One of the identifiable causes of marital problems that are brought before me is the lack of independence many couples find with regards to in-laws. Either in-laws are persistent in trying to get involved in the workings of a spousal relationship, or spouses aren’t left to get on and live their lives autonomously. The parents of spouses can often present as a huge impediment to the growth and maturation of a spousal relationship: people need to fight, argue, make up (and make love); find common ground, learn to accept certain traits and seek to change other ones. There is no such thing as the perfect partner, but partners are meant to mould themselves and one another in an ongoing process of finding the best format for their relationship, and the types of people they want to live and grow with. God says about spouses “They are as garments to you as you are to them” (2:187) and like garments, even though they fit from the beginning, they can be slightly tight in some places or the material a bit itchy. But after they’re worn in, they become the most comfortable (and preferable) clothes in the wardrobe.
Life is about negotiating with parents, kids, friends, associates, colleagues. To assume everybody must change except you is the height of arrogance and narcissism. Real men seek to be purified (see 9:108), and you’re only cleansed when you get dirty. Thus the real man is one that acknowledges that blame probably falls in his camp most of the time and seeks rectification. It is a highly blameworthy quality to always put the blame at other people’s doorstep – problem solvers seek to resolve an issue, not run away from it and claim it has little to do with them.
In some ethno-cultures there is the assumption that offspring remain eternal slaves to their parents. Not only is the idea absurd it doesn’t reflect anything in the sharī’ah. Many confuse the idea of God exhorting people to be benign towards their parents “and lower your wing in humility towards them in kindness” (17:24) as somehow suggestive that the parents have the right to ‘everything’. Exhorting one party to be good doesn’t mean the other party suddenly has unfettered rights and access – that is simply illogical reasoning. God telling me to be good to a beggar doesn’t mean that the beggar suddenly has the right to my bank account and to take over my home. It’s simply a one-way exhortation in the interest of specific needs of the beggar. As a man, and obviously I speak from the male prerogative, to find yourself between your mother and your wife is not a ‘difficult’ position – it’s one that shouldn’t even exist. A mother should know the parameters of motherhood, and a wife the parameters of a spouse – and the two do not cross over, ever. If the respective parties are unaware of this or do not understand, it is the job of the man to (tactfully) cultivate each party so that they become aware. Running away from this task is not the ‘manliness’ that such people claim.
Furthermore, there is NO manliness (nor religiosity) in putting your wife down or making her miserable at the behest of your mother (or both parents), in fact it comes across as quite cowardly. And then in this ostensible state of cowardice to expect your wife to respect you or you ‘manliness’ is a bit of a joke – you haven’t exactly given her a reason to. It is no surprise how often I hear women telling me that they find it difficult to respect their husbands out of questioning his manliness. One might retort, “Well maybe there’s something wrong with her…” No, very simply, it should be beyond question. If you want to be the ‘King of the Castle’ or ‘Leader of the Faithful’ in your homes, then perhaps learning to act independently and in the interests of those under your charge would be a good place to start, whilst of course, maintaining a good relationship with mumsy.
Some men insist on acting like 10 year old ‘mummy’s boy’ and then ridiculously use their invented version of religion to legitimise their immaturity or lack of backbone. God exhorts to strength, confidence, aptitude and discernment. Those who demonstrate the aforementioned do not have mothers who treat them as boys; their mothers simply wouldn’t think to and intuitively know that it’d be out of order. To be fair, some males cannot be blamed (I’m differentiating here between men and males): their entire lives are controlled by overbearing parents where they’re not empowered to form the basic skill sets needed to make decisions – let alone good ones, or take care of themselves, let alone others. As a result, they lack maturity, incisiveness, discernment and the interpersonal skills required to navigate the complexities of life and negotiate favourable outcomes. (This also explains a lot about our political and religious ‘leadership’). The kind of absurd things grown adults offer as excuses in arbitration or when seeking advice from me is bewildering.
However, the wives of these men sometimes are no better, they complain about their husbands yet either act like their husband’s mother (by being overbearing, babying him, emotionally blackmailing him, or undermining him at every turn) or raise their children in the same way – mollycoddling and infantilising their own growing kids. At the point of marriage, their sons are literally transferred from one set of cradled arms (the mother) to another (the wife’s). Not only is it embarrassing, it’s quite nauseating. If this bizarre cycle is to be broken then we must consider the following in raising our children – both sons and daughters: It is sometimes in the child’s interests to have their lives ‘controlled by adults, in complicated, age-dependent and sphere-of-discretion-dependent ways. What children should be free to decide for themselves will depend on their emotional, physical, and intellectual maturity. Nobody thinks that very young children should be deciding for themselves what to eat, where to cross the road, and the like. But as children get older, the kind of authority over them that is justified changes. *One learns autonomy in large part by practicing it*, so the duty to help children develop the capacity for autonomy implies careful judgments about when children are ready to start making their own choices, and gradually increasing their discretion over their own lives.’ (Brighouse and Swift, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, p.26)
As a parent, some of my proudest moments are not when my children simply do as I say, but when they intelligently disagree and posit a robust and compelling response. I once said to one of my children who sought a chocolate biscuit for payment, “Will you only tidy up because of some promise of a reward?” He said, “Why not, dad?” I said: “Isn’t God’s reward enough?” He replied, “That’s exactly what I expected – for God to reward me through you!” Cue silent dad, which doesn’t happen often!
Muslims will only rise to the challenge when they cultivate intelligent, autonomous, rational, godly and civilised beings, ready to take on the world on their own, able to take care of themselves and others, and think creatively. Raise problem-solvers, not adults who cower from confrontation or throw hissy-fits when things do not go their way. Not only does it inevitably cause misery rather than happy and resilient people, it’s certainly not the way of the believers.