- How can you try and make an unhappy marriage a happy one?
This is a tough one because there is a pre-clause to it. Once you satisfy that pre-clause then it is very easy. The pre-clause is, ‘DO YOU REALLY WANT IT TO HAPPEN?’ Now that may sound like a strange thing to ask but I have seen in many years of counseling that all the failures that I saw were because the partners did not really want to make it work. They were not sincere and were merely going through the moves with the idea of satisfying themselves or others that ‘they had made the effort’. Now that is a lie because they never tried. They acted a drama with a precluded ending.
Once you are sincere about turning things around then you need to sit and write down all that you like about your spouse. After all there were things about them that you liked enough to marry them. What were they? Then when you have that list, you turn the page over and write down the problem areas. Usually that works like magic. Marriages go bad most often because we don’t appreciate the good enough and are not thankful for what they have. I ask couples who come to me for advice or counseling about their marriage to make this list of all that they appreciated about their spouse and then have them read each other’s list. In many case that does the trick.
I often ask couples, ‘How many times a day do you thank your wife/husband? How many times a day do you hug or kiss them? How many times a day do you tell them that you love them?’ It is amazing how much we take appreciation for granted. For most people not criticizing is equal to appreciating. It is not. Expressing genuine appreciation is all about being thankful to the other person for all that they have done for you. Rasoolullahﷺ said, ‘The one who has not thanked the person has not thanked Allahﷻ.’ Thankfulness clearly expressed and often is the lifeblood of a good marriage. And remember, doing it often is the key. After all, when things are not going badly, we don’t hesitate to make it known. So why not when they are going well?
- Is the idea of a soul mate just a myth – or is it simple communication between people?
Soul mates are made, not born. And they are made over time. Sometimes a fairly long time. Then you see them sitting together and smiling at things that only they understand. Or looks that have meaning only for each other. Or speaking in a language that only the other understands. Phrases that they use only for each other, and which may even be gibberish to others. This is the stage when every time you look at her you fall in love all over again, 30 years into your marriage. And laughing. Laughing is important. Laughing is very, very, important. Laughing with. Not at. Laughing together at the same things. Showing each other things to add to the joy by sharing.
- What kind of initiatives and actions dictate a happy marriage?
Back to the basics: Truth, caring, mutual respect. Every action or initiative must pass this test. Are you being truthful? Is her need coming before your own? And are you showing the respect you feel? I remember that my grandmother used to serve my grandfather his meals. Every meal. She would put food on his plate, refill it, offer him the choicest pieces of meat, watch to see what he needed and give it to him before he asked for it. She would eat every meal with him, without exception in a house that was a mansion with several servants. But no servant was ever allowed to give my grandfather anything directly. They brought the tray to my grandmother, and she served him. All this she did with such a look of love and devotion on her face that I can see clearly in my mind even today 45 years later and more than 35 years since both died. Why did she do this? Just because she liked to do it. It really is that simple.
He fully reciprocated this. He never did anything without asking for her advice. He never went anywhere without her. He wore what she gave him. She had complete control of his money. He never touched it. He never asked her for any account with a level of trust seldom seen today, even though it was his money, so to speak. He never raised his voice to her for anything. He never even looked at her except with love. She was his whole life in every sense of the word.
He loved her and she loved him, and it showed.
She died first. He died three months later of a broken heart. But they left memories for their children and grandchildren about how to be married and how to treat your spouse.
- How much involvement should parents and in laws have in a marriage?
None whatsoever. This is the single most potent recipe for disaster. Parents should be involved in their own marriages. Once your children are married, they are not children anymore. Leave them alone and let them work out their problems. They are adults and that is why they got married. The problem with many parents (in this case mothers) especially in our society (Desi and Middle Eastern) is that they are most anxious about getting their children married and then they start feeling insignificant and so become competitors with their own daughters in law. Remember that if you become your daughter in law’s competitor, you lose if you lose and you lose if you win. Both ways you lose. So, get out of the way. Leave them alone. Visit them for 2 days, not more, every six months – every year is even better. Don’t talk for more than 5 minutes on the phone. Don’t chat on WhatsApp or WhatNot or anything else. Don’t ask personal questions. And above all, don’t ask, ‘Are you happy?’ I have yet to see a marriage survive the attention of parents and parents in law.
At the same time, I would advise young couples also to take steps to kindly discourage this involvement if you see it happening. If you are old enough to get married, you are old enough to solve your own problems. If you are running to your parents with your problems, then put on your diapers. You are not ready for marriage. If your Mom calls and asks you, ‘So what did he say when you told him such and such?’ Tell your Mom, ‘Mom, sorry I won’t tell you what he told me.’ Smile and say it but say it clearly. Spend time with your spouse. I am not asking you to neglect your mother or father but remember that your spouse has first call once you get married. The key is to realize that these are independent relationships and need to be managed. The same is true of children when they come along. I have seen spouses becoming strangers to each other because the children take up the time and energy of both to such an extent. Maturity is to be able to manage these multiple relationships in the marriage. That is called ‘growing up’. Grow up.
While on this subject let me also talk about arranged marriages which are still quite common in our society. Is it a good thing to arrange a marriage? Or to try to arrange one, to be more precise?
I believe it is, for a one big reason: Compatibility.
Especially if you are going to live in a joint family then it is a good thing to marry someone that everyone (at least the important ones – parents, siblings, and their spouses) accept and like. Also, someone who is from a background like your own. Marriage is all about adjustment and while it is true that all adjustments can be made, it is equally true that the less you must make, the happier you will be. Like the Holiday Inn, if your new room looks like the old one, you will have less to adjust with. Never fear, no matter how similar the backgrounds, there will still be plenty that you will need to adjust to, so it makes sense to reduce that to the extent possible.
Beyond this, it is not productive for parents and family to get involved in arranging marriages. Putting pressure on the children to marry this one or that is truly idiotic which you invariably discover most painfully to everyone’s detriment and grief. Introduce them and leave them alone. If they decide to go ahead, all for the good. If they decide they don’t want to, all for the better. Introducing is a good idea because in the screening leading to the introduction you, the parents, can satisfy yourselves about the background and culture.
It is essential to leave the prospective couple alone to make up their own minds because no matter how much the backgrounds match, no matter that his or her parents are your childhood friends, the fact of the matter is that these two are individuals in their own right, with their own likes and dislikes, their own views on life and they need to make up their own minds and take ownership for their decision. If you interfere in your own anxiety about this ‘great match’ then you will impede this process. ‘Obedient’ sons or daughters, who in true Bollywood style say to their parents, ‘I will marry whoever you choose,’ should be sent back to their nursery to grow up until they can learn to make up their minds about what is perhaps the most important decision that they will ever make in their lives. If you don’t do this, then be prepared for this same ‘obedient’ one to remind you that you are responsible for the disaster that they are now presenting you with – divorce papers.
In my view, anyone who is not prepared to decide who they want to marry and to take responsibility for that decision is not ready to get married. Let them wait until they are ready instead of ruining someone else’s life with their confusion.