Dealing with Conflict
The Muslim home is a very special place. It is a home raised and established on the principles given by God. It is, or should be, a place of comfort and happiness, where individuals strive to attain their full potential in this life to seek the pleasure of Allah. A Muslim home is judged not on its outward appearance and beauty, but on the harmony of the relationships within the home. It is the atmosphere inside that is important. A happy, healthy atmosphere can lead to the building of strong personalities who are emotionally and mentally equipped to take on the challenges of the world.
Many spouses, however, struggle to maintain such an atmosphere. Anger and other negative emotions sometimes play havoc with the good intentions of the architects of the marriage, and members are unable to cope with the conflict often caused by individual personalities living together. Conflict is not necessarily negative – it is defined as a difference of opinion, but can often cause great problems.
Anger in Islam
In describing the qualities of the believers, Allah says:
. . . and those who restrain their anger, and forgive people (3:133) and also
And those who . . . whenever they are angry, they forgive. (42:37)
Many Hadith also talk about the dangers of anger. Although can be a useful emotion when practiced appropriately, it can often get out of control. The Holy Prophet (s) has said:
Beware of anger, for its beginning is madness and its end is regret. And
Whoever controls his anger when he can vent it, Allah will fill his hear with peace and faith on the Day of Judgement.
Since most problems in marriage stem from anger, it is best to be aware of the harms of uncontrolled anger.
When anger between the partners is not resolved, it can create great problems. Tension mounts and often results in hatred and resentment. Hatred of a believer is greatly disliked by Allah. The holy Qur’an says: . . . and do not allow any hatred to remain in our hearts towards those who believe. . . (59:10). One may hate the action of a believer, not the believer himself. Hatred of a spouse is very serious, as Islam strongly emphasizes the rights of family members. Such negative emotions are also harmful to the individual who practices it. The Holy Prophet (s) says: One who hates is punishing himself, and increasing his sorrows.
When there is a problem in the marriage, it is best to confront it and seek solutions. Although it is much easier to ignore it, and hope that it will disappear, this is often a wishful fantasy. An ignored problem is really a suppressed one, which often increases in intensity and has the potential to erupt with great force. It is wiser to solve it before it becomes too great. The following points may be helpful in this effort.
1. Understanding the needs and emotions of each partner – we often tend to judge others according to our own standards. It is better to take into consideration that human beings differ vastly in their ways of thinking and their feelings. Emotions and feelings are highly individualized. Rigid adherence to one’s thoughts and opinions can create great friction in daily life. Both partners must practice flexibility, a trait that oils the path of human life. One partner may need constant demonstrations of love, while another may be content with rare ones. One may be highly social and need to be with people, the other may prefer to be alone. The needs of one person vary greatly from another. The collision of these needs is the source of problems in marriage.
The first step towards understanding the needs of the other is to know one’s own. Often the partners are not even aware of their own individual needs. They react in a certain manner but do it unconsciously. The character of a person, his past experiences – especially that of childhood – etc. all play a certain role in the needs and expectations he brings to marriage. When this is analyzed it brings an informed awareness of one’s needs. This can then be communicated effectively to the other spouse. It brings great relief to get an insight into one’s pattern of behavior. Actions and emotions become comprehensible to oneself, and to one’s partner. Self-awareness brings with it potential for change, and the ability to take charge of and improve relationships.
Feelings that one may feel quite acutely may sometimes be accurate and sometimes be completely off-base. The interpretation of the words and deeds of a partner triggers strong feelings in a relationship. The important thing to realize is that these interpretations are not entirely free from mistakes. Sometimes a distorted interpretation can result from the following causes:
These and other causes give rise to erroneous judgements, sometimes threatening to cause severe rifts in a relationship. Successful conflict resolution depends on the fact that one accepts that our understanding of events do not always conform to the events themselves. Many factors could play a role in mistaken assumptions. This is an extremely important point to consider. To accept this would facilitate the resolving of conflicts.
2. Make known your expectations – sometimes people assume that others know what is expected of them. This is not always true. Almighty Allah has blessed us with the power to express our feelings and communicate with others. We need to make use of this great ability granted by God. A wife for example, may sometimes desire to go out for dinner. She assumes that her husband knows she loves eating out – she has often shown that – and she feels he should understand her indirect hints. However the husband may have no inkling that she wants to go out for dinner that particular weekend. If she makes her wishes clearly known, it would be easier for the two to avoid a conflict.
3. Be careful not to express anger when enraged – sometimes offensive things are said in anger which are later regretted. After the conflict is over, the memories of hurtful things often linger. Although the partners may make up and forgive each other, it is difficult to completely forget and heal the wound that thoughtless words can create. It is necessary that care should be taken before potentially damaging things are said, especially in anger.
4. Be just – listen to the other person and accept criticism when true. Human beings love themselves greatly and are often unaware of their own shortcomings. It is difficult to accept that there are things wrong with oneself. It is so much easier to see the wrong in others. To have harmony in marriage both partners should be willing to accept constructive criticism from each other. This helps both of them to progress.
5. Discern Patterns of Conflict – If there is continual tension in a marriage, it is necessary to ask what causes it. Sometimes the tension disappears beneath the surface, but often resurfaces. A state of mild irritation is maintained, an unhealthy state for maintaining love.
If the source of irritation can be traced back to one consistent cause, often an unmet need or emotion, steps should be taken to make amends. In most marraiges, a predictable sequence of conflicts can be uncovered.
- Limited vision – seeing only what fits our attitude and state at the moment and ignoring everything else.
- Selective interpretation – taking a statement out of context and erring in judgement.
- Exaggeration – magnifying good or bad qualities, being too serious over something that could be taken lightly.
- Arbitrary judgement – making inferences which have no basis at all, just jumping to conclusions.
Arguing is a normal part of married life. Most, if not all, couples have arguments – some more serious than others. The point to remember is that an argument is really just a clash of opinions, not a war between the couple. Sometimes both partners become very defensive in an argument, and resent what the other has to say. They may feel attacked and refuse to budge from their position.
A successful argument overlooks the issue of perceived loss of power or dignity. It is like a vigorous exercise, an exercise in gaining love and friendship. It may be difficult but in the end makes one feel better. Love is hard to remember while arguing, for it is the differences that come to the fore at that time. It is necessary to take extra effort to remember love at such times, remember the specialities of your relationship. This effort will relax the mind a little, make one less miserable and prickly.
A healthy argument is a good way of resolving conflict. The following points are given by Islam as a successful method of argument:
a) The aim of the argument is not to overpower the other person but affect his thinking. When the Almighty tells the Prophet (s) to argue with the polytheists, he mentions things they should think about.
He who created the heavens and the earth, and sent down water from the cloud, then we cause to grow thereby beautiful gardens; it is not possible for you that you should make the trees thereof to grow. Is there a god with Allah? . . .Or who made the earth a resting place, and made in it rivers, and raised on it mountains, and placed between the two seas a barrier. Is there a god with Allah? (27:60-61)
The polytheists are told to ponder for themselves and then decide who is right. Allah appeals to their intellect and reason. Similarly, in a healthy argument, the partners should appeal to the reason of the other. Make him/her understand your point of view and then decide. Do not insist on acceptance without thinking.
b) Don’t say things that would offend the other party. Says the Holy Qur’an:
And do not abuse those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest exceeding the limits they should abuse Allah out of ignorance. (6:109)
When abusive things are said to a person it is natural for him to react accordingly. Hurtful things are hurled back and forth, leading to more bitterness and anger. A good law for arguments is to withhold from saying offensive words. If the argument steers in that direction, it is better to suspend it and start again later. Although this may not always be easy, discipline is necessary to prevent anger from poisoning the marriage.
c) Acknowledge what is right so the other party does not think you are hiding and covering the truth. The Holy Qur’an says:
They ask you about intoxicants and games of chance. Say, in both of them there is a great sin and means of profit for men, and their sin is greater than their profit. (2:21)
Acknowledging means that each partner is ready to see the good of the other, and the bad in himself. Mistakes must be accepted, and positive aspects mentioned. It is wrong to only speak up when things go wrong. Positive feedback is also necessary. Compliments and appreciation are great boosts to a marriage.
d) Do not return evil with evil. To be able to return evil with good shows great strength of character and can often yield surprising results. Allah says:
And not alike are the good and the evil. Repel (evil) with what is best, when lo! He between whom and you was enmity, would be as if he were a close friend. (41:34)
Even when mistakes are made, the partner should not insist on returning negative behavior with negativity. It is childish for example, for a wife to think that because the husband never compliments her on a job well done, she too should not bother. If she praises him when appropriate, it would encourage him to do the same. This is true for all negative behavior.
A marriage without a conflict is almost as inconceivable as a nation without crisis.
The concept of two people living together for 25 years without a serious dispute suggests a lack of spirit only to be admired in sheep.
A. P. Herbert