by Bui Quynh Hoa
Many Vietnamese women marry after falling in love with someone. And typically, they do so knowing what lies ahead… a life where they work disproportionately harder than their spouse in doing the housework, taking care of the kids, their spouses and their parents-in-law, and so on.
Then, step by step, some are pushed into exhaustion, hurt and sorrow, with no time for themselves, and their love takes a beating.
While doing everything to keep a marriage happy is natural and understandable, "everything" cannot mean losing oneself. Ignoring oneself and one's own feelings is not a wise thing, because happiness is not based on a marriage certificate or the wedding rings that adorn our fingers.
Traditionally, as in all patriarchal cultures, the Vietnamese male, aka the husband, has enjoyed a privileged status. He's never had to work in the kitchen, cook, clean-up, and so on. At home, all he has to do is relax. Women were trained from a very early age to do most of the house work. In rural areas, they worked a lot in the fields as well.
Things have changed a lot, of course, from the time even husbands were chosen for women by their parents. Gender equality has become a buzzword, and women are given, at least on paper, equal economic and political rights. Many Vietnamese women are well educated and hold high ranking positions, both in the public and private sector.
However, Viet Nam is still a patriarchal society, and couples are not always successful at navigating gender equality as well as cultural transitions that are happening.
Many women, successful at work, work hard at making a success of their marriage as well, even though they feel sometimes that they are doing it on their own, without their spouse's support. After some time, labours of love become labours of duty, but it is here that things get a bit tricky.
Pham Quynh Anh, who works for the State Bank of Viet Nam, feels that women should not be "perservering" in the traditional sense. "I don't think forgetting ourselves is a clever choice," she says.
"It's the 21st century now. Everyone has a right to live a happy life. So why do we (women) have to endure an unhappy marriage? We came together voluntarily, out of love, so why does he not care about my feelings? Why do I have to stay married, in a hell, a life without love? Marriage should not be a life sentence of misery."
Anh makes a valid argument, but it is not one that would get a lot of support from the older generation, who would advise sacrifices for the sake of children.
The fear of children not having one of their parents to take care of them, facing a society with preconceived ideas about divorce, and anxieties about starting a single life - these are factors that push people, women in particular, to maintain an unhappy marriage. But is that the wisest choice?
"No one knows what I want the most, but me. So why do I have to put my happiness in the others' hands?" asks Bui Lan Phuong, an employee of the Construction Hospital in Ha Noi. "Kids or no kids, it's better to get a divorce if you are unhappy. If you are unhappy then your spouse and your kids will be unhappy."
Bui Nguyet Nhi, who works for the the Ngo Gia Tu Secondary School in Ha Noi, agrees with Phuong.
"You have to think about your children. If you are always fighting, or even in a cold war, it is not good for your little ones.
"In my opinion, there is no reason to believe that staying together at any cost is better for children than divorcing. In fact, when parents who are unhappy engage in discord relationship, but stay together for the kids, it can do more harm than good. The behaviour you display at home will set the stage for how your children will behave as adults."
According to a survey done by the Ministry of Culture, the General Statistics Office, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the number of divorces has increased in Viet Nam over the years, from 51,361 in 2000 to 88,591 cases in 2010, and 145,791 in 2013.
Prof Nguyen Huu Minh, head of the Institute for Family and Gender Studies (under the Viet Nam Institute of Social Sciences), has said that 60 per cent of the divorces involve young couples aged 23 to 30, and 70 per cent of the divorces happen after one to seven years of marriage.
What do men think, especially those in unhappy marriages?
"It's said that we, the men, never want to divorce or be divorced," says Hoang Hai Aâu, a Hai Phong native. "We also do not understand what women want and think about. So tell us exactly what you want, instead of feeling hurt, and then bad-mouthing and blaming us."
"We viewed life too differently and made each other miserable much of the time. I don't know where we went wrong, but the feeling has gone and I just can't get it back. However kids are still the first priority in my opinion. They need their mom. I have to find another way to deal with our conflict until they grow up, I think.
"The decision to divorce, especially when children are involved, is one of the most difficult choices we have to face. Divorce is not pretty. It adds stress to both our lives, our kids, families and friends. Further, along with the kids, society's preconceived ideas about divorce and the dividing of assets are also other factors to reconsider."
The choice is not easy. There are valid reasons for doing both, living for ourselves, or staying in an unhappy marriage. But, there is a bottom line to making either choice work – we need to find a balance and learn to be happy, because the happiness of those around us also depends on it. — VNS