not about the person, when we love the other and ourselves without fear.

      And isn't that already, somewhat, the realization of the passage of the Gospel which is the prototype and the highest achievement of every human relationship: "so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us" (Jn 17, 21)?