Marriage comes with expectations, and with society changing so fast, these are increasingly hard to fulfill. Vu Ha Kim Vy looks at the pressure faced by modern-day couples in the face of tradition
Tram Nam Hanh Phuc is a common toast made to a bride and groom. It means one hundred years of happiness. While the wish used to have significant meaning for my mother’s generation when people made an effort to maintain their relationships no matter what, it has become a mere formality at weddings these days.
Says my mother, who has been married for 44 years, “Most of us didn’t have the chance to get to know one another before marriage. At that time we just followed our parents’ arrangements and still live together until death do us part.”
Younger generations are not so easily able to understand those ideas, given modern trends in society such as the rise of gender equality. According to a survey conducted by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and the General Statistics Office, with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the number of divorces in Vietnam has increased over the years, from 51,361 cases in 2000 to 88,591 cases in 2010, and 145,791 cases in 2013.
A separate study by the Vietnam Institute of Social Sciences states that 60% of divorces are made up of young couples aged between 23 to 30 years, while 70% of divorced couples were married for between one and seven years.
People have thousands of motivations to get divorced; the following are some common reasons between Vietnamese couples.
Love Me, Love My Family
Vietnamese family traditions reflect the respect younger generations have towards their parents. All decisions have to be made by the parents and the children have to obey them to show their love and respect. Therefore, a woman after marriage has to respect and love her husband’s family as if she were getting married to the whole family.
As the Vietnamese saying goes, “Con gai la con nguoi ta, con dau moi that me cha mua ve,” — one’s biological daughter will become someone else’s daughter and the daughter-in-law will become the real daughter. The tradition is that the groom’s family has to spend a small fortune on items including food, money and jewellery as gifts to acquire a daughter-in-law. As soon as the bride steps into the house, she will be expected to lam dau, meaning being a true daughter-in-law. This means she has to respect, love, and take care of the whole of her family-in-law and have to obey the husband’s parents. For young modern brides, this can often be too much.
The House is not Big Enough
As houses in the big cities are so expensive, many Vietnamese couples find living with the groom’s parents helps financially. This cohabitation is part of another belief that wives always have to follow their husbands wherever they go. It’s also the reason why many families have three generations living under one roof.
In the final stages of their lives, people can feel lonely and isolated, and so having someone, especially their children, around means happiness. It also encourages them to fight against their health problems. Yet, along the lines of “two’s a company, three’s a crowd”, problems arise.
“They [parents-in-law] were so nosy,” says Quynh, a friend of mine from university. “They always wanted to know what I was doing and where I was. So many times I asked [my husband] to let us move out, even if just to a rented house.”
The move never happened and Quynh got divorced after one year, although she had already been with her partner for four years while at university.
The First Son
Another pressure (mostly from the husband’s side) is the expectation that Vietnamese couples have to have children. Yet this is a decision that needs time and money. As a little sister with four married brothers, I have heard my mother’s explanations in each case. It would be either “It’s not good for women to give birth late” or “People will laugh at you when you don’t have a child after being married for so long.” Or simply, “I want to have a grandchild to carry and take care of.”
Vietnamese culture is influenced by Chinese culture, where sons are preferred to daughters. The quantity of children doesn’t matter as long as a couple has at least one son. Many of us believe that the first son (chau dich ton in Vietnamese) will be the only person who is able to take care of the family altar when the grandparents have passed away. The inability to produce a son is one of the excuses that many husbands’ families and even the husbands themselves use to get rid of a wife.
In years gone by, men were supposed to go out hunting and bring home food, while women stayed at home to cook, clean the house, and take care of the children and the husband. During difficult economic times, society has become more open-minded and women are allowed to work, but only to supplement the family finances. Men remain the key.
So the more money the wife earns, the more irritated the husband and his family tend to get. The money is regarded as proof that the wife is better and smarter than the husband, and the man’s ego intervenes so that instead of being proud of their wives, many Vietnamese men ask them to quit their jobs or risk breaking up the relationship.
“Whether a family is happy or not depends on the wife,” says my mother. “She has to know how to behave with the husband and be flexible in different situations.”
What my mother means is, a wife has to know how to deal with a husband — even a violent, cheating, alcoholic or gambling one — in the wisest of ways while maintaining his ‘face’ as well as taking care of the house and the children. As a Vietnamese saying goes: “Xau chang ho thiep,” meaning that if the image of the husband is bad, the wife will be ashamed. So she has to hide the husband’s mistakes and act as if the family and her still live in happiness and harmony.
Sometimes, flexibility has its limits.