Rising divorce rate only underscores the value of a good marriage

Amy Wu says her recent divorce has taught her the folly of rushing into a partnership without taking the time to first build a solid foundation, or treating the institution with the respect it’s due

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 3:55pm

I got married in May 2014. It was a quiet, private affair. We were part of a lengthy queue of couples waiting to say “I do” at city hall.

In less than 40 minutes, we were officially husband and wife. There was no symbolic rainbow or fireworks, but by making it legal, everything had changed. The first words out of my husband’s mouth were, “Now you’re an old married lady.” He had been married before.

I felt liberated. Sadly, but practically, I’d checked off what was the Mount Everest of accomplishments for women universally – I had got hitched, I was taken. I could exhale.

Three months later, when we held a ceremony with an officiant and 10 banquet tables of guests, I took the vows literally. No one enters a marriage wanting it to fail.

In the next 18 months, what I came to understand was marriage can, sadly, remain a piece of paper if it is rushed into. I kicked myself for not asking the essential questions: why marriage? And, why this partner?

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Marriage was a social norm and a rite of passage. What girl doesn’t dream of walking up the aisle in a white dress? The perks of marriage seemed to outweigh those of being solo.

This marriage was a leap of faith. My husband and I started out as friends (benign enough), but in truth, we didn’t know each other very well. In retrospect, I hadn’t thought about why I so desperately wanted to be married, except that most women of my vintage – late 30s at the time – had already walked down the aisle. I was consumed by fear that I’d be checking off “spinster” on official forms for the rest of my life.

I was consumed by fear that I’d be checking off ‘spinster’ on official forms for the rest of my life

I equated marriage with stability. Forty was around the corner. A 1986 Newsweek article about a report describing women over 40 as being “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to get married – “they have a minuscule 2.6 per cent probability of tying the knot” – was terrifying, despite the fact it was terribly outdated.

Being a first-generation Chinese American and having lived and worked in Hong Kong, I understood the status of marriage. There were job interviews where I’d been asked about my relationship status. The single status seemed odd at a certain age and was looked upon suspiciously. Besides, I observed that family was an institution. It was rare seeing someone at a Sunday morning dim sum on their own. The upshot was that, as a single person, I was often seated at the children’s table at banquets, and who wants that?

In Hong Kong and much of Asia, the word divorce doesn’t seem to exist even though it is on the rise. According to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, the number of divorces has steadily increased to a rate at 3.1 per 1,000 population in 2013, nearly three times higher than in 1991.

The data wasn’t a surprise given that, in the US, half of marriages end in divorce. In fact, the longer I was married, the more I understood why divorce was on the rise.

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So much money and fanfare go into engagements and weddings, while much less goes into the care, time and thought to build the kind of relationship that it takes to make marriage sustainable.

Marriage as a checklist or rooted in hooking up via some mobile app is a dangerous proposition and creates an easy-come, easy-go relationship.

In the US alone, the online dating industry is worth US$2.2 billion, but how sustainable are the relationships they spawn? Swiping through photos on a smartphone seems to reduce dating to a game. The media, and social media, fuel the frenzy.

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During my time in Hong Kong, I did observe some positive changes. There were a good number of women, many professional and well educated, who led fit and healthy lifestyles, who were sidelining marriage if not rejecting it outright. They earned their own money, went to cool places on vacation, and created their own support networks. Some had boyfriends and companions. Some wanted to get married, others didn’t, and in retrospect I think they were smart to take their time. They were wise to not adopt a checklist mentality.

As my father points out, men and women are basically equal these days, and marriage is no longer an institution with defined roles. That is a good thing, which is why marriage itself needs to be redefined rather than siloed and turned into a milestone on a Facebook timeline.

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So, a paradigm shift in thinking is needed. Maybe the 50 per cent divorce rate in the US would drop if people were more thoughtful and spent more time creating a solid foundation first. Marriage can be a solid institution if people build a solid friendship first. Marriage can be long lasting if couples go through premarital counselling and discuss, in-depth, major topics such as children and finances. Marriage can be sustainable.

This season, things are very different. I had a birthday and entered a new decade. My husband and I recently went our separate ways, because we should have taken our time to build a more solid foundation. Perhaps we got sucked into the bells and whistles of marriage.

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After all the papers were signed, I chatted with the lawyer who has spent nearly 20 years focused on marriage dissolution. Now in her 60s, she has been married, divorced, single for many years and now happily remarried. I asked her if the work had made her discouraged about marriage.

“Sometimes it makes me discouraged about people and how they treat one another, but I still believe in marriage as an institution,” she said.

“Same here,” I said, a bit surprised by my own response given this failed chapter. I now fully understand that marriage is an institution to be coveted, and one deserving the thought and time it takes to build a solid foundation. There is nothing sugar-coated about that.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator