by Nour Naas in Relationships on 14th March, 2023
I cannot locate the origins of my indifference toward marriage. If anything, the joys of my early childhood perhaps should have been a source of encouragement toward me marrying in the future. My parents made sure I knew what it meant to be loved and cherished, and I relished in the stability of our home and family life. My mother and father even appeared happy to be together and, for years, nothing seemed out of place.
As I inched toward adolescence however, I began to notice cracks in the foundation of their marriage. For instance, I recall my father making an overseas trip to visit his sister in Europe in the early 2000s, and my mother’s relief at the fact that he would not be around for the next two weeks. Even prior to that point, although I had never seen my parents argue or raise their voices at each other, I intuitively understood that my mother was not content with the way things were.
Then, in 2008, everything took a drastic turn. The recession severely impacted the financial security of my family. My father, who was a small business owner and the sole provider for our family of six, could not keep up with rising costs and decreased earnings. The stress and anticipatory anxiety he suffered as a result of not being able to provide the same standard of living we had been accustomed to weighed heavily on him. In the midst of this turmoil, he embraced a controlling and aggressive conduct aimed almost exclusively at my mother.
Soon after, my father began engaging in abuse. On more than one occasion, I witnessed him put his hands on my mother and hurl insults at her. The very first time I saw him hit her, in early 2009, left a lasting impression on me. The passive indifference toward marriage I had quickly morphed into aversion.
I have recollections from that period of telling my mother I never want to get married. When she would ask why, I expressed it was because I did not want to end up with a man like my father. She would assure me that marriage is something beautiful, that not all men are like my father, and that even her marriage was one she had enjoyed in years past.
Though we did not talk about marriage much together, as I was only in my teens at the time, I knew she wanted me to get married and have a family of my own in the future. At times I’d watched as her face brightened, and she would express how lovely it would be once I had “a little Nour running around.” But considering all we were enduring as a family – the abuse, the hypervigilance, the constant need to walk on eggshells – I would be difficult to convince. However, unbeknownst to me, the peak of my disillusionment with marriage would not occur until the summer of 2013, when my father murdered my mother.
Our parents are our first teachers. It was my mother who taught me how to make salah, and how to braid my own hair; it was my father who taught me how to ride a bike, and who first introduced me to Riyadh as Saliheen by Imam An-Nawawi (R). Our parents’ marriage provides us with a map of how relationships should be and what we can expect from them. Sometimes the lessons are more calculated (like teaching me how to pray or ride a bike), but other times, the lessons are fortuitous.
Subconsciously, based on what I saw of their dynamic, I absorbed the belief that husbands are antagonistic toward their wives. I learned that a wife who is deemed resistant by her husband will suffer greatly for it, even – and perhaps especially – when that resistance is in response to his abuse. I learned the person who is supposed to cover you with his love and protection will end up hurting you the most – potentially to a lethal extent. And I learned that getting out of such a relationship, should one find themselves in one, is no easy task. How I saw my father treat my mother informed my conviction that marriage was, by its very nature, something hostile.
These perceptions I gathered had an unbroken effect on my frame of mind toward marrying in the future. A culmination of years of my father’s abuse and mistreatment, and my mother’s obvious frustrations with their relationship, was reflected in my outlook. Unsurprisingly, a study demonstrated that children who witness a high level of conflict between parents often develop negative views toward marriage. And depending on the severity and duration of it, trauma can disrupt one’s innate need for human connection. For those who do attempt to pursue a romantic relationship, their trauma is likely to defer each stage of the process – from developing feelings for the individual to establishing a genuine bond with them. Much of this was mirrored in my own life. Certainly, in my mind then, not getting married was a sobering act of self-preservation.
What did not help and, rather, reinforced my negative beliefs about marriage, were the attitudes of many people I had surrounded myself with. A number of those I had befriended in the past – both Muslim and non-Muslim – whose friendships I found great delight in at the time, were among those who would blithely proclaim that men are trash, or that wanting many kids is selfish, or that marriage is inconsequential. Unlike the Muslims I had been raised with in my local community, some of these Muslims I had befriended later in life ascribed to secular feminist beliefs, or at least leaned more liberal. And though I did not wholly adopt these stances myself, my opinions had been aligned enough for us to be great friends.
Over time, however, I began to experience a dramatic shift in what I wanted out of my life, and I could sense the friction this reposition was causing in my relationship with others.
For instance, just a few years ago, the first time I had expressed a serious interest in getting married, a couple of my close friends at the time had asked me, quite cynically, just why exactly I wanted to get married in the first place. Where I expected support, I had been met with apparent judgment. They trumpeted studies to me which alleged that men’s quality of life increased after marriage, while women’s quality of life decreased. Others swore men were good for nothing, and that friendships can provide virtually the exact same set of elements I hoped to attain from a romantic relationship. They declared that they were single and happy, implying that I could and should be – and should remain – too.
Even while I was deeply invested in my courtship with my now-husband, my best friend at the time had scornfully said to me, “He probably just wants to get you married and move you abroad so that he can abuse you away from all your family and friends.” I kindly but firmly responded by telling her I was already paranoid about ending up in an abusive marriage, and she was not being helpful or supportive in any way by putting forth the absolute worst case scenario. The negativity displayed by my friends at the time was in sheer contrast to the attitudes held by those in my Muslim community.
Throughout my late teens and early-twenties, whenever friends or aunties in my community broached the prospect of me getting married, I was unwavering in my disinterest. They wondered why I didn’t want to get married, a question which – I felt – had a comically obvious answer. Well… I’d thought to myself. My father did kill my mother after all…
What I did not tell them, and what only remained a shapeless thought in my head, was that I did not want to end up like my mother. I did not want to be in a marriage with someone who surely could overpower me. I did not want to end up with someone who would come to know about my family history, and who might think to use it to their advantage by manipulating me. What I did not tell them was simply that I was afraid. Perhaps I did not tell them this because I had a difficult time even recognizing it for myself.
Indeed, I could not reconcile all that I felt with the fact that I did want to get married someday. I found it far easier to deprive myself of marriage as a means of protecting myself from what I believed to be its inevitable consequence, than to actually come face to face with what I feared the most – even if that meant missing out on something (and someone) absolutely priceless.
During our courtship, those fears around marriage only seemed to multiply. My best friend at the time had merely echoed my own sentiments that day when she suggested my husband wanted to move me away with the intention of abusing me in isolation. I knew I wanted to marry my husband, but I had an impossible time officially accepting his proposal. My head constantly spinned with the most unpleasant outcomes. I considered that he may simply be putting up a front, patiently waiting until we got married to reveal his true, malevolent nature. And to top it all off, I was shouldered with the task of making the biggest decision of my life without my mother – my dearest confidante – to consult.
What had finally changed my mind about marriage was not anything profound. The shift was rooted simply in confronting precisely the very things which I had ignored or left unaddressed all those years ago: my trauma, and my purest desires, both of which had been tangled together at the root. For far too long, I had been convinced that my desire to remain unmarried was truly genuine, untouched by any of the trauma I had experienced.
I sought advice from many people in my community, hoping a word from their mouths would alleviate my anxieties and help me to move forward with getting married to my husband. Many of these individuals shared a profound mutual love and friendship with my mother during her life. They were women who knew me in ways that I did not know myself, and who were overjoyed as they finally witnessed my heart expand toward marriage. And with the most astonishing love and patience, they hearkened to my anxieties and hesitation without judgment. They meditated on all that was weighing me down, and did their best to instill in me an awareness of my own fears and self-sabotage, so that even when I did continue to harbor fears and apprehensions, I was able to identify the source of these and continue moving forward in spite of those feelings.
Ever since getting married, I constantly circle back to those periods of my life, reflecting even more on those conversations my mother and I shared together. I recall the moments she would do her best to make me understand that marriage is a spectacular and unparalleled blessing. I think about how much she adored the notion of being a grandmother to my child, and of me being in love.
I am indebted to her for the fact that, even as she suffered in her own marriage to my father, she continued to recognize what a true marriage was – complete with love and beauty and respect – and she did her best to instill in me that same truth. So even as I toiled through my trauma and attempted to circumvent marriage altogether, her voice always remained at least a whisper inside my head, always challenging my trepidation, always redirecting me toward something better.
Were it not for Allah’s guidance, and were it not for my mother, and for being a part of a community which recognizes the value of marriage, I suspect I would have easily continued to surrender myself to my own fears, betraying my own desires in the process, and perhaps never gotten married at all. Moreover, I would have given far more weight to, and been far less questioning of, the sentiments against marriage which were expressed by some of those around me.
My parents’ marriage made me never want to get married, but I am deeply beholden to the guidance that changed my mind, and which released me from the dictates of my past. And I am grateful, too, for finally understanding, through my relationship with my husband, the marvel of marriage my mother had always promised.
Nour Naas is a Libyan writer from Vallejo, California. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, The Establishment, Huffington Post, and SBS Australia, among others. She is currently at work on a memoir exploring her grief in the aftermath of her mother's death and the Libyan revolution. You can find her work here: nourmnaas.com