Once upon a time there was a couple who got married and lived happily ever after for the rest of their lives.... That's how any self-respecting fairy tale ends, but is real life actually like this? Statistics tell us that marriage is less and less common in the Western world – especially marriages within the Church – while the number of separations is increasing. It is increasingly difficult for a couple to have a loving, balanced relationship. It seems that the greatest evil is no longer infidelity, but the so-called “roommate syndrome.”
And so, the saying changes... Once upon a time there was a husband and wife who, after a few years of marriage and a couple children, were forced to recognize that their marriage was in shambles – fragments so small that it’s now difficult to reconstruct. They had become perfect strangers, leading two separate lives without sharing anything, except for the house, co-ownership of the children, and possibly a joint bank account. They lived parallel lives. They carried out individual activities without involving their spouse. They no longer talked about deep issues, and above all, they no longer cared about each other. They ate in silence. They didn’t tell each other about their days, and they never asked each other how they really felt. The few conversations, if not for organizational matters, were arguments, often about silly things, which sharpened the differences in character. They couldn’t even look each other in the eye and, if they spoke, an avalanche of mutual accusations would come pouring out. They became completely unaware that by forcing themselves to tell one another what was wrong, they ended up thinking that they couldn’t get out of the conflict… rather, it was just a truce until the next clash.
There are so many stories like this! They’re testimonies of wounded, exhausted, dying marriages that indicate the inability of spouses to make the leap from love to lifelong communion. But why does one come to destroy what had been one's life choice? And how can we try to prevent this pain or heal a relationship that has deeply suffered?
Prevention is better than salvaging. The importance of everyday life
If you end up in the “roommate lifestyle,” it’s essential to recognize the initial symptoms and act promptly and decisively. One must not lose hope that they can revitalize the relationship and fight against any temptation of discouragement and surrender. Above all, don’t get caught up in the popular mentality that separation is the best option. Fight until the end, because "the greater the struggle, the sweeter the victory."
One of the main causes for this end is a lack of daily care for the relationship. Imagine the relationship as a plant that requires daily watering, fertilizing, pruning – and support on occasion. Instead, we get married thinking that marriage will automatically make us happy, diminishing the need for commitment and effort and allowing the “us” to come in second, then third, fourth, and so on… In fact, with marriage comes a new reality: they are no longer two separate entities (two individuals) but a single new identity (the married couple), both emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and not least financially (what you have is typically shared with the whole family). The couple becomes one, while each maintaining their individuality. They find unity in their differences.
Another “disease” is the lack of time spent together. Busy, hectic lives lead to neglecting one’s spouse. We think about work, children, sports, cultivating our friendships, etc., and we take the person sitting next to us at home for granted. We hang out with him/her less and less and therefore understand him/her less and less. We should spend at least 30 minutes a day together, alone, talking about ourselves, our relationship, situations that have come up, and experiences that revive and maintain the perception that being together is a pleasurable experience.
It is also essential to cultivate conversation; couples don’t have an innate telepathy. They must speak to each other, to make the other feel considered and loved. Simple statements, including loving expressions, of course, make all the difference! “Oh, he already knows” feeds the implication of indifference.
True commitment lies in the little, everyday things. By disregarding the daily moments together and taking for granted what the other feels, conversation breaks down. The absence of dialogue, miscommunication, and misunderstandings which begin as just small bumps in the road eventually become an insurmountable mountain.
Community’s vital role
Thus far, we have analyzed what partners should do or not do; but we must remember that a couple is always part of a greater community. The community cannot simply blame marital crises on the couple alone; it needs to recognize its own contribution to the problem. Therefore, it’s important to teach couples the “grammar” of human love. Couples should not only be guided in the lead-up to the wedding, but also in the years that follow. If, from day one, they are supported through any wavering feelings or doubts, maybe they will learn how the house may be built on stone rather than sand – through effort and communication.
And instead, I say this from my own personal experience, they are left to their own devices. It is quite often they themselves who think they don’t need help and are convinced that they can manage things on their own. They don’t ask for advice when the first trials pop up – perhaps out of modesty, perhaps for fear of not being understood… likely because the individualistic and hectic society in which we live doesn’t facilitate dialogue in times of need. Individuality also creeps into conjugality, which, by definition, implies being in two. It is necessary for spouses to learn to face life's difficulties together. Furthermore, being married means being attached to the same yoke. They walk together, united by a yoke that is not a repressive bond, but a bond that gives meaning to their lives.