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 needy people. 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.
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