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Taking A Growth-Focused Approach To Relationships



This is an excerpt from a book titled “Nur- How to Live a Life Worth Living!”, dedicated to the author’s own daughter.

Since creation, humans have been a social and inter-dependent species. Human relationships typically involve spouses, parents, relatives, siblings, friendships, neighbors, religious/spiritual authorities, as well as teachers, business partners, colleagues, community leaders, etc. While some relationships are not of our choosing (parents, siblings), others (such as friendships, doctors, and spouses) are. Wholesome healthy human relationships are a necessity in helping you in your religious/spiritual maturity. In Islam, this stage of mutaminna is to feel a closeness to God; an inward peace and calmness, or at least to have moments or experiences of being at one and fully present to the Divine reality.

This does not need to happen at the exclusion of maintaining healthy human relationships, however. Finding human connection in a traditional relationship via face-to-face contact should always take precedence. Apart from the value of human touch and non-verbal communication, there is value in the ancient adage that the eyes are receivers and transmitters of truths. Creating a rich social environment with relationships that are real, truthful, joyful, meaningful, authentic, uplifting, and empathic, is what we all should aim to attain.

The Changing Face of Traditional Relationships

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Relationship norms are essentially changing owing to the breakdown of traditional social systems over time, increasing nomadic lifestyle trends, forced displacement, changing technologies, impact of global pandemic, etc. Soft skills/people skills or relational intelligence (RI) is gaining attention in the face of a quickly evolving virtual world.

Relational intelligence encompasses both emotional and ethical intelligence, and generally implies that highly self-aware and psychologically mature people flourish in building relationships in their personal and professional lives. We are attached to relationships in our physical location and relationships in the virtual world. Online communities and relationships can be a wonderful thing, but the gains and harms with both traditionally physical and online relationships are well researched and documented.

Online public relationships can cause havoc on the emotional and social development of people, especially teenagers and young adults. Growth means allowing for mistakes and development to be made in the privacy of a relationship without the shame and pressure to conform that occurs on public social media platforms. Conversations online are fraught with increasing intolerance and harms, more than ever before. Big technology companies and many media outlets are designed to produce an outrage culture where civility is seen as a weakness. Moreover, the over-reliance on emailing and texting in service sectors is showing the ugly face of dehumanization.

On the other hand, physical relationships and communities force you to adjust and learn to communicate and live. Personally, I understand the necessity of this acutely while having lived in Algeria for over a decade; a country in many ways lagging in virtual connections. In the past, a whole village or community was invested in raising a child into adulthood and meeting their needs for growth. Nowadays, due to the changing faces of these social systems, ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasis on individualism, and sophisticated technologies, people are seeking connections and psychological and religious/spiritual maturity from different places of their own choosing; like the workplace, telemedicine, teletherapy, and online platforms like Google, Facebook or Metaverse, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc.

The whole artificial intelligence (AI) discussion is very interesting especially in the realm of human relationships. Currently, AI is not on par with RI, and so, the question of human agency should always be included in future AI endeavors. There is a need for you to seek human relationships as models in the era you are living as well as turn to better understand the type of relationships that existed in the time of our Noble Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

Nur, these days you are freer for individual pursuits and feel confident in your opinions, but you may struggle with a sense of connection or belonging because the changing structures of communities and its norms. Loneliness and isolation are prevalent and in some countries at epidemic proportions, as is anxiety and uncertainty. In this so-called progressive and free world where personal happiness takes precedence over collective cultural values, the grass is not always greener elsewhere. You will need to learn to straddle or adjust to a world of contradictory needs and realities when it comes to relationships. An agile approach between togetherness and separateness, security and adventure/exploration, stability and change, chaos and rigidity, past and future, dependency and self-reliance1Perel, E. (2019). ‘Famed relationship therapist Esther Perel gives advice on intimacy, careers, and self- improvement’. YouTube, and God and nafs/ego, will help you in your life pursuits.

The Hidden Dimensions in Interpersonal Relationships

Ensure the you are available and open in a relationship with the view towards collaboration and growth. There are also many well-meaning men who lack the emotional intelligence and so, do support to lift them up in your relationships. According to a renowned psychologist Howard Markman2Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass., there are hidden dimensions inter-playing in all interpersonal relationships. These are:

  1. power and control
  2. care and closeness, and
  3. respect and recognition.

These three clusters predominately trigger arguments and conflicts in all interpersonal relationships if they are not resolved at an intrapersonal dimension while working on your relationship with the self being a precursor. Every physical relationship deals with ambiguity and nuanced experiences. The way you treat people will show you who you are right now, and if there are unresolved, usually from early life experiences they will play out in adulthood. As you mature physically and emotionally, learn to watch and listen more closely before you arrive quickly at judgments about others and their intentions. Just as the title of this book, a life worth living is when our relationships need to be purposeful, provide fulfillment, opportunities to learn about yourself and the other person/s, a sounding board for processing uncomfortable emotions and experiences, based on values like trust, honesty, love, etc.

Whether you are taking care of your loved ones, vulnerable people in the community, raising your children, looking after your local surroundings, nature and animals, all these things provide a deep sense of wellbeing and joy. Personally, my awareness and healing from past traumas have been important in ensuring my offspring are not impacted negatively. For me, parental protective factors are to ensure my children know how to live and become self-sufficient for when I am no longer alive. So, this book is in a way an example of a mother-child relationship. My relationship with my daughter has been the rear-view mirror to owning and transforming maladaptive behaviors in my pursuit to better parenting.

Growth and Maturation

A psychologically underdeveloped or immature person is capable of functioning in the world, gain employment, and outwardly appear to be well. These people really believe they are good law-abiding citizens, but if you look closely their relationships tell a different story. Our early life histories create vulnerabilities and strengths, but as adults these negative experiences do not need to define our future relationships.

So generally, what does growth and maturation in relationships look like? As a simple guide ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are you finding or creating joyful moments or experiences in the relationship?
  2. Is your reality being validated and respected?
  3. Are you thriving?
  4. Are you learning and accepting each other’s vulnerabilities and strengths?
  5. Are you able to observe personal psychological and religious/spiritual growth?
  6. Is your nafs or ego becoming quiet and humble?
  7. Are you able to feel love and warmth in your heart when meditating, talking about, or worshipping God?
  8. Can you accept that there are no guarantees in life?

Religious/Spiritual Abuse

By and large human beings have the capacity and wish for growth in all three dimensions of relationships: relationship with God, Higher Order; relationship with self; and relationship with people. However, a caveat that cannot be ignored which is the growing role of narcissism in relational and religious/spiritual abuse. Just because someone is family and that Islam encourages not to sever family ties, does not give them a license to abuse, control, dismiss, manipulate, and traumatize family members. Narcissistic abuse can often be seen or clothed in different cultures as matriarchy, patriarchy, sexism, or just how things have always been done. Even outside family relationships, we are constantly being told to just think positively which is also a form of mental control. Grief, trauma, betrayal, hurt are emotional experiences that need to be processed. Lack of empathy which is a narcissistic trait can come from even well-intentioned people.

Spiritual abusers whether they are in the form of Sheikhs, Imams, Directors of religious non-profit organizations, social media influencers, performed Hajj repeatedly, spiritual teachers, or charlatans, appear to have an interesting set of behaviors that mimic narcissism that is worthy of further understanding and discussion. Spiritual abusers consider themselves as unique, special, godly, entitled, self-righteous, worthy of adulation and praise, superior, with a tendency to twist, ignore, and flaunt divine principles to their advantage. A variation of these spiritual abusers pretend to be sincere and empathic to other people’s struggles and suffering. These people may also use the guise of spirituality to shield them from criticism, impress others, and make them feel wise. The trickery of a narcissistic religious/spiritual abuser seems to come from iblis or the devil’s playbook. Leading mankind astray from God was the religious sin from the story Adam and Eve. It seems these days iblis or devil has deputized select human beings of authority or influence to continue his work in more evolved and sophisticated ways. From a psychological perspective it is important to learn the traits of narcissism in order to identify them whether in your home, school, workplace, mosque, or religious gathering. It is also important to be aware of the enablers or bystanders in these places who justify and rationalize abuse.

Religious leaders, preachers, religious/spiritual practitioners, psychologists and all mental health practitioners also need to do a better job at being accessible to people, a stronger deliberate cohesiveness between faith leaders/practitioners and psychologists/mental health practitioners to counteract narcissism and misinformation. Human curiosity is irreplaceable and faith is internal, mysterious, spiritual, private, and ineffable. When religious/spiritual authority is predicated on the level of Islamic knowledge and geopolitical allegiances, then it fosters a sense of arrogance and certainty. Certainty is essentially the enemy of faith and spirituality. Look to human role models of religious/spiritual maturity, and the work done on their psychological maturity. The results of these efforts will be apparent in the quality of your relationships with others. Regardless if you are a puritan, religionist, traditionalist, moderate, or liberal, you must ask yourself sincerely have I matured psychologically, and has my understanding of the world evolved? Make sure your psychological defense mechanisms do not pass for spiritual experiences and connections. One comes from the divine realm; the other comes from the psychological realm. Can mental health practitioners such as psychologists be such exemplary teachers and role models? Is the field of mainstream psychology willing to incorporate religious and spiritual maturity in therapeutic settings which is some respects is a suspension of evidence-based modalities to inform their work, and ensure the client/therapeutic relationship or therapeutic alliance is solidly established? If so, are they willing to work on themselves psychologically and religiously/spiritually?


To conclude, it is never too late to heal and grow. It is never too late to plant a tree, just as the beloved Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “if the Hour (the Day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.”

This could be understood to leave the world better than you found it. A broader and deeper interpretation is to leave your neighborhood, your workplace, your property, and your relationships better for your children and future generations.

Nur, the above conversation is an opportunity and vehicle to remain curious and not an end. I am sure as you mature and live your life you will face other challenges and circumstances with your own relationships. This information is an attempt to breakdown the complexities and blessings relationships withhold in a relatable and integrated way. Do not always seek comfort in a relationship, sometimes explore if the discomfort is growth focused and evolving in a more authentic deeper place.Internally we are also disheveled and unsteady on our feet. A growth-focused approach to relationships is a way to reach a balanced alignment to our relationships with God, our self, and people.


Related Reading:

Family Relationships in Surah Maryam: IOK Ramadan Reflections Series

Family Relationships in Surah Maryam: IOK Ramadan Reflections Series #16

Tell the Truth and Watch Your Relationships Shine

Tell the Truth and Watch Your Relationships Shine

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

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Samira Fattal is an Australian Lebanese woman, living with her Amazigh family in Algeria. A clinical psychologist by training Samira has been on a life long quest to exploring and understanding religion/spirituality.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Guest

    November 14, 2022 at 1:21 AM

    Great article.

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