On Fathers and Failed Relationships

Men.

I've been thinking a lot about men. But not in the way you're thinking that I'm thinking about men. Sorry to disappoint you.

I'm reading a book called "Rebuilding" and an early chapter encourages the reader to think about their parental relationships and how they may have impacted future relationships with the opposite gender. This may sound Freudian in nature, but I gave it a chance. After all, my views on marriage were born from my parents' marriage, since that was the example I was exposed to my entire life. But I'd have to go further and examine my relationship with my dad, to see if this could inform me of my views on relationships, marriage and ultimately towards men. A later chapter then asks the reader to reflect on relationships with men (i.e. dating or marriage) to examine if there were specific patterns that developed from maladaptive experiences.

As I am sure you know, our community doesn't openly talk about a lot of things. But one thing is certain - Muslims don't talk about dating. Regardless of how common it is and how broad the definition of dating is (thereby encompassing everyone's viewpoints and preferences on the matter) - we don't talk about it. Because obviously, dating is haraam (sarcasm).

In reality, Muslims DO date. I don't care how much someone argues this point, we date! Whether it be in public at a coffee shop, behind closed doors in a bedroom, online, or with families and the potential spouse at the dinner table. Any form of "getting to know" someone is dating and we need to accept this. But as soon as we hear the word "dating", we automatically equate this with pre-marital sex. And I'm sorry to disappoint those of you who define it in this way, but that is not the reality for many Muslims who date! And we also need to accept that there are probably specific people we've dated (or even married) that have shaped how we view relationships, the opposite gender, and our expectations (or lack thereof). Until we understand these experiences and how they've skewed our perceptions and interactions, we cannot have healthier interactions within relationships.

But again, we don't talk about this even though we must. Because with 50% of marriages ending in divorce and multiple forms of abuse rampant, we have an issue on our hands, and no one seems to want to talk about this.

But I do and I will.

I think we need to start at the beginning - with my dad.

O Father, Where Art Thou?

I've unfortunately never had a close relationship with my dad. I sometimes wonder if it's because I'm a girl, but then I realize that he's not even close to my two younger brothers. He's never been the loving father type of figure I've seen my friends have, or what I would want my husband to be to our children. Yes, he's always provided financially but that's pretty much been it. I try to think back to childhood memories with my father and I don't have much to draw from. All of my memories are with my mom and brothers - not with my dad.

This didn't change much as I grew older. I didn't receive any words of encouragement or praise from him. There was limited interaction as his work hours seemed to increase year after year into the wee hours of the night...and on weekends. Apart from a signature on my annual birthday card with the same words jotted down each year - "I'm proud of you, my daughter" - I didn't get much of anything emotional from my dad.

But what he was proud of, I never knew. And I still don't know. I don't think my dad could tell you what I'm doing for a living. I don't think he could describe to you what I'm passionate about with regards to my work. He couldn't tell you what I enjoy doing in my spare time, the names of my closest friends, my deepest fears, or my happiest moments. He couldn't tell you a single detail of my now failed marriage and how it ended up in divorce. He couldn't tell you the other experiences I've had in my life that I'm still dealing with today.

I also bet he couldn't tell you the last time he sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and had an honest conversation with me.

Because I have a very good memory and I can't tell you the last time we did either.

A few years ago, I had to ask him to please stop referring to me in the third person, because it bothered me so much. "So, how's Sameera doing today?" or sometimes "So, how's Sameera's work going?" I don't use the word hate very often, but I really did hate these words coming out of his mouth. It made me feel like anything but his daughter. I told him to start talking to me directly, treating me as if I was in the room, and addressing me to my face. He couldn't sustain this request for very long.

My dad has always acted like he was in another world. He may have been physically present for brief moments in my life, but he was never emotionally there. His ability to space out is uncanny and I've lost count of how many times I'd have to repeat myself when I was speaking with him. Or how often his responses to my questions were completely off the wall and unrelated.

And yet, he could spend hours in a day being attentive to his patient's needs, and would receive rave reviews about the quality of physician he was. Anytime someone in the community linked me to him, they would exclaim "OH MY GOSH, you're Dr. so-and-so's daughter? No way! Mashallah, he's such a great doctor." To this day, I have no choice but to smile and agree.

But what about his role as a father? I feel like screaming in response.

I've blamed myself for our failed relationship for many years. I've blamed myself for not being a good enough daughter, for not getting into medical school to live up to his dream, and for not being able to engage and keep my dad's interest. Maybe I'm just not good enough. It's only recently that I've started to wonder if he should perhaps hold some accountability. Maybe he couldn't express himself verbally to me, I think. Maybe he's not an emotional person to begin with, I rationalize.

Does this remind you of the 70 excuses we're taught to give others before we become suspicious?

But at the end of the day, I am his daughter and he is my father. There are obligations that a father has towards his children, and I'm not talking about financial provision. Fathers are also responsible for their children's mental and physical wellbeing. They need to be present in their lives as much as mothers are. I've never understood the term "daddy's little girl." I truly envy those people I see with strong relationships with their father. Especially my girlfriends. I grew up without a caring or nurturing male figure in my life.

My dad never spoke to me about the type of man I deserved to marry. I understood my parents' marriage of a non-present father and husband to be the standard to which I need to aspire to. 

My father has never called me beautiful, has never said the words "I'm proud of you" to my face, and has never offered to be an ear when I needed someone to talk to.

And somehow I think that this hasn't impacted me to this day?

It has.

When I stand up in front of parents and I speak to the fathers in the room and plead with them to spend time and to speak compassionate words to especially their daughters, I'm coming from a place of knowing what it feels like to never have had any of this. And it's hard not to feel hopeless in that moment because I'm pretty sure that I'll never receive it from him in the future.

But this point is futile. Things are what they are, and I have to deal with them.

And the most important relationship I could have with a man in my life, my father, is non-existent.

Strike 1.

The Good Man

I first started to consider marriage when I moved back to Calgary after grad school. My education was no longer in the way, since it was over and done with, and I settled into the rhythm of full-time work. It was 2007 and I had absolutely no connection to the Muslim community here. My work with the community had not started yet, and it wouldn't until a year later. I therefore decided to try an online means of meeting someone.

And meet someone, I did.

He was an engineer in Toronto. Pakistani background. We both had the intentions of getting to know one another for marriage, we made that clear from the start. If things weren't clicking, we agreed to end communication right away. We exchanged emails and hit it off right away - we had similar religious views; a sense of humour; spent most of our lives raised in the West; he was incredibly respectful and caring, had career goals and drive, and was studying for his MBA while working full-time. Yet he was down to earth and humble. Compatibility wise, it was all there. Our phone conversations were effortless. Laughter to no end, easy transitions to more serious marriage-related topics, and when we had disagreements, they were solved maturely. Looking back, he was the only person I had a relationship with who gave as much of his time and effort to me as I did with him. And this was entirely done long distance. Things at the time seemed picture perfect.

After a few months of us communicating, he was in Calgary for work and we met. I told my mom about him but she said nothing was "serious" yet and so my family didn't need to meet him right now. I don't know if I agreed with this at the time, but everything happens for a reason.

He went back to Toronto and we kept in touch. I then went to Toronto over winter break to visit my uncle (well, OK, I really went to see HIM!), and he was invited over for dinner with his family. His dad didn't show up (this is never a good sign), but his mom, sister and brother did.

Things went downhill pretty quickly.

I don't speak Urdu, and his family knew this. He was totally OK with this fact, but his mother was not. She ended up speaking with my aunt and uncle in Urdu the entire time they were there. I was never directly addressed by her - no questions, no comments, nothing. She sat with her back to me for most of the time. I kept getting reassuring glances across the room from him, but they did little to console me. His mother kept eyeing me up and down. My aunt later told me it because I wasn't wearing traditional Pakistani clothing.

Of course I freaking wasn't, I never had in my entire life! It wasn't who I was and I wasn't raised to be Pakistani! I was raised to be Muslim. Shouldn't that count for more?

I came back to Calgary two days later and we stayed in touch for a month longer.

Then the bomb was dropped one day over the phone.

"We can't continue this, my mother doesn't want me marrying someone who isn't Pakistani"

It's fair to say that my life fell apart. I was not only angry at his mother, but angry at him that he didn't have the guts to stand up for what he wanted. So what, I'm half of the culture his mother wants, and I'm not good enough for her son? Even though she had absolutely no context to how solid our relationship was at the time?

Essentially, yes.

We had spent 6 months in touch and it took just as long, if not longer, to recover from the shock of being rejected by his family and worse yet, him. He basically went cold turkey on me - he wouldn't return my calls, he didn't call me, nothing. It was like I didn't exist. Apparently, he was so traumatized by what he had to do over the phone, cold turkey was the only method that would work. Sure, it helps to quickly rip off a bandaid, but given that this was my first attempt at working towards marriage, I was devastated. I couldn't keep it together. I felt betrayed, like I wasn't good enough, and utterly lost. We had both seriously thought that we would be getting married - unless he knew it would never work out but kept this hidden from me.

I deleted and blocked any trace of the relationship off email and social media, including Facebook. Luckily, he deleted his account so that work was done for me.

Until a few months ago. God seriously works in mysterious ways.

Under the "recommended friends" section on my newsfeed, he showed up. Randomly. Even though he had remained blocked. I was confused. Seriously God, I thought, you're showing this to me NOW?

It appeared from his profile picture that he had found his soulmate. I think she looked Pakistani. Either that, or he had grown a pair and finally stood up for what he wanted.

Strike 2.

The Bad Man

(Note: Trigger warning)

When I say that it took me a long time to recover from the past experience, I think that I needed longer than I gave myself. When someone who has and is everything you could ever ask for in a potential spouse dumps you for his mom, it seriously messes you up. I wouldn't know until later, but my standards for what I looked for in a person dropped significantly. I became less objective and much more susceptible to being treated in a way that my counsellor would later tell me was emotionally abusive.

And I'm lucky it didn't escalate to physical violence.

I will not go into details with how things progressed towards abuse - how control and power were used to essentially reduce me into an excuse of a Muslim. Over a period of a year and a half, I endured things I wouldn't dare put up with now. And for those who know me personally, I consider myself to be very self aware and yet it took my mom confronting me to get out of this relationship and to see it for what it was - abusive.

I can understand why women in abusive situations often find it so challenging to leave. I contemplated ending things many times but I didn't. I honestly (and scarily) believed that he was the best and only person out there. And that I really was a bad and shameful person who wasn't the Muslim she thought she was. And I deserved to be treated in this way.

This piece of work used religion to emotionally abuse me to a point where I believed the insults he used. No one should ever hear the words he used towards me - and what he accused me of.  He went so far as to hack into my personal email account to find out about "my past", even though I was completely honest about my past relationship. That was the first time he called me a slut, for having communicated with someone for the purpose of marriage. 

His religiously emotional beatings involved telling me that I flirted with men when I was in public (I kept asking friends who knew me if there was any validation in this, and even after they reassured me there wasn't, I didn't believe them); that I needed to walk with my head down and not make eye contact with anyone; and that compared to the non-Muslim girls he'd had one night stands with in the past, they had more respect for him that I ever did and would.

The term "slut" and other unrepeatable terms were used numerous times towards me. His anger was out of control - he would often go from zero to sixty and all because I wasn't being a good Muslim. I stopped hanging out with girlfriends, I became quiet and withdrawn, and I started questioning everything I used to do with confidence. My mom told me one day that she saw no life in my eyes and yet I didn't tell her how bad things were. I was terrified.

I started wearing the hijab out of fear that I was a slut if I didn't. Because he told me that good Muslim girls wear hijab. So that's what I did. I attended a certain brand of weekend religious courses and started to feel shameful for all the "un-Islamic" things he told me I did in my past. This is probably the closest to being brainwashed I ever came to.

I wore the hijab for over four years before I realized that the reason I had started wearing it was not healthy. And so I stopped. I've never admitted this to be the reason for why I started and stopped wearing the hijab, but it was. You want to talk about what jihad really is? It's a real and personal struggle, and this is it for me.

When my mom convinced me to end things with him, and I ended up having to change my cell phone number to stop him from harassing me, I sought the help of a counsellor. I needed to. I'd never felt that "messed up" for lack of a better term. The relationship had left me utterly confused about my faith, what I had endured, and my self confidence had been shattered. I truly did not know who I was anymore.

All the while, I was juggling a very challenging job in a very challenging community.

It would take a long time to gain back the person I was before I had met him. I still think back to the fact that I almost married him. And I'm so thankful to Allah that He saved me from what could have been a much worse situation.

Then a year later, I received a call. It was him. He had found out my new number. You want to talk about things being creepy? What sane human being does this?

I was at work in a provincial videoconference, and luckily, was also alone in the room. I was so angry, I was shaking. I'm not the type of person to ever use obscenity or yell, but I raised my voice at him, dropped the F-bomb and told him that if he ever contacted me again, I was calling the police. Then I hung up.

That thankfully did the trick.

Strike 3.

The Failed Marriage

About a year and a half after the fiasco described above ended, I met my now ex-husband. This time, it was at an in-person marriage event that I had helped to arrange. We hit it off pretty quickly, and involved our families very quickly - they met within three weeks of us meeting, we were engaged three months after meeting, and married nine months after meeting.

I would like to make it very clear that it's not so much the timeline that's problematic as was our lack of a relationship foundation (hindsight).  It wasn't clear to me at the time that my future spouse was "going with the flow" and wouldn't know the difference between real love and something temporary. Or how much pressure he was receiving to get married because I was "a good catch". Relationships are too complicated to analyze and to this day, I cannot pinpoint what exactly went wrong during those nine months or the two years that followed. Things happen for a reason and if anything, I have learned a lot about marriage through the process of divorce.

Ironic.

I can't help but think about the past experiences I've described above and how they've impacted me to this day. The Good Man was, on paper and in reality, the Best Man I had ever come across. But it never worked out. The Bad Man was the worse situation I had ever been in. And with respect to my marriage - it lies somewhere in between.

I can't help but wonder if the failed relationship with the Good Man impacted my standards for relationships in the future. I reflect on the possibility that I subconsciously started to think that I don't deserve to be as happy and grounded in a relationship as I felt with him. It definitely appears this way and I see a pattern that I need to break.

I also can't help but wonder that if I had a strong attachment to my father who showed that he loved and cared about me, and educated me about what I do deserve and need in a husband, if my experiences would have been different?

What if my dad had stood up to these men and asked what they had to offer to his only daughter? Why should they deserve to have me in their life? And how would they convince my dad that I'd be in good and safe hands before he would allow them anywhere in my life?

Am I asking too much of my father to do this for me? The fact that I was honest and transparent with my parents about these relationships, and my dad did absolutely nothing to stand up for his daughter, I still don't understand.

I was left to fend for myself, something I've always had to do in this area of my life. And it's scary.

But I've learned a lot.

I've learned that if I do get married again, I will need my husband to have a strong relationship with his father. I do want and need a father-in-law who is present and engaged in my life, and who shows me that I'm someone worthy of receiving care and attention.

I've learned to initially treat a relationship as very practical and objective, and if I can't do this, I'll have friends who will do this for me. I don't want emotions getting involved until I am sure it's OK to get them involved. I will never tell someone I'm interested in them, or accept someone else's interest, unless I know for sure that there's objectivity in mine and their perspective.

I've learned to set my standards incredibly high, not out of being conceited or arrogant, but out of the pure fact that they've been low for seven years. I've learned to trust my gut instinct when something doesn't feel right, and to stand up and be assertive when I have doubts in my mind.

I've learned that I'm stronger than I ever have been, despite the breakdowns I still have when some of these memories re-surface. I've learned to be completely honest and sincere with others because I've come across too many people who aren't and it's been devastating. Honesty is such a simple concept yet so many people lack this quality. 

I do not play games and I won't accept being part of one.

And most importantly, I've learned that we need to talk about relationships, setting standards, and about what's healthy and unhealthy. I never had a safe space to ask questions or anyone guide me about how to navigate relationships. The work around marriage and spouse seeking, I did with no information at ALL. I am so blessed that I didn't end up in worse situations. I really believe that God has been watching over me the whole time.

I think that many people are afraid that they'll be judged for what they have to say about past experiences. I don't have any fear around this - those who know me hopefully see that my intentions are sincere and that I'm sharing very personal information about myself for the benefit of others. We all have unpacked baggage - some of us are good at keeping things packed up, but for myself, I can't. I need to analyze my past with the hopes that it will inform my future.

I know that there are other men and women out there who have had very similar experiences to mine, and they're dealing with the fallout to this day. 

For all those reading this, I hope that when you reflect on your experiences with relationships that this brings you a little more clarity and a different perspective. There are many factors that influence how we view and act in relationships. If we have more insight into some of our own experiences and views, then and only then can we start to make changes that will hopefully lead us to make more informed and healthier choices.

And what I find amazing, and perhaps an example of what resilience is, is that I am not jaded about relationships and marriage. I am not bitter, I don't resent the idea of being in a relationship, and I'm not about to declare that I would like to remain single for the rest of my life. When I come across a couple with a child or children and see the father completely engaged with his kids, I can't help but smile. When I see the boyfriend or husband act in a caring and respectful way towards his partner, it gives me hope. Past experiences are not indicative of future ones.

As scary as it is to pour all of these experiences into a public blog post, it's been a huge relief to get this out of my head and onto my screen. I've felt weighed down thinking about my past and the cyclical thought patterns have done nothing to help me analyze them productively. And while I've been very open in past entries, this is probably the first time I've been this open and vulnerable. But I'm very OK with being in this state. I am human after all.

I've also been thinking that my blog will one day come in handy (insert evil laugh - muah ha ha!). If I ever decide to pursue another relationship, Test #1 will be the potential person having to read all 170+ of my blog entries. If he can then answer very detailed and deliberate questions to PROVE that he's read my posts, he MIGHT be granted permission to proceed to the next phase of screening - an in-person interrogation (I mean, umm...meeting) with a handful of my closest and most trustworthy friends.

There's always a silver lining :)

Comments

  1. Your article made me think of this video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiKj0Z_Xnjc

    For the anglophones:
    http://muzikum.eu/en/127-7337-213748/stromae/papaoutai-english-translation.html

    ReplyDelete

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