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How to Build a Successful Intercultural Marriage

Written by Stephanie Siam

wedding-silhouetteMarriage is a commitment that requires unending devotion, conscientious effort, and a lot of patient practice. Selecting a suitable husband is quite possibly the most important decision a woman will make. So much rests on who she chooses to be her life partner:

  • Will he be kind and patient?
  • Will he support me through good times and bad?
  • Will he be responsible and mature when necessary?
  • Will he be a good parent?

Factor in religion, culture, and nationality, and a woman can just about go insane trying to satisfy her need to fulfill what many consider to be an obligatory rite of passage in Islam.

It’s no secret that many Western, female converts look eastward when searching for a husband. Perhaps their attraction to the dark, brooding males of the Orient is what initially drew them towards the study wedding-hennaof Islam to begin with – no, I’m not saying women convert to Islam for their men, reread the sentence.

While there are plenty of Western, female converts who find successful marriages with Western male converts (see: Corbin, islamwichs founder and person extraordinaire), an overwhelming number of women ultimately marry men from the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine), Arabian Gulf Peninsula (UAE, Saudi, Kuwait), India, or Pakistan.

However, no matter where these men come from initially, almost all of them share similar traits as Husbands to Western Convert Wives. And these traits can sometimes – read: always be challenging negotiations when trying to merge two cultures into one marriage.

I mean, marriage is hard enough as it is.

Now, before I begin, I submit to you credentials as proof of my expertise on intercultural marriage:

  • I am a 35-year-old natural-born American Muslim convert of 12 years.
  • My husband is a 44-year-old natural-born Muslim who was raised in Kuwait and Jordan and is of Palestinian heritage.
  • We have one child, a daughter that is 9 years old.
  • We have been married for 10 ½ years.
  • For the first 3 ½ years of our marriage, we lived in various Southern states in the US.
  • For the past 7 years of our marriage, we have lived in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Oman).
    honeymoonSo, without further ado, I present to you some common scenarios experienced in intercultural marriages and helpful tips for how to approach them.

Honeymoon Phase vs. Reality

Most Frequent Problem:
Your fiancé’s cute idiosyncrasies become your husband’s annoying traits

Example: frustration
First Six Months of Marriage: “I love cooking my husband breakfast, and making him tea, and bringing him the paper, and. . .!”

Second Six Months of Marriage: “Can’t the man do anything for himself?”

First Six Months of Marriage: “My husband is so protective! He always asks me where I’m going and calls to make sure I’m okay while I’m out.”

Second Six Months of Marriage: “I can’t even go to the toilet without him giving me the third degree!”

Solution:
Ask questions before marriage. If there’s something that really defines mutual respect and appreciation in a relationship, it’s being up-front with your husband-to-be before he becomes your husband-that-is.

If you don’t want to be the all-doting wife who sits at home and awaits her man’s arrival every evening, make it known before you marry him. Tell him your expectations of a husband and what your life goals are, too. Just as you have an ideal mate in mind, so does he.

Rmarriage-contractemember, no question is off-limits. This is the potential father of your future children. Don’t play shy and coy.

In Arabic, this exchange of values and expectations is called the nikahmarriage contract. Think of it as a business deal – both of you must lay your cards on the table. If you don’t like what you’ve seen, you won’t like it after you’re married, either.

 A few questions to get you started:

  • Does he pray regularly?
  • Does he have a short temper?
  • How does he feel about discipline?
  • Is working and/or further education a choice for you to make?
  • What does he expect of you as a wife?
  • What does he think the husband’s role is in household activities, such as cleaning and childcare?

Friends and Family

Most Frequent Problem(s):
Unsolicited, culturally-biased advice
Behavior changes in front of others

Example:
Friend: “You shouldn’t wear your jewelry outside the house. You may invite al ayn (the Evil Eye).”

Family: “You shouldn’t let you daughter play with bicycles. She may get injured and break her virginity.”

Husband: “I can’t clean up the mess in the floor because I can’t let my father see me sweeping.”

Solution:
If there’s one thing my Southern mama taught me, it was always be the gracious hostess.

Elders should be respected, no matter where they come from.

Make your guests feel welcome. Prophet Muhammad (saw) spoke on the importance of honoring one’s guests, equating it with belief in God Almighty and the Last Day.

And don’t argue about opinions.

Your husband’s friends and family come from a variety of backgrounds and cultural influences. If you try to debate each and every difference you have, you’ll never get to experience the true beauty of having a mixed-culture family.

While some opinions may seem illogical or rooted in al-aynsuperstition, many of their habits and beliefs can be traced back centuries – meaning, they’re unfalteringly approved. Therefore, trying to offer logical alternatives won’t work.

The best thing to do is swallow your pride, listen to the advice, and once the advisor is out of the picture, do what you want. As long as the suggestions aren’t haram or harmful, there’s no point getting all anxious and stressed out about receiving them.

As for your husband’s sudden change in personality at the arrival of his family, remind yourself that while he may have made compromises for the betterment of your relationship, his family may not see these changes – or adjustments – as favorable.

So, before the guests arrive, have a heart-to-heart with your partner and decide who will do what when they’re at your home. Is there anything his parents would be upset about if he did in front of them? Is there anything you do that would set off alarms in friends’ minds? Set boundaries before the arrival, so expectations aren’t affected once everybody is all together.

Your Culture vs. My Culture

Most Frequent Problem:
Expecting the wife to abandon her cultural roots to adopt an Arabic/Indo-Pakistani/new lifestyle

Example:
When disagreeing with an opinion: “You’re just saying that because you’re a(n) insert other nationality/culture here.”respect-me

When, in the heat of an argument, yelling: “You have to learn to speak to me with respect!”

When out in public: “You laugh too loud!”

When trying to convince the wife to accept a second wife: “It’s allowed in Islam. If you were a good Muslim, you would be supportive.”

Solution:
Stand up for yourself.

It’s been more than one occasion when I’ve told my own husband, “If you wanted an Arabic wife, you should have married an Arab!”

You may have chosen a spouse from another culture, but that doesn’t mean you wanted to be absorbed into that culture and leave your own.

partyThe “Western” lifestyle gets a bad rap, especially in Eastern circles; however, there are plenty of good and beneficial aspects to it, too. For example, Western women are more likely to be educated and independent. While they wouldn’t mind letting their husbands take care of everything, they have their own ambitions, drive and ability to get ‘er dun, too.

They’re also more patient and forgiving. My husband recently told me that his father said, “You’re lucky you have your wife. If she was any other woman, you’d have been divorced a long time ago.”

I put up with things from my husband that no Arab woman ever would. But I don’t feel taken advantage of. I’m happy and content in my marriage, and while we still hit speed humps occasionally, we work well together.

There was a time when I tried to be the wife he thought he wanted: subservient, catering, and completely affable to any whim. Then I realized I was wasting energy pretending to be a person I wasn’t truly capable of being – and losing my own identity in the process. So, I started becoming more assertive. Standing up for my own rights and wants. unity

And our relationship and marriage has grown stronger because of it. Now, we recognize we have our own identities and, while we complement each other, there’s no need for us to blend homogenously.

And, frankly, that’s the best part of living in an intercultural marriage: creating your own culture!

The Qur’an tells us in Surat Al Baqarah (2:187) that spouses are a “cover for each other” and protect each other from negative temptations and activities. Furthermore, Allah tells us in Surat Al Hujurat (49:13) that He made us different – all of us – so we could connect and learn from one another. Intercultural marriage is a beautiful way to complete this goal!

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