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Making Your Marriage Work

How do you start off your marriage on the right foot? Is premarital counseling important? Why do marriages go wrong? What are some warning signs that intervention is needed? How should couples deal with relationship conflict? And how can a couple step back from the brink of divorce? Hina Mirza is a registered psychotherapist helping individuals and families with their mental health through an Islamic lens. Here's the transcript of a spirited conversation with host Safiyyah Ally about how to make your marriage better!


Dr. Safiyyah Ally: Hina, I want to ask you about marriage. Muslims tend to get excited about marriage, but when they enter a marriage there’s confusion as to what they should do and often their expectations aren’t met. How do you make sure that you start your marriage off on the right foot?

Hina Mirza: I think you said it: everybody gets very excited. I think they’re not excited about the marriage, they’re actually excited about the wedding. One of the things I’ve always criticized not only our community, but just marriage as a whole, is that everybody prepares for the wedding day.

Safiyyah: For months, right?

Hina: For months, yes! They allocate funds and there are lists and whatnot, but nobody prepares for marriage. It’s probably one of the most unregulated jobs that you’re ever going to do because you’re never going to learn anything, educate yourself about it, or get the skillset that you need to be married. We just kind of throw our children into the process of marriage without giving them any of the tools that they’re going to need to make that marriage survive. It’s astonishing that you need a license for everything in life, except for two things I think are very vital, especially in our faith as Muslims: marriage and children. Our parents focus on all the preparation, what to serve, when to book the halls, and the functions and events. But when the couple is together and all that fanfare has ended, they don’t have the skills and the tools to make it work - yet, we have this expectation. Now, subhanallah, you see so many divorces rising in the Muslim community and we’re constantly asking ourselves, “why?” Well there’s your answer, because people are not prepared.

Safiyyah: You’re talking about a toolkit. What sort of tools do you need for a marriage?

Hina: You absolutely need a toolkit. As a therapist, I’ve developed a program for couples who are looking to get married. It’s pre-marriage counselling and it’s developed with three of the main methods that I follow in therapy in my session. I use the Gottman Method, Relational Life Therapy and Emotion-focused Therapy. Then obviously coming from our own religion, faith, beliefs, and practices, I’ve made this holistic package that addresses the main issues in relationships - not just coming from the different schools of thought, but also from the things that I see in therapy. So I have couples who come in looking to get divorced after five, ten, or fifteen years. I gather all this information and come up with five main criteria that couples really struggle with. Things like conflict resolution, communication, attachment. When you know what the problematic end result is, it’s really easy to work backwards and say, “Hey, what would it look like if a couple getting into a marriage had access to this information before it became a problem?”

Safiyyah: So is it important that couples know what these problems are? Or should they be equipped with how to handle them?

Hina: Absolutely. So that awareness that these are the core problems that couples tend to get into. Then obviously, how do you handle it? So say, for example, if we talk about conflict resolution, everybody’s going to fight. That’s what I tell my couples. I say, “Hey listen, if you’re thinking, ‘we’re never going to fight, we’re never going to get into an argument’, well, that’s not going to happen. Everybody fights. Everybody gets into an argument. I’m not worried about you guys fighting. I just want to know how you’re going to resolve the conflict”. Having that toolkit means having access to information. So you understand that there will be problems and what type of problems are thematically prevalent in marriages. Then having the skills or the tools to resolve the conflicts in a better way, and really personalizing and making them individual to each couple and each person as they walk into the office. Subhanallah, when I talk about this toolkit, what I’m actually referring to is just a set of skills that you need to deal with major issues in marriage.

Safiyyah: Can you give me an example of how it would work? Let’s say a couple comes in and they’re two very different people. They’re married and they’re having this conflict. What do you do?

Hina: Let’s back it up a little bit. Your first sentence was two people come in, they’re very different.

Safiyyah: Yes.

Hina: Hopefully, you’re not.

Safiyyah: People are naturally different. Even siblings are different from each other, right?

Hina: For sure! One of the things that I think is extremely important when you’re getting married to somebody is to make sure that your values are aligned with one another. Relationships can survive a lot. Subhanallah, Allah has made them very strong and has given relationships the capacity to withhold a lot of pressure, stress, and tension. That’s a fact of life. But when you want to build a good quality marriage, you want to make sure that the foundations are good. The foundations are good when you are aligned with your values. Let’s say, for example, a couple comes in as clients. One person is very career-oriented and very focused on succeeding in their career. That’s part of the toolkit that I work with couples, which is helping them understand what their values are. “What are the things that inspire me and motivate me. What do I focus on in life?” Let’s say one partner is focused on their career and the other partner is focused on family. You already know that the alignment’s off and you know that they’re going to run into problems. One is going to be okay: business trips, late-night meetings, and work commitments. The other one will be going to baseball games, anniversaries, and Eid parties. So the alignment.

Safiyyah: In any marriage, there’s going to be a misalignment of some values, right?

Hina: Of course. As long as their end goal is similar, and their end goal values are similar, absolutely. You’re right. Obviously, there’s going to be a little bit of difference between the two individuals. You can’t possibly find that perfect fit, but the end goal values have to be similar. Or at least if they’re not similar, then before you’re getting into the marriage, you need to know what you’re getting into. I think that’s so important.

Safiyyah: But sometimes you don’t even know ahead of time. I mean, you get married and you don’t even know what you’re like, or you don’t know how you’ll change over time, right?

Hina: Yeah, for sure.

Safiyyah: Ten years down, you’re not the same person as you were when you got married.

Hina: You’re not. When you start off with similar values - imagine two people are getting married and they are starting their life off together. They have the same vision for their marriage and their relationship. Through pre-marriage counselling or through educated marriages, the aim is that they’re going to grow together in life. So ten years or fifteen years later, there will be growth, but the growth will be together. The couple will grow together. If the values are not aligned, yes, of course, they’re going to grow, but they’re going to grow apart. Nowadays, when we see couples getting divorced after being married for fifteen years, they’ve got children and so on and so forth. Then people are like, “Why now?”. It’s because they grew, but they grew apart. And fifteen years later, they’re both in a very different place. But because their value alignment was so off, they just found that they were just living together like roommates, but they had none of that attachment of growth potential together.

Safiyyah: So how do you make sure that you’re not compromising something that you really care about just to make sure that you’re growing together?

Hina: Always remember the Stephen Covey statement, to begin with the end in mind. So when you begin a relationship, begin with the end in mind. What do you want the end of this relationship to look like? How do you see yourself growing old together? As well as continuously communicating that with your partner throughout the years. We have a tendency of losing focus on the journey, right? You’ll get distracted and kids will come into the picture, career changes, families, successes, challenges, and failures. We lose focus on our end goal. That’s where the misalignment happens. You’ll see it happening a lot when a child enters the picture. Mom will be the primary caretaker and dad will be a little more focused on his work. Then when the child is more independent, the couple is looking at each other and saying, “Well, I don’t know how to communicate with you. I don’t know how to be with you.” So, just make sure that you’re continuously checking in. I send my couples on a retreat together. The package that we do includes five modules: we work on communication, conflict resolution, attachment theory, and decision-making. We do the modules and they have their work in the book that they work in together. I always tell them, “Once a year, take a weekend for yourselves and revisit all the modules again. Fill them out again. That’s where alignment comes in. So that your marriage isn’t getting lost in the hustle bustle of your daily life, your family life, or your commitment. You’re realigning every single year. Go away for the weekend, book a hotel with just the two of you, sit with your modules, work on them again, and talk to each other about ‘This is where I am in life now’”. This way, both of them have that sense of self-awareness as that marriage grows. They grow and they change and understand how both of them are growing and changing.

Safiyyah: Hina, is there some point in a marriage where it seems like this is the end and there’s no coming back from this situation?

Hina: Of course. Subhanallah, there’s so much of it nowadays. We see it more today than we’ve ever seen it before in Muslim communities where marriages come to a natural end. Subhanallah, there are so many reasons why. I’m not here to make a decision for people about what the right or wrong decision is. Whatever people’s decision is, what I can say from a therapeutic perspective is that people get help too late.

Safiyyah: Okay.

Hina: The majority of people come into therapy as a last resort. “This is it. The marriage is done. We’re going to try therapy. If this doesn’t work, then I’m out the door.” Well, I can tell you now, it's not going to work. As a therapist, I need leverage from you. If you're going to come into my office for marriage counselling and say, "Save my marriage”, I need leverage. In order to have leverage, I need to have something about the couple that shows they still want to be with one another. They're still in love in some capacity. There’s still respect and there’s still desire for them to be together. When I have leverage, I can help them through their challenges. When people say therapy is the last resort, it's not going to help. You're not going to get what you're looking for because you've already created so much emotional injury. There's so much past resentment and so much negativity in the relationship. Nobody can help you out of that. When it's too little too late, therapy isn't and it shouldn't be the last resort. In fact, as a therapist, I would always say therapy should be your first resort. That when you notice the relationship is going south and things are not working well the way that they were, or you notice that change, then that should be your first resort.

Safiyyah: Let's say couples feel this immense resentment, they don't feel like they're in love anymore. Can they overcome that? Do you think they can work through that to get to a better place for themselves?.

Hina: Every couple is different. I've seen people coming into the office after infidelity and making it work. Then I've seen people come in where the issues to some of us may not seem as serious or it may not seem as severe, and they haven't been able to see through their problems. It's a very individual process and it's a very individual journey. But the one thing that really marks the success of marriage counselling is the desire of those two people to be with one another. If you want to be in this marriage, you will overcome absolutely anything. But if you've checked out and if you're not or you don't want to be in this marriage, then even the smallest things are going to become painful hurdles. You'll find more and more reasons to feed into that belief of yours that this person isn't good for me or this marriage isn't good for me. At the end of the day, couples that desire to be with one another are going to determine the outcome.

Safiyyah: Hina, what resources would you recommend? Let’s say someone is either looking to get married or they’re in a marriage and they’re realizing, “Oh, things are going wrong. We need to figure out how to solve this problem.” Are there any books or resources that you would recommend that someone consults?

Hina: I'm going to backtrack a little bit. The first thing I'm going to say is that if you are single and looking to get married, get premarital counselling. Don't get into a marriage, especially in this day and age, without knowing what tools and skills are going to help you through your challenges. Start by educating yourself first. Now, if you're already in a marriage and you're struggling and having a hard time, there are so many incredible resources available online. You want to narrow down what your individual concerns are. If you are struggling with conflict with one another, communication with each other, issues with the in-laws, or if you're having problems parenting, narrow down what your concerns are in the relationship, then pursue help based on that. There are lots and lots of resources. There's tons of stuff online, videos that you can watch on YouTube, educators that are mental health educators, and parent education educators that can help you. One of the things that I always recommend is to get help early. Sometimes we get in our own way. When we get in our own way, we get so blinded by our emotions and we get so overwhelmed that we are not able to see past our problems because they are clouding our reason and judgment. If you can get help early, go to therapy. Get your marriage the help that it needs when it's in its early stages of suffering and struggling. If it becomes prolonged suffering, it's going to be hard for you to come back. As you mentioned, there's resentment, there's anger, and it's going to be really hard to come back from that. So seek help.

Safiyyah: You've mentioned a few times, in this day and age, now more than ever marriage is hard. Divorce is more common. Why do you think that is?

Hina: The long and short of it is that there's no relationship dependency anymore. 100 years ago, women were not working and the man was the breadwinner. He would bring the money home and that's how the household would run. The wife was very much dependent on him for safety, security and financial stability. The man on the other hand was very dependent on his wife to raise the children, cook his food, clean his home, and manage the functioning of the day-to-day. We don't have that anymore. A man can take care of himself, he can cook for himself, and he can parent himself. A wife can go out there and earn money. So that relationship dependency that used to exist a long time ago doesn't exist anymore. So in modern marriage, what are your major players? Peace in the house. Everybody wants to come home to a peaceful home.

Safiyyah: Yes.

Hina: When you come home you want to come back to a happy home. You want respect in your relationship. You want emotional dependency, somebody to care for you, and you want companionship. The game has changed for a lot of couples out there. Not to say that it's not similar - the financial dependency is nice at times. It's nice to have a wife who's going to stay home and take care of the kids at home. All of that is there, but it's not a necessity anymore. Relationships have evolved because we have evolved as people. Women are educated and they're now in the workforce more. Since that shift has happened, the needs of the marriage have changed. When the needs of the marriage change, we need to change with it. We need to provide our relationships with whatever they needed before. When I say before, I mean 150 or 75 years ago, depending on which country and culture you are from. There was no communication. The husband walked into the house and called the shots and said, "this is what's going to happen." And that's what was going to happen. But now, communication is a big thing. In fact, 90% of couples that come in for marriage counselling say that the problem of their marriage is communication.

Safiyyah: So do you think that husbands need to do a lot more to adapt to this changing situation that you're mentioning?

Hina: I think both genders do.

Safiyyah: Husbands and wives?

Hina: Yes, absolutely. We all need to start understanding that change in dynamic and the change in roles that households are facing. But I do want to remind everybody that we must come back down to our authentic roots, our rights and responsibilities as Muslims, what our rights are in the home and what our responsibilities are in the home. Right now, marriage has suffered because we're always pointing our fingers at the other person. "You are not like this, and you didn't do this, and you didn't take care of this." It's a lot of blame game. If we really turned it around and we said, "Okay, what are my responsibilities of the home?" "Am I fulfilling my duties as a wife?" Or, "Am I fulfilling my duties as a husband?" And really coming from that perspective. It's always about what you give in a marriage, whatever you give is more important. And as long as you are giving or you're in a state of giving in the relationship, you're going to find a lot more peace on the inside, because as believers, as Muslims, we don't just look at ourselves in this dunya. We view ourselves from a different perspective and say, "Okay, well, what is good for my akhirah?" Do you know when I was talking about the end goal? That's your biggest end goal, your akhirah. If you're akhirah-focused, if you're focused on your hereafter, you're consistently gonna check in with yourself and ask, "What would Allah want me to do in this situation?" "What brings khair and barakah to my marriage and khair and barakah to my relationship?" And then approaching your marriage from that lens and that perspective means you educate yourself with whatever changes need to be made as an individual. You implement those changes and you commit yourself to growth and change. Because what you want at the end of the day is khair, right? Goodness for your marriage.

Safiyya: Hina, I feel like I've learned so much from you. This is like my own personal little therapy session. So thank you for that.

Hina: Very welcome.

Safiyyah: I'm gonna take your lessons back to my husband so that we can work together.

Hina: Inshallah it's beneficial.

Safiyyah: Thank you!

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