Please welcome Salma Abugideiri as our newest relationship columnist. Her column will appear bi-weekly, alternating with our other column, AskM. Salma is a licensed, professional counselor with over fifteen years of experience. Her practice is in Northern Virginia. You can find more information on her website: wellnessthroughcounseling.com. She is also a founding Board Member of Peaceful Families Project, a national organization dedicated to domestic violence prevention in the Muslim community.
More information and resources can be found at peacefulfamilies.org.
Are the issues effecting Muslim marriages the same as other religious communities?
Salma Abugideiri: There are many issues that are common across faith tradition and ethnicity. Many couples struggle with communication and conflict resolution, managing expectations, disagreements around gender roles, finances and parenting. Muslim couples, especially those of immigrant background, may also struggle with managing relationships with extended families, cultural adjustment issues, and identity issues.
How does the background of a Muslim couple manifest itself in their marriage and family dynamics (i.e. converts vs. those born into Islam or older vs. younger)?
Salma Abugideiri: Culture plays out in many ways since it shapes how we define gender roles, what we expect from a marriage and from our spouses, how we communicate, and even how we define happiness. When people come from similar cultural backgrounds, they generally have an easier time than couples who come from divergent cultures. What is acceptable in American culture may not be acceptable in South Asian or Arab culture. Culture becomes less of an issue in couples who are flexible, open to learning about each other and willing to accept pieces from each other’s culture or background. Each generation may struggle with different issues, but ultimately, communication and flexibility can go a long way in resolving issues.
Do you find that cultural values that aren’t necessarily rooted in Islam influence the gender dynamics of a Muslim marriage?
Salma Abugideiri: Absolutely! People are often unclear about what is culture and what is religion. Unfortunately, many people do not realize the mutuality and gender equity that is emphasized in Qur’anic teachings. Many of the “duties” that are often prescribed to wives have no basis in Islamic teachings, and in fact, are completely culturally based. The challenge extends beyond the couple, though, because even if they see eye to eye, the extended family members may have expectations that are culturally grounded and that may put a great deal of strain on one or both spouses.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing newly married Muslim couples?
Salma Abugideiri: Newly married Muslim couples face the same challenges as any newly married couple: learning to adjust to a new life, managing expectations and learning how to resolve conflict. Muslim couples also have to figure out how they will live their Islam together, and how they will negotiate between their respective understandings of Islam, their cultural background, and their extended families’ input. Unfortunately, most couples are not adequately prepared for marriage, and generally do not anticipate how much work is required to have a healthy and mutually satisfying relationship.
What pro-active approaches can couples take to be more in harmony with each other?
Salma Abugideiri: Interestingly enough, it can be very helpful before marriage for each person to get to know him or herself better. Specifically, what are your expectations regarding marriage? What are your values, biases, preferences? Know what you are bringing into the relationship. It is also helpful to engage in premarital counseling (multiple sessions) to understand each other better and to learn important skills (communication, conflict resolution). Practicing good communication skills, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, and prioritizing the well-being of the relationship over individual well-being can all lead to a more harmonious relationship. Additionally, the hectic day-to-day of married life can sideline the fun that needs to be a part of any relationship. So plan time for fun and recreation rather than expecting it to happen spontaneously.
The rate of divorce is increasing in Muslim communities across America – what is your opinion on the cause or causes for this increase?
Salma Abugideiri: There are many causes that I see in the couples I work with. Some of these causes are preventable, such as in the cases where people did not get to know each other sufficiently prior to marriage, or when couples have poor communication and conflict resolution skills. Sometimes, couples do not seek help when the problem is still manageable. Waiting until the problem has festered and become entrenched sometimes means it is too late to prevent a divorce. Other major causes of divorce include different expectations around gender roles, interference of extended family, domestic violence, affairs, and pornography.
Najiyah Khan is a staff writer for Altmuslimah and writes on a variety of topics, with domestic violence being her focus. She lives in the Washington DC area where she volunteers her time doing fundraising and outreach with numerous organizations.