A friend of mine is planning on writing a book on marriage from the Islamic perspective so I put my 2 cents in:
Christians tend to fall in love and get married. They usually have a wonderful first year of marriage, and then it goes downhill. So, in order to rescue a marriage they have to remember why they fell in love in the first place, and practice having good manners and communication skills.
But for Muslims, the problem is that they tend to marry someone they hardly know. The first year of marriage is usually very hard. There is no period of happiness to look back on. Marriage is almost like a job. It’s worse than a job. The main focus seems to be on “tolerating” each other. Our approach should be to help Muslim couples learn to like each other hopefully before they get married.
I think also one of the hardest things in the Muslim world is because a lot of people are emotionally damaged from witnessing acts of violence or some emotional family trauma from the past. This can cause people to shut down and not really view others as human. So the wife becomes “that irritating woman” – the man is just a “dick with a wallet.” Once you label a person, then anything they do is seen through this distorted lens.
Probably a good approach would be to emphasize marriage as a path to spiritual awakening. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) said: “Marriage is half the faith.” Marriage can lead to joy but more importantly, the emotional maturation process that comes from gradually learning to detach from your ego.
Many people think it’s enough to just be married. You don’t have to learn how to love with your heart, or how to keep on giving and being just even when you don’t feel that loving. Muslim men sometimes think that love and true friendship is not a requirement of marriage, as long as they are paying the bills. They just shut down, and submit to an unhappy existence, trapped together due to societal expectations.
Marriage should be emphasized as a spiritual practice for learning to reduce ego attachment, a form of meditation and seeking God [dhikr]. When the relationship has problems, it is a mirror to help you discover your own inner self, your reactions and motivations, and to recover forgotten memories.
In Catholic churches, when they do pre-marital and marital counseling, what they do is ask questions that give you topics to discuss that help you understand each others’ feelings.
For me, the questions I would advise my kids to think about first and foremost before marriage:
Do you enjoy each others’ company? Do you laugh together? Does conversation come easily or with difficulty? Are you attracted to each other? When you are apart, can you feel the other thinking about you? Do you support each others’ plans, dreams and goals in life? Do you like talking about the same topics? Are there any activities that you both enjoy? Do you have the same expectations of the requirements of the wedding, marriage and family? Do you feel strongly about the other person’s bad habits? Does the other person admire or feel alienated by your strongest qualities? Are you hoping the other person is going to change after marriage or can you take them as they are? Will you still enjoy their company after they lost their good looks? When you are with them, do you find yourself toning down your true personality in order to seem more pleasing?
Other factors include language, culture and social class differences. Is the extended family going to give your spouse a hard time? If so – is it fair to expose them to this type of long term emotional abuse?
It’s important to find out ahead of time: Is he or she the kind of person that says everything they think as they are thinking it, or do they hold back information? Do they ask for their needs or wait for you to notice?
When I decided to leave my husband it was because he told me “I love you but I don’t like you.” I felt that if he couldn’t find anything about me to like after 5 years, we cannot stay together because there is nothing more insulting than someone just staying with you ‘for the sake of the kids’. I believe the dislike came from his tendency to label me negatively if he didn’t understand a behavior, rather than try to understand where I’m coming from. I was always just his “white lady.” He didn’t know how I am different from other white women. His main concern was that I should fit in with the other Muslim women. It turned out that I was holding him back from what he wanted to do with his life, namely fit in with the group, and he was holding me back from fulfilling my goals and dreams, which involves forging ahead of the group in order to work on solving the problems of the world.
In the end I realized that he did love me but the bottom line was he really just wanted to have sex with me. He didn’t actually have the strength to incorporate me into his life full time. He should have just made a private marriage with me if he was smart. It was the involvement of the family and community that destroyed the relationship. They told him that because he married me, that he had betrayed his people, and that kind of thing. He was filled with guilt and shame that people thought it was a “love marriage.” The truth was that I was not even attracted to him. I married him for religion.
I believe that in a successful marriage, “I” and “You” become “We.” The couple thinks as a team and feels as a team. There are probably some spiritual exercises that can help this happen. It’s really important to put “We” before the rest of the world. Otherwise every time you go out, the spouse becomes embarrassed of you. I remember my husband always judging me after a social occasion on the way home. “You talk too much, it’s humiliating.” or “Why didn’t you talk? You embarrass me.” Clearly he was determined to view me negatively no matter what I did.
If we had done a temporary marriage first, or if we simply had gone out for dinner like normal Americans, we may not even have had a second date. The truth was we didn’t have much to talk about. I would have found him too uptight and he would have found me too wild, and that would be the end. It was because we were trying to be so Islamic that we married a near stranger and went through so much pain learning that not everyone is compatible.
He took the time to take me out for fun somewhere finally, when I was threatening to divorce him – and it was really enlightening and almost amusing to realize how little he understood about me and how little he cared to share. After five years of marriage, we had no idea what to talk about other than politics or Dajjal (the Anti-Christ). We just didn’t find each other that interesting.
Before I was Muslim, I briefly dated an Indian Hindu man. What happened was he took me out to dinner a few times and he always sat like 5 feet away from me. He was very modest. I found him nice but I had no attraction to him. He had an experience though, which my husband unfortunately only had after I left him. When the Hindu man was visiting my home, which I shared with a friend, he saw my room. It was just a mattress on the floor, a rug for prayer and meditation, a brick that I used for a table that had some dried flower petals in a dish, and a small bookshelf. Something about glimpsing my private space made him say to me, “All the other people at work always say bad things about you but the truth is, you are the nicest person I have ever met in my life.”
He seemed like a sweet child who liked to give me presents. His mother found out he was seeing me, had a fit, and forced him to break up with me. I didn’t even consider him my boyfriend, to me he was like a friend. He came over crying and saying he couldn’t marry me. I was surprised because I had no idea he wanted to marry me. Truthfully if he had asked me, I would have gently but certainly told him no! I had no attraction to him whatsoever. True, I could have grown to love him because he was so nice, but I was not heartbroken – not even a little – that he couldn’t marry me. In fact I found the strange situation slightly funny though sad that he suffered for me. He actually quit his job where I also worked, because it was too painful for him to see me anymore.
I believe that with my first husband, had we gone out to dinner a few times before marriage, probably by the second date I really would have been clear that I didn’t want to marry him. OR, we might have had a chance to become good friends and got some inner glimpse of each others’ true selves, before trying to start a family. In which case the marriage would have had more team spirit because it would be based on admiration and respect for the inner person.
My ex-husband told me, after he got married to another woman, now he realizes what a kind and forgiving person I was. However, his elder sisters chose and approved her so I guess that weird family power trip is what matters most in their culture. And people call Islam a patriarchal society?
No regrets though. I learned a lot of things from the experience, healed in many ways and was wounded in many ways, felt things I never felt before and will never feel again. To every thing there is a season.