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Conflicts in Marriage: Sources and Resources
Marital bliss, society’s ultimate and positive signifier of an adult’s well-being. And yet, from the moment vows are exchanged, and husband and wife pledge to adore and support each other for the rest of their lives, challenges cannot help but ripple the surface of this ideally placid lake. Some couples deal with these issues as mere trifles and quickly resume their overall peaceful state of coexistence. Successful couples find ways to relieve this tension without jeopardizing the overall harmony of the relationship. It is not uncommon, however, for an irritated person to allow the trouble to affect their relationship with their spouse.
The solution to marriage problems is not, of course, to simply divorce, or to not ever get married in the first place. As humans, we are social animals that need to interact and learn from each other. Love and attraction are natural parts of our growth and development. And so, we get into romantic relationships that support our need for intimate socialization. Because relationships are so directly tied to deep, personal needs, when problems inevitably arise, resolving marital issues responsibly can not only solve daily life or interpersonal problems, but also contribute to the evolution of each spouse’s personal self.
One of the chief sources of personal conflict in a close relationship comes from our attitudes towards the relationship. Namely, we create expectations for ourselves, the other person, and the relationship itself, and when they are not fulfilled, we assume that the relationship has problems. But the truth is that we ourselves are the source of these problems. If we carefully consider our role in the relationship, both what we bring to it and how we behave in this context, then we can dig deeper to extract the problem by the root.
It is said that in order for a relationship to work, the spouses are not responsible for its success 50-50, but 100-100. We must bring our best selves to this union. If someone is joyful and peaceful in his or her heart, then he or she will not only seek happiness from a relationship, but will express and contribute happiness. On the other hand, if someone is not joyful within his or her heart but expects that the relationship will make himself or herself happy, then he or she is incapable of bringing true, selfless joy to share with the relationship. Without this spouse’s 100% contribution of positivity, of course the relationship will become imbalanced and suffer. So each of us must take responsibility for what energy and attitudes we bring to and about our relationships.
It helps if men and women understand their ideal and natural roles in a traditional marriage. Although this prescribed social context may not apply to all modern couples, the suggestions for conflict resolution are still valid and contemporary. We can examine a most famous and contentious verse from the Qur’an, often referred to appallingly as “the wife-beating verse.” It it from chapter 4 verse 34, and is as such:
ٱلرِّجَالُ قَوَّٲمُونَ عَلَى ٱلنِّسَآءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعۡضَهُمۡ عَلَىٰ بَعۡضٍ۬ وَبِمَآ أَنفَقُواْ مِنۡ أَمۡوَٲلِهِمۡۚ فَٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتُ قَـٰنِتَـٰتٌ حَـٰفِظَـٰتٌ۬ لِّلۡغَيۡبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ ٱللَّهُۚ وَٱلَّـٰتِى تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَٱهۡجُرُوهُنَّ فِى ٱلۡمَضَاجِعِ وَٱضۡرِبُوهُنَّۖ فَإِنۡ أَطَعۡنَڪُمۡ فَلَا تَبۡغُواْ عَلَيۡہِنَّ سَبِيلاًۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّ۬ا ڪَبِيرً۬ا (٣٤
34. Men are maintainers of women, as Allah has given some of them an advantage over others, and because of what they spend out of their wealth. The righteous women are devoted, guarding what Allah would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear dissension, preach them, and separate from them in beds, and take an action with them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. Allah is Sublime, Allah.
This verse is one of the most maligned excerpts of the entire Qur’an. Historically, scholars have haphazardly translated the key word “وَٱضۡرِبُوهُنَّۖ” to mean “and hit them,” effectively permitting domestic violence. The actual meaning of this verb could not be farther away. If one references a famous classical dictionary such as Maqāyīs al-Lugha, it turns out that this word means “to take action and move forward.” How could this interpretation be relevant? A brief excursion into the literal translation of the verse will show us how.
The first phrase of this verse describes men as the sustainers and care-takers of women because Allah has given men and women each different issues to take care of in life; women, for example, are solely responsible for pregnancy and childbirth. We see this issue addressed in the first three verses of chapter 92, “(وَمَا خَلَقَ ٱلذَّكَرَ وَٱلۡأُنثَىٰٓ (٣) إِنَّ سَعۡيَكُمۡ لَشَتَّىٰ (٤,” or, “(3) and what created the masculine and the feminine. (4) Indeed, your labors are diverse.” This is not to say that women cannot or should not go out and pursue business of their own, but rather grants them support from men while they are busy tending to the world’s most complicated computers, young human minds. Men and women complete each other. As such, men are asked to provide for their women out of a sense for fairness and balance in society.
In return, the “righteous women” are expected to be devoted to protecting what Allah would have them be responsible for (such as the sanctity of the home, domestic finances, and ensuring a safe and appropriate environment for the children). Into this happy and balanced space, the verse introduces the possibility of marital conflict with a significant word choice. It says, if the man “fears” that his wife is “thinking higher” of herself, i.e. considering herself above her responsibilities, then he should take action. Note that this statement fully acknowledges the man’s right to his feelings without assuming they represent reality. As such, the man is instructed to take reasonable measures to resolve the issue--none of which involve raising his hand to his wife.
The instructions are simple: if a man fears that his wife is not walking on the straight path he would expect her to follow, he must first go and express his feelings to her direction, and explain his expectations. This gives the couple a chance to communicate verbally and work things out. After that, if she continues to act in a way he perceives as problematic, the verse tells the man he can separate from the woman in bed (the Qur’anic equivalent of suggesting he sleeps on the couch). Finally--and here we encounter that troublesome verb--the verse asks him to “take action and seek information from other women.” In other words, he should go talk with his wife’s female relatives or friends, explain the situation and ask them about her behavior, so he can have a more informed perspective as to whether or not she is reasonable and he is overreacting, or if he is justified in his displeasure and concern. In the end, the verse resolves by reminding men that if their wives listen to them, then they should let them be (i.e. not continue to keep their distance, and not shame them for their previous behavior).
Avoiding shame also surfaces significantly in verse 128 of the same chapter (chapter 4):
وَإِنِ ٱمۡرَأَةٌ خَافَتۡ مِنۢ بَعۡلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوۡ إِعۡرَاضً۬ا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيۡہِمَآ أَن يُصۡلِحَا بَيۡنَہُمَا صُلۡحً۬اۚ وَٱلصُّلۡحُ خَيۡرٌ۬ۗ وَأُحۡضِرَتِ ٱلۡأَنفُسُ ٱلشُّحَّۚ وَإِن تُحۡسِنُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعۡمَلُونَ خَبِيرً۬ا (١٢٨)
128. If a woman fears dissension or abandonment from her husband, there is no fault in both of them if they reconcile their differences, for reconciliation is best. And are brought the stingy souls; and if you do what is good and be aware—Allah is the Knowing Expert of what you do.
This verse says, in no uncertain terms, that there is no blame or fault to be assigned to the couple seeking outside help to resolve their conflict. Removing the possibility of stigma on marital counseling, the verse explains that getting help to fix the relationship is the better option (in implied contrast to allowing the problem to get worse so the relationship sours or dissolves). With such a merciful solution emphasize, how could another verse on the same subject actively condone domestic violence? It simply does not follow.
We can extract one more important lesson from verse 128. Like verse 34, this verse also premises the woman’s discomfort in her relationship on her fear that her husband is putting himself above their relationship or turning his heart away from her. This approach assigns no blame to either the man or the woman as the cause of the problem, but rather asks each partner to take responsibility for their feelings. Because the verses allow for the possibility that this fear is unfounded, all we are left with is that the main source of problems in relationships is our own fear itself. The way we choose to deal with or avoid dealing with this fear also becomes part of the solution or part of the problem. If we are able to confront what are ultimately our own personal issues in a calm and reasonable way, we can eliminate problems and heal relationships.
In both these verses, the fear that is the source of the problem stems from deep feelings about our own egos--the fear of the spouse putting their self-interest above the other person or above the relationship. While we cannot control other people’s intentions, actions, or states of being, we can do our part to address our own role in experiencing this fear. We must let go of attachment to what the pure reality of the Other’s actions may be, and turn our attention to our Own reality, which we do have the power to modify. If we do not want to feel fear, we must put ourselves in the opposite state. The opposite of fear about ourselves is self-confidence. Being self-confident means having no fears of other people overshadowing you. To avoid feeling fear in our relationships, we must ground ourselves in gratitude, courage, and confidence that we are following a steady path towards forward evolution of our beings.
If you can align yourself with this mentality, then you will not bring fear to a relationship. You will be able to bring your best self to meet your spouse with 100% of your best intentions, actions, and offerings of your heart. If your spouse can do the same, then you will meet each other 100-100. You can expect many years of happiness together. Marital bliss can be yours, too!