In a society where about 50% of marriages end in divorce, we can use all the help we can get when it comes to marriage advice. Many religions, including Islam, provide excellent advice as far as how to make a marriage successful and fulfilling for both involved.
Then why is it that this advice is often ignored? When I was going through my Social Work education, it was often enforced with us that we are not allowed to bring up our spiritual or religious beliefs with clients. Most professors argued that you must take faith and religion out of the mix and not let it interfere. In many ways, this makes sense; you shouldn’t try to impose your beliefs on someone who doesn’t agree or doesn’t believe the same thing as you. But this also means that even if you have some advice and information you feel would be helpful to, say, a married couple going through couple’s counseling, you cannot offer it.
A class on Spirituality in Social Work attempted to reconcile that lack of faith-based practice in the Social Work field. We were not only encouraged to introspectively consider our own faith and beliefs, but to learn about other faiths and religions. The idea is to have enough knowledge to be able to incorporate the client’s own personal faith into the counseling equation. The professor of this class recognized that for many individuals, faith and religion are an important part of their life and there are resources there that can be tapped into in times of distress.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, many counselors tend to take the first route in terms of offering marriage counseling. Even though many faith perspectives offer excellent advice, this advice is often ignored by the professionals who are offering marriage counseling. The Marriage Guardian website cites statistics and information from John Gottman, a leading psychologist in the field: “more than 43% of couples seeking marital therapy are separated or divorced after 5 years.”
My assumption is that there are two issues when it comes to marriage in our modern society. The first is a cycle of learning poor relationship skills from parents and other relatives that we continue to proliferate in our own lives. The second is that we tend to seek out help when it’s too late– when the damage has already been done. I would suggest that sound marriage advice isn’t something we should seek when our marriage is failing, but rather when we are just starting out.
Lately I’ve been reading the book “Bridge to Light” by Kathleen St. Onge. The author is a Canadian Muslim convert, and the book is a collection of articles she had written from about 2002-2004, compiled and sorted by topic. This week I read her chapter titled “My Husband, My Brother,” which discusses the issue of marriage in modern society. In this chapter she summarizes the marriage advice found in the Quran. I really liked the way she puts it forth– she outlines in her own words (while citing the Quran verses) the advice offered in the Quran for sustaining a healthy marriage. I thought I’d share some of that here. I wouldn’t normally include such a long excerpt, but I felt she put it so well, it is hard to break up. Excerpt from Bridge to Light by Kathleen St. Onge, p. 250-252 (2007):
And as our spouses are a blessing, we should treasure them by being righteous ourselves (21:94), being true in word and actions (3:17), and by being careful to avoid acts of indecency (3:135) or following our lusts (4:27). As a first step, both men and women should lower their gaze (24:30-31), to try to keep themselves as modest and pure as possible, for it is our responsibility to prevent suspicion (49:12). Trust in a marriage can only come when we avoid deception among ourselves (16:94) and we do not strain our eyes longing for the things which God has given to some people (20:131). Thus, at all times, we need to be honorable in our contract (2:235), and though men and women are inherently creatures of impulse (21:37), as a couple, we need to engage in mutual enjoining of truth, patience, and constancy (103:3). . . .
Even if we are not fully satisfied with our spouse’s character or appearance, we should remember that our shapes are from God (40:64), as are the variations between peoples (49:13). So we should gently cover over each other’s faults (2:263) because it is our duty to preserve a healthy marriage and not to pull apart what God has ordered to be joined (2:27). It is also true that we may sometimes dislike something in our spouses which is actually good for us (2:216), as God checks each one of us by means of the other (2:251). Equally, we should accept graciously when our spouse admonishes us for a legitimate fault (26:214), for it is each our duty to strengthen other believers (3:200) and to protect belief in God in one another (9:71). Even if our spouses bring challenges into our lives, we need to remember that God has made them, too, as a trial for us, and we need to have patience (25:20). If a spouse refuses to improve his/her own conduct, then we must accept that we have done what we can, for none can bear the burdens of another (53:38). . . . And if we ever feel our marriage is experiencing severe difficulties, we should simply ask God for help, for if a family in breach wishes for peace, God will cause a reconciliations (4:35). Always, we should pray that our spouses will be the comfort of our eyes (25:74), and we should never give up hope for God’s soothing mercy (12:87), for God sends nourishment to all things in due proportion (41:10).
If our spouses engage in vain talk or futile pursuits (52:12), we are advised to walk away quietly (28:55) and avoid disputing with each other over trifles (18:56). We should also refrain from annoying each other (33:58), and if we have an argument despite our best efforts, we should not retaliate to any greater extent than the injury received (22:60), and restrain our anger (3:134). For one who forgives even when angry will be entitled to a life with God (42:37), and patience and forgiveness are courageous acts of will (42:43). We should always speak to each other with kind words (2:263) because it is a virtue to be compassionate (90:17), and we should neither laugh at each other nor be sarcastic (49:11), nor should we call each other by offensive nicknames (49:11). As well, the spouse who has greater assets or a greater salary should avoid boasting about having more wealth than the other (18:34). We should always conduct our marital affairs through mutual consultation (42:38), and deal with our mates in a moderate way, lowering our voices (31:19). Even if we are troubled by an earlier tension, we must welcome each other honorably when coming home (24:61) and return a greeting at least as courteous as the one given to us (4:86). When we are trying to negotiate with each other, we should speak fairly (2:83); and if one spouse inclines towards a peaceful resolution following a dispute, it is the other’s duty to also incline towards peace (8:61). Then, once we have come to an agreement, we should keep our promises (2:100).
Yet if a spouse is harsh or cruel, we don’t need to acquiesce (68:13), nor do we need to listen to violence or swearing (68:10), because it isn’t right for either spouse to oppress the other (42:42). Instead, we should try to understand that the agitated spouse may not be fully aware of what he or she has done, for the deeds of transgressors always seem fair in their own eyes (10:12) and it is human to be contentious (18:54). So, we should simply try to forgive them and ask God to forgive them (3:159) and whatever faults in us may be contributing to the problem (47:19). . . . At the same time, we must be wary not to hold ourselves as purified (53:32) simply because we appear to be the “victim” in a dispute– for only God can judge between us (4:141) and it is always best to be humble (25:63). Likewise, when we are generous towards each other, with gifts of any kind– even words– we should never follow our generosity with reminders or injury (2:262), which would only cancel the charity (2:264). What is most important is to try o be at our best with our spouses, even if efforts sometimes fail, for what really counts is the intention in our hearts (33:5).
. . . Always, it is best to overlook any faults in our spouses with gracious forgiveness (15:85), and be thankful to God for all our benefits (2:152). We should not be jealous of our own or another’s spouse’s success either, for some people have simply been bestowed gifts more freely than others (4:32). And we should never regret our marriage, even in hard times, for we need to trust God through blessings and calamities (2:177), as there will always be days of varying fortunes (3:140). . . .
Most critically, we should always regard our spouses with the highest dignity, not as individuals who are somehow “inside our personal boundary” and therefore exempt from the respect we show others, but as the ultimate recipients of our best virtues. For we spend more time with them than anyone else, and we experience a broader range of emotions with them than we do otherwise. If we consider them to be our closest sister or brother in faith, then we turn our homes into sanctuaries, and our families into witnesses to our goodness. . . . Ultimately, our spouses are our garments and we are theirs (2:187)– for they are our best protection in this world. And by simply recognizing marriage as an environment rather than an agreement, we can ensure that our bond is the most ideal opportunity to earn rewards, in this life or the next.
Update: After finishing the book, I’ve now posted my thoughts. See my review of Bridge to Light.
So what do you think? What marriage advice does your spiritual or religious tradition offer? Please share!