Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Not only in fairy tales?

Riham Adel outlines helpful strategies for building and deepening relationships

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"Feelings of self-worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible -- the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family." These words of Virginia Satir show that marriage partners can achieve a strong bond if they realise how to work on their relationship and keep it from going cold.

Nothing is comparable to having a stable and strong relationship with your partner, according to psychiatrist Ayman Ammar. Such relationships can help minimise the stress of life and strengthen the ability to live happily and safely. "If we understand the differences between the sexes properly, many of our conflicts will disappear," he says.

Many couples who have realised the value of forgiveness in marriage have achieved a faithful and successful relationship. "I believe that accepting your partner as he/she is is the most significant factor that adds depth and strength to a relationship," says 40-year-old sociologist Mamdouh Abdallah.

He met his present wife 10 years ago after a previous marriage ended in divorce. "I wasn't able to give or sacrifice until I met my new wife," Abdallah said, who now works in Saudi Arabia. His present wife also accepted his character with all its contradictions and didn't try to change him. "Her temper and tranquility attracted me and made me willing to get married again and try to enjoy life together."

Abdallah appreciates not being criticised by his wife. "She has her own smart way of dealing with me, and when I am on the wrong track she is able to pull me back by her kindness and flexibility," he said.

Housewife Nermeen Zohni believes that being criticised can spoil a marriage, and that genuine friendship can only be achieved when the man feels safe to confess his wrong decisions or actions to his wife. "My husband and I have attained a deeper level of intimacy, and I always try to rise above the differences between us," Zohni says.

She and her husband consider respect, forgiveness, flexibility and trust to be the four main factors for building a strong relationship, adding that as they have grown older together their love has changed into a deeper and stronger bond. Neither of them sets out to hurt the other, and they are able to adapt and justify their differences. "It's the same love we shared from day one, but deeper," Zohni says.

Reading helped Zohni to understand women-men relationships better. "Through my reading, I learned how to help my husband open up to me." For her, gaining her husband's friendship was the most important thing. "Since we've opened up to each other, the barriers have disappeared. Because I feel safe no matter what I do, I feel respected and appreciated," she adds.

According to Ammar, love goes through stages. When a couple first meets they exert the maximum effort to please each other. When they get married, that effort declines and conflicts may occur, since marriage was their only goal. In his professional role, Ammar advises his patients never to take their feelings for granted, or love will gradually disappear. "That's why I stress the phrase 'for better or worse, but never for granted,'" he says.

In his view, men are "hunters", and they enjoy the process of hunting. Once they have got their "prey", however, they can lose excitement and get bored. As a result, women should understand this aspect of men's natures and try to feed their hunting nature. Ammar says that many of the differences between men and women can be overcome if both sides are willing to recognise the value of having a strong relationship. "It is a game, and yes, smart women always win. But if both sides can acknowledge how differently they act and react, they will be able to achieve a high level of understanding."

Another story provides testimony of another couple's ability to overcome their differences and acknowledge the value of a lasting relationship. The story began 37 years ago when they first met and fell in love, even though when the couple thought about marriage they had to face some obstacles.

"I was a new graduate and responsible for my widowed mother and younger sister, and I couldn't get married and leave them," said Shukri Ali, who runs a private business. He had to postpone marriage as a result, though two years later Ali's sister finished her university studies and it was time to decide what the couple was going to do.

"Although Ali's responsibilities towards his family deepened my feelings and respect for him, I couldn't wait until his sister got married. I had no choice but to withdraw from the relationship," said Ali's wife, Soad Hassanein, a marketing manager in the private sector. Ali said that as much as her decision caused him pain, he also respected her for it. "However, I couldn't bear her absence, and I went to see her father two weeks afterwards," he added.

Fortunately, Hassanein's family were understanding and supportive of Ali's situation, and her father suggested that the couple live with his family after their marriage. "I will always remember that my wife helped me to take good care of my family, and her support gave me the chance to be a successful businessman. When stability and understanding are achieved between spouses, the man is more able to concentrate on his work and build up his career. I owe my success to my wife," Ali adds.

Hassanein believes that what strengthened their bond and deepened her commitment to her husband was the appreciation she got from him. "He never forgets to say thank you when he needs to," she says, adding that Ali has been smart enough to know that she sometimes needs some space away from home, especially at weekends. The couple said that kindness and mutual support and understanding have helped them to get along, allowing a deeper level of communication.

"When a woman feels that her husband is making the maximum effort to please her and the kids, she becomes more confident and does her best to please him in return." However, in order for relationships to last, hard work can be in order, though Ammar says that it is never too late to start working and that this will be reflected in the relationship. He has some tips that may help to strengthen relationships:

- Remember that partnership is not ownership, and you should not make your partner feel trapped, since if you do you risk losing him or her. Always give your partner space to allow the relationship to work.

- When a couple starts to fight after having had an amicable relationship, this is a sign for both partners that the time has come to evaluate their actions and reactions. Understanding how the different sexes are can help to alter expectations that lead to more fights and conflicts.

- Forgiveness is also important, but it cannot be achieved unless you stop reminding your partner of his or her faults. Criticism leads spouses to grow apart. Be smart in expressing your opinions, and attain a level of sharing that doesn't have to do with words. Trying to see the good in different points of view can help the spouses to get closer to each other.

- Relationships based on trust, respect, understanding and flexibility are the most successful, and these values should be sought and strengthened. Judgements should never be based on negative feelings, as one partner is not responsible for what the other may feel. Patience is the watchword here.

- A man should be given his freedom, which is a sure-fire way of gaining his friendship. If a wife learns how to give her partner the credit he needs, this can help to pave the way to a strong relationship.

- Women should also realise that actions speak louder than words. They should not nag or complain, since it is unlikely they will be listened to. Women should also avoid demanding romance: a balance between romantic and fun activities can be the best way not to get bored.

- If a man is inexpressive, this does not necessarily mean that he no longer has feelings. It may just mean that he needs time for himself. Men express their feelings differently from women, and they may not be able to concentrate on two issues at the same time.

- Blaming a man is the fastest way to lose him. Men hate being blamed even when they are wrong. Women should be smart enough to make men realise their faults on their own, while letting them think they are the ones in control. When a woman blames her partner, he can easily get the message that he is "not man enough".

- A woman should also never be taken for granted. There is a big difference between the choice and the need to be with a man. A proverb says that "men love through their eyes, and women love through their ears." Be in good shape, and never treat a man as if he were your son. Stop mothering him and be his partner instead.

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