When I got my divorce at age 23, I was a thoroughly embittered, cynical woman with a solid sense of suspicion towards (most) Muslim men, the idea of love, and marriage as romanticized by popular culture and sanitized by Muslim literature and lectures.
Then I got married again. And I was still bitter and cynical and suspicious about men and marriage and love. But I muddled along anyway, doing many incredibly dumb things along the way, and collected a few more life lessons while I was at it.
1- Marriage is Really, Really Hard. And I don’t just mean the fact that I’m in poly and live in another country. I mean the parts where I had to own up to my own emotional baggage and rendered myself a snotty emotional mess and was pretty mean sometimes and then finally had to admit that yes, I can be wrong and in fact often am.
I had to learn how to be mature (okay, still working on this one) and actively work on overcoming insecurities (yet another work in progress) and bad emotional habits. It’s not the domestic bits that are difficult, it’s the very raw and straight up mortifying bits where the other person discovers just how messed up you are. (But then they choose to stick with you anyway, so there is that comfort.)
2- Men are human and have it as rough as we do. I will up front admit that I was an entitled spoiled brat who was convinced that women have life the hardest (okay, I still think we do) and that dudes just better handle whatever is thrown at them because it’s their JOB. Ummm, yeah. About that… men are human. Which means that if you prick them, they will bleed (it is not recommended to test this theory, as stabbing people with pointy objects is haram and illegal). If you are cruel to them, they will feel pain.
Okay but seriously – men, and by ‘men’ I mean legitimately good, sincere, taqwa-exemplifying men who care deeply about their wives and families, not pathetic, immature, usually-misogynistic males – work hard to look after those whom they love. Not just physical work that brings in money, but the emotional work too. They hate to see their loved ones suffer, and will do their best to try and fix the problem… even if it they are hurt too.
Whereas society normalizes female emotion, both positive and negative, we rarely see men being allowed to express themselves in a more vulnerable manner. I don’t mean sniffling at every little perceived slight, but true expressions of deep emotion, such as heartache, sorrow, helplessness, and emotional pain.
So many of our men mask their aching hearts in order to be strong and supportive to those around them – even as they are in need of the same support. Sometimes we women need to get over ourselves and realize that men need the same love and care that they provide for us. Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) and his wives illustrates how even the greatest man on earth sought comfort in his spouses – whether it was Khadijah (May Allah be pleased with her) reassuring him after his first interaction with the angel Jibreel (‘alayhissalaam), or Umm Salamah (May Allah be pleased with her) understanding his frustration at Hudabiyah, and consoling him with her suggestions.
3- Differences of opinion are okay. This was a huge one for me – in my previous marriage, differences of opinion were definitely *not* okay. This husband, however, is a fascinating specimen. While I’d already decided that this time, I was not going to be a doormat and let myself be silenced, I wondered uneasily if expressing my dissent was a bad idea.
At first, I was anxious – would voicing my disagreement lead to greater emotional conflict? Would a debate on feminism lead to a far more unpleasant argument with drastic domestic consequences? Imagine my shock, then, when I discovered that it is indeed possible for a Muslim husband to have a rousing volley of back-and-forth that didn’t result in the nushooz-card being waved about angrily in the end. A marriage in which a husband and wife can having vocal disagreement on a variety of topics without damaging their personal relationship is a marriage built upon security.
In fact, one of the most famous marriages in our Islamic history – that of A’ishah (May Allah be pleased with her) and Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) – was full of stories in which they used to have many enthusiastic exchanges… and not always in agreement. Yet despite their numerous debates and disagreements, their love remained strong.
4- Like a person before loving them. Love is a tricky, messy, complicated thing. Love screws you up sometimes. People fall in and out of love all the time. But liking someone… ahhh, there’s the secret. I was pretty sure I liked my husband before I married him – he was calm, level-headed, ethical, principled, intelligent, with a sense of humor and overall good character that appealed to me – but the part that really shocked me was when I realized how much I really liked him.
It’s the kind of like you have for a best friend, whom you’re eager to talk to and whose company you enjoy, whether doing things together or separately. It’s the kind of like where you could be mad at them and ignore them or fight with them, but you already miss them and you just want it over with so that you can tell them about the new exciting thing you just saw. So while I did love him, and continue to increase in that love, it’s the like part that makes things so much better when the love part really just pisses you off sometimes and has you stupidly crying into a pillow and sharing melodramatic quotes on Facebook.
5- There’s more than one kind of marriage, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. This one might be more long-distance/ polygamy related, but it’s still an important lesson. We plan, and Allah plans, and Allah is the Best of Planners. Initially, our plan wasn’t to live in separate households or even countries… but that’s what happened.
One of the many fears I grappled with was the idea that my marriage didn’t count enough, or wasn’t serious enough, or wasn’t good enough, in comparison to one where the husband and wife are together and/or monogamous. Not having a great relationship track record didn’t help, either. A couple years later, I still have my off days, but I’ve come to recognize that my marriage is a real marriage, and is just as legitimate as anyone else’s. I love my husband, and though our marital arrangements may not be the norm, I take our relationship very seriously.
It is easy for some people to write off non-monogamous marriages as not being “real” enough, but this flies contrary to the Sunnah itself. The Prophet’s polygamous marriages to his wives after Khadijah (May Allah be pleased with her) were just as valid as his monogamous marriage to her.
While some people try to dismiss his polygamous marriages as simply being relationships of political advantage, to do so is to imply that he (PBUH) did not have genuine personal feelings of love and care for them, and that he was – in essence – using them for his own advantage. Yet when one looks at how he interacted with them, his love for them (and their love for him) is clear. Thus, regardless of how others consider polygamy, it is important to acknowledge that for those who have chosen it for themselves, their marriages are deserving of respect.
6- Be a secure person in order to have a secure relationship. As cliche as this may sound, it’s true. Sadly, Muslims tend to be really bad at being healthy individuals. Many of us are taught from childhood to be extremely dependent on others around us – whether parents or spouses. Few of us learn early on what it means to be secure in one’s own sense of self.
For myself, an additional blessing of a long distance relationship is that I was provided with the opportunity to really establish myself as myself. I’d grown up pretty sheltered, and was relatively young when I’d first gotten married. Seeking the other party’s constant approval was a destructive characteristic of that relationship, and the consequences of disapproval were high. This time, though, I was forced to face myself head-on, to live on my own and be responsible for much of my own emotional well-being. Moving away from my previous habits of emotional dependency was jarring, but incredible – I no longer hinge my complete happiness and mental presence on another person’s moods.
Instead of feeling tied to someone out of obligation or emotional coercion, the feeling of wanting to be with that person is far more pleasurable, and leads to feeling stronger in that relationship. Being secure, and not emotionally dependent (which isn’t romantic btw, it’s just depressing), makes it much easier to resolve conflicts and to enjoy the good times.
7- Get over yourself. Seriously, just get over yourself. We all like to think that we’re better people than we actually are, that our flaws aren’t as bad as others’ shortcomings are, but we’re not. We suck as much as the other person does. It’s just a matter of admitting and acknowledging what our faults are, and managing them instead of denying them or trying to play the victim.
Before making it about you vs. your spouse, remember that it’s about you vs. your scale of deeds on the Day of Judgment. Don’t act like you’re just humoring the other person when you apologize for something awful that you said or did; know that Allah is fully aware of your sincerity, and seek to rectify yourself for His Sake before anyone else’s. Don’t go to the other extreme either, and wallow in self pity bemoaning how terrible you are. Just… get over yourself. We all have faults, and you are no exception. The real issue at hand is what you’re going to do about it. 8- Being supportive doesn’t mean never disagreeing. Many of us have fallen for the pseudo-romantic “advice” that to be a supportive partner means to never offer criticism or objection – no matter how constructive your feedback may be. That’s not being supportive, that’s being a simpering sycophant.
While initially very defensive about receiving criticism, I realized that it wasn’t doing me any good to only hear praise – neither my behavior nor my work would improve. Instead, I’ve come to appreciate when my husband points out just how idiotic I’ve been acting, or when my argument has gaping holes. He’s never stopped me from doing what I care about, and done everything possible to support me in what I love – but he’ll also point out where exactly I’m in danger of doing something really stupid.
As annoyed as I might be in the moment (it sucks being wrong), at the end of the day, I know that he isn’t trying to sabotage me – he really wants me to do well, and to do what is right. Of course, it doesn’t mean that he’s always right, either – but when he is, I’ll try swallow my pride and take him seriously. And try not to be mad at him. (Usually.)
Don’t be a Stepford spouse – be someone who sincerely wants the best for your spouse, even if it means pointing out when they’re doing something epically stupid. Remember – adDeen anNaseeha (Religion is advice).
9- “The Ideal Muslim Marriage” doesn’t exist. All those articles and lectures about wives babying men or husbands putting up with women because you can’t live with’em, you can’t live without’em is nonsense. The model that we’re provided with is, to be frank, pretty weird and unhealthy, encouraging emotional dependence and engendering a lack of genuine respect for each other.
The ideal Muslim marriage isn’t about playing a certain domestic role in a specific way (and being guilted into it with a significant amount of spiritual blackmail). It’s about having the right priorities – both spiritually and with regards to your personal relationship. It’s about genuinely caring for each other’s well-being, respecting each other even in times of conflict, and truly enjoying being with each other.
Life will suck sometimes – perhaps even often – and there will be many unpleasant moments along the way, but it’s one’s sense of taqwa and compassion for the other person that will get you through it and remember that it’s all worth it. Don’t be a good husband or wife because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do – be a good spouse because you care for them, and want the best for them in this world and the Hereafter.
Even prophet Muhammad’s marriages were not “ideal” in the sense that his wives were not all identical, cookie-cutter women – they all had very different personalities, they experienced conflict with him, but they also loved him deeply. They interacted in a manner that was sincere, that reflected themselves as individuals, and yet with the constant awareness of their personal accountability to Allah.
10- True Qawwam Do Exist. It is painfully easy to see the many, many examples of Muslim men doing it wrong – men who are neglectful, weak, abusive, irresponsible, lacking in character, selfish, and immature. Yet despite how many bad examples there are of Muslim men, there are still those who seek to uphold the Sunnah by being true qawwam: men who embody the values of honour, dignity, responsibility, mercy, justice, and sincere love for both their families and the Ummah at large.
These men are the ones who strive to fulfill their wives’ rights before demanding their own; who understand the severity of responsibility that has been placed upon their shoulders; who know that being a Muslim man is not simply about being a financial breadwinner, but a loving husband and father, engaged with his wife and children. These are the men who do not recoil at the idea of marrying widows or divorcees, or raising children who do not share their DNA; these are the men who do not place their egos or their culture above the commands of Allah, but make an effort to overcome their own inclinations for the Sake of Allah’s Pleasure.
These men are not perfect – they make their own mistakes, they struggle with their own shortcomings, and honestly, they can mess up as well as the next person – but what sets them apart from the majority of mediocre males is that they never stop trying to do better and be better… as Muslims, as husbands, as fathers. True qawwaam are rare, but not extinct – and to have one in my life is a blessing to be treasured.
11- Love. It’s Real. It… really is. It’s more than a little terrifying, especially when one tries to maintain a certain level of skepticism for safety reasons. But it’s also giddy, and fun, and awesome, and worth all the hard stuff and messy bits. Happily ever afters might actually exist, just not the way that we’ve been indoctrinated into believing. Instead of the usual nausea-inducing cliches surrounding romance (or the opposite extreme – that it doesn’t exist), love manifests in so many other ways – with an inside joke, or a gift that doesn’t make sense to anyone else but you two, or knowing how to end a fight the right way.
It’s the small silly things and the big dramatic things and all the mundane things in between. How do you know it’s real? When thinking of your future with them is not accompanied by a sense of impending doom and misery. And you’re kinda (really) excited about it.
Silly as this all may seem, and perhaps in contradiction to much of the marriage advice peddled by Muslim writers and teachers, these are nonetheless some of the most solid relationship lessons I have derived through experience. Contrasting my previous experience with my current one has been interesting, with sometimes unexpected results (like the whole falling in love thing…woah). And so here I am, slightly less bitter and slightly less cynical and slightly more practical and wiser (I hope).
May Allah grant us all the (somewhat disconcerting and pleasantly surprising) experience of a blessed marriage to a true qawwam, ameen.