Advice: Starting Over

Dear Love InshAllah,

I was in a relationship for ten years, engaged for three and married for seven. My husband was older than me and had a very checkered past, which I found attractive when I was younger. But slowly I grew up and he stayed a child.

When we got married he was physically abusive and it took me years to get him to accept it. He then thought that because he accepted that it was abuse, that he wasn’t doing it any more and when I was offer him detailed evidence, he started to tell me I was paranoid and crazy, just a bitchy feminist. He started to realize I am smarter than him as well, and while the physical abuse declined, the psychological abuse escalated.

Just before Ramadan, I finally had the courage to end it. I fell out of love with him a long time ago and even started to fantasize about killing him. I hated sex, and was in a constant state of misery that I started taking out on everyone around me. When it finally ended I felt like I had been given a second chance at life.

I am 28 and starting over, but discouraged because I did love being married, and even though my marriage was bad, I am so lonely. I was with him for my entire adult life so far, and I come from a background of abuse and illness, my marriage took a heavy toll on my finances, and as a Muslim (since I was 13) I am progressive, an LGBTQ ally, and a critical theologian. I am very smart and have a lot of life experience, and I don’t feel like I have a problem with confidence, but I am afraid I won’t be able to find a man that would want someone like me.

I know that I need time to recover, it has been two months, thankfully I have no children, but what I feel and what I know can’t agree. I find myself fixating on sex most of all, but in general just feel so alone. I was so unhappy for so long, and I just want to move on and restart my life, but I am also afraid that I won’t be able to find anyone who wants a woman with a past and scars, which are ugly on the surface, but can create something beautiful. I am afraid there aren’t any good men. That I will have to somehow stay unhappy, unfulfilled, because that’s just the way life is. I don’t feel it is in my nature to be alone. I know I need time, and that I will change – I have changed so much in the past two months – and can get my life in order.

But what if my fears are right, and what if that isn’t enough, and how do I even make it that far?

Sincerely,
Starting Over

Shy Desi Boy replies:

Since we started this advice column a few months ago, one of the reoccurring themes I see again and again from female advice seekers is this: I have a past—will a partner still want me?

Much of this fault lies in the way men, and not just Muslim men, are raised to desire girls who are virgins. Whereas as man’s past misdeeds may not taint his name when he wants to get married, a woman who has had sexual relations is made to feel ashamed, inadequate, less desirous. I am sorry many men are like this and I am sorry that too often men use the excuses of culture or religion or whatever to justify what is essentially a misogynist position. I am also sorry that too many man do not take the time to understand what abuse does to a woman.

Because let’s face it: most men are crappy but there are some who are not and you will eventually meet someone who desires you, who treats you with the respect you deserve, and who will please you in every way. But right now I am not concerned about you meeting a partner. I am concerned with you.

You have been in an abusive relationship and the most important thing is to take care of yourself. I spoke with a licensed therapist about your question and she said that physical and emotional abuse breaks a person down to the point where they feel useless. Often they seek comfort in a partner but this often leads to more abuse. The most thing is to find strength within yourself before you begin another relationship.

I know these words are much easier to type than to do—I have never been in an abusive relationship and I cannot imagine how painful this must be for you. I do know from watching many people I love suffer through emotional abuse that the most important thing to do is to take time to heal.

Spend time on your own, work out, enjoy time with friends, consider seeing a therapist, focus on your faith, pick up a hobby travel—these are things that have helped my friends move on from their unhealthy relationships. But rarely have I seen a person leave an unhealthy relationship and enter a healthy relationship right away. You need time to recalibrate, to refocus and to recover from the abuse you suffered.

Finding another partner should be the least of your worries. You are young and you have many years ahead. The best thing we can give to the people we love, and the people we marry, is our complete selves. Abuse breaks a person into pieces and it is such a shame that we live in a society that often trivializes what abuses does to a person, especially to a woman. This is your time—to grow, to heal, and to love yourself. Reclaim this time and prolong it if you can—your heart deserves this time and I wish you my best.

Miss Sunshine replies:

Ending a marriage is rarely easy, and the costs can often be high. It is dispiriting to go through that kind of struggle only to find yourself in such a difficult place. My fear for you is that your loneliness and fear of rejection may lead you to accepting a dangerous or unfulfilling relationship simply because it’s available. I know no one really wants to hear this advice, but it’s given so often because it is so very valuable. Take time to heal, to reflect, to fill your cup of self love before you try to start again.

As a 28-year-old human being, having a “past” is inevitable. You’ve lived, and the wisdom you’ve gained from your experiences is something to be treasured. As a 28-year-old human being, you also have a future, one which can only be enriched by the experience you’ve gained in how to love someone else, and how to love yourself. You’re not scarred or damaged; you are a woman with real life experience.

Leaving your abusive marriage took courage. It was a beautiful act of self love. I urge you to continue along that road. It’s difficult, even lonely at times, but the rewards last a lifetime. In the meantime, loneliness is a real problem that should be taken seriously. If you do not have a support network, now is the time to focus on building one. The desire for connection can be fulfilled through friendships, family, spirituality, creative pursuits, and meaningful work. I recommend that you actually sit down and write out a game plan for how you will meet your needs. If you already have supportive friends and/or family, reach out to them. Lean on them more. I have been in the position of having to rebuild myself from scratch. I know the struggles, the self-doubt, the fear of being too needy with those who love you. Do it anyway. These things don’t provide sex, but they can ease loneliness and be a consistent reminder of how wonderful and worthy you are.

I also highly recommend that you see a therapist if you’re not already seeing one. A therapist can help you work through the worst times while you’re rebuilding your life. You mention illness and abuse in your family history. A therapist can also help you work recover, and understand they myriad ways your family history may creep in and influence your romantic life. Please know that you’re not alone. I know so many Muslim women–myself included– whose stories mirror yours.

Lastly, one thing that has helped me through the most difficult moments in rebuilding my life is the reminder that the world is very large, and there are many ways to live well. There are plenty of smart, kind, progressive men of faith. They are men who, like you, have lived. Loneliness and fear can cloud our vision, and lead us to the very places we feared in the first place. If you take the time to truly allow yourself to heal and grow, I think it may be surprisingly easy to find the kind of love you seek.

I wish you the best.


4 Comments on “Advice: Starting Over”

  1. Djanet says:

    “Don’t worry that your life is turning upside down.
    How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

    Rumi

  2. JC says:

    Mashallah, very good advice, particularly from MissSunshine, and even ShyDesiBoy makes a good point – focus on yourself. Remember that not only are all good things that happen to us from Allah (swt), but even hardships are from Him as a source of testing you, giving you an opportunity to make a change, giving you a chance to gain more hasanat and barakah by doing the right thing – turning toward Allah (swt). Allah (swt) has promised us in the Qur’an that he will test us with hardships, death, poverty, pain and difficulty. And the only way to succeed in these tests is to turn to Him, remember Him, increase your ibadah, learn more about your deen, deepen and strengthen your imaan. Spend time improving yourself and your relationship with the Lord. If it’s not too much of a hardship, find some classes, through groups like Bayyinah (Nouman Ali Khan’s organization in Texas), Al Madinah Foundation (east coast), Al Maghrib Foundation (east coast), Zaytuna College (Bay Area, CA), etc. where you can really delve into aspects of spirituality that will help bring you to a level of fulfillment with your faith and open doors of friendship with others. One idea that I HIGHLY recommend: go the Rihla (deenintensive.org) if you are able – 21 days with Sh. Hamza Yusuf and other amazing scholars, which, when you’re done, you will feel refreshed, amazed, and almost re-born. Spend time learning the Qur’an, hadith, read about fiqh, shariah, seerah, the Prophet’s (SAWS) companions, etc. Participate in your local masjid’s programming, including as a volunteer – particularly the youth programs. They always need good mentors, and you may find a wonderful opportunity in a nurturing and healthy environment. Immerse yourself in these opportunities, and you will find not only an amazing experience, but your love of Allah (swt) and His Rasul (SAWS) will fill that void you are feeling now. If you ever feel lonely, do your Wudu and pray some Nafl prayers. Read some Qur’an. Open up a Seerah book and lose yourself in the past for a while, just as you would in a good novel. The more you try to come closer to Allah (Swt) the more HE will get closer to you, and, as the music group Native Deen’s song says, you will notice that “with Allah I can never be lonely.”

    As to your “past” – remember that your “past” was a legitimate past – it was in the bonds of your marriage. No one can or should hold that against you. ShyDesiBoy feels that there is a double standard that is critical of women with a “past” (and he’s NOT referring to a past within the marriage relationship – he’s talking about premarital relations), while being accepting of such a similar “past” of men. In my experience, this couldn’t be farther from the truth – most people are critical of BOTH women AND men with a pre- or extra-marital “past”. But if your “past” is that you had a very rocky, abusive and painful marriage, that cannot be criticized. The fact that you finally ended it, stood up for yourself, and took control of your life should be commended. Women who lived their lives following the rules are considered honorable, and not looked down upon, because they did everything right. Only those with a chip on their shoulder would feel that a divorced sister is “damaged goods” and you’ll be able to identify them easily, and avoid them.

    There ARE other older unmarried men, some who are amazing, some who are less than amazing, and some who are divorced, who are also amazing, Mashallah. But as everyone mentioned, you needn’t focus on this yet – focus on yourself and filling your “unfulfilled” part of life with rewarding, educational and spiritual pursuits. And, when the time is right, inshallah, you may just find the perfect, loving, caring, respectful future husband in these very same activities.

  3. Dahlia Eissa says:

    dear starting over,

    you are incredibly brave to post your innermost thoughts and feelings online and i can assure you you are not alone.

    what i am reading throughout your post is a crisis in confidence. you are definitely smart, savvy, and an aware and forward-thinking person. you might also have many academic and professional achievements and you may display confidence in many realms in your life, but your marriage has taken a great toll on your life and your sense of confidence that anyone would “want” you. and you are right – this takes a lot of time to heal, and unlike a broken arm where someone tells you you have been injured and you will need to recover from something obvious to those around you, an emotional injury is not always obvious to everyone around you. and if your confidence has been shaken, you often do not feel entitled to take time to heal. just like your husband made you feel, recognizing an emotional reaction to something may make you feel as though you are being unreasonable and irrational. but treat your injury as you would treat a broken arm – not something that you can just get over with a little prozac, maybelline and oprah. this is the disconnect between what you “feel” and what you “know.” you “know” you are worthy, but you don’t “feel” it. Your heart and your head are not in the same place right now. that is the crisis of confidence. and it is not always tackled by training your heart to be aligned with your head. sometimes it is tackled by training your head to be more aligned with your heart. this has been my biggest challenge in life. because my life experiences have been similar to yours.

    i was also in a relationship where my husband was older & would treat me as though i was infantile, irrational and unreasonable whenever i expressed any anger, frustration or sadness. essentially any negative emotion and the display of it was attacked as me being a woman with “problems.” this treatment was not new to me as i had grown up in an environment where this was men’s modus operandi when it came to “difficult” or “uncooperative” women. essentially “feeling” women. so it was no surprise, despite my intellectual commitment to myself to avoid a relationship with a “partner” that replicated this treatment, that i was emotionally drawn to someone who would find my weaknesses and exploit them to delegitimize my right to express my feelings. i wasn’t physically abused, but my story has a long history and it took what feels like a lifetime to realize what i had been accustomed to. i’m sharing my story here in case you want to read it –

    http://dahliatellingtales.wordpress.com/category/some-thoughts-on/its-no-different/

    your feelings are integral to who you are, including your sexual feelings. please don’t feel as though because you are intelligent and capable, you should be able to overcome this quickly. and you are so young. you have so much time to rediscover yourself. take that time. leave yourself open to romance, but also take time to make friendships and do things that bring joy to your life. you have to take time to have fun because fun is what gets those endorphins pumping so you can start feeling good about yourself.

    you don’t have a “past” and your scars are not “ugly.” you might feel as though they are baggage to take into a new relationship, but those feelings wane with time. you’ve come a long way. as you said, you’ve come a long way. and you will go further and further. just do not legitimize your right to time to heal and take very, very good care of yourself. that is the best way to attract someone wonderful to your life. someone who sees how well you treat yourself will realize that that is the only way he can treat you.

    best of luck,

    dahlia.