A Somali woman here in the US—with whom I have been acquainted for more than 10 years—has recently told me that her husband of 8 years is into something. She has grown suspicious of him because he has started taking annual trips to East Africa, something he did not do before. I happen to be a close friend of a man who is a confidante of her husband.
“Can you check that for me?” she asked.
My first reaction was one of bafflement. When I told her that I wouldn’t do it because I thought the whole request was, not only, unethical but rather bizarre, she began to recite a litany of complaints about her husband.
“He is in this marriage because he loves the good life that I have provided for him,” she said.
Her husband, on the surface, is a gentle, kind, loyal, hard-working, and highly educated man who is close and kind to her family. She is active in her community, and the husband is the one who is perfectly content to be in the background. If there is anything unusual about this couple’s relationship--barring the unknown—it is the glaring disparity in their income. The wife is a doctor who makes four times what the husband, a social worker, does. However, he has been gainfully employed since I met him more than a decade ago.
In a surprising show of decorum, the doctor has ruled out divorce. Even so, one can tell that she seems to be in what psychologists call a “semi-happy marriage”: a union with low conflict, and, in many cases –but not necessarily this one-- low satisfaction. Her husband was, indeed, aware of his wife’s concerns and dismissed her claims as pure speculation. To her, her husband had changed. He must have known that he had become someone his wife felt she hardly knew. However, the fact that he started going to Somalia once a year to visit his ‘family’ must have had a baleful impact on their marriage. His trips must have been the major issue vexing her. She had no proof of a ‘secret’ marriage, but she might have suspected something was amiss. Some East African men in North America do go home only to end up secretly marrying a young woman. Many are in midlife crisis and are, of course, trying to prove their virility and relevance. The young women are likely never to set foot in North America. I felt sympathetic to the woman’s problem, but I also felt helpless. The problem seemed to be more about the husband being suspected of engaging in illicit activity than that the fact that he did not measure up. His income, when they met almost nine years ago, was not the deciding factor for their marriage. This is the same issue that has engulfed many Somali women in the West who have been losing ground to young women in Africa; a topic that has been debated in the community ad nauseam.
“The man who I was living with, I just didn’t know who he was,” vented Brinkley. Cook was the same man his wife had once extolled as being a great father to their children, but the 47-year old developed a habit of spending $3,600 per month on internet porn, and also became involved with an 18-year old high school senior. Brinkley, 54, was flummoxed. The couple’s bitter divorce and the tawdry details that emerged about their private life became fodder for the tabloids. How could Cook be married to the very woman, many people thought, possessed all the qualities that could tantalize and fire the male imagination and still seek solace in the arms of an 18--year old girl? Brinkley, after all, was the same woman her former second husband, the famous entertainer Billy Joel, once gave the moniker “Uptown Girl.” Their story was that Brinkley, the glitzy, dazzling, beautiful, rich, and sexy woman fell unexpectedly for Joel, the antithesis of the exciting, the attractive, and the knight in shining armor. Their union, in the early 1980s raised some eyebrows.
Cook had an excuse for having an affair, and he put full blame on his wife for not giving him the attention he craved. “I wanted a little acknowledgment, a little attention, a little thank you every now and then for my efforts, for the amount of time I took to care for her and my family, for the wealth I was building,” he told ABC News’ Barbara Walters. Cook not only was a jerk but he had exhibited behavior that prompted a court psychiatrist to refer to him as; “an insatiable narcissist.”
Choosing a husband and avoiding dubious characters such as Peter Cook, is becoming more complicated than ever before. It is like what that wise-cracking, simpleton Forrest Gump would have called it, “a box of chocolates: You never know what you will get.” But there is a debate out there on the best criteria for selecting a husband.
Connor, who made the rounds in New York city high schools, talking to young people about the issues mentioned above, has said that he usually gets murmurs of resignation: “but you have eliminated everyone,” the young people complain. “Life is unfair,” is his normal reply.
Marrying Mr. Good Enough
Lori Gottlieb is an American journalist/writer who in 2008 caused a media furor when she wrote an article in the Atlantic titled, “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.” In February 2010, she expanded the theme of the article and turned it into a book with the same title.
Lori found herself aged 40 and single. She began reevaluating her life and questioned whether she was being too picky when it came to choosing a mate. She had known men before whom she had readily dismissed as ‘not good enough’ to be marriage material. Her book is a plea for single women to loosen up their high—if not unrealistic—expectations of finding the right husband. There are many good men out there, Gottlieb argued, but women are not making the right choices. In other words, there is neither Mr. Perfect nor Prince Charming coming to rescue these women. If you ask single women who are 30 and beyond-- of what they would want in life, it is not having a big apartment, a slim body, or a great career but simply having a husband, and “by extension, a child.” Gottlieb’s advice was simple: Settle. “Don’t worry about passion or intense connection,” advised Gottlieb. To her, romance is overrated. The idea that a passionate romance can make one happier isn’t realistic. Marriage, to Gottlieb, is different. “But marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you are looking for a stable, reliable life companion.” Simply put, what “makes a good marriage isn’t necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship. Once you are married, it is not about whom you want to go on vacation with; it is about whom you want to run a household with.” For the faint-hearted, marriage, according to Gottlieb, “isn’t a passion-fest; it is more like a partnership, formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business.”
Gottlieb would hear her married friends constantly complain about their husbands. They would tell her how lucky she was to be single. However, in reality, none of these women would trade places with Gottlieb. All preferred to stay connected with their mates rather than be alone. Gottlieb would tell these friends, “If you are so unhappy, and I am so lucky, leave your husband. In fact, send him over here!” None has volunteered to do so.
Gottlieb’s prescription was not to compromise on fundamental values that one shares with a man, but to see the bigger picture and not dwell on little things. You may not like your future mate’s annoying—but harmless-- habits but your goal, asserted Gottlieb, is to “have the infrastructure in place to have a family.” Women, says Gottlieb, who have higher expectations end up becoming more disappointed in the long haul as time passes by them. One of Gottlieb’s friends expressed realistic views of what she expects of a mate:
In a world where the divorce rate hovers on 40% to 50%, there must be other venues for obtaining a mate. The predominant perception, mainly in the West but also in many parts of the world, is that one falls in love with someone and then marriage ensues. What about the other way around; get married and then fall in love? To many, that is sacrilegious! How can you marry someone when you are not initially in love? That is anachronistic, right? Reva Seth, the British-born Indian writer would shoot back and say, ‘Spare me your sanctimonious sermons! But imagine millions and millions of people in the world do exactly that by marrying someone that they do not necessarily love, with the result of very low rates of divorce. Countries like India, parts of China, many Arab countries, and even parts of Somalia still practice some form of arranged marriage. Reva Seth., in her book, First Comes Marriage: Modern Relationship Advice from the Wisdom of Arranged Marriages (2008), challenged many women in the West to give an unsentimental look at the idea of marriage before love. Seth, incidentally, does not encourage women to accept arranged marriages without consent. At the risk of oversimplification, she equates choosing a husband to purchasing a house. “When you are buying a house, you draw up a list of ‘must haves,” says Seth. “So why shouldn’t it be the same for marriage, which is probably the most important decision you will ever make in your life.”
Seth advocated that couples have shared cultural values and common goals in life before they embark on marriage. Friendship and being a good partner form the backbone for a lasting and happy marriage. Women, according to Seth, have every right to choose their husbands, but their decision should not be based on the wrong criteria. These women in the West are looking for a “life-saver rather than a life partner,” admonished Seth. According to Seth, there is no such thing as “the One. “There are several men out there who could be potential life- partners and much has to do with timing, meeting the right person at a time when both of you are ready to settle down.”
Interestingly, surveys have shown that many women do not necessarily choose the husband who suits them the best but rather the husband who looks the best. One recent survey showed that 44 percent of 300 women surveyed said that they would marry their husbands a second time. That is a shocking number given that more than half of the women would not. Seth holds a low opinion of romance as the basis for a good marriage. She simply dismisses romantic love as nothing but an infatuation and sheer lust with temporary satisfaction. She argues that this does not make a good marriage. The person you love may not necessarily be suitable for you in the long run. Seth has news for the world; find the man that is suitable for you and then fall in love after you are married. Your man doesn’t have to be your friend (that is why women have girlfriends anyway) and he doesn’t have to be good at dancing. There are bigger issues at stake in selecting a husband than checking what his hobbies are. Marriage is too serious an institution to be based on love and attraction.
Seth’s book was based on research of 300 Asian women in Europe and North America whose marriages were arranged. She was aware of the fact that arranged marriages are generally reduced to cultural stereotypes. However, interestingly, she generally found the women happier, and more focused on the vagaries of their family life. The divorce rate among these women is staggeringly low; between 5 and 7%.
The Islamic Link
The reasons for selecting a mate among Muslims are as varied as their diversity. But there is one criterion that the Islamic theology, perhaps, emphasizes more than anything else: It is “Deen.” The concept “Deen” as basis for choosing a mate is interesting. It does not necessarily mean the narrow definition of “religion,” or “faith.” It also does not only connote offering rituals or dressing in a certain way. “Deen”, in the Islamic tradition, broadly means “Xusnul-Khuluq” (a good character). The Emir Omar ibn al Khattab, once reprimanded a man who flattered another man because he had seen him in the mosque. Omar asked the flatterer if he had dealt with the man on money issues, lived with him, or if the two had ever traveled together? When the flatterer said he did not, Omar told him that he simply did not know the man enough to vouch for him.
The late Egyptian scholar, prolific writer, and activist Shaikh Mohammad al-Ghazali al-Saqqa (1917-1996), in his seminal book, The Muslim Character, gave a synopsis of the main traits of a good character: It is piety, sincerity, mercy, gentleness, kindness, lovingness, compassion, generosity, honesty, fairness, empathy, chivalry, truthfulness, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, and trust.
Finally, the late American columnist and humorist, Erma Bombeck, once gave her take on the subject of choosing a mate. “People shop for a bathing suit with more care than they do a husband or wife,” she wrote. “The rules are the same. Look for something you will feel comfortable wearing. Allow for room to grow.”
Hassan M. Abukar
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