"Rocks in a Sack," "Fast-paced Construction," and "The Empty Nest Syndrome"

Fr. Pavel Gumerov on the Three Critical Periods in Family Life

Irina Akhundova

Once, during a difficult situation in life, somebody gave me Fr. Pavel Gumerov's cell phone number. In desperation, I called him, and... we talked over an hour, if not two... Later I turned to Batiushka—whom I did not know personally—again more than once, and each time he gave me quite a lot of time on the telephone, offering seemingly simple, but wise advice, which helped me very much. Later I found out that Fr. Pavel is the author of numerous books on family themes (e.g., The Little Church, He and She, Family Conflicts: Prevention and Treatment, Orthodox Asceticism Set Forth for Laypeople, The Keys to Family Happiness, and Common-Law Marriage: The Beginning of Family Life or Cohabitation in Fornication? One of them, The Three Foundations of Family Happiness (in Russian), was recognized by the Press Council of the Moscow Patriarchate as the best book for young people in 2012. Raising two sons, Fr. Paul Gumerov not only manages to serve in the new wooden Church of Sts. Peter and Fevronia of Murom at Maryino, but also to record CDs, give lectures, and hold seminars and talks on the topics of the family, marriage, and moral theology. It is not surprising that Fr. Pavel became the rector of a church named after the heavenly patron saints of family and marriage, for he knows so much about family problems. However, to know is one thing, but to help is quite another...

Fr. Pavel Gumerov Fr. Pavel Gumerov

Fr. Paul, I want to thank you for helping me to overcome the difficulties that began to haunt me right after our daughter finished high school and our long and—it had seemed—happy marriage fell apart. Let's talk about crises in the family.

—Some people hear something sinister in the word "crisis." In Russia now everyone only talks about the crisis as if it's practically the end of the world, that everything is becoming more expensive. According to a survey by the Levada Center, the majority of people now are worried about momentary things—the rise in prices—which have an immediate effect on your wallet, rather than some global issues of the geopolitics happening in the country and the world: the devastation of economics; corruption; a possible war, which, by the way, also leads to a rise in prices. And so, in this crisis people see something negative and dark. "Crisis" is a Greek word that has two meanings. The first meaning is crossing, turning point, revolution. We know what a crisis means in terms of sickness. For example, a person is ill, and some kind of turning point in the illness begins—more often than not, he becomes worse. And the doctors say, "The crisis has begun." After this crisis, the person usually either gets better and is on the way to recovery, or else this illness progresses to a very serious stage. That is, a crisis most often has two sides. The second meaning is judgment. Any crisis is a verification of soundness, an examination. For example, a crisis in family life is a test of what the family has come to in general, what relations we have managed to build. When everything is fine, when everything is quiet, peaceful, splendid, there is no means of telling how much we actually love each other. But then, some hardships come along—for example, a baby is born. I have quite often come across the phenomenon in my practice, where family relations are spoiled with the birth of a child.

Why? It is such a wonderful, happy event in the family, which many, many people look forward to.

—Because, for instance, the wife begins to take offense at her husband: he doesn't look after the child enough, he doesn't help her care for the child—she does everything herself. Or else it seems to the husband that she is all taken up with the baby. Up until this time she had only attended to him and cared for him, but now she has completely forgotten him, poor guy! And what has happened? This change, turning point, or critical condition has checked the family for its soundness. And it has turned out, that not everything is all right. It is a kind of "lice check." Problems have appeared in the family that have to be resolved.

But these problems are also able to strengthen a family. I have witnessed the happy resolution of a very serious, pre-divorce, critical family situation more than once, and remarked that as a rule, when the spouses really succeed in getting out of this situation, they succeed in falling in love with each other again, they begin life all over again and forget all their resentments, they leave all their negative baggage behind, and they build their relationships anew, using the sad experience that they had.

In general, there are all sorts of crises in family life, but I will dwell on the three basic critical periods.


The first period. This consists of the first years of family life, the period of adaptation. For some people it's the first year, for some it's the first three years, for some a little longer—all families are different. According to statistics, most divorces occur right in this period, because of some argument or some mistake. The first year is the hardest. In the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy, there is a passage about the fact that when a man gets married, he is even freed from military service, from participation in military activities, and from certain social burdens and work. In the first year he was supposed to comfort his wife and occupy himself with setting up his home, because this is a very delicate period. Two different people meet, who have to adapt to each other and learn to cooperate with each other, to trim the rough and ragged edges. Fr. Iliya Shugaev cited an example: "When you put two rocks into a sack and begin to shake the sack, either they get ground down and become smooth—they are rolled around until their edges are rounded, or they tear through this sack and both fall out, flying in different directions—which also happens very often.

This example is a perfect illustration of the first years of life together, and the couple's task in this period is to get used to each other and to resolve unresolved issues. Incidentally, some questions must be resolved before the wedding. But many people think that supposedly nothing needs to be discussed before the wedding, that they don't need to "burden" each other—they just need to have a good time and court each other. This is all fine, of course, but it very often happens that people, once they get married, later find out that there is a complete lack of agreement about some very important issues. For example, where should they live, with their parents, or in their own place? The wife thinks that they should live only with her parents. The husband is categorically against it—he feels that they should live on their own. Or, for example, how many children should they have: as many as God gives, they'll manage—or only one or two? It is clear that all this needs to be decided jointly, and decided before the wedding, because in marriage, when people are confronted with a fait accompli, such issues are very difficult to settle.

In the first years of living together, when a child is often born, and special caution and patience are necessary, it can happen that the spouses cannot endure it—they "fail" this examination. The birth of a baby presents a great deal of stress for a young family—a person finds himself under tension, both mentally and physically. Stress can be brought on by tiredness, by a conflict situation, traffic jams or some other thing. But it can also be brought on by a joyful event—for example, the birth of a baby. This joyful event, unfortunately, very often becomes the cause of disagreement, differences of opinion and conflicts in family life, although, in theory, it is the very birth of a child that should unite a family: working together to bring up the child and care for him ought to cement the family together.

What other difficulties do young couples run into?

—The first years of marriage are also difficult because a person, having chosen their other half—a husband or wife—gets a sizeable quantity of relatives to boot: the wife's mother and father, the husband's father, the wife's brothers, the husband's brothers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and the husband's or wife's other relatives—and often, also their children from a previous marriage. Naturally, you need to find a common language with all these close ones who have now become your relatives, too, you need to learn to interact with them, to get along and not to conflict. But if there are conflicts (and there are), they need to be resolved productively and with minimal losses.


Could you tell us when the second crisis comes?

The second critical period in family relations is the period when the family has already lasted seven to ten years. It, too, is rather dangerous. One would think: live and be glad—everything is all right, people have adjusted to each other. They have also become used to solving problems with the relatives over the past ten years, and have learned to be patient with each other, how to put up with each other and so on. As a rule, in ten years a person also has solved the problem of housing. It is either his own house or apartment, or some permanently rented one. In addition, children have been born. With the first child it is very hard, but with the second and third, as a rule, it is easier, nevertheless. And the first ones by this time have already grown up a little. But it very often happens that people get divorced after they have been married for seven to ten years. At this they say, "Everything is over—love is over, the tomatoes have wilted, there's nothing any more—everything is in the past."

Why does this happen?

—Because very often, unfortunately, when people solve their problems, they throw the baby out with the bath water. Occupied with children and work, which should maintain the family, they are not occupied with their own relations; they spend very little time together, they communicate very little with each other, they don't show signs of attention and affection, and they do not try very hard to find something in common. All this, as a rule, is left in the past, when they were on their honeymoon, or before they had children.

One may call these seven to ten years the period of "fast-paced construction." The couple builds their home in the literal and figurative senses: they make their life comfortable, they buy something, they have children, they grow, and they solve yet more issues. But when a period of stability and calm begins with people, it turns out that love has gone; the main thing, for the sake of which the family has been created, has gone, but the family has been created so as to be together, to get joy from companionship, to be even closer to one another and even more dear. As a rule, women say with sadness, "Everything is bad." I object, "It's bad now, but you have already been married ten years. Everything wasn't always this bad, was it?" It's obvious that, of course, it wasn't, that they were very satisfied, and that at first everything was fine. When a person creates a family, what does he want? He sees that it's good for them together, and he wants this holiday of life to continue all the time—for ten years, for fifteen years, for twenty-five years. But it so happens that after a time people forget what was at the beginning and how it was, and they settle into a routine of life that cannot unite people for long. Because when this period of "fast-paced construction" passes, after that there are age-related periods that can be even more difficult for a family—for example when the children grow up and the couple is left one on one with each other.

So how can this second crisis be overcome?

—You have to return to the time when it was really good with each other, to remember this time, and to try to be together more. It is very important that the couple lay down for themselves this golden rule: to spend a definite amount of free time not only with the children, but also with their other half. It actually isn't that difficult. Simply once a month or once every two weeks, devote some time to doing something together or being together. And of course, after coming home from work each day, too.

But if the couple have bad relations, this will without fail have an impact on the children. One person said a very wise thing, "The most important thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother." When he loves their mother, when everything is good in the family, then one doesn't have to say a single word to the children about upbringing. They will create their family to be just as solid and happy—in the image and likeness of your family. So you need to concern yourselves with your relations.

And what can we do about them?

—We have to recall what we used to do in the first months of our life together, how we used to go to the movies, to the theater, to dances; or how we could just make a little dinner and sit together awhile and talk; or how we used to try to say some kind words to each other, or give each other presents for no special reason, not just on birthdays or Mothers' Day1 or namesdays. And you have to do this, incidentally, without fail all the years of your marriage, regardless of how many years you've been married.

Our last Emperor, Nicholas Alexandrovich, and his spouse Alexandra Feodorovna can serve the family as examples. When you read their diaries and their letters, you see that these people, who had already had five children, who were already over fifty, had not in the least lost their love, their affection, or the first romantic years of their married life. This is very important, because it is precisely these happy, bright moments that our life is made up of. It is what we will remember later in our free time or in old age. For if our whole life consists of unpleasant incidents, trivial things, constant reproaches, quarrels, conflicts, this also will be remembered then—there won't be anything in general to remember that was good.


What about the third period?

The third period is called the empty nest syndrome. This is the period of middle age, when the children grow up, become adults, and have their own families. This period very often coincides with mid-life crisis, which happens with men, as a rule.

Many families have lived through mid-life crisis with sad results. What do you advise those who have not yet at this stage?

—In this period a person sees that his youth is passing, and that all the best things in life are already in the past; what lies ahead is unknown and a lack of trust in one's abilities appears. If a person did not manage to do something in life, if he didn't do it, it seems to him that he won't do it now, either, because he isn't up to it and so forth. However, this isn't true. The Lord gives His gifts at any period of life: youth, maturity, and old age all have their plusses, huge opportunities for self-realization and for happiness. This is the period when people who are very attached to their children and love them are now left one-on-one with each other. And, unfortunately, this very often leads to divorce.


—Because the couple was united by their living space, sometimes by work together, and children, and now this beginning that united them is gone and they haven't managed to build good relations with each other. When the children grew up, these ties weakened greatly. Likewise, the male and female systems experience age-related changes differently, and if a man very often feels full of vigor at 50, for a woman the period of the fading of her natural female functions is a little different. Of course, this is very lamentable, but it is a fact. And if the family is not strong, if it was built on carnal passion, then very often this ends up with the husband's going off to some mistress, and then even marrying her.

To sum up, I would like to say that everything flows, everything changes. Our life is changing all the time—children are born, grandchildren, something else happens, some other changes in our family life. And it is important to preserve love in every period, to maintain our relations, and to try to study and read literature all the time on the psychology of aging and on family psychology. It is very important, first of all, to be aware of these three periods in life, and second, to see something good in each of them. When we see the good side and not the bad in our other half, in the other person whom God has given us, in our children and parents—when we try not to notice the bad side, then, of course, our family will be strong and will easily survive all crises.

Priest Pavel Gumerov was interviewed
by Irina Akhundova
Translated by Dimitra Dwelley

10 марта 2015 г.

1 In the Russian original, "the 8th of March," which is "International Women's Day," a holiday celebrated fairly extensively in Russia (though not by all) as a day to honor all the ladies, mainly with flowers.—Trans.
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