Marriage...Interrupted, Part I: The Separation

No one gets married with the intention that they will get divorced, nor do they think that divorce will ever happen to them.

But it does. And within our own Muslim communities and that of the mainstream population, divorce happens approximately 50% of the time. The majority, within our own community, are after between three to seven years of marriage, followed by one to two years. Marriages that are still in their infant stages, but for a whole host of complicated reasons, they cannot and do not survive.

Survey results from a poll initiated by Muslim Matters in January 2014. See the full article here: http://muslimmatters.org/2014/01/18/second-chance/ 
To state that there is stigma in our community around divorce would be an understatement. For something that happens at astounding rates, we are doing a horrible job at (a) holding safe conversations for people to share experiences and receive support; (b) educating couples prior to the wedding regarding marriage strategies; (c) supporting those who have gone through divorce with re-entering the marriage arena, should they desire to do so; and (d) not passing judgments onto those who have been through or are going through divorce.

I hope you agree when I say that Muslims generally don't speak about divorce. Most of the separation period of three months between husband and wife, and the legal divorce process itself, is very hush hush and private. While matters between husband and wife should be private and up to individuals to share, what happens most of the time by surrounding people is wild speculation about why said marriage failed.

Maybe she cannot get pregnant, whispers one Auntie.

No, I think he cheated on her, whispers another Auntie.

Maybe you don't need to know the reason, but that it was the best decision for the situation, with Allah's guidance and support, yells this blogger to the Aunties.

Well, not yet, but I wish I could. One day I will inshallah.

When my husband and I decided to separate and did so three months ago, I did a Google search to see if I could read personal accounts of what other Muslim women had gone through (the reason I searched for Muslim women is that Islamically, there's a three month waiting period to ensure that the woman is not pregnant before the Islamic divorce is recognized). Since this waiting period is very specific to Islam, and can entail either the couple living in the same space or one person moving out, I wanted to see if a Muslim woman had been brave enough to share her experiences as support for others going through the same thing.

But there wasn't, and I was incredibly disappointed. There was website after website around the Islamic regulations around divorce, most of which I knew thanks to resources I already had. What I was looking for was a sister to sister conversation about the process of separation and getting ready for divorce (if the path leads there for couples, which it is in our case). But no one had written such an account. With the way our Muslim communities act around divorce and other social issues, I don't blame these women for keeping things on the DL.

Going through any major life event is not easy. My counsellor told me that the way many people deal with adverse events is by creating meaning from them. You assign a purpose to the tests and challenges you're going through as a means to create some sort of positiveness emanating from an often dark place. While my faith has been my stability in times of challenge, and in this case it is as well, I need to do something else to try and turn these experiences into learning moments. And so when my own search for online support came up blank, and I saw this statement and then a similar one by Yasmin Mogahed on the topic of her own divorce, I decided to put something out there with the hopes that someone searching for support would stumble across this blog and realize that they're not alone.

So if you're reading this, and are in the separation, divorce, or post-divorce phase, you're not alone. Things may seem lonely at times, but you're not alone in your struggles, tears, emotional roller-coaster rides, and sometimes, hopelessness.

It's safe to say that the separation phase for us has been very challenging. While it was a mutual decision, it's one thing to talk about the need to do it and another to carry it through. You may feel a sense of relief to have space to think about things, but then realize that you're all alone, and as a result, the house feels colder than usual because there's one less body living there. You may feel like you have the added time and energy to focus on yourself to figure out what's best for you, but then you come back from work to an empty space and you keep working because it keeps your mind distracted and busy from this loneliness. Cooking and eating are suddenly as much effort as domestic chores. You may feel like this is just another test from Allah and you're strong enough to handle it inshallah, but then you burst into tears when you're praying because you realize that the marriage you'd waited to devote yourself to and the new life you envisioned has been interrupted.

Your marriage has been...interrupted.

The separation phase, from an Islamic perspective, is to give "time to think things through" and can be temporary if the divorce is verbally revoked (or intimacy happens). While there are couples who reconcile after the three month waiting period, they will have to re-perform the marriage ceremony (called Nikah in Arabic) in this case. I am fairly confident in saying that you need to pay attention to your mind, heart, body and Allah's guidance during this time. A decision will have to be made before the three month period is over: either you allow the three months to play out and you're Islamically divorced, or you reconcile and start re-building your marriage together. It's a beautiful and brilliant system when followed, since it's just enough time to have space to think and yet to not be back to square one as a couple if you decide to reconcile.

While I am not an expert in anything, I would like to provide some guidance to those who are in the separation phase or contemplating this phase. Again, these experiences may be unique to me, and thus these strategies may not work. But I hope that they at least remind you that you're not alone or give you a sense of what to consider when working through separation (this applies to our case since it was mutual, calm and no abuse, etc was involved. It's a different case if safety is an issue or both parties are not on good terms with one another).

1. Discuss with your spouse ahead of time regarding communication method and frequency (as well as visiting each other's families, mutual friends, social media communication and activity with one another, etc), whether or not you'll be living in the same space or not. 

We are in different spaces right now, which helps, since we don't see each other. At the same time, if you're talking to each other every day and messaging each other with the same frequency as before, you're not giving each other the time you need to figure things out. The start of the separation can be the most emotionally charged, since you're getting used to how things will be. I recommend discussing a "touch base" schedule that suits you best, to ensure that you're both doing ok and to discuss any logistics needed. But daily communication or visits are things I don't recommend. It can make things very messy. 

2. Ensure that you've met with a religious leader you trust to seek support around separation or to at least check in with about your understanding of what it entails.

Not every community has an Imam that is gentle, understanding and solid in their support around separation. We found it helpful to consult with an Imam to ensure we were on the right track with our reason to separate and how it would come out. The husband has to pronounce that he divorces the wife (stated only once, not three times as commonly but mistakingly thought) before the 3 month separation begins. This is just one logistic, so it's good to make sure you're both on the same page.

3. Maintain a strong circle of support around you. Identify 2-3 close friends you feel confident around to confide in.

It will be a lifesaver to chat with them, let me tell you! I have 3 friends who are my "go-to" during times of need, and I know that they literally drop things to make themselves available whenever I'm in need of an ear (hopefully, I return the favour as well!). I also recommend counselling, as I found myself getting trapped in circular thought patterns that were harming me more than doing any good. And it felt good to speak to a professional since they often shed different light on the situation and it helped me come up with strategies around emotional and cognitive management.

4. Self-care is critical! 

And I don't mean indulging in numerous shopping sprees by this, although shopping in moderation is not bad for you :) You know what best soothes, re-energizes, and gives you a sense of enjoyment. Make sure you schedule in time during the week to do these activities. Also make sure that you're not compensating for your struggles by working more or engaging in risky behaviours. I confess to making the "working too much" mistake and I realize now that I've been doing this for three months. I have a plan to slow down and luckily my 3 "go-to" friends call me out on this as well. Balance is key, as well as exercise and healthy eating, and prayer is a huge part of self-care too. I lost my appetite for two weeks when we first separated, and lived off cereal, oatmeal and eggs. I just didn't have an appetite nor the motivation to cook. One of my work colleagues ended up cooking food for me, which I appreciate to this day. There's something friends can do for one another during any time of need!

5. It's OK to feel whatever you're feeling. I can't reiterate this enough.

Whether you're at work and need a breather or want to stay at home rather than going out because you feel a surge of tears or emotions, it's OK. We all feel different things in response to different events in life. Do what you need to do in the moment, and don't feel guilty. At the same time, pay attention to how "low" your mood gets and the degree of impact it has on your day to day activities. If you don't have the motivation to do anything during the day or much less than during other times of need, then definitely check in with a professional. The added bonus of seeing a counsellor right away is that they'll have a baseline of your normal functioning to look at if you tell them you're less functional than normal. But emotional roller-coasters are to expected. Be kind to yourself, don't compare to others, and be aware of triggers that may instigate your emotions and try to think of ways you can deal with them until you get home and the floodgates can officially open! :)

6. Don't be afraid to use the following statement towards those who are nosy: mind your own business! 

There will always be prying Aunties, distant friends who are curious, or even in-laws or your own family members who think they can "save" your marriage by interfering and stirring up drama. Be aware of what your boundaries are, discuss this with your spouse if you need to, and draw the line. This separation time is about you and your spouse, and no one should be interfering unless you've invited them into the conversation. Put on your best "stay out of this!" face, be assertive, and do what you need to do to protect yourself from here-say and meddling mumblings.

7. Turn to Allah for guidance as often as you need. Pray Istikhara (prayer for guidance) often and more than once. 

We all have different relationships with Allah and there's formal prayer structures we can use as well as informal ones (like, while you're experiencing a breakdown!). You know what is best for you in terms of prayer and spiritual guidance. For myself personally, I know I turn to Allah a lot and it did bring me comfort in knowing that (Inshallah) my prayers would be answered. I also know that engaging in Islamic learning of some sort helps me pay attention to something more than the separation. You don't want to, of course, be focused on the separation all the time. That's not healthy either (Note: if you're not sure how to pray Istikhara, there's guides online that can be found with a Google search. It's a very brief prayer recitation)

8. Uphold integrity and respect for yourself and your spouse during this time, and beyond. 

It can be very easy to get into heated debates, etc with your spouse. Emotions are high, people are hurt, and your ego is calling out to you as a form of defence. I'd like to suggest that arguments and under-cutting statements towards your spouse are not only unproductive, but they also show how little respect you have for yourself. Your spouse is most likely struggling as much as you are, and they're hurt as much as you are. Try your best to swallow your pride and uphold the Islamic characteristics of respect, dignity, not backbiting, and letting things go. You'll inshallah be rewarded for taking the higher road.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list of suggestions, and again, we are each so different that we will need to figure out what works best for our situation. My hope is that this post is at least a beacon of support for those who need it, and a time of steadfast compassion and empathy towards those who are going through separation and/or divorce. 

Remember, if Allah can place a person in your path for the purpose of marriage, Allah can also take them away. Just as marriage is a part of someone's fate, so too is divorce.

Maybe if we embraced this notion a little closer, we wouldn't act as shameful and immature around the struggle that is divorce, and instead use our energy to provide support and resources to those who need it.

And Allah knows best.

Comments

  1. JazzakAllahu khairan for writing about your experience sister. Unfortunately it taken me nearly 4 months to come across a sister account of divorce. Even though you wrote this blog just under 2 years; the situation the has still not changed. You're a beacon of hope to share your experience going through divorce for me. I am grateful as sister you did. You have also inspired me even more to write my own account of divorce document it as blog. It is truly an isolated topic in our muslim community with no much support. I hope this changes surely with time and effort.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Salaam Alaikum sister, thank you so much for reaching out to me, I really appreciate it. I'm sorry it took you so long to find this online support. Mashallah for wanting to share your experiences, our communities need more of this - we have too much shame around life circumstances that are very common. May Allah make this time easier for you and may you Inshallah be granted much peace and tranquility and the best, which you surely deserve.

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  2. Muslim Sistah, I am contemplating divorce right now and I would love to talk to you about your experience and what it could mean to me.
    Is there any way we can touch base?

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    Replies
    1. Salaam Nadia! Thanks for reaching our - and yes, I'd love to be able to support you with this. Can you email me at sameera@heartwomenandgirls.org and we can set up a time to talk inshallah! :)

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