Struggling in your marriage? Think of Mother Teresa and don’t give up

When the early infatuation is gone, work on the will and intention to succeed.

“She’s exaggerating!”

That was my first reaction while reading an article by a French psychologist, who is also a marriage counselor, about how to get a marriage out of crisis and deal with the difficulties in a relationship. She wrote it some time ago, on impulse, after the canonization of Mother Teresa. Her reflection is strikingly simple, and at the same time she makes you think.

“I’m sure you’ve heard this sentence often: ‘We are getting a divorce because we want to be honest. We no longer love each other …’ It seems logical. After all, it is good to be honest, right?” writes Bénédicte de Dinechin. “And then the Church canonizes a good little woman, and we find out some truths about her life, and one of them seems totally incomprehensible. Well, St. Mother Teresa lived 50 years in the darkness of faith. For half a century she never doubted the existence of God, but she never felt her faith deeply, the way mystics do. (Mother Teresa died in Calcutta on September 5, 1997, at the age of 87 years. Ten years later we found out from the 40 letters she left behind that for half a century she experienced conditions which she herself called ‘moments of darkness’).”

What do a struggling marriage and Mother Teresa have to do with one another? Bénédicte quickly draws a courageous comparison to show how closely related they are: “Even though she never felt her faith deeply, Mother Teresa did not ‘divorce’ the church. She didn’t leave her Order, didn’t want to give up her vows. She remained faithful. I will stop my comparison right here. I wouldn’t want to abuse it or betray this incredible woman in the name of the idea of a lasting marriage,” writes Bénédicte.

Love and infatuation

Bénédicte de Dinechin often raises the issue of marital crises relying on real-life stories. Things she learned in her neighborhood, among friends and neighbors, and discussed with colleagues. She boils them down to simple conclusions, looking for solutions in the spirit of kindness and good will.

Rare and iconic images of Mother Teresa

To those who are disillusioned with their union, she says, “I understand your sadness, discouragement, misunderstanding, frustration, doubt, and dilemmas. I also believe we are made to be happy, but it is easy to lose your way, and create misunderstandings with too hurried statements and then get stuck. We also often succumb to a very common but false concept of love, which brings confusion and leads to unhappiness because it ‘sells’ dreams. Do not confuse love with infatuation. It has the charm and elusiveness of a sunset. We are its observers, we would like it to continue, but it passes.”

According to Bénédicte, what determines the beauty of life together is a will, and desire to love. And she argues that it depends solely on us. We learn it from our earliest age, when we share a lunch with a friend in school, or when we take part of a vacation to work as a volunteer and not only to have fun with friends. And that will and desire only get stronger each time we follow the right path in a difficult situation.

Hold on

So what should we do when we see the light in our marriage dim, and we move away from each other? For starters, it’s good to put some effort in the daily work of being with someone – this is advice we often get from therapists and psychologists. John Gottman, a guru of psychology who together with his wife runs a very successful couples therapy enterprise, offers several effective steps – simple truths worth remembering. Let’s all try them:

1. Refresh the map of your love

It is the foundation of a union. It simply is an emotional insight into the life of the other person. “Do you still know what he feels when you are together, what he misses, what he fears, what disappoints him?” asks Gottman. “What emotions tug at him at work and in his relationship with extended family and friends? We change, grow up, struggle with the gray everyday life; it is important to look at each other, not just look together ahead. That too, of course, but without exaggeration.”

2. What do you admire him for? 

We all need acceptance, but also a little admiration. Yes, admiration! Appreciation for who we are. If we do not show interest in each other, the temperature between us will fall. Gottman talks about research that shows the happiest and longest love stories are those in which the spouses admire each other for something. It doesn’t matter that sometimes this admiration goes against logic, it does not mean it is dishonest. I thought of my friend, who I swear cannot sing, and yet her husband proclaimed, “When Ania sings that chorus, it’s awesome!” A little case of Florence Foster Jenkins.

3. Offer something, and don’t wait

Offer something good to eat, something to read, something funny you heard … Is there something he could help you with, or give you? An exchange of intangible goods is essential.

4. Respect

Don’t interrupt or criticize, listen to each other. But there’s more. You need to recognize that aside from your togetherness, each of you also has a “private” part, where you are free. Free from judgment, free from disappointing the other side, and where neither of you should have to give up your hobby in the name of a joint life. And most of all, free from power and domination of the partner, unless you want and need it.

“Don’t give up,” says Bénédicte de Dinechin. “Do not give up when infatuation, that loving feeling, disappears. Work on the will and intention to succeed in the relationship. Work on the wish to continue, and seek help with humility; there have never been so many opportunities and places for therapy that can straighten, shape, and repair relationships. Hold on like Mother Teresa and act, and react so that your relationship does not sound dull when it could reverberate life to the fullest,” ends Bénédicte.

Speaking of mystics, I was surprised by Myrna Nazzour, a Syrian mystic of the Church, and who at the same time is a modern woman for decades in a happy relationship with Nicolas. When asked what she would warn young couples of, she said pretty much the same thing as the French psychologist. “Let them not mistake falling in love with love.” And what does she think is most important in a relationship? “Respect, kindness, and acceptance of the other person, not the way we imagine him to be or we would like him to be. Accept him as he really is, and don’t let anyone, especially your parents, interfere in your relationship,” she warned.