The divorce dilemma

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The choice to divorce requires us to ask difficult and legitimate questions, and listen to each other’s honest answers in order to make a decision about what to do when they have run out of ideas to repair the relationship. These questions reflect the difficulty of the decision, and its effect on the multiple areas of their lives. There are no easy answers, and sometimes no perfect solutions, when these dilemmas are on the table.
“What will people say if I get divorced? Will Allah be displeased with me? How will my children be treated if they come from a divorced home? Will they be emotionally scarred from the divorce? Will I spend the rest of my life alone? How will my family feel or be treated if I get divorced? Will they say this is my fault?”

These are some of the doubts and concerns that spouses in unhappy marriages may struggle with as they consider divorce. For most couples, divorce is a topic fraught with confusion, misunderstanding, lack of knowledge, and anxiety about the process and the potential impact on each person involved.

For example, let us look at Lama and Omar’s situation. Having an arranged marriage, they met each other on their wedding night. Both tried sincerely to make the marriage work to please their parents, but they struggled to get along. Their parents were unsympathetic, pointing to the success of their own arranged marriages. Full of unhappiness, frustration and despair, Lama and Omar began living like roommates. Neither of them saw divorce as an option, acutely aware of the shame it would bring to their entire extended families.

Certainly a significant decision, the choice to divorce requires us to ask difficult and legitimate questions, and listen to each other’s honest answers. The difficulty of the decision, and its effect on multiple lives should indeed lead couples to consider the impact on themselves, their families and/or children. There are no easy answers, and sometimes no perfect solutions, when these dilemmas are on the table.

Muslim Americans may seek divorce for a myriad of reasons. A recent SoundVision article listed the following reasons as the most common factors in divorce among Muslim Americans: interference or pressure from in-laws, adultery and pornography, incompatibility, “fairy tale expectations,” secular individualism, abuse, lack of preparation for being married, money issues, and lying or hiding vital information. This list represents the most common sources of conflict for couples. Tensions may be further aggravated by lack of professional, knowledgeable help in dealing with these conflicts. There continues to be a stigma surrounding marital counseling, resulting in total loss of trust or love by the time help is sought.

Divorce has been provided as an option by Allah for those relationships in which couples are not able to live together “on good terms.” When used properly, divorce can be a solution that brings peace to couples who are not able to resolve their differences.

In Jana’s case, the divorce she sought was to escape from an abusive relationship. In the early days of their marriage, Adam seemed to be madly in love with her. He wanted to be with her all the time, and if they were apart, he called her frequently to “check in.” Gradually, what initially felt like love began to feel like smothering and controlling behavior. When Jana expressed her concern, Adam became enraged and threw her against the wall. He reminded her that he was the one who had been caring for her and providing for her, so she had no right to challenge him. He called her parents names and said they had not raised her properly. For Jana, divorce provided her the opportunity to regain her dignity and to free her from an oppressive relationship.

In other cases, divorce becomes the only recourse after many years of trying to work things out. Neither Masud nor Mona were religious when they met in college. As time passed, however, Mona became more interested in practicing Islam, and more uncomfortable with some of Masud’s lifestyle choices. Masud was embarrassed having Mona at his side now that she wore hijab. They sought help from family, friends, and even professional counseling, desperate to save their marriage for the sake of their three children. With great agony, they divorced. Nevertheless, as co-parents not living in the same household, they found a way to treat each other respectfully despite their disagreements.

In its worst form, divorce is used as a threat, and it becomes a form of psychological abuse. Either party can use it as a threat in order to manipulate the other person. Over time, the threats may lose their impact and the spouse may stop taking them seriously – along with the one making the threats. By that time, however, great damage would have been done to the trust that is vital to any successful marriage. In Malik’s case, his wife Asma threatened to leave him every time they had an argument. Initially, he would try to appease her, fearful she would actually leave. After several years of dealing with Asma’s threats and the subsequent distrust, Malik decided to pack his bags himself, only to discover that she was begging him to stay. But for Malik, it was too late.

Marriages may come to divorce through various paths, but in all cases, couples inevitably go through an emotional process of disentangling themselves from each other emotionally, financially, and physically. When there are children involved, the process becomes even more complicated as they are impacted by every part of the process. The damage to the children can be curtailed by parents minimizing hostility, and abiding by Islamic guidelines of being merciful and just to each other. Keep in mind that children must be allowed to grieve the loss of their family as they knew it, and that damage is greatest to children when parents put the children in the middle, forcing them to take sides, be messengers, or spy on each other.

In order to reduce the risk of divorce, couples should engage in premarital counseling whenever possible to make sure they are compatible and to work through any potential pitfalls. Individuals should also do what they can to learn good communication and conflict resolution skills. Taking the time for introspection can often help cope with areas of conflict or incompatibility. Once married, couples should practice healthy communication and seek professional guidance from counselors, books, or websites to address problems before either party gives up on the relationship. With this mindset, ideally it is never too late to improve a relationship.

Resources to build healthy relationships include: The Muslim Marriage Guide by Ruqayyah Waris Maqsood, Blissful Marriage by Ekram & Mohamed Rida Beshir, Gender Equity in Islam by Jamal Badawi, The Relationship Cure by John Gottman, & Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix.

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Salma Abugideiri is Co-Director of the Peaceful Families Project, an organization dedicated to domestic violence prevention in the Muslim community. She is also a licensed professional counselor in private practice, serving Muslim families in northern Virginia. This article was originally published on September 14, 2009.

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