“He was a good person, she said, but their marriage was gasping for air — what could she do to bring it back to life?”

Another call came in. I knew what to expect — another woman, distressed and frantic. Her marriage was falling apart, and she was eager to piece it back together, or figure out what else she could do to make it work. Ending the marriage was not on the table for her, but she was drastically unhappy, and so was her spouse. He was a good person, she said, but their marriage was gasping for air — what could she do to bring it back to life?

When I began offering therapy services for the Muslim community, I had expected to continue working on parenting issues and childhood trauma, which had been my specialty working in the general community. Very quickly, however, the trend was clear. Nearly all of the calls coming in were desperate attempts to salvage a marriage. In retrospect, this was not surprising. Among various professional circles, I had heard this before. Both Muslim men and women who were intensely dissatisfied in their relationships, and were choosing to either stay together in misery or separate and deal with the realities of divorce. A growing number of Muslim couples are opting for the latter. A 2014 report by the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding cites two separate studies that show divorce rates in the Muslim community falling somewhere between 21.3 and 32.33 percent. While still under the 50 percent divorce rate cited for the general American public, and without a large body of data from which to draw from, the American Muslim marriage is clearly floundering.

Marriage dissatisfaction stems from a lack of understanding and misconceptions about what makes a marriage successful. Children absorb their parents’ interactions with each other, they begin to construct how men and women communicate, and surmise the distribution of gender roles.  These influences and conclusions are referred to throughout their lives, spilling into adulthood – a different generation and society from the time of their parents. However, once married, it is important to put these influences in the context of their parents’ time and build a new marriage based on the individual and collective needs of the partners. Unfortunately, it is when individual needs are sacrificed that dissatisfaction can occur. American Muslims have a unique struggle – they are caught between the newfound but “under-construction” American Muslim lifestyle and the traditional values and roles from their childhood. In my clinical experience I have found that American Muslims, specifically those that are children of immigrants with traditional Muslim marriages, are continuously working, and at times failing, to understand their roles within their modern relationship due to this dichotomy.

“Couples are spending less time together and have higher levels of stress, resulting in reduced psychological resources to allocate for the marriage.”

Marriage dissatisfaction, however, is not unique to the Muslim community. In their article, “The suffocation of marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen,” Finkel, Hui, Carswell, and Larson present a framework for understanding this trend, along with recommendations for increasing marital satisfaction.  These concepts can be applied, with certain limitations, to the Muslim community. The suffocation model presented in the article utilizes the work of American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who in 1943 had developed a model to demonstrate a hierarchy of needs. At the base level of the hierarchy were physiological needs (hunger, thirst, sleep, respiration), followed by safety, belonging and love, esteem, and finally self-actualization. According to Maslow’s model, a person’s attention would be fixated on meeting lower level needs before higher level needs could be met. The authors examine how, over time, marital emphasis in the dominant American culture has shifted up the hierarchy.

In the Maslow model, three types of marriage are presented. The institutional model dominated agrarian society from the late 1700s through 1850. This model prioritized family stability and the meeting of basic physiological and safety needs. After this, the companionate model took root between 1850-1965; this version of marriage emphasized the importance of companionship and romantic affection in marriage, while continuing to hold concrete mutually supportive gendered roles (ie, “breadwinner-homemaker” relationships). The self-expressive model was born of the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s and embraced marriage as a vehicle for individuals to nurture one another’s personal fulfillment. The authors suggest that American culture currently resides in this last model but lacks the resources necessary to make relationships with these goals sustainable.  It can also be argued that in comparison, the traditional Muslim marriage may be a combination of the earlier two models – presenting a conflict for modern American Muslim marriages.

Culturally speaking, for generations many Muslim families have lived together in traditional family settings that provided a support system — minimizing the need to look outward for socialization, marriage support, childcare, and financial support. Although, this is not to say that these arrangements didn’t come with their own stressors and potential conflicts. However, this lifestyle was not compatible with American family and work cultures and pace of life. Work and childcare became burdensome for couples with no resources or nearby family support, often isolating these families. Modern American Muslim couples are likely to manage the daily stressors of child-rearing alone, along with the stress of household responsibilities, work and social obligations. These aspects of married life compound any relationship struggles couples may already have, causing arguments, unhappiness, and time apart.

This idea is further explored in the Maslow article which contends a change in marital priorities has shifted marriage up Maslow’s hierarchy (or what they term “Mount Maslow”) so that the weight of marriage is expected to fulfill the highest tiers of the hierarchy (belonging and love, esteem, and mostly self-actualization). They introduce the “suffocation model,” which argues that in addition to the shift to higher altitude needs, couples are failing to allocate the time, effort, and resources necessary for achieving these higher needs. The authors demonstrate that in general couples are spending less time together and have higher levels of stress, resulting in reduced psychological resources to allocate for the marriage. These items are the critical “oxygen” for attaining the higher altitudes of the relationship, and their absence results in a “suffocation” of marriage. The authors suggest that overall marriage has become necessary for economic survival and even romantic companionship. They demonstrate that marriage has been stacked with higher level needs and increased expectations for marriage to provide friendship, emotional intimacy, sexual passion and fulfillment, social prestige, and the facilitation of personal growth. With all these expectations is the hypothesis that marriages tend to last longer (with increased life expectancy) and that individuals tend to have fewer social outlets outside of marriage than in the past.

“When couples come to a therapist to ask for help in their ‘dying’ marriage, the marriage is usually already dead. But that does not mean that it cannot be brought back to life”

The authors present three areas in which modern marriages can “re-oxygenate,” or access critical resourcing to make marriages in the self-expressive model viable. First, they recommend optimizing available resources, that is utilizing research-based interventions to maximize impact in a marriage. Examples include creating excitement in the relationship and reflecting on conflict through the lenses of a neutral party. Second, the authors suggest couples can invest in “supplemental oxygen” through spending time together and sharing friends and interests. They argue that if a spouse sees a partner as a means to meet broad needs, then sufficient time is needed to invest in the relationship. A third opportunity lies in requiring less oxygen for the relationship, achieved by expanding support networks so as not to burden the marriage with all the requirements of self-actualization. Here the authors offer controversial avenues to attain this, such as consensual non-monogamy and “living apart together”, which may have positive impact on the longevity of some marriages, but may undercut the values and meaning given to marriage among most Muslims.

However, both general American and American Muslim couples do have access to more resources than ever before, without the need to compromise their values and morals. Couples can seek help and support before marriage through premarital counseling – a popular trend among young American Muslim couples in recent years. During the premarital counseling sessions, the couple meets with a marriage therapist or local imam, who is ideally trained in marital counseling or therapy, to seek advice and support in preparation for marriage. Premarital counseling can help ensure that the couple has a strong, healthy relationship giving them a better chance for a stable, satisfying, and “oxygenated” relationship. During these sessions, couples are able to talk about their plan to support one another during the transitions of their relationships.  They discuss how best to communicate and devise a strategy for setting aside time to spend with each other in spite of their busy schedules. This form of early intervention allows couples to better “breathe” and survive, providing a solid foundation for their future. Couples can accept the terms of their relationship early as to prevent feelings of being mislead or misunderstood later in the relationship. A unique resource that some Muslim couples may also have is a strong extended family and religious community support system.  In general, American couples have access to other resources as well, such as couples counseling and couples support groups where they may share solutions to resolve marital dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, most couples in distress do not reach out to a counselor or therapist until it is too late.  Often, it is because they do not want to talk about their issues with a complete stranger.  Other times, they do not know if they can truly trust this person with their personal matters.  And sometimes, it is a financial issue. When couples come to a therapist to ask for help in their “dying” marriage, the marriage is usually already dead. But that does not mean that it cannot be brought back to life with some love and care. This may not be the case for all marriages but it is a possibility for some. Often, couples do not need to talk about their “issues” but rather what they do not talk about. The first step toward resolution is remembering what brought them together in the first place and their positive qualities. The more couples focus on the negative aspects of their relationship, the more likely the relationship will suffer.

I usually recommend that couples seek advice from friends that they trust or talk to a professional for support.  It is imperative that couples exercise caution when sharing their issues with their parents and in-laws, this creates a negative dynamic within the larger family. I once received a call from a member of the local mosque, asking to support a couple that is currently going through some marital discord. The sister over the phone mentioned “it is our job as a community to help those in need.” Hoping to help, I asked the sister to have the couple give me a call and set up an appointment. I met with the couple and quickly realized that the wife only spoke Arabic, but she understood English.  As I was not an Arabic speaker, I asked the husband to share their story. As I listened, I watched his wife’s facial cues to determine if she agreed with what the husband was sharing. As I sat there, I realized the enormity of the disconnect between the couple. The wife spent her day cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their five children. The husband spent the day at work, coming home only to eat and sleep. The couple hardly spent any time alone outside of weekly errands. I asked the couple to seek support from a professional who spoke their language and would allow them the opportunity to express themselves in their native language. The couple was provided some temporary remedies but encouraged to seek support from someone they felt comfortable with and could relate to in terms of their culture and ethnicity as well.

“By taking steps to analyze the hierarchical goals a couple has placed on their marriage, they can assess steps to appropriately oxygenate their marriage to prevent suffocation.”

While providing valuable information about a version of American marriages, the Maslow article lacks a discussion of race and culture, and how these factors impact their model. While the authors introduce a short discussion on socioeconomic considerations, there is little to no discussion of the histories of non-white Americans, and how marriage models over time may look different in non-white communities. The white American narrative, moving from agrarian to industrial to a modern relationship model, is presented as normative. A small nod is made to religiously conservative communities in discussion of current marriages, but not in the historical overview portion of the article. The question remains about how non-Christian and/or non-white cultures are represented in the current self-expressive model and how outside pressures (economic, political,and social) impact the hierarchy of needs being filled by the marriage. The authors acknowledge that their study does not look at cultures beyond America’s borders but they do not acknowledge the variety of cultures within our country.

Despite these limitations, the suffocation of marriage model is still helpful in understanding how perceptions of marriage have differed over time. The model provides insight for couples to analyze their expectations of marriage, how to maximize their investment, and perhaps let go of excessive weight on the marriage. The model can also provide insight into cross-cultural and cross-generational expectations of marriage by providing a framework through which to see where differing priorities lie. Families can use this model to frame discussion on how parents and children, as well as spouses of different cultural upbringings, may view marriage differently. By taking steps to analyze the hierarchical goals a couple has placed on their marriage, they then assess steps to appropriately oxygenate their marriage to prevent suffocation.

For American Muslims, the teachings and practices of The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) can also serve as an example of how to “oxygenate” their relationships.  There are countless stories of how the Prophet (PBUH) introduced simple yet impactful displays of love and playfulness in his relationship with his wife, Aisha.  In one hadith, Aisha (RA) asked the Prophet (PBUH) how he would describe his love for her. He said: “Like a strong binding knot.” In other words – the more you tug, the stronger it gets. Every so often Aisha would ask, “How is the knot?” The Prophet (PBUH) would answer, “As strong as the first day (you asked).”

Resources:

  1. Eli J. Finkel, Chin Ming Hui, Kathleen L. Carswell & Grace M. Larson (2014) The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow Without Enough Oxygen, Psychological Inquiry, 25:1, 1-41
  2. Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. (2014). Recommendations for Promoting Healthy Marriages & Preventing Divorce in the American Muslim Community.

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Sakeena Mirza is an associate clinical social worker in Los Angeles, providing therapy services for individuals and couples in private practice and the upcoming LA office of Khalil Center. Her clinical focus is trauma work across the lifespan, parenting, and relationships. Sakeena is the executive director of Seeds, a nonprofit organization that works to create supportive communities for those impacted by trauma, with a focus on children in the foster care system.

Maliha Malik has an M.S. in marriage and family therapy from Central Connecticut State University. Maliha has worked with individuals of all age groups in different fields of mental health, including foster care for adolescents and substance abuse in adults. She specializes in couples and family therapy, and provides services in her community.  Maliha currently works for Beyond Chai, a Muslim matchmaking company, providing relationship coaching and premarital counseling.

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