We’ve all read those articles, “50 Ways to Make Your Husband/Wife Happy”, “7 Ways to a Great Marriage”, “11 Ways to Survive Marriage and Not Get Bored to Death”. We’ve had our elders hand us pearls of wisdom (and unsolicited advice), had our peers tell us how being married really is (“for realz, bro”), and we’ve been to seminars that teach us the fiqh of love while others teach us the fiqh of staying together for the sake of the kids.
So instead of reinventing the marriage wheel, I’m going to point out some the weaknesses of the “marriage models” we all hold dear. Be prepared to get a little uncomfortable; maybe you’ve been struggling all this time to implement them and what I’m going to tell you will invalidate your efforts. Nothing can invalidate your efforts; whatever effort you put in has, inshā’Allāh, brought you and your spouse some benefit. Consider my insights instead as a way to keep your marital compass meticulously aligned. Also of note, these models apply to healthy/normal marriages that are not abusive, physically or emotionally. If you feel you are in an abusive situation, it is important to immediately seek professional help and intervention.
Here comes the list.
Marriage Model Number 1
“I’ll meet your needs and you meet mine” (i.e. the Islamic golden hit, “Rights and Responsibilities of Husbands and Wives” halaqa/seminar/khutbah).
This model has its value for sure. From it we get a shari’ understanding of marriage: who provides what to whom, what behavior encroaches on our spouse’s “rights”, what behavior is considered sinful, what we can expect from them, etc. All important information, no doubt. After all, the sharī’ah should be the foundation of our marriages.
Beyond that, this model wants us to understand that our partner is different from us and we have to learn to love them through their “love language” i.e. “meet their needs” with an understanding of what those needs actually are. We usually really get focused on gender here; men want sex, women want emotional connection, right? (I’m joking; both men and women want both of these things). This model tells us that we need to meet our spouse’s needs to keep them happy/fulfilled/satisfied (and married to us LOL).
But there are pitfalls. Firstly, centering our marriage on meeting each other’s needs often makes us two very needypeople. That’s not very attractive. Often times we end up getting whiny, passive-aggressive, angry, crabby, etc. that our “needs” are not being met; and all we can do is hope to punish this person with our relationship belly-aching until they finally hear loud and clear, “Hey, you’re doing a lousy job meeting my needs!”
When was the last time you felt attracted to someone who did that to you? When was the last time someone nagged you or yelled at you and you felt like you wanted to connect with them intimately (emotionally or sexually)? Probably never. Yet without realizing it this is how we are “working” to get the results we want in our marriages.
Another pitfall in this model is score-keeping. We withhold love/sex/affection/help because we feel like the “score” is out of balance. To complicate matters further, each spouse has their own personal scoreboard of the marriage that’s completely left to their own biased umpire-ship. Spouses withhold giving (or they do it without a lot of annoyed sighing) when they believe or perceive their spouse is doing too much taking without putting the same effort back in. Here’s an example:
Husband thinking: Didn’t I take her out to dinner, and now she’s going to say she’s too tired? (husband +1, wife -1)
Wife thinking: The evening was lousy because he put it together last-minute even though I reminded him for a week to make a reservation at a nice place. (wife +1, husband -1)
Another mistake we make in the religious crowd with this model is we boil down our marriage to a cookie-cutter-one-size-fits-all theoretical needs-meeting fiqh dilemma. “Ya shaykh, whose takes precedence in making her happy, my mom or my wife?” How many times have we heard this question, and we all know the answer. Many years ago my husband asked Shaykh Yaser Birjas, “Shaykh, if I have to choose to make one happy, who do I choose, my mom or my wife?” The shaykh gave a very wise answer: you have to make both happy (you won’t believe how far that advice has gotten my husband today).
In other words, we can’t get hung up on a hard and fast fiqhi answer, because it often ends up with someone being the “winner” and someone else being the “loser.” Like the shaykh said, we need to create more win-win situations. Our marriages cannot be sliced and diced to fit compartmentally into a fatwa. We may be doing the “right” thing, but our spouse may be building up resentment that will harm us both later on. We need to be a little more creative and practical.
To sum up, the major issue with this model is that ultimately needs-meeting keeps us “other” focused rather than self-focused; our behavior “waits” on our spouse’s and we try to conjure it out of them in all the wrong ways. If we want to try to change our marriages for the better, we must start by changing ourselves, because changing yourself is the easiest, fastest, and most dependable method of change there is.
If our marriage isn’t too great, we had something to do with it. We all co-created our marriages and there are definitely things we all can do to become better spouses. As Muslims we should view our “half” of the marriage as ultimately a commitment to Allah, not to an individual. We fulfill a promise we made before Allah to be a husband/wife and if that promise is too heavy, we should get help. One day we will be accountable for only ourselves before Allah for our marriage, so the only one we should think about “keeping score” with is Allah. We don’t want to “lose points” with our Lord just because our spouse is. Being an adult means we act as we do on our own principles and taqwa, not as a reaction to someone else’s behavior. Believe it or not when we act out of principle, our spouse will begrudgingly respect us, and may even make their own changes for the better.
Marriage Model Number 2
We need to rethink (brace yourself) ‘I want to live happily ever after.’
Let me warn you, this will be a little weird. This is not going to be the auntie/uncle talk about how fairy tales are a sham and there really is no happily ever after. I disagree, I do think there is a happily ever after, and if you get there, I think you’re doing a lot better than most people who are stuck in unhappily ever after. But here’s the hard truth, and it’s so jarring I’m going to give it its own paragraph:
Happily ever after gets boring.
Allow me to explain. Let’s pretend you like rom-coms because we know we all do (even you, bro). We want a little spice, a little romance, a little magical ting; this is part of the human experience we all crave. For all it’s dissed by many elders in our community, we still have a Bollywood industry spending millions of dollars reminding us that we all want a romantic happily ever after (and the haters are the first ones sitting and watching).
So if that’s the elusive dream we all seek, then let me ask you this, why do stories always end at the moment happily ever after begins? The “just married” car drives away or we attend the shaadi and dance some bhangra, then what? Do we follow them through their “happy” daily lives? (*snore*). We don’t, but we’ll certainly tune back in when a little conflict shows up, like when someone threw Joey in with Ross and Rachel. Maybe in the sequel some guy at the girl’s job gets a crush on her, or maybe the dude meets some old flame. Actually, love triangles keep people hanging on in a story way longer than happily ever afters. Because that magical ting we get is the tingof uncertainty.
So am I telling you the secret to stoking passion is uncertainty (not security or trust)? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Security and trust are important (duh), and most of us know that; you won’t find anyone saying your spouse needs to feel insecure or distrustful, so please don’t misquote me, trust and security are essential. So what am I saying? I’m saying that in longer-term marriages, sexual desire becomes lethargic when our marriage feels too much like a warm, cozy security blanket (in fact just today, as I was editing this article, I found an article by a therapist saying this). What keeps passion alive past the honeymoon phase is a little thrill, a little angst, a little conflict, a little uncertainty, a little ting.
Ever heard of the seven year-itch? It’s when the dreaded “second-wife” phase may actually land some dude on a matrimonial site (and yes, women get itches, too). It’s when happy couples finally get tired of that “warm blanket” feeling in their marriage. They start to get restless and want a little tension breathed back into their cozy, predictable, sleepy security-blanket lives. It’s when they want to throw the blanket off and smart with a tingling chill that gives them a dangerous shiver.
So what’s the solution? We know it’s definitely not infidelity (but that is an unfortunate place some people end up when they wonder why “happily ever after” feels so blah). The solution for the vast majority of marriages is rocking the boat with newfound authenticity and intimacy; bring the ting.
Many of us get so comfortable that we don’t want to reveal our deeper (sometimes darker) selves to our spouse because we don’t want to face rejection, disapproval, or anger. Things are just so cozy, why even say anything? Why reveal some fantasy or change things up in the bedroom? At least you’re still having sex right? What if you told your spouse that you have a difficult time feeling attracted to them when they don’t take care of themselves? You’d be a jerk to voice your feelings about that, wouldn’t you? What if you tell your spouse you feel so disconnected from them because of a certain behavior, that you’ve felt tempted to look at other people, that would make you a terrible person right? What if you tell your spouse you want to focus less on the kids and more on each other, that makes you a monster child-neglecter for sure, doesn’t it?
If we don’t start saying these things (in the most loving way possible) they will eventually catch up to us in all the wrong ways. Our marriages need to keep growing and changing. We need to open up without blaming each other, and if things get a little tense, all the better; the heat generated by the friction of authenticity will find its way to the right place if people can be mature about handling the original discussion in question.
Thus, we need to make our partner feel safe to share (here’s where trust and security come in) the things that make them feel uncertain about you/themselves/the relationship. So the first thing we can do is ask and offer to listen. Just ask your spouse, “Tell me something about yourself you’ve always been afraid to tell me.” Or start by telling your spouse your fantasies even if you worry they will reject them. If something is bothering you, be authentic (and supportive) in sharing your thoughts, even if you don’t think it will be welcomed, and offer to hear what they have to say about you. Then act on it, even if it feels a little strange (you can have a “safe” word). Real happily ever after is happy with a twist; with a little unpredictability, with a little risk, with a little tension, an exhilarating ting of uncertainty to balance out the safety. That doesn’t just happen, it is created.
And now for a word on polygyny because it is a way many men will go looking for the ting. Here is my honest two cents, take it or leave it. I actually believe poly is a legit way to bring the ting. Unfortunately, like so many issues (but I shall remain mum), we’ve made poly a man’s plan exclusively. The only time we say a woman can ever want it is when we get noble and have that community-service attitude. So poly is either for men and it’s about their “nature” and “higher sex drive” or its about “widows/divorcees” and “times of war”. I really find it hard to believe that not only would Allah allow, but also make the sunnah, something that served only one gender emotionally and sexually and served the other in an exceptional community-service kind of way.
I think polygyny offers a lot of ting, but what I think kills the ting is how terribly it is implemented by most people. When a woman gets blindsided by it, or doesn’t have time to adapt to the idea first, and mentally/emotionally explore it, it goes from ting to electrocution very quickly because there is too much uncertainty. Suddenly one wife, or even both wife and husband, miss the security blanket of their monogamous marriage because the marriage(s) no longer feels safe in a way marriage needs to.
Poly-ting (yes, I made that up and I’m not good at political correctness) can only happen in a scenario where everyone is consensual, comfortable and confident. You can only have healthy poly-ting, the natural enjoyable “uncertainty” of poly, if both wives have adequate (preferably burgeoning) self-esteem (which is why going behind her back about it is the fastest way to ruin that). If a woman doesn’t have enough self-esteem, sharing her husband with another woman is just too uncertain. Will she be replaced? Is she still desired as much? Does he still love her as much? Is she as valuable as the other wife? All those questions will become heavy and depressing to a woman who cannot answer them all to herself everyday with confidence. She has to still feel completely safe and secure in her own marriage. But if you do it all right (consensual, comfortable, confident), poly can give both husbands and wives that ting and it can be win-win. Certain elements of poly that we think of as painful (and yes they are painful at high levels) can bring the ting at low levels (and that includes jealousy, as long as its friendly).
And now the final model we need to think about (if you’re a bro just take a few minutes to breath out the poly discussion and now try to focus).
Marriage Model Number 3
You Complete Me/”Two Become One”
The Prophet said marriage is half our deen, but he didn’t say our spouse is half our deen (which meant we were incomplete without them and would be again should they ever not be there). Allow me to explain.
Obviously marriage is full of compromises and finding middle-ground. Or at least, it should be. If someone is blotting themselves out to keep their marriage happy (and yes, men can fall into a “yes-dear” attitude, too) then this marriage is not going to stay healthy for very long.
Marriage is always made of two individuals, and the shariah acknowledges this by respecting ‘urf, or the custom/culture of both the parties involved during the nikkah and throughout their married years. No one person needs to adopt the identity of their partner or basically become a ghost of their former selves.
This “we must become one” mentality is usually coupled with being emotionally needy. In other words someone who believes that we must sacrifice our individuality, our endeavors, our habits, our social lives, i.e. that which makes us different from each other, so we can more cohesively meet each other’s needs, is really just dangerously self-centered. In other words, this person believes “you become more like me and give up all those distracting things so you can focus on my needs better.”
Talk about needing to be the center of attention! This is the guy who needs his wife to be his 24/7 lady-in-waiting/servant and the woman who needs her husband to be “whipped.” These people, in truth, are very insecure that they will “lose” their partner somehow or be replaced by some other person/thing, so they keep a short leash on them.
Here’s the thing, the happiest marriages are made of two individuals who have some stuff in common (the important things), but have a good amount of differences. They may read different things, have different hobbies, hang out with different people. This keeps our marriage fresh. It gives us that little space away from each other, even if it’s just a mental or emotional space. It does not mean our spouse needs a break from us because we’re lame or boring. Space also allows us to miss each other and rekindle when we close the gap, which gives us theting. Differences cast off the warm blanket when we rejoice in those differences.
The key here is to not feel threatened. Being too close is just as toxic as being too distant. We want just the right amount of space, and we can’t get that if we’re marital Siamese twins. We should encourage each other to go out and pursue things specific to each of us and tell the other about it without needing them to be involved. We should enable our spouses to pursue their personal passions.
On a final note, you will notice that none of this advice is gender-specific and everything applies equally to both men and women. Personally, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by making marital advice gender-specific. No doubt there are gender-differences which impact marriage (obviously marriage has to be gender-different!) but too many times marriage talks turn into a battle of the sexes. In my humble opinion, most problems in marriages don’t come from not understanding gender-differences but instead focusing too much on them. I think if we instead focus on being mature adults who put our deen first and our egos second, we’ll be in a much better place. May Allah bless all our marriages and protect our families and make us the best spouses.
Source article: http://muslimmatters.org/2014/10/06/3-marriage-models-we-need-to-rethink