THE PRECIPITATING EVENT
In Figure 3, the individual has shifted from the conflict state to the crisis state. What happened? Either suddenly or gradually a new conflict within his interaction developed or an already existing conflict worsened. We will call the causes of such a crisis state the “precipitating event.” Whatever happened, an existing conflict worsened or a serious new conflict developed. We will say that the precipitating event “set off” or caused the crisis. When we are dealing with people in crisis, then, one of our first questions will be: “What happened?” Our effort here is to move gradually toward crisis reduction.
When seeking precipitating events, the tendency is to look for complex psychological or social causes. This leads to very complicated notions of cause and to considering factors, situations, conditions, and circumstances substantially removed in time from the crisis. In the social interaction model, emphasis is place on a precipitating event immediately preceding the present crisis. The individual in crisis is a complex human being; his total situation is similarly complex. Moreover, the conflict between the individual and his situation may be complex. However, the precipitating event tends to have the quality of the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Something relatively definable brought the interaction to a crisis point.
Aaron, age twenty-two, comes in to the twenty-four-hour drop-in service at 3:30 a.m. He tells a rather confused and disconnected story, indicating that he could not sleep and had to talk to someone. His wife is five months’ pregnant and has worked at a Laundromat for two years. She is twenty-three. He has lived in this area for five years but has no close relatives or friends. Until a few months ago, she was fine. They talked about what they would name the baby and how things would be after the baby arrived. He pays her support, the rent on her apartment, doctor bills, and so on. She always wanted a baby, but she also seemed to want everything else: a new car, furniture, clothes, vacations, and so on. She has left him before. Last February, she was gone but sent him a beautiful card expressing her love and telling him how much she cared for him. They have been married for almost four years and have a beautiful house. His father-in-law does not like him and will not have anything to do with him. His mother-in-law says she is sorry but there is nothing she can do. They do everything for his brothers-in-law and their families but never seem to help him and his wife when they need help. They always tell her she’s better off without him. This hurts him, but his mother-in-law will talk with him sometimes. When his wife leaves, she always spends most of her time at her parent’s house. This time she got an apartment across the street from them. He was alone at Christmas. Their friends would come over, and one of them told him to get a divorce. That is when the trouble started. It was going okay until the sheriff served papers on him today. They say he has to stay away from his wife and cannot see his two-year-old son until the hearing, which is four weeks away. That was the final straw; he cannot even see his own kid now.
As we can see, there is continuing conflict in the interaction between Aaron and his wife. Apparently, this conflict extended to Aaron’s relationships with his mother- and father-in-law. His friends also seem to be interfering in his relationship with his wife. Even though Aaron’s situation seems very problematic, until now he has been able to cope with it. Learning that he would not be able to see his son, however, was more than he could take, and it precipitated the crisis seen in the drop-in center. In most crisis situations, the precipitating event is not so easily observable. Nevertheless, it will always be present in a crisis situation. In Aaron’s crisis, the precipitating event exacerbated the continuing conflict between him and his wife. Getting the papers from the sheriff set off the crisis. In other situations, there may not be a continuing conflict. The precipitating event may be something quite unexpected—a totally new set of circumstances or some other problem arising in an otherwise smooth situation. Whether a new set of circumstances or new factors are introduced into the situation, or an existing conflict is made worse by some new or unexpected event, crisis is always preceded by a relatively definable and observable precipitating event.
In the terms of Figure 3, calling the individual’s present state of affairs a “crisis” is to say at least two things about it. First, it has high “now potential,” and second, it has a low “self-resolution factor.” Let us separately consider these two crisis characteristics.