A noted Italian sociologist offers some detailed suggestions to help young couples who are starting out on married family life achieve a stable union of lasting mutual affection.
Looking at the family today, in this era of globalization, means penetrating the social network where we all belong in order to examine its fundamental social good, which is the origin of society itself.
The world scene is worrisome and packed with contrasts. According to recent surveys, matrimony and a stable family life stand at the top of young people's ideals. Women, who today are most likely to work outside the home, declare that marriage and motherhood are their prime aspirations. In contrast, couples often separate only a few months after getting married, and in some European countries as many as 50 percent of marriages fail, leaving behind suffering in their wake, particularly in children. Oftentimes, at the root of these family dramas caused by a variety of factors, the relationship of the couple is widely considered from a superficial point of view.
However, there is also an urgent issue to be addressed in the relationship between children and parents. The family, instead of being the place, as recently defined by Pope Benedict XVI, where "the 'grammar' of peace is learnt through the loving gestures of the mother and the father, even before their words,"1 has often become a permissive environment where the children receive a suite of services and enjoy great freedom, making it harder--in particular for teenagers--to achieve true emancipation.
Another front to the crisis of the family is in the relationship with elderly members, who are often pushed aside and institutionalized. This is painful for them as well as for the new generations, who are missing out on the contribution of values and strong emotional ties matured by the protagonists of past events that have also determined the history of the younger members. The family encounters further difficulties in the social and cultural dimension. The individual is the main point of reference in current policies; as a consequence, the family as a social reality is not taken into consideration. On the cultural front, there is a new language, the fruit of an individualistic and pragmatic culture that is used with the intent to remodel anthropology through science. This analysis refers to evidence gathered from families from around the world, with particular reference to the situation in Western societies. Other cultures are being initiated into the same situations and problems.
At the same time, some fundamental changes are taking place. Luc Ferry, philosopher and former member of the French cabinet, underlines the relevance of the unique relationship that takes place within the family: "Putting aside misleading appearances, the only social relationship that, in the last two centuries, has been deepened, intensified, and enriched is the relationship that unites the generations within the family that is today more authentic and richer in affectivity and solidarity."2
In fact, we can observe a humanizing experience taking place within the family that even enhances the religious dimension of the person on a spiritual path toward transcendence. Within the family, source of our social belonging, trust is born; the ability to cooperate responsibly for the common good in a constant reciprocal exchange takes place. For this, the family is considered today as a primary source of social capital that, once strengthened and enhanced, will generate well-being for the entire social community. If this capital is wasted and weakened, it will inexorably lead to the coming apart of society. A family appropriately motivated and aware of its function brings about a wealth of feelings and energies for the subsistence and the well-being of the social body, which makes it truly a social subject.
Because it is constantly challenged by new difficulties, the family today finds new ways to relate to the culture and the society in which it is immersed. Family associations are one of these ways. This is a heterogeneous phenomenon that is born from a desire to share, to journey as a family together with others, sharing religious and moral values--recognized as crucial for the person--or simply looking to find answers to some aspirations or specific needs. When families get together to share reflections and expectations, often in the light of anthropological or spiritual values, a way of life emerges that contributes to strengthening the values and goals of the family nucleus itself, increasing its capacity on various levels to be a constructive element of society.
The New Family Movement of the Focolare Movement can be considered such an entity that contributes to strengthening the meaning and the function of the family. It is present in many countries on all five continents. It is made up of families and individuals of various cultures and religious creeds, all in agreement that self-giving love is the basic and constitutional good of family relationships. This is a value that is reflected, first of all, in the relationship between the two parents. This is, in fact, where the original encounter of love that made them one is renewed continuously, causing them to experience an ever-deeper unity: craving, fascination, the first and last dream of every couple.
Self-giving love is that strength which, already present from the first meeting,3 becomes concrete in the daily gestures of reciprocal service, in the deep attention to the other, in the gratuitousness. Self-giving love is yet an expression of a constant impulse to make two into one, sharing all they possess and all they are toward an ever richer union among them at every level: body, character, heart, mind, will, soul.4 The self-giving love experienced at the first meeting is one that will remain important even when, inevitably, it will no longer have the exciting initial connotations. It is important because if this intensity of feelings were lacking, nobody would get married. And it remains important because we have experienced that when we love someone, we feel that it is forever, almost as a confirmation that "forever" is engraved in the DNA of human love. The challenge that new families want to respond to is to be engaged forever. In order to achieve this, they dig deep into the teachings of the late Focolare founder, Ms. Chiara Lubich, and adopt a method made up of five secrets, so called because they deal with the intimacy of the couple.
Every family originated on a precise day when two people made a reciprocal and public pact of love for life. They did this because the feeling they experienced, a spark of God's love, pushed them to unite forever. On that day they did not give each other something but gave themselves. With these or other words they told each other: "From now on, I live for you and you live for me. I give my life for you; you give your life for me."
For every couple, this starting point is a subject of great remembrance, full of light. But as time goes by, how many couples keep experiencing the same intensity and strength? The diminishment of intensity is why new families try to renew that pact as often as possible, in order to keep the initial love always alive and relevant, and to seal in God-Love their union on earth. While renewing the pact, it is necessary to eliminate any shade of judgment or pretense. It is necessary to go beyond that small or big resentment "I" experience, beyond anything that could distance me from her (or him) in thought or in action. While renewing the pact I wish, I want to abandon myself in the partner. Then each will have to deal with his or her own business. But it will be as if everything were done together, even if physically far from each other. In renewing the pact, the love of the couple acquires new vigor, meaning, impetus, freshness.
Let us reflect a moment on the communication between two spouses in the light of the pact. My wife is talking to me. If I am ready to give my life for her, I will concentrate with love on what she says, without interrupting her and without thinking of the answer to give. I will listen intently without any prejudice and in total acceptance. But she, also, abides in love; therefore, perceiving how positive is my listening, she, too, will tend to communicate with love and as well as possible her experience and the events of the day as well as proposals and ideas. Even if there might be diverse opinions, the difference is often just an appearance, because if love is what inspires our words, it will be easier to understand the reason for that diversity and to accept it.
To live for the other to the point of giving one's life is not limited to the area of communications. It becomes obvious for the couple to have everything in common: time, money, career, ambitions, worries, and so on. If something is missing on the table, or if, at night, the baby is crying, I will know to be the first one to get up. Daily life becomes in this way a marvelous exchange of gifts. For instance, she will be happy to go visit my parents; she will welcome my friends with joy; she will look after my health as well as after her own; together we will look after our things, our clothes, our home.
I will try to guess her most hidden desires, her wish for tenderness, for fulfillment. In the commitment to be ready to give our life, we also learn to manage the conflicts due to the diversity that any couple soon discovers--just think of male/female--that same diversity that was what attracted us at first, in time is perceived and experienced as insurmountable limits. Only love can recognize the full value of the other person and help us realize that we, too, have limits that require forgiveness. And as the engine is self-giving love, we go beyond any role preestablished by the culture in which we live. This way, we experience true equality between man and woman, which becomes the most complete freedom for each. In this dynamic relationship and communication, it will be spontaneous to also exchange with others how we have tried to live and this commitment to abide in that love that is the foundation of our unity.
The Communion of Souls
With what we have said so far, we understand that a high level of communication is established between the spouses, a trust that extends also into a strong spiritual dimension. In this way we succeed in communicating to each other the small and big inner intuitions, those brief and intense moments of light that at times shine and enlighten us about the profound meaning of life and of humanity around us. They are shared to edify each other, to help each other on the path. In the communion of souls we experience an always deeper knowledge of the other to the point of perceiving his or her authentic personality. Spiritual trust between spouses is not immediate and not easy to achieve, because we know the character of the other or because of some shyness at expressing the feelings of our own soul.
One can start by sharing the state of mind experienced in seeing or living through painful moments or moments of wonder, to then move on, little by little, to share what we have inwardly understood in our sincere quest for the true good. It is important to do this as a gift, without expecting the other to respond along the same lines. The other, however, does not remain insensitive to this type of love, and sooner or later communion becomes reciprocal. In this profound communion, decisions are truly shared. As a matter of fact, it is when it is time to make a choice that, with surprise, we experience unity of mind either because we have the same idea or because we realize that our proposal does not fully satisfy the other and that it is time to let it go. It is not rare that, then, a third idea springs up that satisfies the aspirations of both, the fruit of the love present between us.
The Moment of Truth
Experiencing a moment of truth has nothing to do with those remarks that all spouses make when they see that something is not going right. The moment of truth can be considered the apex of reciprocity in loving that can be reached only after having lived the previous steps. Only then, the dialogue within the couple has reached maturity because the spouses, always abiding in the reality of wanting to contribute to the greatest good for the other, are opened to let each other know the positive and negative aspects of each other's personality.
One needs to know how to speak with sensitivity and respect and how to listen with great readiness, knowing that what is being said is love. Therefore an appropriate preparation is needed, because the moment of truth has to do with sensitivity, psychology, and the state of the soul of each one. It is advisable to start with the positive, explaining well those circumstances that we were pleasantly struck by to help the other understand that our love is attentive to all the nuances, that any attention or commitment of the other comes without the need to be noticed or appreciated.
Then one can talk about some negative aspects. It is not necessary to list all of life's errors. Limit yourself to a few recent things without ever addressing the issue on a personal level but limiting yourself to the facts. For example, do not say, "This is how you are" but rather, "Wouldn't it be better to do this or that. . . ." After a successful moment of truth one can feel such a strong unity that the potential negative remarks are almost more painful for the one who is talking than for the one who is listening. It is a beautiful experience that remains as a point of light in the history of a couple and gives the desire to do it again.
The fruits are the experience of a new freedom and a new enthusiasm for being always more committed to the richness and creativity of love.
At times along the way in any family, there might be a moment in which one needs exposure to some experience not yet lived through. This is why relationships of esteem and trust with other couples in our community that have journeyed further and are more mature are very precious. These are the couples (or individuals) to go to for an exchange of reflections, of perspectives, of expectations or projects. With them you can have a chat, an encounter between a family in search and another that, because further ahead, agrees to listen. Here we can experience the full social force of love. Listening and dialogue are expressions of love, and it will be from this love that light will shine to illuminate the upcoming steps that the couple will have to take.
These five points are "secrets" to achieve unity for a couple; this is a simple method that is helping countless families bloom throughout the world. It was born out of a charism--of the Focolare Movement--born as an answer to the demands of humanity today that feels more than ever the call to unity on every level. The family is the primary form of association in humanity. This is why, with humility but also with strength, it presents itself as the paradigm and a vital contribution to universal brotherhood. It will be interesting to go further in this practice, which can have a positive impact on cultural research and direct institutions and families toward new goals for the fulfillment of the common good today and in the future.
1. Benedict XVI, "The Human Family, a Community of Peace," message for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2008.
2. Luc Ferry, Famille: Je vous aime! Politique et vie privée a l'âge mondialisation (Paris: Pocket, 2007).
3. This observation may be related both to cultural models in which the family is formed on the basis of a direct meeting of the two partners and to models in which the mediation of the families of origin, or of society, can contribute to the formation of the new household.
4. Cf. Familiaris Consortio 19.
Alberto Friso is a professional sociologist. Together with his wife, Anna, he is centrally responsible for the New Family Movement of the international Focolare Movement, founded in Italy in 1943, and a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2009 issue of Dharma World.
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