In the US, the divorce rate is on the decline. So, what’s the score in Vietnam? As Jon Aspin explains, stats or no stats, divorce sucks
No one invites you to their divorce. There are no fancy letterheads or gold-embossed name cards. No one will ever talk to you about the food, the music or how drunk Uncle Harry was “the night they got split up”. Nor will they likely mark the date in their diary, unless of course there’s a court appearance involved — which in most countries there is.
At most, if it’s an amicable split, you’ll get a diplomatic and slightly philosophical email signed by both parties. I’ve received two of these in my life.
Either way, divorce sucks. It means your once golden relationship is, in the eyes of the law, by all definitions, officially, irrefutably and undeniably, over. And if it was never that golden to begin with, you are now free to try and do it all over again, good luck.
For the jilted party, and there generally is one, trying to see the other person now is called stalking. Ringing them at odd hours is harassment, and habitually checking their Facebook status is just sad.
If you’ve been through a divorce, it’s a not a life-box you want to tick again. After all, it is society’s way of saying: “Here’s something else you kinda sucked at, and now you have to tell people.” Even if you don’t, it’ll eventually come up, and how you handle it could be important.
Imagine the subtext of the following conversation between a man (the divorcee) and a potential new partner:
You: “Yeah, err… so did I mention that I was married before?”
(Let’s get this bomb out of the way.)
Potential new partner: “Really? I didn’t know that!”
(That’s a bit intense. I wonder if he’s still f**ked up over it.)
You: “Yeah, err… well, I thought I’d mention it, but yeah, it was a few years ago.”
(She’s wondering if I’m still f**ked up over it.)
Potential new partner: “Wow, I really didn’t know you’d been married.”
(I wonder if he cheated on her.)
You: “Yeah, we were married. I mean, you know, we got married. There was a wedding. I was in it.”
(She’s still wondering if I cheated on my wife.)
Potential new partner: “Sh*t.”
(He’s clearly still f**ked up over it.)
You: “Ummm, anyway yeah so, do you want …”
(She wants to ask a bunch more questions. Try changing the subject.)
Potential new partner: “… but what happened? How long were you married?”
(I wonder if she cheated on him. Is there something wrong with this guy?)
You: “Well, it was a couple years all up …”
(Now she’s wondering if she cheated on me.)
Potential new partner: “Oh. That’s not very long. Do you have any children? Are you still in touch?”
(I wonder if this dude has any children.)
You: “Err… No. Luckily we didn’t have children I guess … but anyway, it’s in the past now … so err yeah … I just thought I’d be honest with you.”
(Let’s move on)
Potential new partner: “Ok.”
(He wants to move on.)
Love in Asia
Whether the above rings true to you or not, how to go from being married to being divorced will always involve you filling out a form or two.
Despite any opinions you may have of the bureaucracy here, getting a divorce in Vietnam is actually quite simple. You can search the paperwork needed in any expat forum or blog. It’s basically an intention to divorce signed by both parties, brought to the district court where the marriage was originally recognised, followed by a waiting period of two to three months. It’s a relatively cheap process, too, so if you’re getting one, be wary of anyone who asks you for money.
What’s more interesting though, is the attitude to divorce, and relationships generally in Vietnam.
Douglas Howerda is an American psychotherapist who has been working for the last five years in Hanoi. He sees relationships on the brink all the time. He says it’s more likely that here in Vietnam and in Asian society generally, that in order to keep the family unit together, people will persist with an unhappy marriage. The D-word is a stigma to be avoided, he says, even if it regularly involves turning a blind eye to a partner’s ‘indiscretion’.
“While most Westerners think of marriage as the culmination of a love relationship,” he says, “in Eastern societies it’s more like ‘How do we build the foundation of a family?’ In other words, getting married is a much more pragmatic decision.”
This is the major difference between couples in cross-cultural relationships all over Asia, he says, and while every case is unique, Douglas believes there is a definite tendency for women in some of these countries, including Vietnam, to quickly build expectations of a life-long relationship.
“Intimacy in terms of actually knowing someone, and taking the time to get to know someone isn’t really as important here,” he says. “The priority, especially when there is a child involved, is about forming that family unit.”
Here Douglas refers to the potential result of divorce, and the shame that attaches to being a single mother in many Asian cultures.
Going through it
One man who recently went through a divorce here in Vietnam is Kris, 45, a Belgian who married a Vietnamese woman six years ago, had two children and was divorced at the end of last year. His story confirms that while the process wasn’t technically that difficult, the ramifications are eternal.
Having met in 2005, and later married his already pregnant bride in 2009, Kris discovered, while working away from his home in Ho Chi Minh City for long periods, that his wife was conducting an affair in their home. His suspicions were raised when she kept asking exactly what time he would arrive on his twice-monthly visits. Confronting her with it on finding another man in his bedroom, he initially believed that the friend, who was a much younger man known to Kris, “was only helping her out with some work.”
Once everything was out in the open, she initially took custody of their children, splitting them up between her mother’s and her own apartment. Kris stayed patient, knowing that his ex-wife would soon grow tired of the situation, and be unable to cope with two children on her own.
He was right, and not long after, she asked him to take them back. Then, through the process of the courts, he was granted full legal custody. “I didn’t have a lawyer, I just showed up at court. She’s the one who applied for the divorce, so I didn’t have any paperwork to do really. I think it helped me as well that out of the four times I had to show up, my ex-wife was late on three of them.” In addition, his ex-wife didn't want to share the costs of bringing up the kids — even the VND1.5 million to VND2 million per month suggested by the court. Says Kris, “This is the main reason I got full legal custody over my children.”
He adds: “I have heard that most foreigners find it hard to keep or even see their kids. I want people to know that it's possible.”
So Kris got what he wanted, against all odds, and while he wouldn’t swap his children for the world, he advises anyone against going into something that doesn’t feel right. “I don’t regret my children, but I do regret getting married in the first place,” he said.
Maybe that’s the simple cure for divorce then? An abstinence from marriage. We might be on to something here.