I never thought I’d get divorced. Hell, I didn’t think I’d face my first divorce at 27, just shy of two years of marriage. Despite knowing it was coming, hearing the words ‘I divorce you’ was still a king-hit straight to a soft and unready belly.
I never had a civil marriage; as far as the Census concerned, I’ve never not been single. I opted for an Islamic marriage, a simple verbal ceremony with our families and a sheikh to witness our union before the eyes of God. In due time, once I’d finished university and we got on our financial feet, we would have had a civil union with a celebrant and a celebration with extended family and friends.
It’s a passage many young Muslim couples opt for. It’s a way to get around the religious and cultural sensitivities of dating; to be able to enjoy a relationship with the blessings of your family, and without community gossip. Because it didn’t come with the pomp and parade of a big wedding, I would often face the exclamation ‘but I didn’t know you got married!’ and I would respond with ‘oh, I just got Islamically married’. Now that I think about it, I don’t think ‘Islamically’ is even a word. But to me, despite using my faith as some justifying factor for it being a small and private affair, I considered myself married in the complete and traditional sense of the word: committed, monogamous, till death do us part and all that.
Before getting married, I reflected on a verse from the Quran, ‘and among His Signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and he put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily, in that are Signs for those who reflect.’ (30:21)
The thing is, we all carry baggage. We drag it like a growing snowball behind us as it picks up more fallen snow and debris. Despite this, a relationship ought to be a place where you can rest, to ‘dwell in tranquillity’. A sense of tranquillity comes from a place of trust, a sense of security. We can be at peace when we feel safe. Relationships are where ‘love and mercy’ are consciously exercised, not left as some taken-for-granted seemingly endless feeling. It takes a lot of effort to have love and to have mercy on your partner when they annoy you, when they hurt you. Mercy is a wide-ranging word and emotion that encompasses compassion, forgiveness and patience. All crucial tools for a relationship to survive the reality of human beings, with all their pettiness and fragilities, coming together in a shared physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological space.
The breakdown of that space is shattering. Whether it is a sudden blow, or a slow crumbling – so many of us scramble to catch the falling bricks and mortar that once seemed so unshakeable. As a young Muslim woman, I was overwhelmed by the humiliation of seeing my marriage start to fall apart within its first year of life. Despite divorce theoretically being something that lacks stigma and is permissible in Islamic law, I couldn’t shake the deep feeling of shame. I entered a rollercoaster of denial and breakdowns; something between a Stepford wife pretending everything is just fine, and a manic depressive. I pulled over in Westfield carparks and sobbed. I dragged myself out of bed for work but couldn’t see the words on the computer screen I was staring at. I prayed. I stopped praying. I went numb. I smiled. I vacated mentally. I saw friends and said barely anything. I saw friends and didn’t stop talking. Yet despite everything I tried, it just kept crumbling until I wasn’t even beside myself with worry anymore – I had disappeared. Then when I went home and saw the faces of my parents, I knew I wasn’t the only one with a broken heart.
I started to try to get used to a new way of being: that is, no longer ‘married’ but ‘divorced’. I learnt to say the word ‘divorce’ without feeling stained. Even now, it still feels like a slick film of sweat after a long hot day, but no number of baths or long hot showers can wash it all off. Only time can do its part, as the days pass and you blur the memories into the past.
Then there is that moment when you realise: I’m okay. I made it. I’m still here. Nothing is more powerful to get to you that moment than the patience, love and care of a strong network of family and friends. Turning back to faith, the verse ‘and part in kindness’ echoed through my head during the process. I held onto my faith as a way to rise above succumbing to the anger. ‘Verily after hardship there is relief’ was an anchor to find the fortitude to keep hope alive, to know that there I would be free of this pain and have a chance to love again.
Every faith, culture, nation and community has its idioms and quotes to hold onto. So you enter a quest to find meaning in the meaningless of divorce, because all you want is an answer to how something that was once so great can end so awfully. Some ancient Greek philosophers viewed relationships as part of the cycle of life: birth, decay and death. A seeming inevitability that our Western romantic ideals contradict with its promises of forever. Yet, amidst all that is the Islamic ideal; that relationships are a struggle, an effort, a space of overcoming ourselves in the constant pursuit of genuinely trying to practise love and mercy. And it recognises that sometimes the most merciful thing is to do… is to let go.
People are human. Divorce is human. Despite your best efforts, your best intentions; sometimes, relationships just break down. Like Sisyphus, you pick up the boulder that’s just crushed you and start pushing back up that mountain all over again, with a little more gentleness, a little more wisdom, and a little more love.