Marital problems among Arab families: between cultural and family therapy interventions.

Author:Abu Baker, Khawla


UNTIL TODAY NO EPIDEMIOLOGICAL STUDY to investigate the mental health of the Arab population in most Arab countries (Ibrahim & Ibrahim, 1993) has been carried out. The reasons for this are attributable to the government's priorities on the one hand and to the structure of the Arab culture and its norms, on the other.

This essay aims to show the relationship between psychological well being and social customs and cultural traditions in Arab societies. In particular it deals with the traditional treatment of marital problems and the social support that aim to achieve the continuity of traditions. Subsequently, it focuses on the cultural meaning of the "upset" wife, Z'alana, on the politics involved, and on its effect on the well being of the children in the family. With respect to the latter, the paper focuses on the effect of an unstable marital relationship on the mental health of all members of the family.

In the last part of the essay, a comparison between the cultural methods of solving marital problems and a family therapist's methods is discussed. Throughout the paper a case study is used as an illustration. The voice of the client, her narration, is interwoven with the theoretical discussion. Parts of the case are referred to, in accordance with their relevance to the stage being discussed in the paper.


Shireen is a Palestinian woman aged 32, who has been married for fourteen years to her cousin who is four years her senior. The relationship between them has worsened over the last seven years, during which time he began to gamble. He would return home late and would not pay the family expenses. When she complained about his behavior he beat her. In the beginning she tried to face the problem alone, but then she turned for help to her close friend. However when the situation worsened and she saw that she could have no effect on her husband's behavior, she turned to her parents and asked them to take the necessary steps in dealing with him. Some women in such cases also turn to their parents-in-law and older brothers-in-law, requesting their intervention. The parents of Samir, Shircen's husband, were divorced and did not live in the same village.

It is evident that Arab families do not go to a stranger to solve a marital, family or psychological problem. There are various reasons for this. First, specialists in such professions are rare in relation to the needs of the population (Abu Baker, 2001; Moses, 1992). Second, since the first psychiatric services to be offered to the Arab population resulted in the hospitalization of psychotic patients, the stereotype emerged that psychological services are rendered to "crazy" people. This caused those in need of these services to delay seeking them, until the psychological problem worsened to the degree that it became complex, and needed longer therapy (Dwairy, (1) 1998; Meleis & La Fever, 1984). Thirdly, there are those in the Arab society who offer therapy such as Moslem sheikhs, palm readers and fortunetellers. A sector of the population believes these people have the capacity to solve crises of a psychological nature and turn to them when the need arises (Al-Krenawi, 2000; El-Islam, 1982). The fourth, and most important, factor is the role the extended family plays in the support and treatment of psychological, marital and family problems of its members. However this issue is not as simple as it might seem. The extended family, in itself, is also a source of all these problems.


Marriage in the Arab family is a union of two individuals as well as the union of their two families (Barakat, 2000). This bolds true for all the religions (Islam, Christianity, and Druze) associated with Arab culture, as well as for all classes and sectors within it. Despite the fact that all religious norms and state laws of Israel allow adults to intermarry, social values require that the consent of the guardian or parents be won; otherwise until the marriage plans are followed through, a couple that has not won their consent, will find themselves looked down upon by all.

There is no complete independence for any individual in the Arab family away from the family of birth. However, it is possible to say that the younger the age of either member of a married couple, the lower the education and the lower their social class, the greater is found to be the role of the family of birth in intervening in their lives, even in decisions such as choosing the marital partner, deciding upon the appropriate age of marriage and setting the wedding date. There are cultural, religious, sociopolitical and economic factors that serve to influence this traditional outcome.

  1. The monotheist religions educate their members in the obligation to respect and obey the parents. Religious ideology affects the everyday life of religious and non-religious Palestinians (Abu Baker, 2002).

  2. Islam, which is the most widely spread religion in the Middle East, requires the parents to aid their offspring financially and psychologically for marriage and to do this at an early age in order to discourage adultery and to maintain a modest life style. Therefore, the goal of working towards the marriage of their children becomes a norm and the marriage of the offspring marks the self-actualization and success of the parents. It is no wonder that a father of a ten-year-old boy should be seen to put all his modest savings into building a simple home for his son. Once he has finished building the basic structure of the house for the first son he begins on the house for the next son (Barakat, 2000 (2)). This becomes his routine until he is flee of the responsibility of marrying off his children and "bearing the responsibility a parent should bear." This usually happens in middle class and poor families where the parents know that the son will never be sufficiently independent financially to get married without parental help.

  3. The difficult economic situation of most of the Palestinian population and the rest of the Arab world contributes to institutionalizing the extended family pattern in modern times as in the past. This social symbiosis becomes the most economical group support particularly with regard to supporting the young married couple with their home and child rearing.

  4. The structure of Arab culture ensures that the society is part of the everyday life of the individual. In the large cities young people who live far away from their families form social relationships that rebuild the framework of the extended family and its services in all their forms.

  5. Many Arab societies, such as those in all the Gulf Countries, are living through a vast transition period that leaves them under two dominant cultures. The Palestinian population in Israel is also living in such a transitional period. This transition varies in its acuteness but it is similar in its dynamics. Arab society lives between a state of traditionalism and modernism and the influence of religion is transferred freely among all members of the society. It is indeed possible to find different lifestyles among siblings within the same family. The voice of tradition, however, still dominates the voice of modernism and this is a cause for many intra-psychic and interpersonal conflicts.

  6. In the transitional period through which it exists, the Palestinian population finds ways to associate between the old and the new in a way which is functional for the particular but does not always serve the diversity. For instance, some adopt western ideologies, when dealing with the rights of men and women to get to know one another closely before marriage. Yet for most among the society, open and free relationships are criticized. This has encouraged endogamy where youth are able to get acquainted within the framework of high school at an early age or within the neighborhood or family clan. In effect they develop a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship and the extended family and society observes this internal relationship that resembles a first cousin relationship.

  7. There is a distinct disparity between the status of males and females within a family and the status of women and men within society. Based on this there are functions expected of the wife and of the husband. Proud parents strive to marry their sons, making it one of their central aims in life. However, they hope that there will be someone to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage. A woman cannot ask a man to marry her. The society negatively judges a woman who becomes a spinster and when other families do not choose them as in-laws, her family feels that they were personally hurt. In order not to realize such a destiny, the family pressures young females into marriage at an early age (3) (Central Bureau Statistics, 2000; Moghadam, 1993).

    Poor families see that an early marriage is better for a young woman who wants to complete her higher education. These families hope that the husband will pay the tuition and other educational expenses since he alone will benefit from the woman's work. Hence some families make it a condition of early marriage that the bride resumes her studies and that the groom is liable for the expense. In such a situation, one may find this condition documented in the marriage contract. The youth of the bride allows her family and the groom's family to intervene in her affairs and even to dominate her decisions.

  8. For the reason that the society is patriarchal on the one hand and transitional on the other, it is accepted that some young men may reject some religious ideologies and traditions or some rules of their extended family. However, this tolerance vanishes in the case of women. In such cases, everyone co-operates, even modern youth, in dominating a woman whom...

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