I recently, against my better judgement, became embroiled in a family conflict and it took a toll on my mental wellbeing. I started feeling anxious, I became withdrawn, I struggled to eat and I wanted to cut off. Unfortunately it’s not an option amidst immediate family.
It got me thinking about the emotional impact conflicts have within the family unit and how it can, if we are not more grounded, affect our wellbeing and also damage us going forward.
My work as an Aafiyah Practitioner, running a wellbeing clinic, has people from all walks of life come for various reasons. But most of the trauma, the hurt, the damaging patterns, comes from family conflict.
Whether minor or major, it is still a cause for concern within our community, especially as Muslims, how many families are breaking or no longer living together in peace. In the next few articles I am, InshaAllah, looking to explore the family dynamics and how dysfunction, conflict and feuds affect emotions and how we can better equip ourselves mentally to maintain ties and have a higher tolerance and resilience to these matters in a way that is aligned with our faith and does not damage us mentally.
The first kind of conflict I’ll be addressing is the conflict that happens between parents; mother & father. I recently had a mother reach out, her two younger boys were becoming increasingly hostile towards her, they were bickering and defying her every day. They spoke ill towards her. She and husband had hit a rough year in their marriage and the boys who had no other outlet for their uncertainty, projected their fear onto Mum. They sensed her anxiety, hostility and increasing unhappiness with the marriage. Dad had been trying, including getting help managing his emotions and was determined to not fight with the kids present but because the boys were around mum most days, they saw her becoming increasingly stressed, unhappy and emotionally absent. When mum reached out, it wasn’t because of the marriage. She reached out because her boys were showing signs of going wayward. She did not want to admit she was having issues in the marriage and that they were mainly to do with her past behaviours.
It works both ways; children can play up whether it’s dad causing conflicting or mum or both. And it’s not ‘playing up’ It’s a child feeling scared, anxious and worried. I remember that with my ex-husband, his parents had no qualms being openly hostile towards me and also having emotionally charged conversations in front of the children. This caused my eldest to witness screaming, shouting, and an unhealthy family environment. He started wetting the bed around this time and developed severe eczema.
The conflict between mother and father can happen over so many things:
I wish to state from the onset that any form of abuse is unacceptable and will affect the child, not just at the time but also in years to come. It is in both parents’ and child’s best interests to work peacefully together or dissolve the marriage fairly. However I will explore this later on in the series.
We know common disagreements can become big to the extent that neither party is able to contain their emotions nor keep the children from getting hurt. This is where therapy is especially useful. Do not expect a resolution from therapy to the conflict, rather, it is a safe place for you both to neutralise your emotions so you can work together and go forward. Simple exercises that help you build trust together work really well.
A big one, especially in financially stressful times, such as now. With everything on the increase such as energy bills, rent & mortgages, including the basics such as food, many couples are working extra hours or an additional job to make just the bare minimum. This leaves little or no time for the basic wellbeing things and adds an extra ‘busy-ness’ to the mind. An overworked body seldom has the capacity to fulfil someone else’s love tank and so problems start piling up, connectivity is lost, and unity disappears.
Whilst it’s not always feasible to invest in therapy, it is free and sometimes more beneficial to make sure the basics in self care; healthy food, good sleep, exercise and prayer are a good place to start – are on point. Remember these cannot be replaced by any amount of wellbeing sessions.
Treat each other and appreciate each other; the small acts of love can replace an expensive gesture or meal out.
This is still, sadly, one of the biggest issues within our community. With horror stories from past and present, people go into marriage expecting the worse from their in-laws. Boundaries are breached on both sides and it is devastating to see that two people who took their Nikaah so seriously, are torn apart from sabotaging patterns from both themselves and in-laws.
Let us not forget the emotional impact it has on the marriage and the two people first and foremost. When there are emotions running high in a family unit, whether they are living together or not, the first thing you can do is take care of your wellbeing. You cannot think clearly from an empty vessel. When you are grounded, striving in the path of Allah swt, controlling negativity and thinking calmly, then you are more likely to be responding fairly and not from a place of hurt or manipulation.
I had a couple come in where they were both very much in love, with the same child rearing ideals and morals. But the mother in law was adamant that things were done her way. Couple this with the constant berating of her daughter in law for being from a different country, this couple stood no chance; the son listened wholly to the mum and eventually classed his wife as selfish, lazy and purely in the marriage for her own gains. Heartbroken and abused, the wife came to me for a solution from the degradation. I couldn’t tell her a solution, so instead worked on her wellbeing and healing from any past events that clouded her current judgment. In a few months time, she messaged me to say she had left the marriage as she could no longer be a party to the mother in law manipulating her son into hating her. The sessions had taught her that she could not stop what they were doing to her, but she could care for her wellbeing and her children enough to extract herself from this toxic situation of six years and instead focus on establishing an amicable relationship with her now ex husband outside of the marriage for the sake of her children.
For a while, my client’s children were distressed. From seeing their dad everyday to seeing him a few hours every day, was obviously distressing. But the client kept on top of her self care. She even limited time with her own family so they could not influence her decisions or fill her children with negativity. In an ideal world, if everyone behaved this way, it would make break ups so much more respectful. But now, we are fuelled by hate and we lose sight of many Sunnah teachings. We also forget that Allah SWT loves those who are fair and just in their interactions and behaviour.
‘Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom & fair preaching & reason with them in the better way. Indeed your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path and He is best aware of those who are rightly guided.’
And if you punish an enemy, then punish with the equivalent of that with which you were harmed. But if you endure patiently, verily it is better for those are patient.’
The Quran; 16:125-126 Surah an-Nahl.
The purpose of wellbeing sessions, self care and love is not to harden your heart against those who do not treat you with such, but to soften your own approach towards yourself and recognise what is good for you and what is not. In cases where there is abuse mentally, physically, sexually and emotionally, it is best to leave. You cannot heal that circle or even the wound left by their negative behaviour, but you can heal yourself with respect and care for your journey.
And this is the absolute crux of family conflict and the emotional conflict amidst in laws. How they treat you is a reflection of themselves. Truthfully, it was never about you, but what you allow. If you come from a fractured past, they will sense that vulnerability and exploit it. If you come with a strong mindset, they know their boundaries, consequence and will mind themselves.
One of the things I disagreed on in my marriage and also with my parents, was child rearing. The female counterparts in my immediate family were not overly supportive of me pursuing education as a mum. I was often told that I needed to spend time with my children and the time to pursue my interests was long gone.
They weren’t wrong, but there was no pressure on the men to engage with their children. In fact, I come from a long line of emotionally and physically absent men; grandparents, parents and siblings. It is not a surprise that I do not have a great relationship with my own father; whilst kind and hardworking, he was very busy engaging in social circles and I knew that his family back home and his friends took precedence over me.
I saw patterns in child rearing in both my ex and second husband. My second husband struggled connecting with my children and even his own; he took every refusal to cooperate as a means of not being liked. My ex had a militant upbringing in a misogynistic home where females were reared by mothers and boys by overbearing fathers and that a woman’s place was to remain quiet. So when I refused to let that become normal in my own household, it led to a lot of conflict.
The impact on my children was far greater than the impact on me; they did not trust either male
figure to help them for anything. This actually caused a strain on me, working full time, studying and all the responsibilities that went with being a mother, I was constantly being on call with the children, with not a moments break. It made me resent my partner, and also everything became emotionally charged. Which in turn affected the children and this affected me more adding to my mum guilt. My husband and I then sat to discuss parenting and he asked me to let go of my belief that they needed me all the time, and I asked him to touch base often and run things by me until I knew he was doing ok. Now we have balance and all children trust us both because we work together. It’s not perfect but we’re consistent and parallel.
In the next article, I hope to explore the other kind of conflicts faced by parents/couples. In the meantime, I hope you’ve found this useful.
Lastly, I say this seeing the different routes my clients have taken during moments of conflicts, take time to H E A L. When a setback happens, become mindful as to which eyes you’re seeing the setback with and think and then respond. Think about the consequences when dealing with conflict, what is easiest isn’t always best, and what is right isn’t always easy, but with acting with mind and consideration and not becoming like the people who cause conflict, there is much Baraqah in our interactions, which we will be held accountable for on the Final Day. Remember to stay on top of your self care in all conflicts and control your emotions and thoughts rather than letting them control you.
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