By Romiesa Ahmed, B.A., and Madiha Tahseen, Ph.D.
Have you heard of the saying, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a divorce happens, and we shove it under the rug, did it happen? Like many other taboo subjects in our Muslim community, just because you treat divorce like that falling tree in the forest, leaving it alone, failing to really think about it, or acknowledge it, it doesn’t reduce its impact.
The reality is divorce amongst Muslim Americans has greatly increased in the last 25 years (ISPU, 2012). Many divorced Muslim Americans have noted that after their divorce they felt isolated from their social circles and communities. It was one of the foremost struggles highlighted in The Family and Youth Institute’s Divorce needs assessment. The shame couples may feel from the community stigma brought on by a lack of education and understanding of divorce can intensify these feelings of loneliness.
Divorce is not a linear process–you don’t just move from a troubled marriage to getting a divorce. Some couples move back and forth before getting a divorce. Other couples may, through support and counseling, move into reconciliation and healing. Either way, throughout the entire process, there are many struggles that couples face which can impact their mental health and well-being. So what can be done to mitigate the negative effects of divorce on your life, faith, and spirituality, and to thrive through this process, rather than just barely making it through? In this article, we’ll take you through stories of American Muslim couples navigating various stages of divorce, and strategies and resources to help with the process. For much more information, please refer to The FYI’s Divorce Support Toolkit.
Is Divorce the Right Choice?
Meet Aisha and Bilal. They are a young couple in their 20s with no kids. Aisha feels like there’s no end in sight to her problems with Bilal. She doesn’t feel like she can get through to him, he shrugs off her complaints about their relationship, and every time they’re in a room together, all they seem to do is argue. What can she do?
Firstly, Aisha needs to recognize that divorce is a personal decision between two people. No matter how perfect a relationship looks on the outside, if others do not agree with your decision or can’t understand it, you and your spouse are the only two who can wholly grasp the full picture concerning your relationship. It is important at this stage to be honest with yourself and your partner. After Aisha’s done some introspection, she can try evaluating the state of her relationship to gain insight into positives and negatives of the relationship, and discover choices she can make to either heal her relationship or end it. Marriage assessments are a great tool that can help you become aware of warning signs and really dig into your relationship. Even if your partner is not willing to take these steps, you can still try the tools yourself so you can get your own internal assessment of the state of your marriage.
After completing some marriage inventories and divorce questionnaires, Aisha brings up the topic of divorce to Bilal. He feels blindsided – a fact that seems to further cement Aisha’s belief that they just won’t work anymore. How come he doesn’t get it?! Their conflicting stances on the future of their relationship is making it hard to move forward with a decision. This is where discernment counseling can be helpful; it is a short-term counseling option that can help Aisha and Bilal determine whether they should maintain their relationship as it is, separate/divorce, or commit to 6 months of couples therapy in order to really work on the relationship.
When Divorce is the Next Step
Meet Khadija and Ahmad. They are in their early 30s and have a toddler. Khadija and Ahmad have gone back and forth many times about their marriage and even meet with the local imam to come up with a solution. After all of this, Khadija has settled on divorce, whereas Ahmad is holding on to the marriage. Once you decide to proceed with a divorce, things can quickly become physically and emotionally chaotic. As you focus on the logistics of legal paperwork, finances, and childcare planning, don’t forget about your own mental health and well-being. You may be feeling anything from anxiety to anger. This is the time to develop new self-care habits and focus on yourself as you get through this transition. Learn to let go with love. Understand your emotions and the grief you are feeling over the loss of your marriage, and find ways to cope with it. When things feel out of control, reclaim control over thoughts using an Islamic perspective, and make sure to focus on the four “Ms” of mental health – mindfulness, mastery, movement, and meaningful engagement.
Walking away from a harmful relationship takes courage and strength. Recognize that you are not alone in this experience- Your Lord (swt) has not forsaken you, and is with you, no matter what. Turn to Him because He is the only One who truly knows what grievances and worries are in your heart. As you go through your ups and downs, rely on the experiences of others in the Muslim community, as well as lessons learned from divorced Muslims. Divorce does not make you a failure. You may feel some shame and disappointment, but be kind to yourself during this time. Remind yourself that Allah made divorce halal because it is necessary at times. The Prophet himself married divorced women. He did not shun them or shame them, rather honored them as his wives. The Prophet’s marriage to divorcees shows us that divorce is not something shameful nor a mark on a person’s character.
Ahmad refuses to partake in the divorce process because he feels that Khadija is just overreacting. Although Allah (swt) commands Muslims to “separate with kindness” (Quran, 2:229), this doesn’t always play out practically. What can Khadija do in this situation if Ahmad is going to be difficult? Finding ways to interact with your soon to be ex-partner in a friendly manner and in a way that pleases Allah (swt) can be a challenge but will only serve to make this period easier on you. Try to use healthy communication skills so that you can avoid common pitfalls: pick your battles, avoid communicating when you are upset, establish healthy boundaries, don’t use social media, and make use of a neutral mediator as much as possible. Try the BIFF model of communication: Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm.
Sometimes, trying your best is not enough–especially when you are in an abusive relationship. Know that Islam promotes justice and healthy relationships. Recognize when a partner who uses the Quran, hadith, or other Islamic teachings to justify controlling behavior —and know that he/she could be engaging in spiritual or religious abuse. Once you’ve decided to leave, prepare your path to safety by creating a safety plan about when and how to leave. After you’ve left, ensure your safety and your children’s safety by enacting these strategies. Recognize that you will have a lot of unlearning and rebuilding to do after you leave an unhealthy relationship. Try self-care tips such as positive affirmations and channeling the pain into creativity. Consider the power of forgiveness when you are ready, not to excuse the abuser but rather, to work on letting go of your anger, resentment, and thoughts of revenge so that you can prioritize your own healing.
If you fear for your safety or are in immediate danger, call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.
Meet Steve and Amber. They have 3 kids and recently signed their divorce papers. Now what? Re-imagining life after a divorce can be quite a challenge but can also be a blessing and a new chance to find yourself. In order to do that, take some time to heal yourself–grieve and work through the shame associated with divorce. Learn how to acclimate to your new reality without your ex-spouse by setting healthy boundaries–try the Conscious Coupling Process to create a more compassionate breakup process. Know that Allah (swt) will bring ease for you after this hardship. “Verily, Along with Every Hardship is Ease” (Quran, 94:6). You can seize this moment and learn more about how you can thrive after a divorce. Who are you now?
When children are in the picture, couples must take great care of their own well-being so as to ensure the healthy transition of their children through this process. Although divorce can be stressful for kids, there are various strategies that Steve and Amber can employ to reduce the negative impact and build resilience in their children.
Understand and educate yourself about the impact divorce and parents’ conflict has on children at various ages.
Create a stable and loving home environment (in each home) by creating healthy boundaries with your ex-spouse and create a plan about parenting times, events, communication, and decision making.
From Stigma to Support
There is only so much struggling couples can do to let go of the shame and stigma associated with divorce. The rest of it must come from us – their community. What can you do to lessen the stigma and be there for your loved ones? How can we as a community support divorced and divorcing individuals?
Stop the speculation. Whose fault was it? Did both parties want the divorce? What went wrong in the marriage? These are all questions that are not the business of anyone but the two individuals who have divorced. Part of our practice in Islam is leaving that which does not concern us. Therefore, we must learn to stop asking these intrusive questions which, even when coming from a place of concern, are hurtful and unnecessary.
Listen. Listen. Listen. Every person’s story with divorce is different and unique to them. We must learn to listen for the sake of listening not for the sake of responding. Your friend or loved one very likely just needs to know that you are there for them, without judgment and shaming.
Reach out. Remember that falling tree in the forest? Avoiding talking about the noise doesn’t make it go away and is not helpful in the long run. Now is your time to show up for your loved ones and community members. The key is to keep reaching out so they know you care; whether it’s inviting them out (even if they say no multiple times, keep doing it so they know you haven’t forgotten them), sending a caring message, cooking a meal and dropping it off, or offering to help with specific chores, these are all small ways to show you care.
Help your loved ones focus on a brighter future. Your loved one is going through a difficult transition in their life, one filled with a rollercoaster of emotions, doubts, and worries. Help them focus on a hopeful future so that they can move forward in a positive manner.
The stigma surrounding the topic of divorce is rooted in a mix of fear, lack of understanding, and misconceptions about divorce. Reducing the stigma starts with every one of us being equipped with the proper knowledge and understanding of how to talk about and deal with divorce in a proper manner. Let’s pay attention and be present for the fallen tree so that we can help our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters build new roots for healthier foundations. Check out The FYI’s Divorce Support Toolkit, whether you are supporting a loved one through this process or going through it yourself. May Allah (swt) grant strength and perseverance to all of our struggling couples and families.