Relationships are the lifeblood of our journey through this world. Good relationships not only can help us navigate through the challenges of this life more easily but they can be fulfilling and as well invigorating. Bad relationships on the other hand can put one’s life dead in its track. Ask a divorced person who has left a married life – or a person who ended up changing his work due to bad relationships – or ask family members devastated and shattered due to family squabbles. They will all attest to the powerful impact of bad relationships in changing the course of one’s life, while leaving them debilitated in the process.
It’s a no-brainer that good relationships provide the energy that blooms our lives. Building and maintaining good relationships is an art as well as a science, the underlying principles of which come together in a mesmerizing way to make it one of the most important subjects for the human species. Whether realized earlier in life or later through heat of experience, one eventually comes to grips with the fact that the principles of relationships must be learned – and when mastered effectively, enables one to use good judgment, to become more empathetic, become more sensitive to human emotions, better understand personalities, and so much more. All of a sudden, life changes – feels less complicated, more fulfilling, and more controlled.
But one wonders why we humans have made such a promising pursuit of building and maintaining superb relationships not only very complex, convoluted and confusing but many of us fail miserably even at the very basics. Even more baffling is that many of us Muslims fail to follow the ready made recipes that Islam provides us along with the living example of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS), who among many other things was a master of human relationships. No wonder that books on relationships sell more than any other specific topic.
So, a review of the basics is in order –
Relationships can be painful –
No one would argue that being in relationships has the potential to cause enormous mental pain and agony. Whether it’s a spouse verbally assaulting the spouse, a child defying parents and family values, friends violating a trust, or a supervisor putting an employee down, these relationship potholes can wreck souls, can cause us to get a heavy heart and a burdened mind, makes us cry, leaves us frustrated and indifferent and at times leaves us wondering about the value of such relationships in the first place. What’s worse is that when we continue to live in such relationships, we rob our lives of the energy and enthusiasm that could have shaped our lives so much differently than what it ultimately becomes.
The “blame game” rules such relationships. One’s ego is the master. People’s self worth is trampled. Others are at fault. Justice is not present. Life does not seem “fair”. One feels victimized. Insensitivity to feelings rules and the emotional roller coaster seems endless.
Such relationships are in need of serious repair.
Relationships can be pleasing and fulfilling –
On the flip side, healthy relationships can be so much rewarding. Ask a parent about how proud they feel to have raised good and respectful children. Ask a husband or wife about the respect they get from each other. Ask fast friends about the trust they have for each other. Ask strong business partners about the respect they have for each other and so on. Love, trust, and respect uplift our souls, make our lives more fulfilling and meaningful, and make us thankful for our relationships.
Such relationships need not just be cherished but more importantly they need to be maintained.
Relationships must be actively managed (build, maintain, and if necessary repair) –
So, how do we manage the pain and pleasure associated with such relationships? It’s actually quite simple – in theory at least. You manage a relationship by actively working on it and by constantly renewing it. If you are even a moderately practicing Muslim, you know how that works. You know that relationship with your Creator is the most important one. Even in those cases, the relationship must be renewed.
Consider the saying of the Prophet (SAWS) who said, “Faith wears out in your heart as clothes wear out, so ask Allah to renew the faith in your hearts.” (narrated by al-Haakim in his Mustadrak and al-Tabaraani in his Mu’jam with a saheeh isnaad).
So, again – you manage relationships by actively working on them. And that means that if you are having challenges with your relationships, you should step out of your “default mode” in how you deal with relationships.
You see, most of us manage relationships in a “default mode”. That’s the mode that we learn and develop subconsciously while growing up. The default mode is the way we are mentally wired to deal with people and relationships in general. The better our relationships were managed at home while growing up, the better our default mode would be and the better we would be to build and maintain good relationships with others, our spouses, and other acquaintances. Growing up while observing families in lousy relationships makes ones default mode develop in the same manner – something that other people can’t live with – unless of course one takes concrete steps to change those learned behaviors. For example, did you know that research has established that most criminals come from broken homes, where they were abused as children while growing up? Although this scary fact applies to only a small fraction of people, it serves to illustrate the point that when unchecked, bad relationships can lead to devastating consequences.
Shifting out of your default mode of dealing with relationships is about a change in attitude toward other people – it’s about a change that others can notice – it’s about expressing your appreciation, and doing things for others. For some of us it’s easy and for some it’s not.
Ideally, one should start learning from early childhood the basics of building and maintaining good relationships. No wonder that a number of schools now have adopted curriculum that teaches building good relationship skills right from pre-school years. In parallel, parents should strive to maintain a healthy social environment at home as well. Although no formal research done on this topic, many observations attest to the fact that unfortunately in most Muslim countries, the awareness for such education is far less than what exists in western societies. That is very unfortunate as the life of the prophet (SAWS) is exemplary in how well he treated people, families, children and encouraged parents to treat children.
Once children are raised in homes where they are taught to respect and manage relationships, it in turn helps them to grow up to be strong individuals as they become adept at building and maintaining very strong relationships with people in all walks of life. Doing so becomes a second nature and helps the person in relationships with family, friends and work. The “default mode” of such people thus turns out to be quite healthy.
Have you ever wondered about what your default mode is in dealing with people? Do your loved ones cherish your behavior or do they run from your verbal assaults? Reflect on this hadith: ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin Al-’As, may Allah be pleased with them, said: A person asked Allah’s Messenger (may peace and blessings be upon him) who among Muslims was better. Upon this (the Holy Prophet) remarked: One from whose hand and tongue Muslims are safe.
So, assess your default mode of dealing with people, families and friends – if you don’t like it and if you believe that your loved ones don’t like it too, may be it’s time to consider making some changes – starting today – starting now!
Once you start making the change, you will notice that it is not rocket science. In fact, most of you exercise those skills in business settings regularly. For example, what will you do to maintain a good business relationship that is very vital for your business and income? More commonly it involves some of the following:
- Being empathetic to your client needs – listening with an open mind and heart
- Being very serious and sincere to eliminate any misunderstandings
- Going of your way to be appreciative of the relationship that you have with them
- Going out of your way to be apologetic
- Always keeping a pleasing and charming attitude
- and so on…
Many of us in our business and professional dealings do the above constantly. The sense of purpose in the need to keep our business going and flourishing, makes us not only do the above but makes many of us come up with the most creative and innovative ways to keep our business partners happy. It’s a no-brainer. It’s common sense.
But not very surprisingly, the same “brain” and “sense” starts to malfunction when it comes to personal relationships within our families. That’s where something gets lost in the process. So, it’s not that we do not know how to manage relationships – we just prioritize things differently and we don’t make the right connections in our minds.
Prioritize your relationships –
Do you know anyone who spends more time strengthening relationships with their friends and business partners than their own families? Does that make sense? Let’s face it – certain relationships are more important than others and therefore deserve more time and effort than others. For example, it just would not make sense for you to hold your friends in high respect while you mistreat your parents. You can’t abandon your own children and be helping other children. Charity always begins at home.
Even in Islam that teaches respect, love, patience and understanding as the cornerstone of all relationships, certain relationships are given more priority over others. There are numerous accounts in the Quran and Hadith about the importance given to certain relations. For example, in a well-known hadith, Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “A man came to the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, who among the people is most deserving of my good companionship?’ He said, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked, ‘Then who?’ He said, ‘Your mother.’ He asked, then who?’ He said, ‘Your mother.’ He asked, ‘Then who?’ He said, ‘Your father.’”
It is also reported, on the authority of Ayesha (R.A.) and Ibn Umar (R.A.) that the messenger of Allah, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said “The Angel Jibra’il (A.S.) counseled me so frequently regarding the rights of the neighbor that I feared, he too would be declared an heir.”
Just because you are “around” your family members more, doesn’t mean that you spend the least amount of time nurturing those relationships.
Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): “Would you then, if you were given the authority, do mischief in the land, and sever your ties of kinship? Such are they whom Allah has cursed, so that He has made them deaf and blinded their sight” [Surah Muhammad 47:22]
And the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “No one who severs the ties of kinship will enter Paradise.” Narrated by Muslim in his Saheeh.
Relationships can be repaired –
Look around you and you won’t have to look far to see a broken home, or a community at odds with itself. Everyone probably knows someone (if not within our own circles) who walks angry at someone, hurt by someone, frustrated with someone, irritated by others, and sick of life in general.
Such relationships that involve people holding grudges against others, accompanied by emotional roller coasters, verbal assaults and emotional outbursts obviously involve a lot of pain and thus need an active reparation process.
More often than not, spousal relationship topics top all other form of relationships that need repair. So, it needs specific mention. How would you classify your relationship with your spouse? Is it bad or routine at best? Once relationships become routine, spouses in a troubled relationship are less forgiving, amplify mistakes, and throw verbal assaults more than they are cheerful to each other. What one spouse does for the other as part of a routine activity of running household errands, working to make a living, raising children, etc. is taken for granted. For example, “appreciation” does not cross the wife’s mind for her husband working hard to make a living and the husband does not see anything extraordinary in the mother keeping the house on track and raising children.
As the focus in such “boring-to-get-worse-soon” relationships shifts from the good to the bad and even more to the ugly, there is a need to break that thinking pattern and to start focusing on the “good”. With time, the tendency is to start ignoring the qualities and instead to focus on the negatives. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “No believing man should hate a believing woman: if he dislikes one of her characteristics, he will like another.” (Reported by Muslim, 36). The prophet (SAWS) also said as narrated by Abu Hurairah: “He who does not thank people, does not thank Allah”. (Ahmad, Tirmidhi)
So, sprinkle a few words of understanding and appreciation in the routine or not so routine relationships and you will see your relationships improve, hearts clamed and souls less jittery. You just can’t repair a relationship without these basics – else, you either get a boring relationship or could be headed for more trouble.
Relationships are defined by a person’s character and mental strength –
A person’s strength in many ways is a reflection of the strength of his or her relationships. A person who is weak succumbs to unbridled emotions, uncontrolled anger and erratic thought processes. These in turn are a perfect recipe for poisoning relationships. Contrary to some misunderstood cultural beliefs, uncontrolled anger and emotional outbursts show a person’s weakness rather than his “manly” attributes. Such a character stems from a person’s upbringing that lacked focus on Islamic values. The truth as Islam teaches us is that a strong person manages his emotions and directs them appropriately to build and manage relationships rather than using them to damage relationships.
To get a glimpse of how anger should be handled, we need to study the life of the prophet. When we study the prophet’s behavior and the behavior of his companions, we will likely understand that verbal assaults are NOT the way to manage anger. But obviously, when we are weak, we succumb to the whims and desires of the untrained mind and in the process unleash such behavior. Abu Hurairah narrated that Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) said: ” The strong man is not the one who is strong in wrestling, but the one who controls himself in anger ” (Bukhari, Muslim).
The ultimate relationships is the one with our Creator –
Finally, let’s not forget that the ultimate relationship that any one of us can have is that with our Creator. Establishing such relationship is the cornerstone of an Islamic faith. Such a relationship also helps fills the gap left out by the anxieties, loneliness, depressions and other emotional roller coasters that one goes through in life.
In a Hadith the Prophet (PBUH) said that Allah said: “..my servant does not come closer to Me with anything more dear to Me than that which I made obligatory upon him. My servant keeps coming closer to Me with more volunteer deeds, until I love him. When I love him, I become His ear by which he hears, his eyes by which he sees, his hand by which he holds and his foot by which he walks. If he asks Me any thing I shall give him. If he seeks My protection I shall grant him My protection… “(Al-Bukhari 6021)
Use good old common sense –
Before closing, we all need to remind ourselves that building and managing healthy relationships and avoiding the potholes of bad relationships involves the use of basic common sense. Stepping away from the heat of the moment – correcting others respectfully without destroying their self worth – disassociating oneself from negative emotions – reflecting on the cause and effect behavior that shapes good and bad relationships, and other such basics can bring about clarity and a change in our attitudes. It can help us break the pattern that we can get repeatedly pulled into. Remember, what Einstein said – “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. If your relationships are bad then change how you are contributing to those relationships. You will be surprised to see how things change.
If we think and reflect, we will begin to get the answers to the common day to day problems that many of us face in our daily lives. We will learn that in close relationships, sometimes love and respect need to supersede the desire to prove oneself right and the other wrong. Some more thinking and reflection will lead us to the fact that a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law relationship can rarely be strong if the man in the middle does not have a good relationship with both. We will learn that children ought to be taught the essentials of relationships early on in their life – something that an Islamic education will teach more than their secular education at school or elsewhere. Thinking and reflection will make it dawn on us that love and respect in most cases needs to be earned by one’s own behavior and not demanded and forced. And the list can go on…
Parting remarks –
Finally, if you think these tips apply to others and not to your situation – think again. The foundation of most of these insights was taught by our Prophet SAWS and he came with practical guidelines for the entire humanity at large. That is where we may need to become strong and change our attitudes.