Mar­riage? Piece of cake

Cou­ples in long- last­ing mar­riages share their recipes for suc­cess.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By S. INDRAMALAR star2@ thes­tar. com. my

ON their 60th wed­ding an­niver­sary, 81- year- old re­tired mil­i­tary ser­vice­man Sam wrote to his wife, Mary, “you’ve made me be­lieve that we will in­deed live hap­pily ever af­ter.”

In his card, Sam rec­ol­lects that liv­ing “hap­pily ever af­ter” was what they wanted more than any­thing when they got mar­ried. Through the years, he said they had proven their love “over and over, be­ing there for each other, and de­vel­op­ing a bond of trust that can­not be bro­ken.”

“He al­ways gives me beau­ti­ful cards, you know. He gives me cards for Moth­ers Day, my birth­day and our an­niver­sary with­out fail. And on our son’s sil­ver an­niver­sary which co­in­cided with our golden an­niver­sary, he sang a song and ded­i­cated it to me,” re­lates Mary, who is in her 70s.

Sam and Mary’s love story started in the early 1950s. Sam was from Sin­ga­pore and moved in with his aunt who lived in Si­ti­awan, Perak af­ter the demise of his par­ents when he was 20. He fell in love with Mary, whom he re­ferred to as “the belle of the town”. He rented a room from Mary’s mother in their home and soon got to know the fam­ily. He tried hard to con­vince Mary’s mother that he was wor­thy of her. They even­tully al­lowed him to date Mary. Af­ter a year, the two were en­gaged and a year af­ter that, in 1955, they got mar­ried.

In Mary’s own words, the two are still “very much in love” al­though she stresses that their life wasn’t al­ways par­adise.

Mary’s nar­ra­tion of wed­ded bliss was un­fa­mil­iar to Univer­sity Malaya psy­chol­ogy lec­turer Dr Teoh Gaik Kin who grew up with squab­bling par­ents. “My par­ents used to ar­gue a lot and there was a lot of ten­sion be­tween them. Grow­ing up, I saw a dis­crep­ancy in the mar­riages that were de­picted in the nov­els I read or the tele­vi­sion shows and movies that I watched. There was just such a sharp con­trast be­tween what I ex­pected mar­riage to be like and what I was see­ing all around me,” says Teoh, re­call­ing how her fas­ci­na­tion with mar­riages be­gan.

So, she de­cided that she would study psy­chol­ogy and find out the se­crets of long last­ing mar­riages.

For her PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, the 44- year- old coun­sel­lor and psy­chol­o­gist de­cided to fo­cus on Malaysian Chi­nese cou­ples be­cause there aren’t many lo­cal stud­ies on the sub­ject; those that were avail­able were done in the West and were not cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant and did not cap­ture the na­ture of Asian mar­riages.

Sam and Mary were one of five cou­ples Teoh in­ter­viewed to un­der­stand the strengths of longterm mar­riages among Malaysian Chi­nese.

“Mar­riage is, af­ter all, to a large ex­tent shaped by our cul­tural norms but mar­i­tal stud­ies for eth- nic groups, par­tic­u­larly in Asia and Malaysia are scarce. What we have are stud­ies based in the West which may not re­ally re­flect mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ships of Asians and Malaysians,” shares Teoh.

Each of the five cou­ples she in­ter­viewed painted dif­fer­ent pic­tures of mar­riage. Care and love were man­i­fested in dif­fer­ent ways in each mar­riage. How­ever, a com­mon thread was the im­por­tance of fam­ily and com­mu­nity. Re­spect and duty to the el­derly played a large part in bind­ing the

cou­ple to­gether. So was the shared em­pha­sis on se­cur­ing the well- be­ing and fu­ture of their chil­dren.

But be­yond the de­vo­tion to their fam­ily, what bound these cou­ples was their de­vo­tion to each other, which Teoh terms “other- cen­tred­ness”.

“They’d think of each other first ... and this was re­cip­ro­cal. In re­la­tion­ships, some­times it’s only one part­ner who is thought­ful. But in all the five suc­cess­ful mar­riages I stud­ied, both spouses were al­ways look­ing out for the other and will­ing to help the other out,” she notes.

Through­out the course of her re­search – in­ter­view­ing and spend­ing time with the cou­ples to find out their shared story – Teoh gained new in­sights into re­la­tion­ships and mar­riages which she said would en­hance her skills as a coun­sel­lor and psy­chol­o­gist.

“I am an ex­pe­ri­enced coun­sel­lor. But lis­ten­ing to these cou­ples’ sto­ries about how they made their mar­riages last and work made me ques­tion the knowl­edge and method­ol­ogy I have been ap­ply­ing. I won­dered if I’d been im­pos­ing ideas that were not quite ap­pli­ca­ble or cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant. The idea of an “ideal cou­ple” in West­ern text­books aren’t al­ways re­lat­able to Asians and these cou­ples demon­strated how the con­cepts of love and care are not so eas­ily de­fined. I be­gan to re­alise that the so­lu­tions I’d pre­scribed to my clients may have been text­book- ac­cu­rate but maybe not cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant,” shares Teoh.

Work­ing on the the­sis also had a pos­i­tive im­pact on her mar­riage.

“I even be­gan to view my own mar­riage dif­fer­ently. I tried not to im­pose my ex­pec­ta­tions of how I thought a hus­band and a mar­riage should be. I took the time to un­der­stand my hus­band’s na­ture and put aside any un­rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions. And, af­ter notic­ing the change in me, he too made an ef­fort to change,” shares Teoh.

Graphic: ZULHAIMI BA­HARUD­DIN/ The Star

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