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By: IDENTIFICATION OF STRESS-RELATED FACTORS AND DEFENSE MECHANISM
Maisah B. Robinson, Ph.D.
The strongest point in Islam is the equality which it guarantees to women in religion, as well as in their possessions and their gains. Also it gives them the assurance of marriage only with their own consent and at their own pleasure; they need not marry either through compulsion or through negligence; and they must get a dowry. (Sayyid Qutb, Social Justice in Islam)
The oft-quoted maxim that “experience is the best teacher,” can be interpreted in many ways. I don’t have first hand-experience with polygamy, as I have been in a fantastic monogamous marriage for 45 years, alhamdullilah. However, I have had second-hand experience gained from my personal relationships with couples in polygamous marriages, both nationally and internationally. In addition, I have acquired knowledge of the Islamic precepts and criteria for polygamy, through research and consultation with my husband, who has a doctorate in Islamic Studies. My study of polygamy also included an investigation of the psychological explanations for the emotional characteristics and defense mechanisms that are exhibited by couples, particularly wives in life-alternating situations, such as polygamous marriages.
My focus is on wives in polygamous marriages, because my personal associations have been primarily with them. I have compassion for co-wives who have negative experiences and appreciation for those who strive to make their marriage work despite obstacles. I pray that this knowledge will be beneficial to those contemplating, or are already in, a polygamous marriage.
Avoiding the Dissolution of an Existing Marriage
It is permissible, but not an obligation, for a man to enter into a polygamous marriage. Therefore, monogamy may be the best choice for couples who are already experiencing difficulties and want to make an effort to resolve their problems in order to maintain a healthy family unit. If a man does decide to take another wife, the following Qur’anic criteria should be considered to avoid destroying an existing marriage:
Give unto orphans their wealth, exchange not the good for the bad (in your management thereof) nor absorb their wealth. Lo! That would be a great sin. And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hand possess. Thus it is more likely that ye will not do injustice. (4:2, 3)
The goal of any marriage, whether polygamous or not, should be based on love,
And one of His signs that He created for you, your mate from among yourselves that you may dwell in tranquility with them and He has put love and mercy between your hearts verily in that are the signs for those who reflect (30:21), commitment, growth, honesty, and accepting personal responsibility. According to the Qur’an, the husband’s responsibility is to provide for his family.
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means (4:34).
If a man cannot maintain his existing family, then entering into polygamy may weaken the family unit. For women in some cultures, polygamy offers them an opportunity to actually strengthen an existing marriage, which benefits all family members. As reported by Philip L. Kilbride, in Plural Marriage For Our Times, a survey of over six thousand Nigerian women, ages 15 to 59, revealed that 60 percent would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. Similarly, a survey of Kenyan women showed that 25 out of 27 women believed that polygamy was better than monogamy. They felt polygamy was beneficial because the co-wives cooperated with each other. Jamari, a Nigerian, who chose her husband’s co-wife, confirmed these findings:
Many African women actually encourage their husbands to take on another wife. In my country, we don’t have many of the conveniences to make our lives easy. For me, I have three children and do not work. Also I have my widowed mother living with me. My husband is going to college to get a master’s degree and he is also working full-time. He rarely helps with the housework and the kids. The advantages of having another wife are that we achieve more freedom than in monogamy. There are two or more wives to share the housework, the cooking, the childcare, freeing each one to have more time to herself to pursue personal goals.
Similar to their African sisters, some African American women, like Zahra who has two co-wives, found that polygamy provides them with more freedom and independence. Zahra and another one of her co-wives work full-time. Her husband is a professional, and Zahra said he was emotionally and financially supportive of his family. She asserted that:
Being in polygamy allows me and my co-wives to maintain our sense of identity. Our identities are not wrapped up in our husband's identity, the way some women in monogamous marriages are. That’s because our husband isn't always with us. So, we have to be more independent woman, and that is an advantage. We have more free time and energy to do many things. Also, we have each other to share taking care of the seven children we have among us. I came in as a second wife, and saw my husband as a good choice because he had already proven to be a responsible husband and father.
Jamari’s and Zahra’s stories illustrate that the type of marriage is not the problem, the individuals involved in the marriage and their motivations are the problem. A polygamous marriage should be based on Islamic percepts and meet the same standards as any monogamous marriage. However, abuse and exploitation should not be tolerated in any marriage. The Qur’an strongly states the limitations of polygamy to avoid abuse:
If you fear lest you may not be perfectly equitable in treating more than one wife, then you shall be content with one." (4:3)
When serious problems result as a result of a polygamous marriage, Islam does recognize the right of both partners to divorce. The Arabic word for divorce is talaq, which means, “freeing or undoing the knot.” Talaq signifies the dissolution of marriage, or the annulment of its legality. Even though divorce is permissible, it is not preferable. As asserted in al-Mustadrak, by al-Hakim:
Any woman who seeks to be divorced from her husband, save in cases of extreme necessity, falls out of the grace and mercy of the Lord.
Wives can seek a divorce through what is known as Khula'. However, certain conditions must be met, as explained by Dr. Jamal Badawi in "Polygamy In Islamic Law": She may divorce him (unilaterally) if he is married to a second wife provided that the nuptial contract gives her the right of unilateral divorce (ismah). She can go to court and ask for a divorce if there is evidence of mistreatment or injustice inflicted upon her. As stated in the Qur’an:
If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is no obstacle to their arranging an amicable settlement between them for which the wife must renounce some of her rights. But if they return through reconciliation and peace through such unselfishness, such a settlement is better than separation and divorce. (4:128).
Dealing with Stress: Defense Mechanisms
If the couple decides to have a polygamous marriage, some stress may occur. Because of some societal prohibitions and negative attitudes toward polygamy, couples, particularly wives, may experience symptoms of a so-called post-traumatic stress syndrome. They may feel alienated and misunderstood, like Fouzia from Sudan, who is one of her husband’s three wives:
I feel like other people don't understand what I am going through. I often become depressed, angry and disgusted. I even began to doubt whether my feelings of anger, and grief were normal.
Some of the basic emotions, including fear, anger, sadness, and disgust, like Fouzia was having, may be more prevalent in a polygamous marriage. These basic emotions are significant in that they may cause one to adopt defense mechanisms as a way of dealing with the stress that results. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV, defense mechanisms are often employed to deal with emotional stress that results from traumatic or life-altering situations, to somehow ward off or suppress these emotions.
Although there are several types of defense mechanisms, only three common ones--projection, reaction-formation and suppression--will be discussed because the characteristics are most applicable to life-altering situations, such as polygamous marriages. It is certain that most normal people use one of more of these defense mechanisms, and they could have negative effects.
Projection is one of the first protective mechanisms learned as a child. A person needs to have a sense of importance. When this is threatened there is a need to feel safe and important. Projection involves blaming someone else for one’s own problems. Responsibility for one’s own actions is projected outward onto some other party, who then becomes the focus of one’s attention. A wife who exhibits this defense mechanism may accuse others of the unacceptable faults and urges that she may feel in herself. Meena, who has been a co-wife for five years, provides an example of the projection behavior:
No one knows better than my husband how to push my buttons. I feel like he does things intentionally to hurt me. I also get stressed about my co-wife and say things I’m sorry for later. Sometimes I do things just to make the anger and bad feelings go away. I’ve done some things like binge eating, and spending money on things for the children that we really can’t afford.
Finally, when things got to the breaking point and I realized that my marriage was in jeopardy, I started to look into ways of resolving this behavior. I actually sat down with my husband and explained what was going on with me. At first he was not sympathetic, he felt that I was just overreacting. I was surprised by this reaction from him and told him that I wanted him to help me make some changes in our lives. I told him that this was a partnership and if he wanted me to do certain things, then he would have to do some things that I wanted also. It was difficult convincing him to make changes, but we both decided that was the best route. I am not saying that my marriage is perfect now, but it’s a lot better, I am glad I tried to work things out and Allah is what holds us together. We know that being a family is the most important thing for us to focus on and it is better for our children. My husband ended up divorcing my co-wife, but it had nothing to do with me or my reaction to her. If my husband decides to take another co-wife, I think this experience will enable me to handle it a little better.
Projection mechanism is a major motivator of jealousy. Husbands should not show favoritism of one wife over another, as this causes jealousy. The Qur’anic warning for husbands regarding favoritism is: "Do not lean exclusively to one of them, leaving the rest of them suspended" (4:129). Co-wives may be reluctant to admit to themselves that they are jealous. That is because of its negative connotation. A wife may not readily say to others, “I am jealous of his first wife,” or “I resent the fact that she is much younger than I am.” Yasmin, who is European American, is the second wife of an African American. She stated that she was jealous of her co-wife, who is an African American:
When I met my husband, I felt that we had great communication and saw eye to eye on most issues. However, after we married, I realized that because we came from different cultural backgrounds, there were some differences in opinions with regard to our views on social and political issues and our views of American society and culture in general. He would tell me things like, “It’s a black thing, You’re white, you just don’t understand.” I noticed that when we were all together he would talk more with his first wife, they would laugh at the same things, and be more in agreement about certain issues. Both of them wear African-style clothes and so do their children. I don’t and neither do my children. I knew this was petty, but it added to my feelings of not fitting in and sort of being alienated from a major aspect of my husband.
I finally admitted to my husband that I was jealous of his relationship with my co-wife. He explained to me that he didn’t marry me because he thought I was like her and neither did he expect me to change to be more like him or adopt his culture. He only wanted me to respect the fact that we have these differences and not make a big deal of them. I now just focus more on my personal relationship with him and the good things that we have going for us, rather than focus on what he and my co-wife have that is good going for them.
Coping strategies, which foster emotional healing, can be used to address the projection mechanism, including jealousy. The first step is to recognize that there is a problem, as both Meena and Yasmin did. The second, and hardest, is not to internalize the feelings, which means, "Don't take it personally" and “Don’t blame yourself.” When a wife feels she is under attack, it may be helpful for her to stay separate from the intense feelings, instead of owning the feelings.
A wife should not expect her husband to react to her concerns about what she is feeling and experiencing in a positive way. Meena found out that her husband was not convinced she was unhappy or angry and was unaware of the intensity of her feelings. As illustrated by Meena’s and Fatimah’s stories, husbands may prefer to delude themselves and believe that their wives are not really affected by the polygamous situation and are overreacting. Ultimately, the constructive approach is for the wife to tell her husband what is bothering her, as both Meena and Yasmin did, and have him share in the responsibility for coping with, and solving any conflicts.
In addition to the projection mechanism, wives may also exhibit the characteristics of reaction formation, a defense mechanism in which an unacceptable feeling, which causes anxiety, is converted into its opposite, so it can become expressed. For example, a wife may adopt a set of attitudes and behaviors that are the opposite of her true dispositions. Feelings of happiness may turn to sadness, and feelings of love may turn to hatred and disgust. Fatimah, a Saudi, found that she was having these feelings, even though she was accustomed to being in a family where polygamy was commonplace. Her brother had two wives and two of her uncles had polygamous marriages. She related that:
In Saudi Arabia, most of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation had polygamous marriages. My generation doesn’t have that many. Because women now have more opportunities to travel abroad and go to college, they don’t even want to marry at a young age, and definitely don’t want to be in a polygamous marriage. I was first married when I was 18 and that marriage didn’t work out. I stay married only one year, fortunately I didn’t have any children. Then, when I was 24, I met my present husband, who had been married for 7 years and didn’t have any children. I really liked him, even though we only saw each other at family gatherings. He is not related to me, but his family is good friends with my family. Well, when we got married, I just knew that I would not have any bad feelings, because I accepted polygamy wholeheartedly. Surprisingly, after the happy honeymoon, I became very sad, and actually began to have bad feelings about my husband, I begin to accuse him of being unkind, un-attentive, and told him on several occasions that I did not love him anymore. It got better after a while, however, some of those feelings come up now and then, and I just suppress them.
The suppression that Fatimah talked about is also a defense mechanism. Suppression involves dealing with stress by intentionally avoiding thinking about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, or experiences. Suppression of feelings creates negative energy that increases until it explodes. For example, when exhibiting the suppression mechanism, a wife may appear to be nice and likeable as viewed by casual acquaintances, but those in her family see a different person. Safa, who is from the Philippines, provides an example of the suppression mechanism. She has been in polygamy with her two co-wives for six years and related that:
When there is a conflict between me and my husband or one of my co-wives, I pretend that my feelings are fine and that they have done nothing to offend me.
I think it pleases my husband for me to be so tolerant. So, I just let them hurt my feelings and everything is fine with me from the outside, but inside I am steaming mad. Then everything comes to a head as the pressure grows inside and reaches a point where it only takes one more small word from them and I just explode. I end up saying the most hurtful things, and rehashing every little thing from the past that irritated me.
Safa’s reaction as a result of suppression illustrates how a person can seem level headed, then all of a sudden, act like someone totally out of control. It may not be easy for wives, like Safa and Muneera, to stop using suppression and reaction-formation defense, because it may very difficult for them to find and face their true feelings. To cope with these feelings, they must let her husbands know that whenever they say something that could cause hurt, do not listen to their words, but tune in to their feelings.
The main reason for a couple to understand these defense mechanisms is because it can help to find coping mechanisms that will help strengthen their marriage. They must constantly remind themselves that the establishment of a strong family unit should be primary, as explained by Sayyid Qutb in Milestones [Ma'alim fi'l Tariq]:
If the family is the basis of the society, and the basis of the family is the division of labor between husband and wife, and the upbringing is the most important function of the family, then such a society is indeed civilized. In the Islamic system of life, this kind of a family provides the environment under which human values and morals develop and grow in the new generation; these values and morals cannot exist apart from the family unit.
In order to maintain the family unit, both husband and wife can participate in the process of shedding a defense mechanism and incorporating coping mechanisms in conjunction with counseling from Muslim clerics well versed in the Qur’an, Hadith, and Shari’ah (Islamic Law). For the sake of salvaging his marriage, the husband may even have to resort to living with his wife’s behavior, even though he dislikes it. Both Qur’an and hadith support this option:
Live with them (your wives) on a footing of kindness and equity. If you dislike them it may be that you dislike something in which Allah has placed a great deal of good (Quran 4:19).
A believing man must not hate a believing woman. If he dislikes one of her traits he will be pleased with another (Sahih Muslim).
Islam provides effective means to avoid the dissolution of marriages. Submitting to Allah, obeying His commands regarding polygamy, and asking for guidance when facing challenges are the ultimate coping mechanisms. In addition, Prophet Muhammad’s (SWAT) life with his wives should serve as the primary example of the best way to maintain a polygamous marriage. He emphasized that the best Muslim men are those who are best to their wives:
The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best character and the best of you are those who are best to their wives (Tirmidi).
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