Some call me the divorce whisperer. Ok maybe just I do. At any given moment I’m counseling or otherwise assisting half a dozen friends and acquaintances through divorce related issues, even though I’m not a counselor or a divorce lawyer. It probably has to do with the fact that, unlike many Muslims, I’m fairly open about being divorced. So in my first throwback Thursday blog, I’m bringing back two pieces I wrote a while ago on this topic and putting them together in one convenient place.
I. Should You Get Divorced?
Having always been rather open and public about the fact that I’m a remarried divorcee — and such publicity being uncommon in the Muslim world — I get approached every so often by others who are considering or actually going through their own divorce. Sometimes I don’t even know the person; they just randomly reach out, having read about me somewhere online. (The fact that I’m a lawyer probably helps too.)
This, along with the frequent and horrific divorce and child custody stories I hear, brought me to the realization that Muslims need to learn how (and why) to get divorced as much as they need to learn how to get and stay married.
I’m not being facetious when I say this. The Quran and Sunnah are fairly clear on divorce issues. But Muslims are pretty unclear on them. Consider this article somewhat of a primer on when and how to go about the big split. When I’m approached by someone for counseling on these issues, this is essentially what I tell them.*
Is it the Right Decision?
This is the biggest question. Only in certain specific cases would I answer yes, absolutely. If you’re being physically or emotionally abused, get out of the relationship, especially if you have children. The cycle of abuse rarely ends happily; its victimization includes everyone in the home, and it’s not worth the risk of staying around to see if an abuser can benefit from counseling.
If your spouse cheats on or has cheated on you, I’m also inclined to recommend you get out. Infidelity is a line that, once crossed, is hard to walk back from. The damage to trust and love is tremendous, and a person who cannot keep their pants on outside of the home doesn’t really deserve either.
If your spouse is emotionally unstable, a substance abuser, porn addict or a compulsive gambler, the grounds for divorce are pretty strong but here chances for therapy or counseling are better. The test is the willingness of that partner to get help. If they think they don’t have a problem or that their problem is not a big deal (“It’s my only vice!”), you either have to agree to live with that problem or walk away. You can’t force someone to help themselves.
Barring these situations, all others fall into a gray area. Do your in-laws demand to go on every vacation with you? Does your wife refuse to cook, so help her God? Are sexy times few and far between? Is he a stingy miser who won’t even let you spend your own money? Has she let herself go so badly you’re not attracted to her anymore? Does his hygiene make you want to leap off the balcony?
These are what I call the “crappy but fixable” situations. None of these are really a death knell for marriage, but any of these can snowball into disaster. It all depends on how well you two communicate, how cognizant you are of the fact that these are not such big issues and can be fixed, how open you both are to working on the problem and how badly you want to be with your spouse.
Marriage Takes Hard Work
Take it from someone who’s in her second marriage. (All said and done, I’ve been married a total of 13 years thus far.) Marriage is the hardest damn job you’ll ever have. Harder than raising babies. Harder than getting into Harvard (bitter, who me?). Harder than losing those last five pounds. Marriage sucks a lot of the time, and it’s great a lot of the time. No person you ever meet will never annoy you. Every single person in the world, (yes even your own children, parents, best friend, Barack Obama and that rock star imam you love from afar), will irritate the heck out of you if you spend enough time with them.
In other words, irritation should not be grounds for divorce. Not in my book at least. Having said that, Islamically you are actually on safe grounds if you’re simply not happy.
Take the case of the wife of Thabit ibn Qas, who came to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and said “O Messenger of Allah, I do not reproach Thabit ibn Qays in respect of character and religion, but I do not want to be guilty of showing anger to him.” In other words, although she had no complaints against her husband’s conduct towards her, she simply couldn’t get along with him. The Prophet (pbuh responded that she had a right to end the marriage but should return her dowry since it was essentially a “no-fault” situation. In another narration the Prophet (pbuh) allowed a girl to end her marriage because, though she had no complaints against her husband, she had been forced into it by her father.
Clearly, you don’t have to have severe grounds to justify divorce in Islam; even fearing that you aren’t able to be nice to the other person for whatever reason is sufficient, And certainly not having your rights fulfilled (sexual, financial, etc) is sufficient. However, Islam highly discourages divorce and urges couples to try every avenue to save their marriage, including involving family and community members, seeking counseling, getting professional help and trying temporary periods of separation.
Which leads me to another point — in many cases there is a great failure of families of the husband and wife to help sort things out. Culturally many Muslim marriages are marriages of families, not just of two human beings. But the responsibilities that come with this are often abandoned when things go downhill.
To the families of those who are having marital issues: If you think you have rights to their time and being involved in their lives when things are good, then you better step up your game with things are bad. Otherwise, you’re just leeches. And I say that with absolutely no respect. I’ve seen situations where either the wife or husband begs their family to help, to contact their in-laws to talk to their spouse, and the family refuses. It’s not just a shame; it’s probably a sin and at a minimum it’s the right of your son, daughter, sister, brother to expect and receive your help in their marriage.
Once all avenues have been exhausted, given both parties are willing to do so, it may be time to separate permanently. In Part II, I’ll go over how best to do so.
II. How To Get a Divorce
Islam does not forbid divorce, but of all the permissible things, it is the most disliked by Allah (swt). The destruction of a family has life-long consequences, and we are advised to seek out every means of reconciliation possible. But even then our faith gives us the freedom to leave an unhealthy situation.
There is much legality in an Islamic divorce that most people are vigilant to observe: Is a civil divorce considered one talaaq or three? Do the three talaaqs have to be given at one time or at any time? If talaaq is given in anger, does it count? Does akhula count as a talaaq? There are hundreds of questions related to divorce — just check any reputable Islamic Q&A website. People are so particular to make sure they have fulfilled certain conditions, but often and usually completely ignore one very clear command in the Quran concerning divorce:
“A divorce is only permissible twice: after that, the parties should either hold together on equitable terms, or separate with kindness.” — Holy Quran 2:229
“Separate with kindness” are the three little words almost all people going through a divorce choose to ignore. You would hope that divorce between Muslims would be more civil due to this injunction than that of non-Muslims; the reality is that Muslims also get downright mean and dirty when they’re ready to end a marriage.
At a minimum, separating with kindness means fulfilling each other’s rights. Pay the mahr that is due, let each party have what is theirs, be sensitive to the financial situation a non-earning spouse may be in and fulfill your debt obligations and promises. Money is one tool frequently used to hurt the other party, but if we havetawakkul, true faith, we know that our sustenance is written by Allah (swt) and no one can detract or add to it.
You will have your life ahead of you to rebuild and start over. Leaving the person you once loved unable to pay bills, without a place to stay or without transportation, is about as unkind as you can get. Many of us would help a stranger in these circumstances; but separating spouses often want to see the other suffer. This is not just inhumane, it’s un-Islamic.
For the Sake of the Children
While it’s unkind for spouses to treat each other badly when separating, it’s reprehensible to use children as a way to hurt each other. I have seen dozens of Muslim couples use their children as pawns, threatening each other with withholding visitation, demanding unreasonable custody and support arrangements, blocking extended family from seeing the kids and poisoning their children against the other parent. On the other hand, I’ve seen parents of children just walk out of their children’s lives, deciding they would rather not be a part of that child’s life than have to pay child support or go through the trouble of visitation and arranging to live close by.
As adults, we can exercise our right to live with, or leave, a spouse. But in doing so, we cannot destroy the rights of others. Every parent has a right to their child, notwithstanding abuse, and every child has a right to both parents AND to the extended family of both parents. If you keep your child away from their other parent or that parent’s family — or you sour your child’s feelings against their other parent — you are keeping them from their rights.
If you walk out of your child’s life, you have taken away the many rights your child has over you — the right to your love, guidance, knowledge, protection, company, affection, emotional and financial support, access to your extended family and to your inheritance. We don’t get off scott-free when we usurp the rights of others – it’s considered an injustice that we’ll be accountable for directly to that person on the Day of Judgment.
Truly Separating with Kindness
I know these things may seem harder to do than say. But I don’t just talk the talk. I’ve walked this talk. When I separated from my ex-husband a decade ago, our daughter was four years old. He — thinking that because I’m a lawyer, I will make his life miserable during and after the divorce — came at me full force. He did everything in his power to keep my daughter from me and to leave me in the most difficult financial situation possible, even refusing to provide spousal support or my mahr.
I had to fight in court for eight months to get my daughter back, but once I did, I made sure to give her every opportunity to be with him and to spend time with her father’s family. It was not emotionally easy; I was extremely angry at all of them. But, I loved my daughter too much to keep her away from the cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents she loved. I did my best to minimize her suffering; after all, she was the only innocent party in all of it. Likewise, I placed my trust in Allah (swt), remembered my sustenance was written by Him and didn’t ask for any support or even my mahr.
It took time for him and his family to realize that I was not going play dirty despite the terrible things I had been put through (I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say I could have lost my daughter permanently). I did my best to maintain civility with him and his family, not because I forgave them, but because I loved my daughter.
Years later, when I remarried and had my second daughter, the family of my ex-husband sent gifts for our new baby. And, my ex-husband sent the mahr he owed me for many years along with a letter of apology. When my grandmother passed away two years ago, my ex-mother-in-law hugged and consoled me. These things are unheard of in South Asian families, and I give credit to them as well for meeting me halfway.
The goodwill we managed to create by swallowing our anger and pride is our gift to my daughter, who deserves all the happiness she can get from two homes. It is the same gift all children of divorced parents deserve. If we choose better lives for ourselves, it’s our responsibility to make sure they suffer the least amount possible for it.
If you are going through a divorce, or have gone through one, I hope that you will keep the mantra “separate in kindness” close to your heart. I know we cannot always forgive the source of our pain, but ultimately it is an act of kindness unto you to be kind to others. As the Buddha said, “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other to die.” If you could not live together in kindness, the least you can do is separate in kindness – this is not just a request from Allah (swt), it’s a command.