IN OUR INTRODUCTION (“The Fires of Marriage: How to Stop Fighting With Your Spouse”) we discussed how marital conflict can be used as a tool to bring couples closer by strengthening their bond. Just as Allah’s Messenger œ mentioned that fitnah (tribulation) purifies the believer like a forge-fire purifies gold, there is perhaps no relationship that can purify a person better than marriage.
That is because even though marriage’s purpose is to be a source of peace and tranquility for men and women together, it also holds an inescapable element of fitnah. No marriage can go without conflict.
But if we are mature, we ought to be able to understand how marital conflict is not in and of itself a bad thing, since it is an inevitable part of the relationship. Rather, this should make us recognize that, necessarily, conflict in marriage can be the means to a better end for couples, and for husbands and wives as individuals.
There are four main marital conflicts that every couple must face. Hal Runkel, author of Screamfree Marriage, has coined these as “The Fires of Marriage.” Runkel asserts that if we enter these conflicts with the proper mindset, we have an amazing opportunity to share our true self with our spouse and become closer to him or her.
We show our true self through a process called “Authentic Self-Representation,” which really means that when we feel there is a problem, we are honest an open with our spouse about it, sans the emotional games or outbursts.
Being calm and connected with our spouse is what makes this task difficult for many people because one must begin the conversation with the intention of resolving issues in a calm way. You must also be ready to hear whatever your spouse has to say in turn, while keeping your commitment to staying as calm and constructive as possible.
Remaining calm is the first and most crucial step in this process. How the conversation will unfold depends more on how we say something than what we actually say. We can always retract our statements or reword them, but once a husband or wife starts yelling or becomes passive-aggressive, the conversation will take a turn that it usually cannot recover from.
Sometimes a conflict can be resolved in a single conversation. Other times it cannot be resolved at all and both partners will have to learn to cope with their differences, which is itself a kind of resolution. But definitely, if a couple can have a constructive, calm conversation about their problems, they will be closer after it’s done.
They will have reaffirmed their love and respect for one another, just by having that calm, connected conversation. They are indirectly saying that they prioritize the wellbeing of their relationship over their desire to be “right.”
It’s as if they’re saying to one another: “I know we don’t see eye to eye on this, and even though I wish we did, I want you to know that my love and commitment to you is unchanged. Actually, it feels deeper knowing we can move forward together no matter what challenges we face.”
Listening to what your spouse has to say in a calm way, without needing to retaliate, also shows that you’re mature enough to acknowledge that not everything you believe is right. You use your conversations with your spouse as an opportunity for personal growth rather than feeling invalidated by them.
Making Time and Setting Limits
Let’s move on to our discussion of the first of the four fires of marriage: Time management.
As Muslims, we already know that the nearer we get to the Day of Judgment as a human community on earth, the less blessing there will be in people’s time. So not only is time passing quicker for everyone, but for husbands and wives, they are also wrestling with the fact that they have to share their time with one another.
Of course, every man and woman is allotted the same 24 hours in a day, but when you’re married you always have to keep your partner in mind when you schedule those hours. Life is constantly making demands on our time, whether in the form of jobs, children, housework, or extended family.
Then you have individual pursuits or social activities that every adult needs to find time for in order to lead a balanced life. We may not be able to disburden ourselves of these responsibilities, but it often feels as if we have to get clearance for those “extras” that we want to add into our schedules.
This is because neither husband nor wife wants to feel like they’re stuck over-compensating for their partner’s poor scheduling habits or inconsideration. These are the two main flames of this fire from which couples start to feel the heat, though when it comes to these pressures each partner is in a similar situation.
In fact, the only difference is that in one case, the “poor scheduler” spouse usually just doesn’t think things through when he or she makes up a personal schedule. You may work late and miss a child’s event because you simply forgot.
You may make plans to have your husband and children accompany you for a visit to see your family, while he’s already made agreements that weekend, which both of you must now rearrange. A wife’s forgetfulness can leave her husband picking up the slack of having to make last minute changes.
Although accidental, if it is habituated behavior, it is a form of neglect. Just as we cannot “forget” to pray all the time and claim it’s okay because it’s a mistake for which we are not accountable, we cannot forget about our responsibility to our husband or wife before we make plans that will affect him or her when almost invariably any plans we make will.
The inconsiderate scheduler is worse because in reality he believes his own priorities supersede his spouse’s, so he makes plans and expects his wife to accommodate those plans. You may believe your career is more important than your wife’s, so you work extra hours which leaves your wife with double the work at home.
You may believe that your social outings are more valuable you’re your wife’s because that time is spent in a sport or class rather than the simple lunch dates your wife plans with your family friends. This often leaves the wife feeling disrespected, and for good reason, because that’s exactly what it is.
One spouse isn’t respecting the other’s schedule as much as his or her own. Or one spouse may believe that his or her own responsibilities and pursuits are superior to the other’s. This can lead to some serious anger and resentment.
Resolving Time Conflicts at the Source
As always, when one spouse wants to confront the other, he or she needs to do it in a calm way. Represent yourself authentically to your spouse. And remember, this isn’t just about “my time” versus “your time.” This is about acknowledging that as a couple your schedules constantly impact one another.
The affronted person should be aware of how he or she is feeling: Disrespected? Frustrated? Stressed-out? (and as to this latter catch-phrase, I would suggest you actually identify within yourself and then define for your spouse what exactly you are feeling and mean.) All people, but especially as conscientious Muslims, we should at least give our spouse the benefit of the doubt when we broach the subject of our dissatisfaction.
Maybe your husband (or wife, we’re interchangeable here) never realized how his schedule is affecting you or how that made you feel. Moreover, whatever your husband says to you about this, you have to be willing to hear it, as well. Perhaps, you will find that your husband believes you are too inflexible or too needy.
The conversation is not about who is right or wrong. It may well be that there is truth in what both husband and wife have to say. At the very worst, you may end with a disagreement. But at least you made yourself known to your spouse by sharing the truth of your feelings with them.
And that’s exactly what you want in your marriage—for your husband or wife to truly know you and your positions regarding your married relationship, yet still love and choose you as husband or wife.
The Second Fire relates to extended family; so if any fire can generate some serious heat, it’s the in-laws. (See Part 3.)