Muslim Marriage Guide – 7

Chapter 7
Celebrating the Differences
Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

`And the male is not like the female.’ (Quran, 3:36)
There is no doubt that when Allah created that `single soul’, and from it derived the first couple, Woman was not just a revised model of Man. And the differences, far from being the product of chance or random whim, were the wise and compassionate workings of our Creator, Who exquisitely designed each half of the pair to complement the other physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

They had certain things in common – and an absolutely fundamental range of differences!

It is true that there are plenty of `sensitive’ men and `coldly logical’ women. Nevertheless, it does seem that when it comes down to working out the mechanics of helping men and women to live together smoothly as husband and wife, if is a good idea to remind the hopeful newlyweds that they are not the same at all – it is easier to solve a lot of the problems if one remembers the saying that `women come from Venus, and men come from Mars’.

Just like visitors from two different planets, husbands and wives don’t always `speak the same language’, or understand the same consequences from a course of action, or look at a problem through the eyes of someone from the same background.

Quite apart from the `gender gap’, which has been carved into the chromosomes of every single cell in the body, one obvious factor is that the two partners have come into their marriage from two different families, with entirely different past tracks. Since experiences in childhood play so important a role in shaping our thinking and attitudes in adulthood, there will be unknown depths to deal with, and conflicting views will inevitably break surface from time to time. When both partners come from a very similar background, sharing the same religious beliefs and practices and aims, the problems are greatly reduced -but they are not done away with entirely. Much depends on what happened to them as individual boys and girls.

Men who get a frequent blasting of the repeat tunes: `You don’t love me! ` `You never listen to me!’ `You don’t care how I feel! ` need to ask themselves why it is that their wives are feeling so insecure. Are they really lacking in love, or not communicating that love? A wife who knows that she is very dear to her husband feels warm and safe inside. However, if a wife had a cold and inadequate father who did not give her adequate emotional support as a child, or one who despised his wife and treated her abusively as if she was a fool or a servant, then when she is `off guard’, low and tired, she may have an overwhelming need for approval and reassurance that has nothing to do with her husband. The perplexed husband cries: `But I could tell her I love her a hundred times, and it still wouldn’t be enough!’ This, unfortunately, is true – but understanding why might help alleviate his irritation and bafflement.

It is a good idea for husbands and wives to try to see each other from the perspective of their pasts, rather than their own. This is particularly important when the partner has been systematically humiliated and cruelly treated, or abused physically or sexually by a parent or guardian, or was unwanted.

You cannot undo the past, nor completely cure its effects; but you can do a very great deal to heal a distressed mate, or at least comfort them in love. Instead of downplaying the neglect or abuse, even though you may not have experienced it personally, you should not underrate their anguish, but acknowledge their past and give your support.

Therefore, it is only fair, of course, if the `hurt’ partner makes sure the other fully understands the problem, so far as he or she is able to communicate it. At a time when emotions are not heated, discuss your feelings; explain why you feel hurt and what you need in order to feel reassured.

Hurt people have such a natural tendency to summon up all the traumas from the past and use them as emotional weaponry when they get into arguments. Whenever you hear `It’s all your fault! `, `You should/shouldn’t be able to do this!’ or the deadly `You always/ never do/remember that!’ you are probably dealing with a ghost from the past. Husbands or wives who use this kind of phraseology do not mean it really – the statements are provably not true – but there is an old accumulated `hang up’ of deep feeling here.

These husbands and wives should try to rephrase themselves assertively in terms of how they feel about whatever it is, rather than an accusation of what the other is or is not doing.

`When you do that, I feel unloved/misunderstood’, is much more dealable-with than `You don’t love me’ or `You never understand me!’ It is a very good idea to get out a book on basic assertiveness training, and have a look into its insights and skills. Most managers who work smoothly with their staff do this – they are sent on courses. It wouldn’t hurt those trying to run a good, smooth marriage to know some of the same techniques.

For a wife to feel dearly loved, much more is required than just being pleased that she has been able to submit successfully to her husband’s will. He could have a horse or a dog that is well trained, submissive and never argues back. But people need real companionship and helpmates to work and live with. What a husband needs is a wife who not only loves and respects him but becomes also a real helper and genuinely supports him in the decisions he makes. This, of course, is not difficult when those decisions are arrived at following mutual agreement, and are on the right road of Islam.

Things are not quite so easy when you genuinely disagree. What then? Would your wife then do her best to make your decision work (provided it was not against the will of Allah), or would she hold back stubbornly, and hope to see you make a mess of it, and then enjoy the pleasures of `I told you so’?

A good Muslim wife will not try to usurp her husband’s headship of the family. Many women do, of course, and many of them succeed, wearing down their men through constant nagging or a constant display of their brilliant efficiency as opposed to the faults and inadequacies of their husbands.

It makes those women very difficult to live with, and it steadily erodes the woman’s genuine respect for her man. Constant criticism generally produces an uncertain, indecisive husband. Don’t you remember how those critical, humiliating teachers at school made their pupils feel? They didn’t teach them much, but turned them into stupid kids who could never get anything right, who ended up either keeping their heads down or aggressively rebelling. Wives who can see nothing but their husbands’ inadequacies need to remember how difficult it is for them to carry out their role as leader, and how easy it is to go wrong.

Providing the couple have arrived at their decisions with proper consultation and thoughtfulness, the wife should `cover the faults’ and weaknesses and mistakes of her husband and do her best to boost his confidence, not knock him down. Her loyalty and trust in him will all serve to strengthen him and ensure that he improves in skills and moves towards success. After all, a good Muslim man should be her best friend, not her enemy.

When friends disagree with one another, the decision-maker who proved to be wrong will soon dump any friend who crowed and laughed at him, or who continually tried to bring him down or belittle him.

This is another reason, of course, why a woman should be so careful when choosing a husband. She should take great care to marry the sort of man that she is going to respect and be able to obey without feeling dreadfully trapped or helpless or frustrated by knowing all the time that his leadership will not be up to scratch.

It can be dangerous when wives start to act like the husband’s mother! `Don’t forget your briefcase! ` `You idiot – you didn’t forget so-and-so, did you?’ Once the husband starts to feel patronised and henpecked by this, he may revert to the little boy’s longing to escape through the door and get out to play.

There is also the very real danger that he will really start to identify his wife with his mother, and since Mother probably spoilt him rotten, the wife may not come out of the comparison too well. Wives should remember the wise old saying – `A man can love a hundred women, but he only has one mother’. Turn a wife into a substitute mother, and a husband might soon start wishing he had not swapped her for the `real’ one.

One regular flashpoint in marriage comes when the husband walks in to find a wife in tears, in a mood, angry, desperate with worry, or whatever, and he listens for a bit, decides it is trivial stuff, mutters something and then goes off to think about his own problems. Meanwhile, the wife explodes with the `You don’t love me!’ and `You don’t listen to me!’ What she has perhaps failed to realise is that his withdrawal has nothing to do with her, or anything she has said or done. He is still involved in his own fears, insecurities and pains, and perhaps even needs to `lick his wounds’. He doesn’t intend to worry her with his problems; so it seems doubly hard to be accused of not caring about hers.

It is usually a highly noticeable feature of a good marriage that when husband and wife meet each other again after a day apart, they greet each other properly, and pay attention to each other for a few moments. Husbands need to be aware that a perfunctory peck on the cheek does not count in the wife’s eyes as `paying attention’, and may not satisfy a strong need she has for emotional reconnection.

Women are from Venus, the saying goes, and men are from Mars. When men listen, they usually do it swiftly, absorbing the information, working out what to do about it, assessing its importance. At work, many men prefer to work out solutions on their own, and discuss them only with those whose advice they really need. Some like to get away from the problem for a while, and return to it later. When they get home, they often appreciate solitude – and this is where many wives fail to show understanding and appreciation.

Some wives handle a man’s need for peace and solitude badly. They intuitively sense the tension, and react by trying to get him to tell them what it is all about. The husband may find the thought of his wife knowing about it intrusive and humiliating, and may not wish to talk to her about it, but to keep her and his `home haven’ out of it. It would take far too long to explain all the ins and outs to her anyway, and he doesn’t want to waste his evening. He doesn’t want an hour of his wife mulling it over for him, he wants some peace. Yet, the more he backs off (either to get peace, or to think his problems through alone), there she is trotting behind him in hot pursuit, still pressing to know what’s wrong and wanting him to talk about it.

When he manages to shut her up, or to escape, the wife feels hurt, unloved, and left out, partly because he has not paid any attention to her problems or appearance, or the food that she has got ready, and partly because he has not shared his worry with her. He has excluded her, as her friends would not have done. This must mean that he does not love her!

And the poor man, once he has had enough of chewing over the problem, turns back to the loving wife he had set on one side for the moment only to find her seething with resentment and full of hurt and anger. `Men are from Mars; women are from Venus’.

Communication is vital. The man has to tell his wife that he needs some peace to think things through, and that of course he does love her, he just doesn’t want to burden her with something from work. When she still cries words that mean `But why’? Aren’t I your best friend?’, then the best deflection of wrath is the kiss and the undivided attention he can give to her feelings. It doesn’t have to be for long, just long enough for her to note it and acknowledge it.

A lot of husband wife bickering happens not because they disagree, but simply because the man feels criticised and humiliated and that his wife disapproves of his point of view, while the wife disapproves of the way he is talking to her.

Let’s just think about some good listening skills – another thing managers frequently learn on courses! Active listening is a way of making sure that both speaker and listener really understand each other. You have to pay careful attention, and pick out the important message (which may be underlying and not on the surface). Try to work out what feelings are involved, and acknowledge them. Try not to judge, criticise or dispute until you are sure of what the speaker really intended to put across. Let the speaker confirm that, and if you got it wrong, let them explain again. If what you are hearing is criticism, then don’t boil over – there may be truth in that criticism, but it was simply unloaded on you in a way that was painful. Instead of just throwing the pain back on your critic, try to defuse the situation by acknowledging that you understand what- ever upset feelings you may be held responsible for, and try to work out how you could improve the situation.

If you really feel that you are justified in a complaint, try to work out how you can best deal with it without starting a war. You may feel that your partner was being inconsiderate, thoughtless, unwise, arrogant, chauvinistic, etc., but probably he or she did not mean to be. State your feelings without making sweeping accusations, and try to phrase your comments as talk about yourself and not attacks on your spouse. Remember that `the ego is always enjoining evil’ (Quran, 12:53).

`When you did that, I felt… `This does not accuse your partner, but simply states how you felt. He or she cannot argue with that. They might be very surprised, since they probably never intended to upset you at all. !f you simply charge in with `You always’ or `You never’, then the person being attacked will frequently just deny it or justify themselves, and the grievance for which you hoped to find a solution might be deflected into just another battle over an irrelevant detail of speech.

`Will you please stop harassing me?’ is an attack. `When you did that, or said that, I felt very harassed’ is not. It is a statement that presents a problem to the other person, which he or she may be required to solve. When people know that particular actions or words have particular effects, then if they still persist in doing them, they will have to take responsibility for the result.

`When you always stay out with your friends, leaving me alone, or you don’t come to bed until I’m asleep, it makes me feel very unloved. It shakes the love I feel for you, and I am beginning to feel resentment and dislike instead.’

Either the man will click into his work mode of `here is a problem to be solved, what must I do?’ or he will not care less, in which case, why are you still married to him?

Sometimes the partner really needs to be told that if they keep on doing or saying something the spouse will not feel loved or wanted, and may indeed cease to love or want them. Take a personal and embarrassing example- suppose the husband regularly and thoughtlessly breaks wind in bed? She may be excruciatingly embarrassed, unable to speak to him about what she interprets as a fearful insult, and bitterly resent and hate it. If she does not tell him, there will come a day when this action, which the man perhaps sees as a normal and natural need, really makes her despise his lack of thought for her – and the marriage is thenceforth doomed. It might seem a small, trivial matter to the husband, but then `women are from Venus, men are from Mars.’

When women talk, good listening skills are the key to the husband’s success. In a non-extended family, the wife is dependent upon the husband for emotional support. She does not usually want to make decisions on her own, but wants her husband to agree with her, to back her up. This does not necessarily mean that she wants him to tell her what to do, but just that she needs to feel close to him and to share with him – something that usually does not bother a man at work too much.

A good husband grants her enough time, and does listen. A really good husband has worked out that she rarely comes right out with it and says what she wants or what is bothering her – she drops hints. And the irritating thing for the husband is that she expects him to work all this out for himself. That, for her, is a major proof that he has noticed her and taken consideration of her needs, that he loves her. When the husband cannot or will not do this, she nearly always assumes that he does not love her. To her, most things she wants seem such little things to ask – why can’t he even give her that?

Women generally listen hard and pick up all sorts of signals and body language, to see behind the words to what people feel, and what they are thinking. They frequently know intuitively what people want, or need. This is a skill that many men do not emphasize or develop. However, on the downside, women can become overcome with emotions over small matters, and draw sweeping, dramatic conclusions out of a shrug or a sigh, something which is exasperating and baffling to a husband.

Husbands could perhaps remember that it is highly likely that throughout her childhood his wife had a close friend, someone to whom she talked about everything, especially feelings, likes and dislikes, loves and tragedies. They may have `lived’ together through the turmoils and passions of heroines in books and magazines. They shared and empathised about everything, including the most intimate emotions. When childhood is left behind and the girl marries, she very frequently expects the husband to become her new `best friend’, and take on the role of `confidant’ where her old girlfriends left off. When the man proves unable to do this, she is often (perhaps unconsciously) disappointed, and feels left out and lonely.

Women often talk away to their friends, pouring everything out, not hesitating to reveal their fears and troubles. They do not expect their friends to judge them, merely to share their emotions. It may well be that in marriage a woman also has a very strong need for an empathetic listener. But she has very likely forgotten that her husband, coming back to the home after a day `on the outside’, has his own fears, worries, and need for solitude and refreshment.

Tired husbands will often ignore the petty day-to-day squabbles and upsets, assuming that if there is a real problem the wife will speak up. The tired wife gets upset over the fact that he is ignoring her obvious state of distress, tiredness and hints. Many husbands do not really listen to `feelings’, but to problems and how to solve them. Their reaction to her tirade is usually that she is overreacting – her problems are small and very easy to solve.

And the wife explodes again. How dare he consider her problems to be small? She is doing all this, sacrificing all her life for him, slaving away in drudgery, etc. etc., for him. Irritated, the husband tends to withdraw, shut out her noise and the noise from the kids, and retreat to somewhere quiet where he can put his feet up and relax, and maybe mull over his own day’s problems.

What do husbands really expect from their wives? This is another matter that really needs sorting out. They usually need to feel that the health of their families is in safe hands; they expect the wife to buy the proper food and cook proper meals, and keep them fit and well.

They expect their wives to make some effort to look nice, on their behalf. They expect wives to watch the clock and get themselves ready at appropriate times. Of course, if they break the rules and pop up unexpectedly, or bring people in without notice, they are asking for a nasty surprise.

They expect their wives to keep their home looking decent, welcoming and clean. Children and toys all over the place can be a major irritant. The answer is usually to have a playroom, if possible, or at least to keep a large toy box handy where everything can be slung in quickly, out of the way.

They expect their wives to be pleased to see them, gentle and unharassing, and they hope that they will not be indifferent towards them in the marital bed. In many cases, a wife’s lack of enthusiasm, or sometimes frigidity, may well be due to the husband’s lack of consideration and understanding. But wives should be aware that their indifference hurts the husband, and a show of distaste might kill his potency, or even cause him to be attracted to someone else.

Husbands have the right to trust their wives, and not catch them out doing things or seeing people that the wife knows the husband disapproves of.

`It is not lawful for a woman who believes in Allah to allow anyone into her husband’s home whom he dislikes … She should not refuse to share her husband’s bed. She should not strike him. If he is more in the wrong than she, she should plead with him until he is satisfied. If he accepts her pleading, well and good, and her plea will be accepted by Allah; while if he is not reconciled to her, her plea will have reached Allah in any case.’ (Hadith from al-Hakim.)

So once again, don’t seethe with resentment because the wife is not doing what you want. Communicate! `Darling, I used to love it when you put on a fresh dress and perfume just for me. I know the sort of day you have just had, but when you still do it, just to please me, I know that you really do still care about me.’ Notice the necessary ingredients of your statement: express your hurt, acknowledge their hard work and sacrifice, state your need for love and respect – and watch the results.

Seems too much of a performance? After a little practice the skills just come naturally. They are the basic good manners (adab) of Islamic marriage.

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