What ails Kenya’s marriages?

By MUCHIRI KARANJA pmuchiri@ke.nationmedia.com and MILLICENT MWOLOLO mmwololo@ke.nationmedia.com

Posted  Tuesday, May 31 2011 at 14:10

Nothing seemed wrong with the marriage between Paul Mungai, 32, and Serah Wambui, 28. They had three children – sons, 10, two, and one. Wambui was expecting their fourth child.

In November 19th, last year, their young marriage hit a tragic end when Wambui and two of her children, the 10 and one year old, were found brutally murdered in their home.

Her husband, who is suspected to have killed them before committing suicide, hang on rope, in the same room as his dead family.

It is their two year old son, who managed to escape, that informed their neighbours in Kianjagi village, Ruthigiti, Kiambu, what had happened. Relatives said the couple often fought.

As tragic as this story is, it is just one of the many that we keep reading about, stories of young marriages that end tragically.

Only recently, Wanjiru Kabiru, a Journalist, was found dead in her matrimonial bed. Her husband, a suspect in the murder, has since be arrested, and is standing trial in court.

Even as we write this, the body of famous Kenyan athlete, Samwel Wanjiru, lies in the mortuary awaiting burial. The athlete is said to have fallen to his death from the balcony of his house.

He and his wife are said to have had a turbulent marriage, and are reported to have argued just before the fatal fall. Yet another young marriage to end in tragedy.

The question then begs; what ails the young Kenyan marriage? “We have a big crisis in our hands,” says marriage counselor John Gacheru.

According to the marriage expert, the problem lies in the fact that today’s couple is intent on holding onto the traditional values that guided marriage, values that cannot work in today’s society.

He argues that the average young man is yet to shed off the gender stereotyping of the last century – from the belief that beating up his spouse is part of being “the man,” to thinking that an ideal man should have more than one woman.

These men also find it difficult to reconcile with the fact that women are taking over roles that were once considered theirs.

“Many men are still stuck to the traditional concept of a marriage where the husband was both the breadwinner and bread-divider, in a failing battle to defend a rapidly disappearing patriarchal institution.”

Gacheru argues that even the youngest, most modern man still has remnants of the traditional man in him, remnants that occasionally rear their ugly heads in bouts of sexism, chauvinism and ultimately, to domestic violence.

In short, most of the young husbands are a walking contradiction: they are young men with very old mindsets on what an ideal man should be.

“Most of the modern husbands still believe a woman is weak, that she needs a bit of disciplining sometimes. These are the concepts they inherited from their grandfathers, and their fathers,” argues Gacheru.

As modernity edges out tradition, more men are finding themselves doing what their grandfathers and fathers would have dismissed as ‘unmanly,’ such as staying home as their wives go out to work and relying on their spouses for upkeep.

A number of them in such situations, says Gacheru, will occasionally ‘rebel’. Rebelling in this case means battering, verbal and emotional abuse, infidelity, and in extreme cases, murder.

However, the modern wife is not making her husband’s job any easier. “Many of our ‘modern wives’ are actually suffering from what I call extreme cases of narcissism – a false sense of self importance,” explains Gacheru.

The result is another contradiction, this time of a clique of women who think that with their newly found sense of freedom, they can replace centuries of male-domination with a new regime of female domination.

“These are the women who have what we call power without control. They think they can do without men, or that since they now play ‘manly roles,’ their men might as well play ‘woman roles,” says Gacheru.

What they fail to understand, is that marriage is a partnership, not a competition. “You don’t bring the “what a man can do, a woman can do better,” in marriage,” says the counselor.

Also to consider is the fact that today’s young couple has to deal with intense peer pressure. Winnie Kitetu, a clinical psychologist, says that young couples have a tendency to compare themselves with their peers, in terms of social and economical progress.

The result, she says, is that the newly married man works himself to exhaustion, to remain at par with his peer next door, even if he has to take ill-advised loans to achieve it, while his wife also fights to dress as well, stay as slim as her married friends, and expects her husband to treat her the way her friends say their husbands treat them.

The result is a growing sense of frustration, generated by unmet, usually unrealistic expectations from both partners.

Throw in the ‘immediate gratification’ mentality in many young couples – they want a car now, a house now, a holiday now, and you begin to understand the source of murderous frustration in many young marriages.

“They want what they want now and not tomorrow, they overwhelm themselves with big loans which they cannot service – this can strain the marriage until something gives,” says Kitetu.

Another problem is the rather rosy view of marriage, mostly perpetuated by modern media. It makes many young people to rush into marriage without adequate preparation for the realities of marital life.

“We have a lot of young people today who lack the ability to take responsibility in marriage,” says Dr Catherine Gachutha, a marriage and family therapist.

“Parents are no longer preparing their children for adulthood. That is why you find a man or woman who cannot perform simple tasks such as cooking or cleaning, yet they’re expected to bring up responsible, mature children,” she says.

So, what is the way forward? Family therapists say the hope for modern marriage lies in thorough guidance and counseling for the couple before they marry.

This counselling should be on-going, even after marriage, in case challenges that they find difficult to deal with crop up.

“Love is no longer enough to power a marriage; couples need to seek help,” explains Gacheru.

Men also need to accept that seeking help is part of ‘manhood,’ and that it no longer means being the sole provider.

It is also important for women to learn how to handle their newly found sense of freedom.

They too must detach themselves from stereotypes regarding what ideal womanhood and ideal manhood stands for.

Such stereotypes are that a modern woman does not need a man, or a real man is the one that is able to provide for everything.

“Both parties must confront the past, challenge some of the negative perceptions about each other, and seek to heal some childhood experiences,” says Gacheru.

Above everything, couples must work to maintain a reasonable level of trust between them.

According to Loise Noo, a counseling psychologist, trust is the last line of defence in every stable relationship.  “You can recapture love, you can work on financial differences, interfering in-laws, communication – all that, but once trust is gone, it will be very difficult to stabilise your marriage,” says Ms Noo. But when the marriage finally hits a dead end, when you have tried all options in vain, then it is time to jump ship before one of you gets hurt. Ms Kitetu says that walking out is advisable when your spouse turns violent or starts to drop subtle threats such as: “I will kill you,” or “One of these days I will deal with you for good.” “When he or she starts to make these statements, and you have tried everything to save your marriage, it is safer to leave,” says Kitetu.

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