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The Social Expectations of Marriage

The Social Expectations of Marriage

thegblogteam 2 comments

By JCH

This is a story about navigating the messy social expectations of marriage as a middle/upper-middle class Malaysian.

“Millennials are declining marriages and here’s why” – Huffington Post

“Millennials say no to marriage” – CNN Money

“The decline in marriage among the young” – Pew Research Centre

These are headlines that dot the ever-increasing segment of journalism about Millennials and marriage. Otherwise known as a segment I dub, “we don’t understand why Millennials do the things they do… But here’s a 2000-word article attempting to explain what they’re doing when they’re not busy Snapchatting or Instagramming!”

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Sometime in the spring of 2011, I called my mother for one of our monthly Skype sessions, mostly to discuss my progress at school and to hear about the wellbeing of the rest of the family. It was a routine call, usually punctuated with, “how’s grandma?” and “yes, I have enough money” or “yes, I’m eating my vegetables”. But that day, something was different—and I wasn’t quite sure what.

After the routine questions were asked, there was a brief moment of silence. My mother fidgeted, shifting from side to side as she hesitated on what was inevitably a difficult question. Finally, she spoke.

Do you have any friends?”

“Yes mum. I’ve been in school for almost three years now, I do have friends,” was my naïve response. Ah, that was what it was. She was concerned that my introversion was leading to loneliness. Typical.

“No, no. I meant, do you have any friends.”

It finally clicked. Mum was not calling to ask if made any platonic friends. She wanted to know if I had any romantic prospects.

“No. Too busy with work and school to do anything, to be honest.” Mostly the truth.

“Oh that’s good! It’s better to focus on school, then you can go and find someone.”  She uttered this quietly but forcefully, and I felt that she was trying to reassure herself, not me. She spent the next five minutes talking about marriage and how I should consider looking for a husband after graduation.

I was 21 and for the first time in my life, I realised my mother expects me to marry.

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That conversation was the first time my mother brought up marriage. To my great dismay, it was not the last.

My mother is not alone in her concerns about my matrimony (or lack thereof). As the oldest daughter of a middle-class Malaysian Chinese family, there are expectations for me to fulfil. I was quick to realize that these expectations came less from my parents, but rather from their extended circle of friends.

When you find a husband, you won’t need to work so hard.

(To my parents) It’s okay, you’ll get a grandchild soon.

Do you have a boyfriend?

When are you getting married?

You should get a move on (with the marriage business), your parents are getting old.

I often wonder what motivates the average middle-aged family friend to take such an interest in my love life. I can’t imagine they would think I need a husband to be able to support my parents’ retirement – after all, my brother and I graduated university free of student debt, and work in well-paying professions. I am sure that some of them do care very much for my happiness and well-being, but not the random Aunties and Uncles that I meet only once or twice every ten years whose names I barely remember.

After a series of conversations with the more talkative of said acquaintances, I realised that their concerns had little to do with me as an individual, and even less about my parents.

It was about what they thought was the right way.

The Husband as a Breadwinner

“When you find a husband, you won’t need to work so hard,” seems like a harmless statement. Wouldn’t it be great not to have to work? But in this statement, the well-meaning uncle assumes that when I am married, my husband’s career should be able to support us both.

That’s unfair to us both! I’m quite sure my spouse would appreciate greater financial stability.

Yes. But you don’t have to work if you didn’t want to, you know?

No I don’t know. I like my work, and would very much like to continue working.

But as he kept insisting on this point, I began to realise – the expectation of my exit from the labour force isn’t about whether or not I have to work. It is whether or not I should.

Knowing What to Expect When You’re Expecting

A common follow-up statement to the question of marriage is one about children. It’s fairly simple logic – have marriage, want children. There is no question of whether or not we want children. It is a matter of when. My mother is especially concerned about this matter, impressing upon me how important it was to have children and how ‘natural’ it was.

There is a question about children at every family reunion, without fail. Adoption is off the table for my conservative Asian family– I once cheekily suggested I would adopt a child as a single parent if my relatives wanted another grandchild so badly, and could probably slice open a frozen cake with the sharp looks I received in reply. So, it begs the question – why the obsession with children?

I received two responses to this: a) the anthropological response – children contribute to the continuation of your “tribe”; b) it is your role as a wife.

Point a) is easy enough to accept. Thousands of Anthropology PhDs are in the thicket of answering this question and I trust in their ability to find a satisfactory answer. But point b) is damning evidence that despite higher rates of education in women and participation in the labour force, our number one priority is still assumed to be childbearing and childrearing.

What I learnt through my conversations with the older generation was this: As a woman, your professional and personal accomplishments are not as great a priority compared to your role as a wife and mother. My role as a wife is to support my husband’s career and to have children that will carry on the family name. It is expected. Suddenly, it seems that not much progress has been made since the era of second-wave feminism.

I was livid. This gave women undue expectations to serve as caregivers and child bearers, but also because of the expectation placed on men to be the primary financial provider of the family. Not to mention the assumption that heteronormative relationships are the de facto option for married women.

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Truth be told, these run-ins with the social expectations of marriage put me off marriage as a concept for a while. I was offended and frustrated that such opinions still existed, and that they were propagated by the older generation and some of my peers. But my frustration with society and its expectations does not change my fundamental opinion about the institution of marriage: it is a legal institution that has a role to play in providing structure to society, and should also be distinguished from long-term companionship. Both are not mutually exclusive, but I believe they remain independent of each other.

This does not erase the potential importance of marriage – or its analogous institutions such as domestic partnerships and civil unions – to society and our lives. If and when I am married, my relationship to my partner is formally recognised and legitimised by the state. With this recognition comes rights and privileges such as tax incentives, access to different financial options, changes to property rights, spousal access to life-insurance as well as the ability to make medical decisions. The list goes on.

I consider these to be rights and privileges because there are couples in our society who may be denied such benefits: couples who are unable to access such rights and privileges due to discrimination or prejudice, or same-sex couples whose relationships continue to go unrecognised and rejected by Malaysian society.

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At the heart of this matter, I believe that decisions on marriage should only be made by the two people involved and no one else. There will be a time and place for me to discuss marriage with my life partner. And whether or not we get married will be based on what we want from the relationship as it continues, as well as the options available to us.

Let’s do some math. We’ll assume that after marriage, I’ll have to spend thirty minutes of dinner with my future life partner, and continue to do this almost every day for the next fifty years. That’s 540,000 minutes of mealtimes that I’ll have to spend with them, and not the nosey auntie or uncle who lives down the street.

2 Comments

Reydi

October 20, 2016 at 3:38 am

Reblogged this on @reydisutandang and commented:
i’m thinking of making video about this. But maybe i’m too lazy to do that. But in fact it’s a really good writing and perspective that i want to share with you.

    The G-Blog

    October 24, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Hi! Please drop us an email if you’re interested to use this story- we can definitely work on something here!

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