I remember seeing an advertisement for a party in first year uni and being slightly scandalised at the time. The rules of the party were that single people were to come in green, maybes in orange and ‘taken’ people in, you guessed it, red. As crass an idea as this is, Muslims could really do with some kind of system for knowing when people are actually single and looking to get married, and when they’re just not. Instead, people are often forced to ask around, looking for mutual connections to tell them whether the person they’re interested in is already otherwise engaged. (Lame, but I couldn’t resist.)
The problem is that people generally don’t make it known that they’re getting to know someone, at least not initially. This is understandable and perfectly reasonable, because it often goes no further than the getting-to-know-you phase. You don’t want to be telling every Hassan and Hussain when you meet someone for the first time. It’s just not feasible, nor does it serve any real purpose for any of the parties involved.
Let’s say person X is getting to know Y. They could seal the deal within a couple of months, seal the deal in this case meaning progress to an official, publicised engagement. If this happens, X and Y are reasonably safe. It’s unlikely that people will ‘catch’ them in the act of getting to know each other, and even if they do, it doesn’t really matter. Things will progress quickly enough for tongues not to wag or for X and Y to have define their relationship in social terms.
But if there are complications and things don’t progress as quickly, X and Y are in a bit of a bind. Technically, they’re ‘in a relationship’, as the Facebook status goes. But Muslims just don’t utilise the relationship status option on Facebook. In fact, unmarried couples tend to try to keep their relationship secret, or at the very least, an open secret. Their friends and acquaintances might know, but the information doesn’t always trickle out evenly.
This is where things can get really sticky. Some people might know about X and Y’s relationship, some people might not. Z doesn’t happen to know, and develops feelings for one half of the couple in question. Is it Z’s fault? Or the person’s for even talking to Z in the first place? Or can the blame be attributed to this weird state of affairs amongst Muslims, where hearsay has to be used as evidence (a big no-no, as my fellow lawyers can appreciate) and no one wants to actually have the hard conversations because deep down, they’re just a big ball of confusion?
This cuts to the very heart of the problem: people may be keeping their options open. They may be talking to one person without having defined the relationship, and as such they feel like they have license to be talking to other people simultaneously. Even if they’re actually in a relationship with one person, they may be feeling uncertain. This uncertainty combined with the fact that very few people know about the relationship may lead to icky situations, like two people thinking they’re getting to know the same person. (An extreme example, but certainly not unheard of.)
The line between friendships and romantic relationships isn’t always easy to ascertain either. This is a universal issue, but is compounded by the fact that different Muslims have different boundaries when it comes to the opposite sex. This leads to all kinds of weird pseudo-relationships popping up, like guys and girls who are constantly talking but haven’t defined their relationship. Often both people like each other but are afraid to admit it, but sometimes only one person has any kind of romantic interest and the other person is simply enjoying having someone to talk to without the hassle of actually being in a relationship. (Or maybe they just genuinely like talking about photography/philosophy/video games.)
And then there are those who are secretly pining over someone who they know will probably never reciprocate their feelings. They get stuck in a waiting game, hoping the tide will turn but acknowledging that it most likely will not. These people are technically ‘single’, but are about as available as a change room at the Boxing Day Sales. The sad thing is that the object of their affection could actually be in one of those secret relationships mentioned above, which means that their efforts are doomed from the outset and may in fact bring them great embarrassment should word get out. The other common scenario is that the person they like just isn’t looking to get married, and so liking them at the present moment is just a waste of energy.
All of the above scenarios are a result of the lack of transparency around the whole issue of marriage. No one wants to admit that they want to get married for fear of looking ‘desperate’, but nearly everyone does. No one wants to admit that they’ve been in a relationship, but nearly everyone has been. No one wants to be the one to put their heart on the line and have the are-we-just-friends conversation, because they know it’ll be just awful if the answer is yes. (And if you’re afraid to ask, it’s often because you know the answer is ‘yes, we are just friends’ and you don’t want to face up to it.)
I don’t claim to have solutions to any of these issues except to very humbly suggest that personal responsibility is key. Sensitivity to the feelings of others is key. Talking to someone may mean nothing to you, but it could mean the world to them. (On the other hand, assuming every conversation with someone of the opposite sex is romantic in nature is just a recipe for disaster.) A little tact and discretion never goes astray, but excessive secrecy and vagueness can lead to unnecessary complications for all parties concerned. Human dignity should be preserved in all cases, even when you don’t care an iota for the person in question. If you know categorically that you’re not looking to get married, don’t let your guard down with the opposite sex, and if you are looking to get married, make your intentions clear at the earliest opportunity.
Do you consider yourself to be ‘single’? What’s the best way to avoid dilemmas about a relationship status?