Cooling the Fires of Marriage: an Approach to Conflict Resolution

Written by: Olivia Kompier (Certified ScreamFree Leader) on June 9, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

As Published in Al Jumuah Magazine (okay, this is the rougher draft that did not experience the refining hand of my editor :)  )

Cooling the Fires of Marriage: an Approach to Conflict Resolution

 

Marriage is currently one of the most popular topics in the Muslim community, and not just because people like a love story or aunties are bored (although those are true too).  Marriage in America is in crisis, irrespective of religion.  As a reaction we constantly hear talks that strive to enlighten the average Muslim couple about their rights and obligations.  Popular marriage books by American authors have also been “Islamified” and incorporated into some of these talks, with hopes that if men can understand women a little better and vice versa, we can at least stabilize the rate of the divorce if not decrease it.

While these current talks definitely have their value, I personally believe they’re missing a crucial element—a structured approach to regular conflict resolution.  By conflict resolution I don’t merely mean learning how to compromise or when to realize your husband or wife should have the upperhand from a fiqh perspective  I’m talking about a whole new way to view conflict in marriage, as a means to a greater goal—the goal of becoming a closer couple with an even stronger bond.

Marital conflict is one of those “make you or break you” phenomena, and Allah created this relationship that is destined for conflict for a reason.   Allah says about Himself that He creates nothing without a purpose.  Marital conflict has the ability to destroy a couple and land them in a heartbreaking divorce, or it has the ability to deepen a couple’s bond to the extent that they feel something that seems like a taste of Jannah.  On an individual level, marital conflict can lead a person toward maturation and self-improvement.  What most couples fail to realize is that conflict doesn’t have to drive them.  People are not the pawns of their emotions, destined to argue and fight because they can’t help what they feel, unless they choose to be.

Conflict is inevitable in any close relationship.  It’s impossible for two people to be emotionally close without some inherent differences, which lead to anxiety.  This anxiety is characterized by feelings of fear, anger, frustration, or disappointment and it is very natural. Differences that you can live with when it comes to a friend or even a relative can rock your world when it comes to your spouse, because you have to live with this person every day–you want to be extremely close to them, yet the love you share with them is not unconditional.  Having a difference with a spouse may also be a bit of a reality-check, because it makes you realize that just because you believe something, that doesn’t make it right.  Even though we logically know that some differences can be valid, we still feel insecure having a difference like that with our spouse.  These differences can be related to faith, family, upbringing, culture, politics, intimacy, or even something as trivial as food or favorite book genres.

We might not have a choice about the conflicts that arise from those differences, but we do have in a choice in how we react to these conflicts.  Most people don’t make any choice at all about their marital conflicts. Many times a husband or wife will feel upset about something and merely react to that emotion.  An argument can often ensue, which can end in a shouting match.  Other people are passive aggressive when it comes to marital conflict.  Few are the people who see conflict as an opportunity to remain calm and have the foresight to not only see how to get through this conflict unscathed, but to use it as an opportunity for growth.

Firstly, conflict is a time to learn about our self and acknowledgement some of our own shortcomings.  And that’s what marriage is made up of—two individuals who each have a responsibility to one another to be the best and most mature person they can be.  They are not supposed to always agree on everything—that’s impossible.  Conflict is also a time to realize how we have been contributing to any ongoing problems in our marriage, because whether or not we realize it (or want o realize it) marital conflict always involves two people.  The good news is, we have the immediate power to make a positive change simply by changing our own behavior.

That being said, I have a bit of a bone to pick with the way we give marital advice in the Muslim community (and non-Muslims give the same advice, just with less of a religious element).  Our current approach to marriage advice is to focus on meeting the needs of our spouse.  This is the essence of the “rights and obligations” talk that we hear pretty much all the time.  This talk seeks to enlighten us about how we are responsible to our spouse, with these guidelines derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah.  Men are told that they have to provide for their wife a living based on her ‘urf, or custom.  They also have to be patient with her, particularly when she’s PMSing or being overly emotional (facetiousness, noted).  Women are told they shouldn’t withhold sex and they should defer the final say to him in a disagreement as long as it doesn’t contradict Islam or make her uncomfortable.  We are also taught the technical method of nushooz, or dealing with extreme marital conflict.  Additionally we are reminded of stories how the Prophet was patient and loving with his wives, peace be upon him.

However, this talk is not enough (nor do I think it’s always helpful, really).  When couples hear this talk, it pretty much has the same effect on everyone.  Even though each individual should be taking to heart what he or she is learning and apply it to himself or herself, they tend to think about their partner’s deficits. Husbands will be hoping their wives are really paying close attention to the part about how he needs his alone time or how physical touch is his favored expression of love.  Wives are hoping their husbands are really remembering the part about not offering solutions when she wants to vent her emotions or the part about how he can’t force her to live with this mother.

In other words, these talks tend to set couples up for a stalemate with each partner only meeting the needs of their spouse as much as their own needs are being met.  The needs-meeting view approach to marriage leaves both husband and wife acting very needy, and neediness in an adult is very immature, unattractive, and counter-productive.  Husbands and wives in conflict often sound like whiny or angry children when they share their problems with a third party.  He’ll complain that she doesn’t ever want to have sex, and she’ll complain that he’s lazy around the house and still on his mother’s apron-strings.  Perhaps they’ll come to a compromise to both start meeting each other’s needs more, but both are always keeping a close on eye and a tight score, and as soon as one person starts to falter the other withdraws in turn.

While is important for us to understand our responsibilities to our spouse, if we never go beyond that, we’ll have a technically functioning marriage but an emotionally dysfunctional marriage.  Many are the people who fulfill the fiqhi requirements of marriage but are still unhappy.  They’re unhappy because in spite of meeting each other’s needs, they still have conflict about those needs, and they don’t understand why that is or how to resolve it.  For instance, a couple may be having sex on a regular basis, so technically this aspect of their marriage is being fulfilled in a fiqhi perspective, but they may still be having a huge conflict about it.  There is an entire emotional side of marriage that can be turned upside down even when technicalities are being taken care of. This daily emotional interplay is not properly understood by many couples, in spite of our glimpses into the Sunnah of the Prophet (S).  In my opinion a more structured approach to understanding this aspect of marriage and handling it needs to be fleshed out.

So in the rest of this article I will seek to lay out the basic way to handle these conflicts and then in upcoming publications I will talk about the four most common conflicts of marriage: time management, family, household responsibilities, and sexual intimacy.

In regards to handling conflict we first need to stop focusing on our spouse and start focusing more on ourselves.  Even when our spouse is doing something we believe is blameworthy, we still first focus on our own reactions as a means to rectifying the situation.  This is because even though we believe our spouse is doing something wrong, we’ve usually been enabling and even encouraging their behavior without realizing it.  When it comes to conflict, the only person who we can change is ourselves, so the first step in handling marital conflict is to change our own part in a destructive behavior pattern. Let’s understand this through an example.  Let’s say a husband feels resentful and frustrated with his wife because she always gets upset when he goes out with his friends.  She becomes passive-aggressive whenever he comes back home and they usually end up having an argument in the end.  He blames his wife for wanting to control his time and he believes she’s way too needy.  So now he either has to choose between his wife and social life, or so he thinks.  If he steps back and takes a look at this situation, he may notice that he’s been making some mistakes of his own that have created this problem.  Perhaps his wife wouldn’t mind if he spent time with his friends if he would let her know a little in advance or would come home on time.  Perhaps she resents the fact that he always makes time with his friends during Friday nights or other prime times while time with her seems to be spent over mundane tasks on weeknights.  Or perhaps his wife expects them to hang out with other couples now that they’re married, but he isn’t even aware of this expectation. It may not be that his wife minds that he spends time with his friends, if only he was just more considerate of her when he scheduled it.  Instead of merely reacting to her and making assumptions, he needs to do some calm discovering.

Another example may be a husband who is unhelpful around the house.  As a result his wife constantly nags him in the hopes that he’ll feel guilty enough to realize the error of his ways and start pulling his load.  But is the problem solely his doing?  What part has she played in creating this dynamic?  Her nagging is probably her main problem, because nagging only makes him feel the need to resist her attempts to coerce and belittle him.  Perhaps when he has tried to help in the past, she criticized him or forced him to do it “her way”, as if her way is the right way and his the wrong way.  Or maybe she’s been overcompensating and picking up after everyone for so long, that he doesn’t even realize that something’s wrong.  Maybe she withholds intimacy to punish him so they’re stuck in a stalemate with neither one wanting to take the first step in the right direction.

In other words, we tend to enable the behavior in our spouses that we dislike through our very efforts to eradicate it.  The husband who thinks his wife just wants to have a leash on him is inflaming her desire to control him by being inconsiderate with his schedule.  The wife who resents her lazy husband is encouraging his resistance by her constant nagging or punishing.  Whenever we are about to blame our spouse for a problem, we need to pause, step back, and take an honest look at ourselves.  Are things really as we interpret them to be?  Is she really just controlling?  Is he really just lazy?  Are these simple character faults in our spouse or are they a reaction to a more complex problem in which we both take part?

The next thing we have to do is look at our efforts to communicate with our spouse about a problem.  This involves broaching the subject and telling our spouse how their behavior is affecting us.  This process is called “Authentic Self-Representation” by LMFT Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Marriage.  This involves being calm, honest, and tactful with our spouse when we speak to them.  It calls upon us to eliminate any emotional games, vengeful arguments, hurtful language, or passive-aggressive behavior.  In other words, if we want conflict to refine our relationship and make our bond stronger, we have to let go of any spiteful attempts to “punish” our spouse or vent our anger at them.  We are having this conversation with our spouse, not so we can make them feel guilty, but so that we can overcome a problem as a couple.  This type of conversation can only happen between two people who are mature enough to put aside petty attempts to wound each other.

After authentically representing ourselves to our spouse, we have to calmly receive whatever they have to say to us.  This may be an emotional tirade that seeks to pull us into a familiar argument, or it may be a valid criticism. In any event, we have to hold on to our resolve to stay calm and respectful, despite how our spouse behaves, and be open to whatever it is they have to say.  Our spouse may not agree with us or be willing to change (yet), but at the very least we’ve given them food for thought and set a better tone in our marriage.  And after the discussion is over, we have to really let it be over, even if we didn’t agree in the end.  Many times marital conflicts don’t have a right and a wrong, but rather involve two valid differences.  One partner may think he doesn’t overspend while his wife thinks he does.  In reality, the definition of overspending is relative.  So while she can tell her husband what she thinks of his spending habits, she has to accept that this person came from a different family with different ideas about money.  He may never agree with her on it, so she has to learn to live with that.  Of course there are subjects in which Allah has limits (physical force, for example), but these are few compared with the things in marriage which are determined by a person’s ‘urf, which in our case has less to do with the custom of society as a whole and more with personal upbringing (because our society is so diverse).

Throughout this entire process, one thing has to remain in our mind—that each of us as an individual should be contributing our best selves to our marriage all of the time, regardless of what our spouse chooses to do.  That is truly an Islamic marriage, because we’re giving of ourselves out of principle rather than simply returning whatever we get.  Our behavior is not determined by our spouse’s but by what we know to be right and best.  If two people can mutually achieve this dynamic in marriage, then conflicts will make them stronger and closer in the end.  Each conflict with be an opportunity for both individuals to improve themselves as well as their marriage.  And even if only one spouse undertakes this approach*, they will have the personal satisfaction of knowing that they are fulfilling half of their deen in a way that is most pleasing to Allah as well as remaining a constant source of positive growth for their relationship.

*If someone is being abused, they should also seek intervention, mediation, or counseling as well.

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