Communicating with parents across the cultural divide

Communicating with parents during the process of seeking a spouse is a delicate issue, especially when their outlooks are so different from our own. Some may keep parents at a distance, causing long-term tension, while others give in to their parents’ traditional demands, which may not be in their best interest. How do we find common ground that balances our independence with parental involvement? Our contributors discuss how we can more honestly communicate and compromise with parents, and the benefits that this openness brings.
Anas Coburn: “If mama ain’t happy…”

The question of how unmarried Muslims and their parents communicate through the courtship process is fraught with anxiety on all sides. Why can’t our parents get it that what worked for them just isn’t gonna cut it for us? Sure, as the American cliché goes, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” But sometimes mama ain’t happy unless we swallow enough baggage to cause a lifelong case of indigestion.

Parents want to feel assured that their child has absorbed the values most important to them, and that their child’s courtship process will be guided by these values. So the best place for unmarried Muslims to start the process is well before a potential spouse is on the horizon. Conversations about what criteria are important in mate selection need to be explicit, and get into the values that underlie the criteria. If there is mutual understanding at this level, it’ll make everything else much easier.

However, this isn’t enough to assure a smooth process. If you don’t communicate enough with your prospective mate, important issues get glossed over; and, if things are going well, rational decision-making ends up in the back seat. The perspective of parents and friends is vital. When I first met my wife – she told her friend afterward, “He’s ok. But he didn’t sweep me off my feet.” Her friend said, “Good! Think what’s happened to you when you have been swept off your feet!” I’m very grateful to her friend!

One last point: Working with families, I’ve seen that secrets are toxic. If you are into something you feel you can’t talk about, there’s a problem. It may well be the problem is not with your relationship, but with your parents or friends. Even so, you must take care of it. You need a functioning support system. One of my favorite essayists wrote that marriage is one of the most important decisions you make in life – and it is always made with insufficient data! So including in the process people who have always had your back only makes sense, and it just might keep mama happy.

Imam Sohaib Sultan: To be heard and understood, you too must hear and understand

“Parents always want what is best for their children.” We may be tired of this cliché, but it’s true. Parents sometimes have an odd way of showing it, but they really do want to see their children happy. The problem is that with cultural and generational gaps, our conceptions of what happiness is can be quite different. As such, parent-child conversations about marriage are often fraught with landmines. Worldviews clash. Egos are bruised. Seemingly the easiest way out is avoidance. The less you talk about it the better it will be. Meanwhile continue doing what you need to do to find prince or princess charming, or resign yourself to the fate of the auntie net, right? Well, not exactly.

The problem with this model is that you cannot avoid the issue forever. Eventually you and your parents will have to come to some sort of understanding. Not only is this necessary for a sane marriage process but also for a healthy long-term marriage. So, the best way is to be forward, honest, and open when speaking with your parents. Communication can be difficult, especially when you feel like you are worlds apart in your perspectives. But, there are multiple ways to communicate if sitting down over dinner doesn’t work. You can write your parents a letter explaining where you are coming from or you can ask a trusted relative/friend to help facilitate the conversation.

When you talk to your parents you have to be mindful of your tone and their feelings. As difficult as it may be, your tone should be endearing, not harsh. You should show sympathy for their worldview and experiences. “I know you’ve struggled a lot for us” or “I know you want the best for me,” allow your parents to warm up. All of this is not to say that you’re the one with all the answers. You too have to listen with an open mind and heart, and consider carefully what your parents are saying. If you want to be heard and understood, you too will have to hear and understand. Best wishes. Let me know how it goes.

Noha Alshugairi: Wake-up call to parents

Parents, we’re in the midst of a marriage crisis, and while many factors contribute to this issue, I am concerned with what we have under our control. We must change the way we expect our children to find and get to know spouses-to-be. It pains me when young adults choose to go about this process in secret and avoid engaging their parents early on. We parents have a lot of wisdom to share that gets lost in the shuffle of disagreement and conflict, so if we want to be part of this process, we need to be sources of support and rather than deterrents.

Let’s become comfortable with our children using the Internet, in addition to other methods, as a venue to meet people. The Internet works beautifully to connect small pockets of the Muslim community scattered across our country. I highly recommend having face-to-face meetings as soon as basic compatibility is established. We must allow young people the time to get to know one another, as long as we are aware and approve of the possible match. Children should approach their parents when they are interested in someone, have a discussion about the suitability of the match, and then if both families are on board, grant them permission to interact in an Islamically appropriate way. Certainly, each family will have different rules regarding this process which need to be discussed openly.

Let’s open up dialogue early with our children! Our only way to guarantee having influence over them is to listen to what they have to say, assess whether our view of the situation is outdated, share our concerns calmly, and then give them space to make their own decisions and face the consequences of their actions. Accept that what they suggest may work even though it’s not ideal to you. When parents are willing to yield control to their children, parents retain more influence over the process. Try to control and they will rebel against you. Let go and they will seek your input! Only through a loving, functioning connection can you continue to impart your wisdom to them.



Anas Coburn is a mental health clinician trained in marriage and family therapy and serves as the managing director of Project Sakinah, an initiative of Dar al Islam to address domestic violence in the Muslim community. Imam Sohaib N. Sultan is the full-time Muslim Chaplain at Princeton University. He is the author of two books on Islam: The Koran for Dummies (Wiley 2004) and The Qur’an and Sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Skylight Paths 2007). Noha Alshugairi is the mother of four grown children, one of whom is in an inter-ethnic marriage. She is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Newport Beach, CA.

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