So how can young married Muslim couples actively prioritise their marriage to prevent this disconnect and possibly marriage failure? How can we pre-empt these difficulties so we can grow together with our spouse rather than grow apart as we grow older?
I glance thoughtfully at the middle aged couple on the next table, eating their dinner slowly and silently. I wonder if their lack of conversation is a testament to their closeness and familiarity, rendering words unnecessary or if it signals a disconnect, each in their own imagined worlds with the only closeness being their physical proximity to one another.
My husband and I are busily helping our young sons with their dinner while we converse about the what, where and when of our next tasks. The endless to do list, kerfuffle and needs of young children leave little room for reflection so I reluctantly park my far away thoughts for more pressing ones.
It is no wonder that marriage fulfils half our deen since it opens the floodgates of responsibility, growth and the unimaginable reward and challenge of parenthood. The intimate nature and the 24/7 presence of a partner in our lives, thoughts and considerations means we discover much about ourselves in the process, our strengths, our weaknesses and what makes us tick. Marriage also reveals the ugly side of our personality and the hidden base beneath our visible part of the iceberg, the behaviours.
This therefore provides an unmissable opportunity to introspect and work on what we need to in order better ourselves for ourselves before anyone else.
But as we start to discover more about our wants, needs and dreams, we often allow this to inform our career choices, how we parent and the friends we keep, while the spouse remains constant.
We change with time. Our values and beliefs may come under scrutiny and be challenged. We ditch the ones that no longer serve us and hold on wholeheartedly to the ones that do. But what if these changes create more distance, and indeed friction, between the married Muslim couple?
And what if 10 or 20 years down the line, we have little in common besides the kids? And worst of all, what if we only notice our differences when the mayhem of child rearing calms down many years later and only then can we see the wide gap?
According to Divorce data from Crisp and Co. solicitors, the majority of divorce (63%) is initiated by the wife with unreasonable behaviour being most commonly cited reason for seeking divorce, closely followed by 2-year separation.
So how can young married Muslim couples actively prioritise their marriage to prevent this disconnect and possibly marriage failure? How can we pre-empt these difficulties so we can grow together with our spouse rather than grow apart as we get older?
Here are 5 ways to start working on your marriage in 2023 according to leading relationships researchers:
1- Nurture fondness and admiration in your relationship
Leading relationships researcher John Gottman of the Gottman Institute recommends you think about your spouse in a positive light, appreciate them and express this appreciation. Think about what brought you together, your early years and the traits you loved about them early in your relationship. This can seem easier with a friend you see from time to time but ensuring you are proactive in showing your care for your spouse will allow them to feel prioritised and loved which will elevate their confidence and their commitment to the relationship. When someone feels good, this will in turn impact their relationships with you, the children, work colleagues and wider family and friends. Practical tips to do this would be to prioritise time together without distraction. No matter how short, time to connect and talk, time to enjoy shared experiences and time for your intimate relationship on a regular basis sends the message that you as a couple matter and are the foundation of the family. It also teaches the children this and provides them a sense of safety and reassurance.
2- Look to an 80/80 marriage rather than aspiring to be 50/50
According to Kaley and Nate Klemp, seeking fairness can leave us adopting a transactional attitude to our relationships resulting in feelings of resentment and frustration when things seem unfairly balanced. Giving with generosity to our marriage will naturally create a loving and connected dynamic where the spouse feels a want rather than need to give also. This mind-set is heavily advocated in Islam where we are encouraged to give without seeking rewards from any one. Allah (SWT) says of the Ahlulbayt (AS) in the Quran ‘we feed you for the sake of Allah alone: no reward do we desire from you, nor thanks’ (76:9). Although this is relating to feeding the poor, giving and generosity is part of the human fitrah and not seeking any reward means we are in control and satisfied with our efforts alone, not at the mercy of approval, thanks or acknowledgement from another. What a wonderful example to emulate in all our relationships!
3- Speak from your side of the fence in an argument
Married couples sometimes equate problems with failure. But conflict is a part of life in all aspects of life and results from different attitudes and different wants. Different is good and adds variety and can make relationships stronger and the couple closer. It is a fact that all relationships encounter problems and some will be solvable while others will need management as perpetual problems. Do not avoid conflict as this can cause frustration, resentment and stalemate. Instead, healthy and strong couples fight right. Express your needs in an argument and what causes your pain. Talk about your own experience of hurt, unmet expectations and wishes. Do not attack or assign blame. This is a more respectful and constructive way that doesn’t create defensiveness and inflame the situation. Instead, try to find mutually agreeable solutions together and an opportunity to review the changes made and whether they met the goal or need further tweaking.
4- Examine your expectations from your partner
According to relationships expert Esther Perel, human beings have become more reliant on their marital relationship to fulfil all the needs once satisfied by the wider community or ‘village’. The need for protection, financial stability, intimacy, emotional support and physical help is a lot to expect from one person. Try to seek emotional support from a trusted friend or listening partner. Express the need for help in the home where the burden is overwhelming and find a solution together rather than try to expect everything from the spouse. Nurture a hobby or interest to provide you with the wellbeing and fulfilment we all aspire to have. This will take away some of the pressure from your relationship, allowing it to thrive as a place you both want to be rather than a place of unmet needs. It will also allow you to have experiences away from each other which can serve as a talking point and add different dimensions to you both.
5- Develop a shared interest or activity
In addition to enjoying hobbies on your own, how about enjoying an interest or activity together such as hiking, gardening, cycling or community schemes e.g. with the local mosque, food bank or school? A shared activity means you can be in agreement about spending your time and money while also learning more about your partner in the process, seeing them shine and building team work. This is not essential but it helps. A shared hobby or passion keeps you involved in each other’s lives and can help create deep bonds.
I still don’t know whether that couple on the next table all those years ago were disconnected or so relaxed in their connection they could exist in silence, but I know staying curious about your partner as you and they perpetually change and grow means there should always be plenty to talk about, aside from who picks up the kids from school or buys the milk on the way home. And certainly as humans we all strive to be heard and understood.