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Rules to the Game

5 Hacks to Improve Your Marriage

By Shadeed Muhammad

Rule One: Don’t Play Tennis Play Catch


The difference between a tennis match and a game of catch is the return serve. In tennis, the objective is to return the serve hoping that it is too fast for the opponent hit it back. In catch however, there’s more of an intentional effort to actually catch the ball and throw it back to the opponent for them to catch. In our marriages, we sometimes find ourselves playing tennis rather than catch. The ball is constantly hit between blame or [constructive] criticism and deflection, in an attempt to preserve our own self-image. We have a tendency to be defensive when any type of criticism or complaint is made against us from our spouse. The reasons for this may be due to:


A. We don’t see ourselves the way our spouse sees us. 

C. We tend to believe that it is our spouse’s response to our actions that is the problem rather than our actions themselves. 

B. We were blamed a lot as a child—especially the first and middle child—and so what we hear coming from our spouse in the form of constructive criticism is perceived as an extension of what we’ve been hearing our entire lives from our parents, siblings etc. 


Constant deflection often leads to resentment because your spouse feels like they can never get you to take responsibility for your actions. You become a moving target with little to no accountability. Every complaint or criticism is met with one justification or another for why you did or didn’t do it, and the ball is simply hit back and forth between complaint and deflection. Some of the deflective methods we tend use are:

A. Changing the subject to make it about the person rather than taking responsibility (e.g. I only did it/said it because… Why do you have to attack me?)

B. Projecting: (e.g. What about when you do it to me?)

C. Gaslighting: (e.g., you’re being dramatic! Stop being so sensitive! Its not that serious!)

D. Attacking: (e.g. I guess you are perfect! I don’t care what you think!”


Learn to play catch by receiving what your spouse is saying and intentionally make an effort to take a closer look at it.


Rule Two: Validate the Emotion Without Defending the Action


“Feelings are not supposed to be logical. Dangerous is the man who has rationalized his emotions.”— David Borenstein


Emotions are not the gauge that determines what is right or wrong, they are simply are responses to behaviors and/or actions that we’ve encountered. Emotional Invalidation is a very dismissive and divisive force in relationships. It occurs when one discounts their partner’s feelings, implying that, for them to voice their opinion about something, they must be either crazy, stupid, or some combination of the two. This is classically known as ‘gas lighting’; a strategic method of deflection that causes one’s spouse to doubt their own grievances against the other.

It is easy to defend the action because of your own personal biases about why you do what you do and say what you say, but while you defend your action, you simultaneously dismiss and invalidate the emotions of your spouse. It is hard to validate the emotion because, by doing so, we believe that the action was erroneously in vain. However, you can validate the emotion of your spouse without the need to justify the behavior believing that it was in error. The concern for your spouse’s emotions should be more of a priority than believing that you right or wrong.


Rule Three: Get Back to the Pre-Conflict State Quickly


The difference between an experienced couple, who has acquired marital tools throughout their journey as a couple, and an inexperienced couple, is not the absence of marital problems but the ability to get back to the pre-conflict stage quickly without holding grudges or resentment. Marital problems are ubiquitous across all financial, educational and spiritual lines. It doesn’t matter how religious you are, how financially stable you are or how intellectually competent you are, marital problems will arise for one reason or another. However, the goal is to avoid getting trapped in the martial problem whirlwind and lose your sense of purpose which may ultimately lead to you losing your marriage. 


On one occasion Abu Bakr As Sideeq walked by the house of the Prophet and heard A’isha raising her voice at him. So he sought permission to enter, and in an attempt to verbally [and physically] reprimand his daughter, the Prophet quickly intervened indicating that his approach was unnecessary, to say the least. The very next day, Abu Bakr passed by the Prophet’s house and heard them laughing and asked the Prophet to grant him permission to enter while they were peace just as he was granted permission to enter while they were at war. The point here is that the Prophet did not allow a temporary set-back to define his entire marital experience. The very next day they had returned to the pre-marital state were they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company without incident. 


One of the traditional methods of accomplishing this is by not allowing the grudges and feelings of anger and frustration to go beyond the prophetic limit of three days. The Prophet said, “A believer should boycott his brother for more than three days.” [Collected in Sahih Al Bukhari]


Grievances, marital problems and feelings of frustration should not be given a indefinite window of time to fester and corrupt or possibly destroy one’s sensibilities within the marriage. Placing a time frame within which to resolve one’s gripes and grievances forces the couple to address them in a timely fashion and expedites the journey back to the pre-conflict stage. However, allowing this things to fester is a recipe for disaster, and this is why when the Prophet was asked, “Which deeds are best?” The first thing he said was, “Establishing the prayer within the time allotted for it” [Collected in Sahih Al Bukhari] 


Scholars explain that that although the prayer can be performed at any time within the window allotted for it, the best time to perform the prayer is at the time it first comes in. This is because delaying the Salat for any reason may give room for one to become so preoccupied that they either neglect to perform it at all or perform it outside of the time allotted for it. This concept can also apply to delaying conversations necessary to resolve marital conflicts. If prolonged, other issues begin to pile up making it almost impossible for one address them all. Unfortunately this leaves unaddressed gripes and grievances which ultimately turn into frustration which leads to resentment which can ultimately lead to divorce.

Rule Four: Aim for the Win/Win


During conflict or disagreements there are usually three types of outcomes:


A. Win/Lose: This usually happens when one spouse is trying to get their point across to win the argument. And although he/she manages to prove their point, the other spouse loses because they were not heard. It’s a selfish approach that stems from the incessant need to be right all the time. In relationships you can either be right and single or wrong [sometimes] and happily married, but you cannot have both. 


B.  Lose/Lose: This usually occurs when both spouses are trying to get their point across without consideration for each other’s perspective. Disagreements can be easily resolved when we stop seeing them as mere binaries of wins and losses, success and failures, and begin seeing them as a presentation of divergent perspectives that we don’t have to agree with in order to respect. So although you both succeed at getting your point across, you both lose because no one was actually heard, and thus the saga continues.   


C. Win/Win: This is where both spouses take time to make sure the other has been heard without reservation or resentment. They don’t seek to dismiss the other’s gripes and grievances by making light of them in an attempt to make their issue seem more important. Both parties want to be heard, but the only way that can happen is that someone has to seek to understand first before trying to be understood.


We have to stop seeing our arguments and disagreements as, ‘My win is your loss or my loss is your win.’ How could one not want to see their spouse win? Allah highlights selfishness as the culprit in these situations, as He says, “And the human soul is driven by selfishness.” (Al Qur’an 4:128) The compulsive need to be right all the time can be incredibly destructive in a relationship/marriage. “Successful couples know how to choose their battles knowing that closeness means more than being right at times.”— Gaglian


Rule Five: Pour from A Full Cup


Routines can become mundane overtime which tends to impact our enthusiasm and personal well-being. Even as it relates to our faith and practice of Islam, there are times when we need to recalibrate our engagements in order to avoid functioning on autopilot while not realizing it. the Prophet alluded to the fact that Iman (faith) has a tendency to wither away slowly like the fabric on a garment if one does not nourish it frequently. He said, “Indeed faith (Iman) of one of you will wear out just like a garment becomes worn out [over time]. So implore Allah to renew the faith in your hearts.” [Al Mustadrak].


Scholars mention that we need to frequently renew the way we engage our prayers before they become banal by learning new things to incorporate in it. Reciting the same suwar, over and over again, can reduce your prayer to mechanical movements with no greater purpose than the fulfillment of a mandatory ritual. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Prophet did and said things in different ways to provide a pool of alternatives for those seeking a deeper spiritual engagement in their prayers.

Unfortunately, marriages tend to get a little routine-ish  over time as well. Given the many responsibilities on the shoulders of husbands and wives on a daily basis, the opportunities to add more to the emotional, physical and intellectual intimacy of their personal relationship tend to be very slim. Thus, we need to invest in ourselves which helps to replenish our spirits and in turn helps us to invest more in our marriages. By investing in yourself and your own well-being, it shows your spouse that you want to be at your best for them. You cannot pour from an empty cup, and you cannot continue to show up for your marriage giving the bare minimum. Therefore, it is imperative that you find ways to invest in yourself which in turn is an investment for your marriage.


Once Ata’ Ibn Abi Rabah and Ubayd Ibn Umayr came to visit A’isha and asked her, “What is the most amazing thing you’ve seen from the Prophet?” So A’isha went silent for a few, contemplating on where she should begin, then she said, “One night the Prophet came home and said to me, “A’isha, can you leave me alone tonight to worship Allah?” And A’isha said, “There is nothing that I love more than to have you close to me at night, but I also love what makes you happy.” And so he went on to perform salat the entire night while crying profusely until Bilal called the athan for salat ul fajr.

The Prophet understood the value of taking time for oneself to replenish the soul, as absence makes the hearts grow fonder, especially when one is engaged in the things that give them fulfillment and joy; and salat was definitely one of the few things from this world the Prophet found pleasure in, more than anything else. He said, “There are three things that are beloved to me from this world of yours: women, perfume and the pleasure of my eye is in the prayer.” [An Nasaa’i]  


Some things you can do to care for yourself:

A. Exercise

B. Eat healthy

C. Time to yourself

D. Find a hobby

E. Create a bucket list


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