A constant work-in-progress

Gilbert Goh

One in three marriages break up in our country and the situation does not look like it’s going to improve. Many friends around me have also thrown in the marital towel and are on their own now licking their wounds. So what happened here?

In fact, many people have suggested to me that keeping a marriage alive is like running a marathon. You have to put in a lot of effort and energy to maintain the relationship and like in a marathon, many feel like giving up half way as it is both tiring and painful. Having ran several marathons before, I can empathise with them.

Of course, I have seen some friends who to me have the perfect marriages. They respect each other’s viewpoints, hardly quarrel and tend to blend themselves into one symphony. You can see that they have learnt to accept one another’s differences and never impose their views on the other person. However, it is increasingly difficult to spot such model marriages. They are examples to be emulated.

After reading many self help books on enhancing marriage from John Grey’s “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” to “The Five Love Languages” by Dr Gary Chapmen, I realized that there are not many books written on such a topic from an Asian perspective. There are obviously vast differences on how the Westerners will treat their spouses from their Asian ones.

Saving face!

For example, Asian men tend to keep their marital problems to themselves as compared to Westerners. This is why many Asian husbands fail to seek help when their marriages are suffering as compared to the Western ones. The face saving gesture of many Asian husbands may prove to be the reason why counselors are only seeing women in marital distress. Men, given the choice, will not want to disclose their problems to a stranger. It is seen as humiliating and some would rather end the marriage than seeking help to save it. Such is the destructive power of saving face!

In his infamous book, “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus”, Dr John Gray reiterated that wives and husbands are all so different on how they think and approach issues in life. Failing to understand our partner’s differences may have contributed greatly to a lot of conflict at home and ultimately a failed marriage. Of course, knowing all the right stuff but not doing much about it also is not helpful here.

Paradoxically, it is the opposite characteristics which irked us that may have also attracted us to our partners in the first place. Opposites attract but they also repel! How can we continue to be attracted by our partner’s opposites and yet stay sober when they begin to test our patience? Some form of similar likings are also crucial for the wellbeing of any relationship.

Stressful environment

If both parties carry out their own activities too much during their leisure time, then there will be a big vacuum in the marriage as couples can only get together when they do things that they both enjoy. Trying to find time to do things together may prove crucial for the wellbeing of most marriages.

Our stressful work environment coupled with a lack of personal space and time to destress properly have contributed to a worsening marital situation. Married people belonging to the sandwiched generation have got the worse package as they have to handle needs from their own ageing parents/parents-in-laws plus looking after their young children. It is not surprising that marriages belonging to the age group of 40-49 have registered the highest divorce rates.

In terms of communication, Asian couples have much to learn from their Western counterparts. We all fail to communicate properly and perhaps our mastery of the English language may be at fault here. I find that Asians tend not to confront and talk over issues with their partners when there is something amiss in their relationship.

We are all taught from young not to argue against our parents and authorities and this conditioned behaviour is brought into our own marriage. The marriage tends to take in a lot of misgivings for a long while before they decide to talk it out with one another. Some wait until it is too late before they decide to thrash it out in front of a counsellor. Their reason? They are reluctant to spill their hearts out to a stranger. They want to save face!

Trust me, it takes super human effort to balance out the distribution of equal attention to our loved ones here. Some simply walk away from their homes as they face tremendous amount of stress especially when they face prolonged unemployment on the work front.

Thus, it is not surprising that our young people views marriage with disdain and some have even put off walking down the aisle altogether, adding to a worsening national childbirth problem.

Two hands to clap

Having being married for 16 years and constantly finding ways to enhance our marriage despite the regular ups and downs, mine is not a perfect marriage and can never be.

In fact, I have struggled in my marriage for many years and we have been through a very rough patches together, like many other married couples. Careers, children and differences have all contributed to a deep wedge in our relationship. We are also undergoing marital counselling now to resolve the issues we are facing in our married life.

We marry someone whom we thought wass our ideal partner but the person may change along the years. How we react to such changes is also important as it may mean a psychological acceptance or rejection of our soul mate. Personally, I have this problem as I find it difficult to accept my wife who goes through a career upswing five years into our marriage. She became ambitious and career minded – very much different from the simple-minded, contented woman that I know before marriage. It took me many years before I could accept that she is more intelligent and capable than I am! Speaking of male ego here…a big deterrance for Asian marriages!

We managed to agree to work through the marriage together and so far we are moving on fine. When two people decide to take concrete steps to enhance the relationship, there is a big chance that it will work compared to one that only has one party wanting to salvage the marriage. It takes two to clap.

Of course, ours is not a perfect marriage still and there are the frequent squabbles over where to go during weekends and what food to buy for dinner. However, for me, I guess that the worse is over for us now. We are hopefully in the process of rebuilding our relationship from now on.

Unless two hands clap vigorously together in a marriage, any good relationship can only go downhill after long periods of neglect and stress.


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