The Missing Marriage-Crisis Link
MARRIAGE IS CURRENTLY one of the most popular topics in the Muslim community, and not just because people like a love story or aunties are bored (although those are true too). Marriage in America is in crisis, irrespective of religion. As a reaction, we constantly hear talks that seek to enlighten the average Muslim couple about their rights and obligations.
Popular marriage books by American authors have also been “Islamified” and incorporated into some of these talks, in the hope that if men understand women a little better and vice versa—that in addition to knowing the fiqh of marriage—this new-found knowledge can at least stabilize the rate of divorce if not decrease it, the Muslim divorce rate in America now topping even the national rate, according to some studies.
While these current talks definitely have their value, I personally believe they’re missing a crucial element; namely, a structured approach to regular conflict resolution.
The Silver Lining to Marital Storms
By conflict resolution, I don’t mean merely learning how to compromise or when to realize your husband or wife should have the upper hand from a fiqh point of view. I’m talking about a whole new way to view conflict in marriage, as a tool or vehicle to a greater goal—that of becoming a closer couple with an even stronger bond.
Marital conflict is one of those “make-you-or-break-you” phenomenon, and Allah created this relationship that is destined for conflict for a reason. Allah says about Himself that He creates nothing without a purpose:
The ones who remember Allah [with reverence] while standing, and while sitting, and while lying on their sides; and who reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying]: Our Lord! You have not created [all] this in vain. Highly exalted are You [far above all]! So save us from the torment of the Fire [of Hell] (Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:191).
Moreover, Allah has made marriage half of our dîn, according to the well-known ḥadîth of the Prophet ﷺ.
Marital conflict has the ability to destroy a couple and thrust them into a heartbreaking divorce. Or, it can deepen a couple’s bond to the extent that they experience something that savors like a taste of Jannah, the Garden of Paradise.
On an individual level, marital conflict can lead a person to a too-long delayed maturity and fundamental self-improvement. What too many couples fail to realize is that conflict doesn’t have to be the driver in their relationship. People are not the pawns of their mastering emotions, destined to argue and fight because they can’t help what they feel—that is, unless they choose to be that.
Conflict is inevitable in any close relationship. It’s impossible for two people to be emotionally close without some inherent differences that lead to anxiety. The storms of fear, anger, frustration, and disappointment that characterize this sense of apprehension are all very natural.
Yet differences that you can live with when it comes to a friend or even a relative can rock your world when it comes to your spouse, because you have to live with this person every day. You want to be extremely close to them. Yet the love you share with them is not unconditional.
Having a difference with a spouse may also be a bit of a reality-check, because it makes you realize that just because you believe something or grew up with it doesn’t make it right. Some differences can be valid. Yet this tends to make some people very insecure. These differences can be related to faith, family, upbringing, culture, politics, intimacy, or even something as trivial as food or favorite pastimes.
Maturity Is the Outcome of Struggle
We might not have a choice about the conflicts that arise from those differences, but we do when it comes to how we react to these conflicts. Most people don’t make any choice at all about their marital conflicts.
A husband or wife may feel upset about something and merely react to that emotion. Argument ensues, which can end in a shouting match or cold distance.
Others are passive-aggressive when it comes to marital conflict. Few are the people who see conflict as an opportunity to remain calm; fewer still have the foresight not only to see how to get through this conflict unscathed, but to use it as a catalyst for growth.
Above all, conflict is a time to learn about yourself and to acknowledge some of your own shortcomings. And such is the stairway to maturity. And that’s what marriage is made up of—two individuals who each have a responsibility to one another to be the best and most mature person they can be.
Husbands and wives are not always supposed to agree on everything. That’s impossible. Thus conflict is really a time to realize how you (not the other) have been contributing to some ongoing problem in your marriage, because whether or not we realize it (or want to realize it) marital conflict always involves two people. The good news is that because it always takes two in marriage, we have the immediate and immense power to make a positive change simply by changing our own behavior.
Religion Is Advice, But What Do We Advise?
That being said, I have a bit of a bone to pick with the way we give marital advice in the Muslim community (and non-Muslims give the same advice, just with less of a religious element). Our current approach is to focus on meeting the needs of our spouse. This is the essence of the “rights and obligations” talk that we hear pretty much all the time about marriage.
This admonition seeks to enlighten us about how we are responsible to our spouse, with these guidelines derived from the fiqh of marriage. A man is told that he has to provide a living for his wife based on her ʿurf, what she is commonly used to from her family, growing up. He also is adjured to be patient with her, particularly when she’s PMSing or being overly emotional.
A woman is taught that she has to fulfill her husband’s sexual needs and obey him, as long as it doesn’t contradict Islam or do her harm. We Muslims are also taught the method of reproach for nushûz, or flagrant defiance, that is, how we are to systematically correct and discipline our spouse for flagrant defiance in extreme marital conflict. Additionally, we are reminded of stories of how the Prophet ﷺ was patient and loving with his wives, may Allah be pleased with them.
No doubt, this talk definitely has its value. After all, this is the foundation of marriage. If people didn’t know the basic ways that they are responsible to one another, we’d have a lot of resentful working mothers and sexually frustrated husbands. There would be chaos if people didn’t know whose duty it is to feed, clothe, and shelter, or who had the final say in a disagreement. Women would be oppressed if we didn’t know the limits that Allah put on a husband’s authority. Thanks to some amazing shuyûkh, we even have glimpses into the psychology of the opposite sex, so we are better able to communicate our love to them in a way they desire.
This talk is not enough, however. When couples hear it, it pretty much has the same effect on everyone. Even though each individual should be taking to heart what he or she is learning and applying it to him- or herself, husbands and wives tend to focus on their partner’s deficits. Husbands are hoping their wives are really paying close attention to the stuff about how he needs his alone time or how physical touch is his favored expression of love. Wives want their husbands to duly remember the part about not offering solutions when she wants to vent her emotions, or the reminder about how he can’t force her to live with his mother.
In other words, these advisements tend to set couples up for a stalemate, each partner only meeting the needs of his or her spouse in as much as one’s own needs are being met. This “needs-meeting” approach leaves both husband and wife acting very needy, and neediness in an adult is very immature, unattractive, and counter-productive.
Husbands and wives in conflict often sound like whiny children. He’ll whine that she doesn’t ever want to have sex, and she’ll whine in turn that he’s lazy around the house and still on his mother’s apron strings. Perhaps they’ll come to a compromise to both start meeting each other’s needs more, but both are always keeping a close eye and a tight score, and as soon as one person starts to falter the other withdraws in turn.
While it is important for us to understand our responsibilities to our spouse, if we never go beyond that, we’ll never get beyond a technically functioning marriage but an emotionally dysfunctional relationship. Many are the couples who fulfill the fiqhî requirements of marriage but are still unhappy. They’re unhappy because in spite of meeting each other’s needs, they still have conflict about those needs, and they don’t understand why that is or how to resolve it.
For instance, a couple may be having conjugal relations on a regular basis. So technically, this aspect of their marriage is being fulfilled from a narrowly understood fiqh perspective, but they may still be having a huge conflict about it. There is an entire emotional side of marriage that can turn us upside down even when our spouse is taking care of our “technicalities.” Many couples, in spite of our glimpses into the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ, often improperly understand this daily emotional interplay.
In my opinion, we need to lay out a more structured approach to understanding this emotional interplay and shaping it.
Three Steps to Emotional Health in Relationships
1. CHANGE YOURSELF
For now, let’s lay out the basic way to handle these conflicts of emotional interplay. (I intend to address the four most common conflicts of marriage—time management, family, household responsibilities, and sexual intimacy—in successive posts.)
The first behavioral change to make in this kind of conflict is to cease and desist with the excessive focus on our spouse, and commence with a steady self-examination of our own behavior. Even when a spouse is doing something we believe is blameworthy, we should still first study our own actions as a means to rectifying that particular situation. For even if we think our spouse is doing something wrong, usually we’ve been enabling—even encouraging—that behavior without realizing it. When it comes to conflict, the only person you can change is you yourself. So the first remedy to marital conflict is to take your own medicine: Change your own part in a destructive behavior pattern with your spouse.
Let’s understand this through an example. Say a husband feels resentful and frustrated with his wife because she tends to get upset when he goes out with his friends. She becomes passive-aggressive whenever he comes back home, and they usually end up having an argument in the end. He blames his wife for wanting to control his time. Plus he believes she’s excessively needy. So he has to choose between his wife and social life, or so he thinks.
But if he steps back and considers the situation, he may notice that he’s been making some mistakes of his own that have created this problem. Perhaps his wife wouldn’t mind if he spent time with his friends if he would let her know a little in advance or would come home “on time” (is their an agreed upon time).
Maybe she resents the fact that he frequently makes time with his friends Friday nights or other prime times, while he takes not time to make time with her, save for spending it in mundane tasks on weeknights.
Could it be that the wife expects them to hang out with other couples now that they’re married, but he isn’t even aware of this expectation. Or it may be that his wife wouldn’t really mind if he spent time with his friends if he were just more considerate of her wishes and wants when he scheduled it.
Another example may be a husband who is unhelpful around the house. His wife constantly nags him about it in the hopes that he’ll feel guilty enough to realize the error of his ways and start pulling his load.
But is the problem solely his doing? What part has she played in creating this dynamic? Her harassment is probably her main problem, because the badgering only makes him feel the need to resist her attempts to coerce and belittle him.
It may be the case that when he has tried to help in the past, she criticized him for it, or forced him to do it “her way,” as if her way is the right way and his way is “whacky.” Or maybe she’s just been picking up after everyone for so long that she’s lashing out, while he doesn’t even realize that something’s wrong. Does she withhold intimacy to punish him? (Do you?) Now they’re stuck in a stalemate, neither one wanting to take the first step in the right direction.
In other words, we tend to enable the behavior in our spouses that we dislike through our very efforts to eradicate it. The husband who thinks his wife just wants to have a leash on him is inflaming her desire to control him by being inconsiderate with his schedule. The wife who resents her lazy husband is encouraging his resistance by her nag-then-punish complex.
Whenever you are about to blame your spouse for a problem, you need to pause, step back, and take an honest look at yourself. Are things really as you interpret them to be? Is she really just controlling? Is he really just lazy? Are these simple character faults in your spouse, or are they a reaction to a more complex problem in which you both take part?
2. COMMUNICATE YOUR GRIEVANCE CLEARLY
The next thing you have to do is look at your efforts to communicate with your spouse about his or her side of the problem. This involves broaching the subject and telling your spouse how his or her behavior is affecting you. Hal Runkel, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of ScreamFree Marriage calls this process “Authentic Self-Representation.”
This involves being calm, honest, and tactful with your spouse when you speak to him or her. It calls upon you to eliminate any emotional games, vengeful arguments, hurtful language, or passive-aggressiveness from your own behavior.
In other words, if you want conflict to refine your relationship and make your bond stronger, you have to let go of any spiteful attempts to “punish” your spouse or vent your anger at them. You are having this conversation with your spouse, not so you can make him or her feel guilty, but so that you can overcome a problem as a couple.
This type of conversation can only happen between two people who are mature enough to put aside petty attempts to one-up each other.
3. LISTEN OPEN-HEARTEDLY, CALMLY AFTER SPEAKING
After authentically representing yourself to your spouse, you have to calmly receive whatever he or she has to say to you. This may be an emotional tirade that seeks to pull you into a familiar argument. Or it may be a valid criticism of your own behavior. In any event, you have to hold on to your resolve to stay calm and respectful, despite how your spouse behaves, and then be open to whatever it is your husband or wife has to say.
Your spouse may not agree with you or be willing to change (yet), but at the very least you’ve given him or her food for thought and set a better tone in your marriage. And after the discussion is over, you have to really let it be over, even if you didn’t agree in the end.
Many times marital conflicts don’t have a right and a wrong, but rather involve two valid differences. One partner may think he doesn’t overspend while his wife thinks he does. In reality, the definition of overspending is relative. So while she can tell her husband what she thinks of his spending habits, she has to accept that this person came from a different family with different ideas about money. He may never agree with her on it. So she has to learn to live with that.
Of course, there are behaviors for which Allah has set limits, like physical force (If someone is being abused, they should also seek intervention, mediation, or counseling). Yet these acts of divine limit are comparatively few in view of the things in marriage which are determined by a person’s ʿurf, or common, formative experience, which in the case of some of us, may have less to do with the custom of society as a whole and more with personal upbringing (since some communities, like the Muslim community in America, is so diverse).
Throughout this entire process, one thing has to remain in our mind: Each of us as an individual should be contributing our best self to our marriage all of the time, regardless of what our spouse chooses to do. That is truly marriage in the religion of Islam, for we are a people who give of ourselves out of principle, rather than simply returning whatever we get. Our behavior is not determined by our spouse’s but by what we know to be right and best.
If two people can mutually achieve this dynamic in marriage, then conflicts will make them stronger and closer in the end. Each conflict with our spouse will be a watershed from which both husband and wife can choose a course of self-improvement and relationship correction for the benefit of self, one another, and the marriage.
Yet even if, say, the wife alone undertakes this approach, she will have the satisfaction of knowing that she is fulfilling half of her dîn in a way that is most pleasing to her Lord, while becoming a constant source of inspiration for her husband. But wives take note, for your husbands may be the ones making this choice to uplift self and marriage for the pleasure of Allah in the end.