Relationships in Flux (Part 5): Somali Stories
This is part five of a series about true stories of Somalis living in the U.S. and their relationships. The series is part of a book the author is working on titled,“Courtship and Marriage: The Somali Experience in America.” The author has interviewed three dozen people whose names and locations have been changed for privacy reasons. I will let each tell his or her own story.
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After my college graduation, I found myself married. Fortunately, my wife and I had professional jobs, but the biggest challenge we faced was maintaining our marriage. We constantly argued. Our mutual love was still strong, but getting along under one roof was very challenging. No one had prepared us for the notion that love alone is not sufficient for maintaining a happy marriage.
The adage, “You do not know someone until you live with him/her,” proved correct. I was angry, frustrated, and fearful of what the future held for our nascent union. We created controversy out of thin air. Most of our conflicts centered on household chores and money management. I read many books, women’s magazines, and even talked to older friends about how to fix our marriage. I couldn’t consult with my parents because they were never enthusiastic of my “hasty decision” to marry. However, life always has twists and turns.
When I became a naturalized U.S. citizen, I decided to do something for my adopted country—a civic act. I volunteered to be an election worker on Election Day. It was a long day that started at 6 in the morning and lasted until the polls closed at 8 p.m. I served as an assistant to an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hoffmann. They were in their early seventies, amiable, funny, encouraging, generous and very helpful. What struck me the most was their interaction, which was based on love, kindness, caring and respect. They listened to each other attentively with minimum interruption.
During a break, I asked Mr. Hoffmann on what made their 50-year marriage endure. He took me aside and made an audacious claim: “There is nothing special about our marriage.” He continued, “I am no marriage guru and I only know what I do as a husband: Engage in gentle communication.”
“Communication is the key. You have to talk to your wife calmly and gently and never accuse her of anything,” he said. “Always use ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ when discussing contentious matters. In other words, do not be accusatory.”
I left the polling place that night excited about my civic experience, but a bit skeptical of Hoffmann’s marital advice. My marriage continued to be tense and contentious. However, one night I decided to give Hoffmann’s idea a chance. I stopped arguing with my wife and, being the ever inveterate complainer, I tempered my tone and became more positive and supportive. My wife was perplexed. “I am an intuitive: I know something is up,” she said. She suspected I had given up on the marriage and was doing something nefarious. Initially, it was tough for me to maintain the new positive, kinder and gentler approach to our union, and occasionally I would lapse into my old habit of nitpicking.
Through trial and error, however, my wife and I improved our marriage. I listen to her and rarely argue with her. We solve our problems in a way that is based on respect and understanding. We have agreed not to employ the “silent treatment” in resolving conflicts. Yes, we can be angry with each other, but we have vowed to keep our lines of communication open. “Marriage,” as Hoffmann used to say, “involves hard work and constant maintenance.”
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When the past is still present
Getting out of my first marriage was a daunting task. Indeed, it was a vexatious period; an agonizing eight years. The union was punctuated by a rare blend of contradictions: Indifference vs. occasional tenderness; high tension vs. periods of calmness; exciting travels vs. self-imposed home stays; and intense romantic moments vs. times of indifference and loathing.
The marriage produced two children. In reality, the children were our marital glue.
Even though we were separated so many times I lost count, it was always a fluid separation marked by frequent visits from my ex, weekend stay overs, and occasionally attending social functions, such as weddings, as a couple. We gave “separation” a bad name. My ex and I depended on each other exclusively and completely, even when we were separated. Vulnerable people usually return to their comfort zone. It was a tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship.
My ex was my first big heart-throb. After we divorced, he married a woman 12 years his junior. Perhaps I have difficulty accepting my former husband being with another woman.
Okay then, why am I talking about my ex?
Unfortunately, it is because he is still part of my life.
Four years after my divorce, I met a man who was the opposite of my ex, a kinder, caring man. After several months of courtship, we married. Then we had a major problem: He decided to relocate the family to Minnesota, and I utterly opposed it. If I had moved from the state of Washington, where I reside, my boys would have been exclusively raised by my ex because he had — and still have — partial custody of them. My ex was a lousy husband—selfish, volatile, temperamental, and emotionally unavailable—but, in fairness, he has always been a good father.
The boys, 13 and 15, love him. My new husband wanted to move us out of the state because he had a job offer from Minnesota. He already had a professional job in Seattle but had an ulterior motive: He couldn’t stand my ex, a prominent member of our community. We all attended the same mosque, shopped at the same mall, and frequently ran into each other at local parks and restaurants. Most of all, my ex would come to our house every Friday evening, pick up the boys, and then drop them off on Sunday.
What is wrong with our Somali men that they do not take us women seriously? For instance, I had told my husband during our courtship about the vexing issue of the boys’ custody and the fact that I was not allowed, by an order of court, to remove them from Washington. At the time, he seemed understanding and agreeable. Perhaps it was not an issue for him then because he was pursuing me intensely. A year after we married, he started talking about moving to Minnesota. My parents encouraged me to go with him. “The boys will be fine with their father,” my mother would say. “You need to look after yourself.” I couldn’t do it because the children needed their mother as much as they needed their father. My ex had even threatened to take me to Family Court if I moved.
Initially, I was confused and didn’t know what to do. However, after much deliberation, I decided to stay in Seattle. I couldn’t see myself abandoning the boys for a man, any man. They meant the world to me. In a nutshell, I chose my children over love.
My husband moved to Minnesota afterwards, angry and bitter because I had “disobeyed” him. “Follow your husband,” a local imam had admonished me. “You owe it to him.” Of course, we divorced.
Now, after two years, I have curiously asked myself where my former husband is and what he has been doing. Most of all, was he able to leave the past behind without allowing it to define or shackle him in his current life?
The past still haunts me. I am still in Seattle; single yes, but not dead. I may be hopelessly romantic, but I am lucky I still have two beautiful men in my life, my sons. Being single though is hard, but raising boys in America is even harder. Love, after all, can wait.
Hassan M. Abukar is a freelance writer, Sahan Journal contributor, and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .