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We all want strong and tranquil relationships, but do we know what the steps are to achieving this goal? In this week’s article, my guest writer Sister Takwa Sharif talks about four steps to stronger bonds. Using examples from the Quran, Sunnah, and science, she shows you that secure, long-lasting relationships are founded on four easy principles.

Relationships are hard to juggle. You’ve probably heard that they require patience, gratitude, compromise, and a whole lot of other things. In this week’s post, I want to simplify the different factors that contribute to stronger relationships–whether it’s at work, school, or with family. 

Why Relationships Matter

As social beings, humans need strong relationships for our mental, physical, and spiritual welfare.

For example, in Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, sociologist Dr Roman Krzanaric cites a research study conducted on infants living in two different environments:

  1. The first group of infants lived in an orphanage. In this orphanage, the infants were taken care of physically and materially: they were well-fed and clean. However, they rarely experienced any physical or emotional affection in the forms of touch and attention.
  2. The second group of infants lived in a prison. In this prison, mothers were allowed to visit their children. However, compared to the orphanage, the cleanliness of the prison was subpar.

When researchers compared both groups’ longevity, they found that infants in the orphanage passed away more frequently as babies. That’s because they did not have the strong human bonds they needed to develop and grow. The infants in the prison, however, did have affection and secure relationships, and hence lived longer.

So, as this study and countless other studies suggest, human beings need strong connections in order to flourish and be the best that we can be.

Here are four ways to cultivate long-lasting and fulfilling relationships. All these four ways are grounded on the Quran, Sunnah and science!

#1. Be empathetic

In Empathy, Roman Krznaric defines empathy as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.”

To understand this definition, let’s look at an example of empathy from the lives of the Sahaba.

It is reported that once, during the Khilafa (leadership) of Umar (RA), a man went to Umar’s house upset that he and his wife were arguing. However, before he could knock on the door, he heard Umar and his wife also arguing. He told himself, “If Umar and his wife are arguing, then what does that mean for me?” Then, Umar opened the door, and the man told him about his situation and what he had overheard. Umar told the man about how he should view his relationship with his wife by reminding the man of all that his wife does:  “She looks after my food, the children, the clothes, the home, my lust, my whims, and desires. She’s my partner in life. Will I not then have some patience?”

Umar (RA) gets the man to be empathetic by thinking about the things that his wife does for him, and the way that she might feel because of this.

Umar gets the man to think about what empathy expert, Krznaric writes about in his book on empathy:

“Empathy is a constant awareness of that fact that your concerns are not everyone’s concerns and that your needs are not everyone’s needs, and that some compromise has to be achieved moment by moment.”

Here’s how you can practice empathy:

  • Imagine how the other person might feel or what their perspective may be
  • Attempt to act in a way that would benefit the other person based on your empathetic understanding.
  • Have husunl-dhaan. Think well of others by assuming the best.

#2. Be generous

Being generous is highly regarded in the Sunnah and the scientific literature on relationship-building. For example, In Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet (SAW) said: “Give gifts, and you will love one another.”

Likewise, Dr Catherine Sanderson provides examples of research studies on gift-giving in her book, The Positive Shift. She says participants who were more generous tended to live longer and experienced less stress. That’s because, generosity, like the Prophet (SAW) said, strengthens relationships. Moreover, stronger bonds lead to better health.

Of course, there are different ways to be generous.

 In The 5 Love Languages, relationship expert Gary Chapman lists five ways of expressing love:

  1. Words of Affirmation: This is when you’re generous with the words that you say to your spouse. It can be in the form of compliments and reassurance.
  2. Acts of Service: This is when you’re willing to be generous with the things that you do, such as taking out the trash, helping with schoolwork, and offering rides.
  3. Giving Gifts: Recall the time when someone gave you a gift that you loved. Don’t you get a smile on your face when you think of that person? That’s the power of giving gifts.
  4. Quality Time: In How To Transform Your Marriage From “Meh” To “Wow!”, Brother Rushdhi explains quality time “as the greatest gift” that you can give to improve your relationship.
  5. Physical Touch: Although we might not be able to implement this language of love in all our relationships, physical, non-sexual touch is essential to trust and connection.

As you can see, each language of love involves being more generous. It also means thinking outside of your own needs.

Ironically, by thinking of someone else’s needs, you also fulfil your desire for stronger connections; I mean, that’s why you’re reading this, right? 

#3. Be present

No one likes having a conversation with someone who’s barely listening. Being present in a conversation means being an active listener.

In Easier Than You Think, psychotherapist Dr Richard Carlson writes, “By becoming more present, you’ll experience better communication, increased productivity, better relationships, and greater peace of mind.” By focusing on the conversation, you not only are more productive, but you also show the other person that they matter.

In the book, Shamaa-il Tirmidhi, which is a book onthe description of the Prophet (SAW),it’s narrated:

The Apostle of Allah fulfilled the rights of every person present, and that means whatever right was due to talking and showing happiness was fulfilled by him, so much so, that every person would think that the Messenger of Allah is honouring me the most.

You can implement some of the ways that the Prophet (SAW) made others feel important by

  • Turning your entire body to the direction of the speaker
  • Listening without interrupting
  • Asking questions when appropriate. Ask questions that are relevant to the topic that the speaker is talking about. Remember also not to be too inquisitive as that could put the speaker in an awkward position.
  • Making others aware of the fact that you appreciate the time that you have with them by having a cheerful and positive attitude

In Empathy, Dr Krznaric cites a study conducted by a hospital in Boston. Doctors in this hospital were told to make simple changes such as analysing facial expressions, changes in voice, and facing the patient when they spoke to them.

By doing these things, doctors were able to create a stronger relationship with the patient as these patients reported: “feel[ing] more at ease, [felt the doctor] showed greater care and compassion toward them, and [that the doctors] had a better understanding of their concerns.”

Allah subuhanawuta’la reassurances that “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah (Muhammad SAW) you have a good example to follow for him who hopes in (the Meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much.” (Al-Quran, 33:21)

So follow his (SAW) footsteps by being fully present in your communication. That single act can strengthen your relationships astonishingly.

#4. Set boundaries

While it’s important to be empathetic, generous, and present in the conversation, all of these traits, like many things in life, need to have boundaries. When you don’t have boundaries, it’s hard to establish consistency, trust and respect.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

In the book, Fostering Resilient Learners, the therapist Kristen Souers and a principal of a school, Pete Hall cite countless studies in which students who had experienced significant trauma such as the death of a parent during childhood or who had experienced a natural disaster, reported feeling safer in classrooms where educators had clear boundaries and expectations.

When teachers had clear directions and expectations, the students felt safe because they knew what was expected of both the teacher and themselves. Students didn’t have to worry about the inconsistent application of classroom rules or the unpredictability of what would happen in the classroom, e.g., “He said that it was ok to sit on the couch yesterday, but today, he’s saying that I can’t sit there.

Similarly, in your relationships, having clear boundaries creates a safe space where both you and the other person know about each other’s expectations, roles, and limits. This boundary, in turn, allows the relationship to flourish.

Mark Manson, a relationship expert and blogger, writes:

People with strong boundaries are not afraid of a temper tantrum, an argument, or getting hurt. People with weak boundaries are terrified of those things and will continuously mould their own behaviour to fit the highs and lows of their relational, emotional roller coaster.

People with strong boundaries understand that it’s unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100 per cent and fulfil every need the other has.

Setting boundaries in and outside of relationships is crucial to creating a healthy and long-lasting one.

So, what does having boundaries look like?

  • Communicate respectfully what you are willing to do and what you aren’t willing to do. When appropriate, provide reasons for your choice. For example, if you know that you have a vacation with your family planned for a specific weekend, then don’t volunteer for a masjid event. This will only breed resentment.
  • Learn to say no to things and situations that are harmful. You should also say no to things that make you or the other person uncomfortable. An example of this would be telling your coworkers that you can’t join them for social hour if it involves drinking. I know that I’ve turned down many book clubs (which are great places to make new relationships!) because they were being held in bars or lounges.
  • Hold yourself accountable to a standard (e.g. at work) or your word (at home, with your family). An example of this would be turning your phone off after work so that you can focus on your family. During this time, you promise yourself not to respond to work emails.

Now let’s look at what the Quran and Sunnah talk about setting boundaries.

In the Quran, we’re taught to set boundaries in our relationships. For example, in Surah Al-Hujuraat, the Sahaba are taught to set boundaries in their relationship with the Prophet (SAW).

Allah (SWT) says:

“O you who have believed, do not put before Allah and His Messenger but fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is Hearing and Knowing. O you who have believed, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet or be loud to him in speech like the loudness of some of you to others, lest your deeds become worthless while you perceive not.” (Al-Quran, 49:2).

The Sahaba are taught that if they want to talk to the Prophet (SAW), then they need to lower their voices. They learn that they can’t raise their voices in front of him (SAW). They’re reminded that he (SAW) is not like everyone else.

What You Can Do

As you think about your relationships, don’t forget to

  • Use the Quran and Sunnah to guide you,
    • Study the description of the Prophet (SAW) contained in the book Shamaa’il Tirmidhi. This will help you fall in love with the Prophet. It will also simultaneously help you understand what makes Him (SAW), and eventually you, a great person to be around. 
  • Be empathetic with the person that you’re trying to establish a strong relationship with,
  • Be generous,
  • Be present and,
  • Set boundaries. Remember that setting boundaries isn’t about being “mean”; It’s about creating a safe and fulfilling relationship.

About the Author: Takwa Sharif is a freelance writer and editor from Salt Lake City, Utah. She holds a Master of Arts in English and also has minors in comparative literature and literacy. She’s a runner and loves cooking.

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