Staying on Course


Marriage Counselling with

Maryam Maafa

By Francesca Sullivan


In a culture where couples are not encouraged to take problems in their relationship to an ‘outsider’, marriage guidance has struggled to find a foothold in Egypt. Relationship and marriage counselling is a relatively recent form of therapy, and it’s not always easy to find a professional in this field. One such person is Maryam Maafa, an AUC graduate with a Master’s degree in counselling psychology, who works with individuals but has increasingly found herself in the sphere of marriage guidance, and has a lot to say on what helps couples stay together – and what to do when things start to fall apart. Cairo West Magazine went to meet her.

What are warning signs that a couple might need to reinvigorate their relationship?

Disconnected: When you realize you are spending less and less quality time together. Even though you may be together physically, you are not together on an emotional level.

Forgetting the ‘why’: You are losing the vision in the relationship; forgetting what made you choose each other in the first place, and this could be as a result of power struggles, communication problems, poor problem solving and conflicting values.

Famous psychologist John Gottman named the four most important precursors to divorce: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. These types of behaviours are more difficult to handle even than issues such as infidelity. The pointing of fingers and blaming that goes on in a marriage can be similar to that of sibling rivalry. Instead of trying to resolve problems, both parties deteriorate to finger-pointing and blaming one another.

Loss of hope: When one partner withdraws and no longer invests in the relationship, it’s a defence mechanism that should be taken seriously.

And not to forget the obvious warning signs that include violence, abuse, sexual dissatisfaction and infidelity.

What are the best ways of opening up channels of communication, especially on touchy subjects?

First of all, before beginning a discussion on any touchy subject, decide what your expectation is, and also your motivation for wanting to open the subject. Is it to understand your partner’s point of view? Are you really ready to hear it? Set the stage for the discussion in an appropriate way. Choose the right time and place carefully so you are not interrupted, and make sure that both of you are calm. Show love and respect to your partner no matter what the outcome. This could be done through listening without interrupting and being clear. Women and men tend to communicate differently; remember your partner cannot read your mind if certain answers are not enough and not clear, request elaboration. You must both reach an agreement together. Make sure to follow up on the agreement and agree together when is the appropriate time to follow up.

I see over and over that when people are really at each other’s necks, it’s important to remind them that they really do care about each other and this is simply done by asking them what attracted them to each other to begin with.

It takes a great deal of trust in the counsellor for couples to come out in the open and discuss personal subjects, but I often get a gut feeling from the first session as to what the underlying issue might be. Often the supposed issue is actually covering up something deeper, which I try to bring out.

What should you do if you find out your spouse is cheating (for example, should you confront them?)

It depends. Cheating has many variables and dimensions and there are different ways to handle such issues. It is important not to take it personally. If you are driven by your emotions it is more likely things will blow out of proportion. When someone finds out that their spouse is cheating they usually react impulsively and that may include wanting to seek revenge, or confronting in a manner that is neither constructive nor manageable. It is crucial not to tell friends and family about the infidelity, as later, if you decide to stay together, things can become awkward.  Also you should not waste your energy on focusing on the third party involved, since the problem lies with your partner.

When you have managed to calm down, think about what you want. Do you want to confront? If yes, then why do you want to confront? Is to know the truth or to work things out, or to get a divorce? You need to weigh things out on all the perspectives. Can you handle a separation? If you confront the other person, are you prepared for the possibility they may leave or stay? Have you considered that they may become violent when accused? You have to take all these things into consideration, and be prepared.

You also need to provide proof of the infidelity (because they will usually deny it), and a plan of what to do next. Again, plan the right time and place to have the confrontation. Make sure you are clear and maintain a focus on what you want out of it.

Even if you choose not to confront your spouse for whatever reason, I recommend individual counselling work on developing yourself to becoming stronger or learning to cope, and as you change perhaps your partner will too.

Is it healthy for couples to revisit past issues?

I feel that this is something that completely depends on the individual couple. Whether or not you open up past subjects depends on how resilient you both are; how strong your relationship is. I cannot generalize.

How do children factor into marital problems?

A lot of parents forget that their children are a reflection of themselves. Conflict between parents can cause stress and behavioural problems in their children. After you’ve had an argument that they’ve been exposed to, communicate with them; check in to find out how they are feeling. If it comes to divorce, then you really must discuss and communicate. One of the biggest challenges and problems I see here in Egypt is how children are prepared and informed during a divorce. Parents should always talk about each other with respect in front of their children, even during times of conflict. It is paramount to the way the children feel about themselves, and to their own emotional development.

What are the key ways to maintain a good marriage?

Effective communication. To recognize that a marriage is not a flat line, it’s a constant work in progress, with highs and lows. Life transitions, ageing, changing career paths, death in the family, all these things need to be gone through over time.

Be kind to one another, compliment each other, accept each other’s weaknesses. Maintain intimacy and passion, but accept that this goes through ebbs and flows also. Set boundaries and family values together, give each other time and space on your own. Go on regular date nights when you make a point of not talking about family issues, but just have fun and share intimacy. To sum up, it’s an on-going connection that you never stop working on.

How prevalent are sexual problems in Egypt, what are the typical ones, and to what can they be attributed?

Sexual problems are quite prevalent due to different causes, and in marriage counselling couples come for specific problems that often include sexual issues. Usually the sexual issues have an underlying psychological factor. When this is the case I explore and help the couples and sometimes I may need to refer to a sexologist.

How well prepared are young people about the realities and responsibilities of marriage?

Before marriage a couple should make sure to discuss their values, goals and priorities in life. Questions such as their religion, where they want to live, whether they want children and how many, their parenting styles, and finances, these are all important issues to talk about before you commit to each other. It’s interesting how unaware people can be of their own or their partner’s spending habits, and money issues are often a major cause of marriage problems. They should also discuss family boundaries and obligations, questions such as when and how often family and friends can come over. Even superficial things are important to talk about, whether it’s where you plan to go on vacation, or whether or not you like TV in the bedroom.

If you have exhausted all avenues, how many chances should you give your marriage?

At least try counselling! It can really help to have an independent mediator who is impartial and here to help, with methods you may not have been aware of. Even if your spouse refuses to go for counselling, working on your own with a counsellor can help you find new ways of dealing with situations, and learn more about your own behaviours. If you really think you have exhausted all avenues, what have you got to lose?


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