When it comes to relationships, I’ve got a serious case of Jekyll and Hyde going on. On the one hand, I’m irrepressibly soppy and have a penchant for love songs and love stories and love anything, really. But like any Social Inquiry student worth their money, I’m also cynical, over-analytical and hyper-critical (hey, that rhymed!). I’ve just heard too many bad stories. I’ve seen too many lovely people crushed under the weight of their relationship issues, too frightened and apathetic to leave. I’ve seen too many bad people recklessly and willfully hurt good people, and too many good people unknowingly hurt other good people. A friend of mine once said that no one is really happy in their relationships and that we all just pretend to be so to get by, which struck me as a horribly depressing yet perhaps not entirely inaccurate proposition.
Whether you’re Muslim or non-Muslim, leaving a relationship is never ever easy. But Muslims commit so early on that leaving even the shortest of relationships becomes an emotionally exhausting task. When we get to know someone, it’s on from the get-go. We often start to envision our entire life with that person, planning everything from our wedding to the number of children we’d like to have together. This isn’t crazy, clingy behaviour; we’re encouraged from an Islamic perspective to tackle the big issues head-on. Heck, there are even detailed questionnaires designed for this very purpose. (And before you ask, yes, I do know couples who get to know each other by going through them.)
Often the families of the guy and girl meet from the outset, so when you turn someone down, you’re in effect rejecting their entire family, which can get pretty darn awkward. But even when families are not involved, breaking up with someone is completely and utterly heart-wrenching. You’re not just turning the person down, you are closing the door on the life you had imagined leading together, a life that you now have to furiously erase from your mental whiteboard. Goodbye plans of going to study Arabic in Jordan together, hello impending cat lady/man status. Goodbye to the anticipated thrill of a Facebook relationship status update, hello to attending yet another wedding and having to field people’s endless questions about when you’re going to be next.
Another reason Muslims find ending a relationship particularly hard is because we know that opportunities to meet a person don’t come around every day. We can’t bounce straight back into ‘the dating game’; our rules mean we don’t even enter the court to begin with. Muslims living in countries like Australia have such a small pool of eligible partners to choose from, and so to turn one down without a very serious reason can often strike people as sheer idiocy. ‘But he’s a nice guy/girl!’ is often the catchcry of parents, many of whom seem to see it as a personal failing if their child cannot find a partner. Parental pressure can sometimes result in people staying in iffy relationships, willing themselves to be happy and for things to pick up at some point. (Respect for parents is something so deeply ingrained in us as Muslims that some in fact delegate the process of selecting a partner at least in part to them, but that’s a post for another day.)
This may sound odd, but I think that the fact that Muslims don’t live together before marriage makes it in fact more difficult to leave. Because we have no chance to ‘try before you buy’, we are often prone to believing that an average relationship will somehow improve after marriage. It can happen. Sometimes deep physical and emotional intimacy really can elevate a relationship from meh to magical. But sometimes it can’t, and that’s nobody’s fault. No relationship is risk-free, whether you’ve lived with the person for ten years or have only known them for ten months. There is always going to be some element of chance; the question is whether to leave and take a chance on the next person, or to stay and take a chance on this one. The decision is both deeply personal and universal. We’ve all had to make a difficult decision, knowing that we may very well live to regret it. To stay, or to walk away? Only you know the answer.