The Great Divorce

December 16, 2014

A popular Islamic speaking duo (I have no idea how else to categorize) got divorced. I’m familiar with the woman of the duo and watch a few of her speeches online though not much. I recently got a sample of her popular book, though I haven’t yet gotten through the glowing reviews. I don’t know anything about the brother until now. With the case being that I wasn’t familiar with either of their works or speeches to any great length it may come as a surprise that I found myself weeping.

Reading through the wife’s post on their divorce and randomly landing on the husband’s Facebook post today the details of why they divorced made me weep. Was their abuse? Cheating? Apostasy? No nothing of the sort. They both quoted things like “not being compatible” and “growing apart”. My (anger? sadness? confusion?) grew.

The reasons they cited were very Western, very modest but was it very Islamic or upholding any ounce of morality that values the general good? Growing apart and incompatibility are valuable issues to note and get help for. They both cited that the decision didn’t come over night and came after many years of thinking about the matter. I don’t believe it. Thought, yes, years of effort to make the marriage work? Highly doubtable.

Before I continue I should say that their life is not my concern. Maybe divorce was right for them but I feel it necessary to critique as someone in the field of psychology who is very much concerned with the family and as someone who is a young unmarried Muslim woman and effected by the decisions of those around me especially as relates to Islam/ marriage/ family. Unrelated to this situation, a few days ago I was driving in a taxi home and reflecting on Fascinating Womanhood. This book is highly recommended by my sheikh and one I read even before being in the tariqa. In her book she is speaking to women. How we can take hold of our marriage and change it for the better. And she is extreme in her approach but her extremeness fits in perfectly with how a sufi views the world. A sufi see things going wrong and asks “What have I done? How can I repent? How can I make things better?”

So in that car ride home I thought to myself “What if I (or anyone) was in a really bad marriage and instead of leaving they decided for one entire year they were going to do their ultimate best to make the marriage work. They were going to be kind, thoughtful, loving, considerate, every single day. Every day you made time for the other person, you put there problems ahead of yours and you made them (after God) your first priority. If after a year the person was still a jerk, still verbally abusive still inconsiderate and we (the party trying to make it work) just couldn’t stand it anymore then I think we can honestly say to ourselves “I did the best I could and I can’t do anymore”. I still think there is value in staying married for the children but before getting to that, there is extreme value in actually trying to work things out with the person you made a life long promise too. This is also the reason it’s so valuable to look well at the person you’re marrying.

As a Muslim who tries my best to practice my religion I would never consider marrying someone who didn’t pray and didn’t think it was important -someone who missed Fajr at times? Probably because many of us have that shortcoming but not someone who just didn’t care. You have to marry someone who has the base of what is important to you. Once you do that there should be an investment in that marriage. Divorce is the worst of allowed actions in Islam so anyone who gets divorced should really take a look at themselves and ask , “Did I give this marriage my all?”

As someone in the field of psychology it is our job to focus on the person in the room. What Johnny did or said doesn’t have as much weight as what Mary did and said if Mary is in the room (psychologists’ office). Mary has to learn different ways of being, she has to take herself to task whether or not Johnny changes. But if she truly does take herself to task she can potentially save her marriage. Or she can see what she was doing wrong and not take her same flaws in to a new marriage. Either way she wins. But if she spends her marriage thinking “it’s all Johnny’s fault” or “We just didn’t get along” she doesn’t gain any insight and ends up not only ruining her own marriage but any potential future marriage. When two people are married they each need to take themselves to task for the marriage. Marriage is a relationship but it only takes one party’s action to make it better or worse.

“I just wasn’t happy” and pathetic excuses like it are one of the saddest reasons people divorce. Second marriages are much more likely to end in divorce than first marriages statistically speaking your chance at happiness in marriage number two is slim. Happiness seeking is a bizarre phenomena in our time. People spend there lives chasing it only to end up miserable. Happiness is not some kind of final destination. Besides Paradise in the afterlife, happiness is usually illusionary. We find it in this person or that job or even in a piece of cake but it’s momentary, it doesn’t last. It only lasts if someone keeps finding new ways to conjure it in to there lives. A marriage is unhappy if two people or one person, decide it’s going to be that way. In Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving he says a strikingly profound statement Love is a decision. He goes on to explain, if love were just an emotion would we base a lifetime commitment on it? It’s illogical, emotions come and go but you can make a decision that will last a lifetime.

Happiness, like love is a decision. Sure there are times when circumstances overwhelmingly point us to one emotion over another. It’s harder to be happy if you’re starving than if your well feed but even than you have a decision. There are places in this world where people are happy but extremely impoverished (according to Western standards) and there are places like America where it seems every other Joe is on some kind of medication for depression. We’re not just a miserable people, there are reasons we’re sad, chasing after things we can’t afford being one of them, but still it’s a decision. Sometimes we make passive decision -a family member dies and we become a depressed recluse, we score an A on our thesis and we’re elated all week but it’s still a decision. We could be happy our family member gets that much closer to God, we could be sad because our thesis symbolizes that we must move from the world of academia to the world of work.

Life is a series of decisions whether we realize it our not. And people in bad marriages are making a decision for it to be so. Do yourself a favor and pick up Fascinating Womanhood and look at yourself first, how can you make things better? For men I think the same applies, though I don’t have a book suggestion the easiest summary of all her advice would be this: make an effort. One of my teachers once told us a story about a couple who came to see him for their marital problems. The wife said to him “You know we’ve lived by this little flower shop for years and he never once bought me any flowers”. Something that may seem so petty was extremely valuable to her. Every day for years he passed this flower shop and not once did he think, “oh my wife might like some flowers”. Marriage is one of the most dangerous relationships to “get comfortable” in. Two people make a promise for forever but the reality is that it can end at any moment. It’s not like a mother- child or sister-brother relationship, it’s not automatically permanent. If you don’t make an effort you will lose it.

So once you’ve made the effort let’s say in the way I described, for a year -are you off the hook and free to go? Well it depends. Do you have children? People have a very strange idea in our time that a bad marriage is worse for children then two happy divorced parents. Unfortunately for all of our egos this is just not true. Take a read of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, it’s plain and simple divorce is bad for children. Your children could care less if your happy. Your children want to be children. A very easy way to be a child is to have a strong base of your parents and not have any major disruption in the family. Your kids don’t care if you never speak to each other at the dinner table they care about playing with their friends, being served breakfast by mommy and put to bed by daddy. Divorce is a major disruption in the child’s life. Suddenly they have to be split between two homes. Suddenly they have two bedrooms in two in different households. Suddenly mommy’s getting remarried and daddy’s getting remarried, they have to meet new parental figures and learn how to get along with them, they have new siblings that they don’t live with and statistically speaking they will have to go through another divorce because second marriages have a weaker chance of lasting. Suddenly they have no base. When their parents are married whether their marriage is bad, good or in between they get to learn about relationships between men and women. They get to learn how to resolve conflicts. They get to learn from the parents mistakes, they’re shown how not to give up. Without a marriage to look at they don’t get to learn anything, they have to figure it out for themselves and worse they learn that when the going gets tough, give up.

In reality this is a false paradox: a bad marriage or happy divorce. Marriages aren’t inherently bad (nor is divorce inherently good), they’re made that way by the people in them and can be fixed for the better. What about abusive marriages, aren’t those bad for kids? Yes of course but are they worse than divorce? No. This isn’t from my own thinking, please read The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, this is based on research. Abusive marriages are horrible for kids but a strange assumption many have is that once a divorce takes place the abuse is over. It doesn’t work like that. Many ex- couples continue there abuse after marriage. Little Ahmed is taught to disrespect his mother by his dad, he’s told his father is worthless by his mom, the abuse continues from a distance and little Ahmed is still a part of it. Problems don’t get fixed by just leaving. When there’s a kid (or a few) involved the parents have to continue to co-parent and if their problems weren’t fixed in marriage what makes them think getting a divorce is the magic pill? It isn’t, getting help is. There was a popular football player who made news a few months back after a video surfaced of him punching his wife. The usually cries that she should leave him and that he was an abuser pierced through the internet. But how does this help him? It certainly isn’t her responsibility to help him but we can’t afford to see it as leave and save you life or stay and get abused. Whether she leaves or stays there is a man with a serious problem and if he doesn’t get help he’ll do it to someone else if she doesn’t get help she may end up in another abusive relationship. If she stays, which it seems she has, they need to get help for their marriage. Staying in a bad marriage shouldn’t be an option but leaving shouldn’t be seen as the only option either.

Marriage is a serious job, Umm Al Khayr, whose book you should also read Initiating Upholding and Islamic Marriage often says to us “A lot of people want to be married but not a lot of people want to be spouses”. Much of marriage is a selfless act. It is for God first that you choose to please your spouse and to make your marriage work. And that intention has to stay within the good and bad times. I think the secret to longevity in marriage is just sticking it out. People who have been married a long time will tell you about their ups and downs and even times they thought the end was near but the same story sticks throughout, they didn’t give up. Look well to who you’re marrying and when you’re blessed to be in that marriage be selfless, look for what you can do to make things work, think about the children if after all of this you still can’t bear to be in the marriage then sure God made divorce permissible for a reason.

Book: Love, Life & Faith coming this summer, 2015

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