The Arduous Path of Marriage [Archives:1999/19/Focus]

May 10 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

Dr. Azza Mohammed Ghanem
Professor, Educational Psychology
Today, much is being said openly about marriage that was hushed up previously. In all cultures, young people dream incessantly about their life partner, the sacred bonding, the genuine romance, the companionship and the children. They visualize the attraction, the niceties and the tangible privileges to the exclusion of all other issues, so that the reality of marriage hits them hard. The daily problems and difficulties of coexisting under the same roof in close proximity to strangers and living by a new set of rules comes as a shock. One such girl was actually thrown into a state of anorexia nervosa and would not even explain her problem, (a case of refusal to eat)
The issue is complicated further by the wide spread use of mass-media and exposure to other cultures with totally different backgrounds. Comparison is inevitable, dreams and fantasy – even when unrealistic – are defense mechanisms that are harmful in excessive quantities.
So how did our parents and grandparents manage to keep marriages from falling apart? It appears that there was less divorce and confrontation, although there is no scientific or statistical documentation to support this. As to the quality of marriages, the paucity of information makes it necessary to rely on books, story telling and long-standing customs. Apparently, women’s role in Yemen was a submissive cooperative one of passive acceptance. Women did not dare argue or rebel because divorce was so easy for the male. Women were never the bread winners and could not be self sufficient. There was much shame involved in returning as a divorcee to her parents, and she suffered just as much of an inferior role in her father’s house due to male dominance by even her younger brothers. Her chances of getting married again were very slim.
Moreover, women were kept busy into the daily life chores to such an extent that they did not have time to reflect upon their predicament. Illiteracy no doubt enhanced this disadvantageous stance. Large families and consecutive child birth would make a woman reticent to place her marriage in jeopardy, as she could not risk losing her children.
Many of these factors have changed today, a greater degree of literacy and education, better female jobs and careers, fewer children and family planning, greater Islamic awareness of rights, more house help and time saving gadgets and greater participation of women in economic, social and political life. It is these things that are bound to undermine the submissive role and replace it by a more reflective, active role. But do we want this change of attitude when it could be hazardous in a society where the law does not give women any severance compensation? e.g. in some Islamic Arab states the break up of a marriage gives the female the residence and child custody. A woman who has spent 20 years could leave her husband’s home in Yemen with nothing but a suitcase of clothes and her modest jewelry in addition to a dowry that ranges from $100 to $3000 at best. A house maid would have cost more in a matter of 3 years.
According to a Newsweek Article (April 26/99), the psychologist Gottman has set up a Family Research Laboratory in Seattle to study couple’s problems and marital relationships. He sets out in his book seven principles for making marriages work and guiding them to happiness. Amongst the most harmful behaviors are criticism of the spouse, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. He recommends a deep understanding of the partner’s psyche.
He claims that gender’s emotional discrepancies may contribute to marital problems but are not the main cause. He found that an unequal balance of power and non-sharing of decision making was deadly to a marriage. Of course he was talking about the USA where men and women share a lot. Yet the USA has one of the highest divorce rates in the industrialized world. Defusing anger between spouses is important, but anger may exist in happy marriages and not just unhappy marriages.
He found that the first 7 years of marriage were the most precarious, the next critical stage is between 16-20 years after the marriage. Often the couples do not seek help or counseling soon enough because of the stigma involved. The children suffer the most and often have emotional problems. Needless to say, the couple may display not only psychological and emotional problems but also physical ones as their immune system is affected.
It is my opinion that so many things could go wrong it is almost impossible to delineate the causes. However some factors seem to predominate. A clash of personalities, values, morals and goals in life can be a constant source of friction. A lot has to do with selfishness or even the spouse taking advantage of the others selflessness. Many can tolerate differences initially due to the initial glow of love and affection. However, this can subside and disappear with time and thus make sacrifice and continuance appear irrational.
Financial and economic problems and hardships can contribute to failure especially if a change of standard is incurred due to incompatibility between the family’s living styles, e.g. the girl is a spoilt rich daughter and suddenly is living in a poorer environment.
Failure to talk things out, to discuss matters, to understand each other leads to an impasse e.g. the wife wants to talk about things even trivial matters but the husband is too busy watching TV or talking on the phone.
Excessive preoccupation with friends of the same sex can cause friction and jealousy. The wife’s excessive involvement with the children or house work or shopping can create a vacuum in the man’s life. A man’s obsession with his work and duties to the exclusion of his family’s interests can be a perpetual source of problems.
Discrepancies in emotional and sexual needs can be detrimental, sexual satisfaction is essential for marital well being. Wives need to feel respected and admired for their abilities and not merely loved, but often the husband does not seem to see the significance of this, it is only the male ego that matters. Meddling members of either family can be disastrous, especially to an already unstable marriage. Problems of the children can affect the marriage, but even more so inability to have children. Lazy, careless, extravagant demanding wives can induce corruption in husbands.
Dishonesty, infidelity or violence can terminate a marriage abruptly even without prior problem. Drinking is often a cause of continuous problems in the home. Taking another wife can be the last straw to any emotional bond that exists and survival of the physical marriage can be merely an economic benefit for the sake of the children. e. g. a young girl explained to me that it was not at all a problem that she was marrying a married man as he would give her equal rights but a few months later, when her jealousy reached a dangerous peak, reality was another thing. Psychological problems can cause severance of a marriage, but a medical psychiatrist can help alleviate that. Irresponsible behavior can cause problems, the male is the provider and in charge of duties outside the home, and the female is in charge in the home.
This was the old pattern, but with changing Yemen styles the more educated females have very often become responsible for both duties at work and at home, thus falling under greater stress. One important problem in Yemeni society is qat, which causes husband/wife separation for at least 3 hours each afternoon after arrival from work. This leads to neglect of each other and the children, a definite source of estrangement. Family life on weekends has been eroded by Qat. Marriage is often looked upon as a partnership, not a friendship. How many husbands confide in their wives about their income, their problems, their dreams etc. as they would in a best friend. Most amazing is the fact that arranged marriages do not seem to fare any worse than personal choice marriages in Yemen. However, this is only speculation.
There are so many unanswered questions, and the topic is so fraught with ambiguities that it needs further research. In all this, we have not even touched the case of rural marriages with such a different setup. It would be very helpful if readers wrote to tell us briefly their view of the major marital difficulties and the best remedies.
Please do write to us your:
1- Nationality
2- Sex (Male/Female)
3- Social Status (Married/Divorced/Single)
4- Years of Marriage
5- Problems
6- Remedies