Marriage...Interrupted, Part 3: The Half-Marriage

Before...and after.

Anyone who doesn't know the details of a couple's separation and divorce process sees only two moments in time: before the divorce and after the divorce. The before shot is an image of the happy couple, embraces and smiles shining brightly on Facebook profile and vacation pictures. *Sigh* And that of the "after" picture is a couple now split into two by a perfectly placed tear down the middle of a previously "happy" picture. Back to solo profile pictures, the maiden name, and deleted social media connections to the previous spouse and in-laws.

But what most people don't see are the numerous different snapshots of the roller-coaster struggle that married couples face between the before and after pictures. People don't see the endless number of conversations between husband and wife; the long hours on the phone with a supportive friend and the tears cried over the confusion; the shock upon first hearing the honest truth from your spouse that leaves you reeling; the attempts of family members to reconcile the situation; the conversation at the dinner table about the decision to separate and trying to negotiate a timeline; the tears and silence that remain after your spouse moves all of their belongings, and themselves, out; the awkward conversations to check in with one another, that consist more of long pauses; the panic that ensues inside when a friend who doesn't know what's going on asks how your spouse is doing; and the moment you realize that your spouse has become a stranger. It's a painful process that I would never want anyone else to experience, and that only those who are involved see.

How many of us who are divorced can confidently state that we were "happily married" for the majority of our marriage? Can we define our marriage in the way that it should be defined as, from an Islamic and/or healthy relationship perspective? Or did things start out OK and then quickly derail from there? Or worse yet, were there signs in the beginning that were either ignored or minimized, since marriage was thought to inshallah "make things better?" We are human after all, and love in a strong emotion that can cloud logic.

I've come to realize that when you're in a situation where you're receiving less of what you deserve, your standards tend to lower over time, and you're consequently satisfied with less. And these standards continue to lower over time. Since our marriage ended in divorce, I don't really know if people understand that most of one's marriage can be spent in the trouble-shooting stage, as it did for us. I consider myself to have been "half-married." The first year was absolutely the "honeymoon" phase, and then everything went haywire from the start of year two onwards, until things Islamically ended almost two months ago now. I vividly remember telling a good friend, in September of 2013, that it seems like "a switch has been flicked off," as if my spouse was a different person than when I had married him. I knew at that point the difference between normal relationship struggles and those that ran much deeper and seemed non-reconcilable. This phase started a mere 14 months after we tied the knot. In my humble opinion, if a marriage spends more time in the "trouble" zone, is that really a healthy marriage? I'm not raising this point to avoid the label of "previously married" or "divorcee", otherwise I wouldn't publicly be blogging about my experiences. I'm raising this point because divorce carries such a strong stigma within our community, which I think stems from the ignorance people have about what couples go through before they decide to divorce. We're not talking about two snapshots in time of the before and after pictures...we're talking about an entire album of moments that only the two individuals themselves are privy to.

Another assumption people on the outside have is that divorcees have "unfixable" flaws that led to their marriage demise, and ultimately this will happen again in the future. While I am sure there are blatant examples of people who absolutely compromise their marriage through negative outwards behaviours such as abuse, neglect, infidelity, etc, none of this may be true in the majority of cases. For example, studies by both Muslim Matters and Sound Vision list the following reasons as the most commonly occurring that lead to divorce: religious or social incompatibility, financial issues, cultural differences, and family strifes. I would hope that in the majority of cases, both parties would assume some responsibility and look into how they can improve in certain areas/qualities.

In our case, we are not "broken" people who can't be fixed. Speaking for myself, I've learned a lot about who I am, my strengths and weaknesses, and what I am seeking in a life partner. And really, many marriages exist where the two individuals involved are just not compatible, regardless of how much effort is placed into the situation. Some differences are just too engrained and run too deep to be filled and repaired. One person may have entered into marriage for different, and ultimately, the wrong reasons as the other. And some of these differences were present from the beginning, but unfortunately, the dopamine-driven love-filled rainbows and butterfly stage overshadowed this. Hindsight, I suppose.

The 50/50 occurrence of divorce doesn't seem like it's going away anytime soon. There are no quick fix solutions, but I think our communities can do a better job of preparing couples for marriage. A few thoughts I have on this matter are below.

1. Muslims often spend a limited amount of time in the engagement period, which is when couples should really be getting to know one another. Unfortunately, most of this time is spent wedding planning, and the lovey-dovey feeling kicks in and shadows any practical and functional assessment of compatibility. As hard as it can be, couples need to think practically about their future spouse, and perhaps should rely on good friends and trusted family members who can perform "screenings" and point out potential "red flags." While it can be challenging for someone "in love" to hear this objective feedback, it's absolutely critical. And while I don't know how many people would actually take this feedback critically, it's important that it at least be considered. Especially if one or both members of the couple have their head in the clouds.

2. We need to be incredibly self-aware about ourselves and honest about our strengths and flaws before we enter into a relationship. I spend a lot of time talking to Muslim youth about the importance of self-development and awareness prior to marriage. Perhaps one of the reasons our community has seen an outbreak of divorce is because many individuals overestimate their ability to enter into marriage and balance its intricacies. It's easy to get excited by the idea of marriage but it's a whole other thing to be the spouse that your partner needs. It's a lot of work, day in and day out. How can you fully be that spouse if you're not even aware of yourself as a person?

3. There's a difference between being in love and loving someone. While we all hope that the first leads to the second, it does not always happen, as it didn't in our case. I've read articles that state that the "in love" feeling can kick in as soon as two weeks after meeting someone for the first time. So perhaps soon after we meet someone, we should cognitively be aware of this fact and remain as objective as possible. As exciting as it is to get to know someone (side note: the idea of doing this again currently makes me sick!), we're talking about the rest of your lives here, and thus some "holding back" of emotions and feelings should be done to perform that initial compatibility assessment. I am sure this is easier said than done, but our frontal lobes are there for a reason and CAN control the emotions of our lower brain centres. There's plenty of time for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai after the wedding! 

4. Ask each other the real questions you're avoiding, and ask them early. Forget about their favourite type of food and the places they want to travel - these questions can come later. Focus on the essential characteristics required in a marriage, such as problem solving, balancing life responsibilities, spirituality and religious involvement, emotional regulation, etc. These are the qualities that need to be focused on before the types of dates and travel plans are determined. If you don't have the foundation (which I think is essentially a solid friendship and basis of respect and honesty towards one another), then those fancy dinners and overseas excursion plans mean absolutely nothing. 

Back to friendship for a minute. We really need to get the Hollywood/Bollywood notion of what it's like to meet "the one" out of our heads. While being "in love" with someone can become a healthy marriage with a strong basis of friendship and respect, this isn't always the case. It wasn't in mine.

What's also hilarious to me is how no one talked to me about the qualities I should look for in a spouse, how to properly determine if compatibility, etc is present, and potential red flags I should be aware of. I grew up in a conservative "we don't talk about anything" type of household. I was told dating was haram and I obeyed. I didn't even start thinking about the "m" word until my mid-20s because my education and career was emphasized over the "m" word. And even when I started thinking about the "m" word, I had little self-awareness of myself as a potential wife and even less awareness of what I should be looking for in a spouse. Can we say confusing?

It's not like youth or young adults download information about marriage and spouse-finding tips when they hit a certain age. If these issues aren't talked about, the information will be filled by unrealistic movies, unhealthy relationships present in the young adult's life, or worse yet, filled by nothing and they'll spend painful moments learning all of this for themselves. This is not fair. Our community and families are not doing this generation and the ones after us any justice by keeping this vital information away from those who need it. And if parents and community members aren't feeling adequate or confident enough to talk about these issues, then bring in someone who is.

There are so many things I wish I had been told about spouse-seeking and marriage, I don't know where to start. One thing I have learned the hard way is that I don't want the "in love" phase anywhere close to me during the "getting the know stage." I want friendship - practical friendship first; HONESTY; commonalities in life perspective and outlook; mutual respect; sharing of life goals and previous life experiences; common spiritual outlook and a desire to always learn and improve; and the ability to be myself and be accepted for my strengths and weaknesses. I need someone solid enough that they aren't going to change their mind after the wedding when reality hits. I need to know that this person is the one person I can depend on, no matter what, and that everything I put into our relationship will be backed up by mutual efforts and respect. I don't want to hear words, I want to see action. Words mean nothing when they're backed up by inaction.

Now think...how many aged 18+ Muslims can eloquently state, in a healthy and practical way, what they're seeking in a spouse? Why are we not teaching youth self-awareness and awareness of others from the adolescent stage, when they're HUNGRY for this information? Education doesn't lead to sin and curiosity, it leads to healthy and informed decision making.

Houston (and Calgary), we have a problem.

There's so much more on the topic of marriage preparation that can serve as prevention for the unhealthy and "half marriages" we're seeing in our community. We're often too focused on reacting to divorces we hear about in the community that we don't empathize with individuals and think about how the heck we can stop the already too-high divorce rate from increasing.

We need to talk more about marriage, from the practical and "been there" perspective, if we're ever going to get beyond the stigmas and stereotypes around divorce. Since Muslims aren't typically allowed to date (if not for marriage purposes, with each person defining "dating" differently), most Muslims have no frame of reference when it comes to choosing a life partner. In this case, we need to provide that frame of reference in alternate forms, through equipping with them the skills they need to start seeking a compatible spouse. It's called case studies; role plays to practice communication skills and setting boundaries; learning about marriage from the time of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and the wealth of information in our religious literature; and reading stories and narratives from married and now divorced people's perspectives, etc.

We really need to go back to the basics. If we're not raising healthy, balanced, and aware individuals, then we really can't expect anything to change. We'll continue to see the epidemic of half-marriages in our community, with many hurt and confused individuals wondering what went wrong.

And no-one wants that.

Comments

  1. I really want to commend you for writing this. It's extremely difficult for someone to open their heart and share such a painful experience in their life with others in order to pass on wisdom. I knew a woman who went through a divorce for the same reasons. It was so painful for her. However, she has since found someone else and is extremely happy. So have faith, as Allah (swt) will send the right man for you when the time is right and you'll feel that love again. Something I learned from her though was that having a partner in life isn't a prerequisite for your happiness. And it was with that emotional mindset that when someone who could appreciate her approached, she was able to move forward with a relationship. Salamu Alaikum.

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