Marriage and Other Works in Progress
March 12, 2017
We were supposed to be in Istanbul. That was the plan. We were last there in the first year of our marriage and the pact had been to return in the tenth year. Except, we plan and Allah plans and He is the Best of Planners. So now Hums lives in Dubai for work and I am in Karachi with the kids and the ten year mark came and passed a couple months ago in as ordinary a fashion as most of the days preceding.
Nevertheless, to commemorate this supposedly momentous occasion somehow, I brewed myself a cup of Turkish coffee and sat down to write the first ten things which come to mind that I consider knowledge earned in the last ten years. Nothing says love like a list, don’t you think? So! Bismillah!
Rinse, rest, repeat
Many a things are made better or cured completely by a few tears, a little sugar, a long shower, a good night’s sleep or, ideally, all four. You know how everyone says don’t go to sleep angry? I say boo to that. A smarter strategy: Cry in the shower, eat some chocolate, head to bed. Do not stay up to fight. Anger + sleepy fatigue = Bad news. It much wiser to call timeout, establish a temporary peace on whatever the issue of the hour is so that there are no angels cursing you all night and go to sleep.
In the morning, the sun will stream through the windows and through the dark recesses of your mind, and everything will seem brighter. You might just pick up where you left off but there is also a really good chance that you can’t be bothered any more and would much rather concentrate on the scrambled eggs with chives that you’ve just cooked up.
Expect the unexpected
Marriage is a lot like parenting in that it’s always something new. In parenting, just when you have mastered the infant stage, your child becomes a toddler. Just when you figure out the basics of bedtime routines and potty training, your kid turns around and tells you he wants to major in Theories and Subcultures of Aztec Dance.
Marriage is exactly the same. Odd and unpredictable. Every couple is forever a work in progress. The spouses will grow and evolve as individuals and the only job of the marriage is to make sure that growth is, on the balance, more towards each other than apart.
In my own marriage, Hums has been a surprise to me at every single turn of our life together. There’s been many disappointments. But I keep the faith because the surprises haven’t been all bad. After years of buttering his toast and making sure his shirt collar was ironed just so, I had boxed him into the tidy category of “good hearted, slightly feudal, blissfully unaware of feminism and the ensuing equality of the sexes and division of household chores that entails”, to my utter disbelief and unbridled joy, one fine morning in our seventh year, Hums turned around and began making me dinner every Friday and Saturday night. That he, with his roasted fennel stuffed sea bass, and perfectly fluffy crème brulees, turned out to be a far superior cook than I had ever been, was the icing on a very sweet cake and has definitely brought us closer. I mean, how could it not?!
You are far too complicated for one person
The ideal soul mate spouse is one who shares every interest, gets every joke, hangs on to every word that drops from our rosebud lips, wants to spend every waking minute with us and fervently desires for us every last exact thing that we desire for ourselves no matter to what personal cost. Unfortunately, the actual spouse is too busy flossing his teeth while watching a televised sport you loathe and Whatsapping a friend you consider totally lame to pay much attention to your totally hilarious chicken joke.
Marrying Hums gave me a partner, a provider, a dinner buddy, a shopping bag carrier, a weekend movie companion and my most favorite secret keeper. We’ve really nailed the being each other’s garment. But there’s lots and lots it didn’t give me because there’s no such thing as one soul mate.
My soul (and anyone’s soul) is too multi faceted for any one person to satisfy. Fulfilling every part of my personality is too great a burden for one person to bear. Hums fills the husband shoes pretty okay. But thankfully, I’ve got my siblings and cousins and friends and professional colleagues for everything else. God is Great.
Love is a language
And just because you’re living together doesn’t mean you speak the same language. I spent the early days of my marriage wondering if I would ever get the grand gestures and surprise gifts that felt to me the epitome of romance. Now, I relish Hums’s small expressions of tenderness and I derive great satisfaction from knowing that only I am privy to his careful and particular demonstrations of thoughtfulness. He has his own way of speaking love and through time, I have learned to listen, to distinguish his vernacular from the noisy chatter of my own expectations.
Marriage demands you be willing to accept love in the way it is offered and give it in the way that it desired and meet halfway between expectations and abilities. Sometimes you will be lucky and the way you want love is the way your spouse gives love but more often, over the years you slowly craft your own gibberish and with practice, it becomes the sweetest song you ever did hear.
Look at the bigger picture
The trick to surviving and thriving in your marriage is to always take the long view, not the immediate one.
There have been days in which I have spent a good hour or so of my life imagining, in great detail, life without Hums. Sometimes, because, if he hasn’t answered three of my phone calls, I am convinced he is lying dead on the side of the highway somewhere. But other times, because after a particularly tense conversation, I decide I want to leave him. I tell myself, Allah is my witness, life with this man is completely unbearable, he has never once understood me, I am far better off alone, living and working on my art, in some secluded little town in the south of Spain where nobody knows my name and they refer to me as that “mysterious woman writer with the sad eyes and brave smile.” A couple of hours after chalking out an elaborate exit plan, complete with dramatic grabbing of the passport and sweeping out the door without a backward glance, Hums comes home, pats my hand like an absent minded professor, winking as he compliments the chicken curry, and with a whoosh, I am back, physically, emotionally and spiritually, thanking Allah that the overly zoomed in moment has passed and no life altering decisions had been taken in it.
When I keep my eye on the bigger picture under formation, I know Hums and I have joked and laughed and jumped around in the pouring rain. We’ve been to Umrah and every Muslim wife knows that their man in an Ihram, standing, at night, under the glittering lights of the Haram courtyard is a heartwarming sight that can fill you up with gratitude for days. We’ve held hands lightly, barely grazing palms, while strolling through parks and we’ve held hands tightly, almost crushing each other’s bones, when the doctor diagnosed our son with multiple delays, when our daughter went in for eye surgery, when the news came that my father was seriously unwell.
In all reasonably functional marriages, the good times far, far outweigh the bad times but that clarity only comes with stepping back from the canvas of your life and gazing, awestruck, at the masterpiece that is slowly taking shape.
Dua helps and heals
Even if your duas are not answered, in a way or shape that you prefer, there is something creatively self fulfilling about the very act.
When you let yourself be weak and you empty out your heart in dua, your heart feels full and strong again. When your heart feels full and satisfied after dua, you remember that only the remembrance of Allah, not your spouse, can give your heart satisfaction. Thus you remember Him more. Praying for my marriage has made me more appreciative of it. Praying for Hums has made me more grateful for his presence in my life. Feeling grateful and appreciative has made me pray more and happily so.
It’s a lovely little circular thing which grows bigger in scope over time and great for any marriage. A little dua every day keeps the doctor, the doldrums and the desperate desire to escape away.
All conversations are not created equal
Contrary to what most people advise about talking it all out, I don’t think that every conversation needs to be brought to it’s reasonable and complete conclusion. Some things are better left unsaid.
Ten years of being missus to the very quiet Hums has shown me the power of the unuttered. Many, many things self resolve. Situations that seem concrete often turn out theoretical. Talking about the what-ifs, the future, anything but the precise present moment can sometimes be a great bonding exercise and other times a ticking bomb best left untouched. Learning to recognize the difference took me the better part of ten years but I’m glad I’m finally there.
Sex: Don’t take it too seriously
It is a strange beast and it is adept as a shape shifter. The sexual intimacy in your marriage can be awesome and it can be bad. It can bring you together and it can tear you apart. It can be a constant, steady feature of your marriage, say, twice a week, every week and then bam, you have a baby and a killer episiotomy and it vanishes for months, disappearing without a trace, acting for all practical purposes as if it has never existed.
The only way to always come back into your sexual groove as a couple, is to not take any of it too seriously. Don’t let its shape shifting abilities pull a fast one over you. Laugh off the mishaps and misunderstandings, forgive the miscommunications and misdemeanors and try again. Sex is a highly essential and integral part of a healthy, happy marriage, extremely important to the sanity and stability of the individuals and the couple, powerful in it’s ability to aid reconciliation and heal growth, but at the end of the day, it’s just sex. Shrug it off and try again.
One or two common interests is plenty
It takes two to tango, they say, but what they don’t say is that sometimes you can each dance to a different beat and still be in perfect harmony.
Hums and I are as different as night and day. On most things, our views are worlds apart and this may have a lot to do with the fact that we were born and raised worlds apart. But we both love good food and American politics and we’d both rather spend money on books than anything else and these few shared interests have given us ten years of great meals, terrific conversations and a book collection to be proud of, even at a time when we didn’t have enough money to pay the grocery bills. On common interests we are seamless, on separate interests we’ve each found our own outlets.
Home is where our stories begin but they don’t need to always end there. A far richer narrative is created when each of the spouses bring their own voice to the table.
Ten years is nothing
A couple of years before I got married, I was at a bridal shower where there was a short talk on marriage by the bride’s very learned old aunt. One of the women present remarked that she had been married for ten years and felt very experienced herself and the aunt replied with a gentle laugh, “Ten years? Ten years is nothing. You need about forty years of marriage to really understand yourself and the other person.” At the time, I recall, sniffing a little disdainfully. What was this lady going on about? Ten years was an absolute lifetime with a person. I imagined myself being married for ten years and I could see the wisdom and experience practically dripping off of me. Well, now, I’ve been married for ten years and the only true knowledge that I have is: Ten years is nothing.
The last decade has been a blur of work and babies and diapers and figuring out how to work in order to afford all those diapers for all those babies. The years with Hums have rushed by and some days, when my heart is feeling particularly tender and his hair is looking particularly salty and not so peppery, I experience a sudden choking. Did we miss it all because we were just too busy? Did I allow myself to sideline the chemistry between us? Did I let the crying children drown out his voice, the voice of this man that I am, at this very moment, feeling so madly in love with? Verily by the passage of time we have been at a loss! How can I do better by him? Oh, I must do better by him, I must! A couple more of these grandly regretful thoughts and I find myself getting misty eyed and nostalgic. Only when Hums grumbles something about his undershirts alwaysmissing from the drawer and can I ever remember the laundry, do I roll my eyes and tell myself to calm down.
Because, even as I secretly vow to do better, I remind myself of the Will of Allah and how it can manifest in ways that can be so surprising. There’s so much ahead that I don’t know yet about our life together and Hums as a person.
Even though we’ve been together ten years, I am just getting to know this man. I know how he was as a young man in his twenties trying to figure out his new bride. I know how he was in his early thirties as a father to three young kids. I know how he was recently during a period of long unemployment. I don’t know if he will have a midlife crisis in a few years time. I don’t know how he will be when its time for the kids to go to college. I don’t know how he will be when one of us loses a parent or is struck with a life changing illness. He is, like me, like us, a work in progress. There’s so much about him I don’t know. Every day is a brand new introduction.
Which is precisely the beautiful, God-given gift of marriage: Forgiveness. Every day, you wake up in the morning and you turn and see the same face beside you, offering in its constant and loyal presence, redemption from all the flukes, foibles and follies of the day before. Every day is another opportunity to start over, to get it right, to reaffirm that who you were as a couple the previous day doesn’t have any implication on who you can be today. Your happy marriage can begin the very morning, the very moment you choose it to. Allah is Al-Kareem and how awesomely generous of Him to give us these second chances, all these fresh opportunities to create better, wiser, lists and litanies of what makes for a happy marriage. What a gift.
You know, I wasn’t very nice to Hums yesterday. We didn’t end the day on the best of notes. But today? Today our song, our story, our work of art, is going to be so beautiful.
Because, we’re still alive and together. Alhumdulillah. We’re still growing as a couple, in love and with love. MashaAllah. And the years behind us may have rushed past, but the years ahead stretch before us with possibility and potential. InshaAllah.
Author’s note: Writing on marriage always carries a certain burden of responsibility towards the audience. The writer is never sure who out there is reading under what circumstances the apparently sage and often flippant “advice”. This here then is my disclaimer: All of what I say applies only to your every day, run of the mill reasonably happy marriages between two good people. Any and all of the below is complete garbage if there is infidelity, criminal activity, haraam tendencies or genuine physical, emotional or sexual abuse taking place in a marriage. No amount of positivity, good intentions or light heartedness can remedy unions damaged by these things, except by the Will of Allah. May He protect us all from the fitnah of difficult marriages and bless our good unions with His Mercy.
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