Stickman Weekly 18/9/2011
Marriage Thai Style
The divorce rate in Thailand is reported to have doubled since the late '90s, but at 20% it remains significantly lower than it is in most Western countries.
When it comes to married couples staying together, and presumably marital happiness, the Thais seem to be doing something right.
But throw a foreigner into the mix and everything changes.
There aren't any comprehensive surveys on the divorce rate in marriages between Western men and Thai women.
My observations suggest that, irrespective of where they live, how they met and what their respective backgrounds are, that the divorce rate between Western men married to Thai women would be on a par with, or perhaps even exceed that of the highest divorce rates in the West i.e. 50%+.
The norms of dating in Thailand are somewhat different to the West.
At least they used to be because dating, relationships, love and sex in Thailand are going through a period of rapid, dramatic change.
Traditionally, a young, single Thai maiden would not go out on a date alone. For perhaps the first few months family members would accompany her as chaperones. They were there to make sure there was no inappropriate physical contact and to make sure that the guy she was dating was suitable.
Some young Thai women weren't allowed to spend any time alone with a young man. It isn't that long since young Thai women would only date a guy she considered marriage material.
Things started to change post Vietnam War. Change was gradual, but picked up steam in the 90s and positively accelerated early this Millennium as income levels increased, Internet usage became more widespread and urban Thais adopted more and more aspects from foreign cultures.
At the end of the Vietnam War, Thailand was socially conservative, ultra conservative. Unmarried women typically wore ankle-length dresses most of the time and there was no physical contact whatsoever with a young man.
Of course some couples were rolling around down the back of the farm behind the buffaloes, or sweating it out in short-time hotel rooms, but this was frowned upon, not just by parents and elders, but by their peers and society in general. It just wasn't Thai!
Dating in Thailand was once a very deliberate and structured process for two youngsters to get to know each other, and to determine if the person they were dating was suitable to spend the rest of their life with.
It was not long before marriage was discussed and couples married young. There was no chivalrous proposal with him getting down on one knee, but a discussion with the lady about the future, of what he, the provider, planned work-wise and how he would provide in the future.
Given that traditionally many women remained at home and it was the man who brought home the bacon, a man's plan for the future was a major factor in her decision.
The respective families of the couple to be would meet formally to discuss the couple's future. Each family would look closely at each other, evaluating what the other brought to the table.
Throughout the whole dating ritual he might not lay so much as a finger on her. A woman's virginity was valued and just as she was expected to be a virgin, a man who took it was expected to marry her.
Failure to do so could result in serious consequences. Even today in some rural areas and / or with more traditional families, a young man who takes a lady's virginity might face pressure to make an honest woman of her. And if she were to fall pregnant, the pressure could be immense.
Of course she may not have had her first intimate experience before marriage. Thai oldies tell us how in their day a good Thai woman would wait until her wedding night but the odd older Thais reveals that that was not always the case.
Part of the agreement to marry included the negotiation of sin sot (dowry / bride price), a dated custom that had its place but which I believe is totally out of place this century and at odds with modern Thai cultural norms.
When the culture of relationships and love in Thailand resembled what is still mistakenly and unfortunately perpetuated in many Thailand travel guidebooks and culture guides, the sin sot might have had its place. Back then the sin sot was as much a "guarantee" as anything.
If the man left the woman after marriage, she would often be spurned by society and seen as a bad wife. No man would want her as she would be seen as being used and soiled. Unlike today, men performed most jobs, and women looked after the household so without any income she would not be able to look after herself.
Even today, many Thai men abhor the idea of marrying a woman who was previously married or who already has children. So if the man left her, the sin sot provided means for her to have a future.
If the opposite was to happen - and from all accounts such was not at all common - and she cheated on him, the sin sot was supposed to be returned.
In modern day Thailand where marriage is not necessarily seen as a life-long commitment, the original arguments for the sin sot are no longer valid. Unfortunately the sin sot has become distorted and is today seen as a means of gaining face for the bride and her family with outrageous amounts sought - irrespective of the nationality of the groom.
Every Thai man still expects and accepts that a sin sot must be paid.
So in summary, in traditional Thailand, a young couple would have chaperoned dates, there would be no intimacy before marriage, there'd be a meeting of the families before marriage with frank discussion about future plans and at the time of marriage a sin sot would be paid.
As traditionalists and Thailand society in general struggle to come to grips with the rapid changes in the local culture of dating, love and sex, a young Thai couple might not be chaperoned, nor even supervised. You can be sure that young women dating young men are monitored by their family, especially if they live at home and / or are dating their first boyfriend.
Thailand still has a relatively low divorce rate, so why is it that so many Western men fail to find happiness in marriage to a Thai woman and why do, in my observations, many marriages between Western men and Thai women go bad?
There are a number of reasons why marriage between Western men and Thai women may not work out. Often the couple got married quickly, before they each had a chance to really know each other.
Plans for the future are often not discussed with each person holding their own ideas about what the future. In some cases the payment of sin sot and other riches may have been her primary objective and once it was paid there was no reason for her to stick around.
If the couple had gone about dating in a more traditional Thai style there's a chance it might have worked out - or they may have worked out they were just not compatible before they committed to each other.
Chaperoned dating is not common when a foreigner dates a Thai woman today. Many westerners are uncomfortable with the idea. A lot of Thai women have dated just one foreign guy - and it went so badly that they will never date another. Invariably he just wanted to bed her, and once he managed that he was gone. Chaperoned dating may have helped.
Even today, physical contact between a young Thai guy and girl means that marriage will follow, especially if he is her first. Every Thai man knows this, even if he may not respect it. A foreigner involved with a Thai woman who introduces her to the world of intimacy should expect similar.
Today Thai couples take their time to get to know each other. Rural Thais may date for several years before marriage. This gives them to get beyond the promotion period and really get to know their partner, their friends, find out about their work life, their habits and their family. It takes time.
When getting involved with a foreigner, things seem to go fast and many western men marry a woman they have spent little time with and who they really do not know. It is a sucker who marries before all the data is in.
When things get serious and marriage between a Western guy and Thai woman is discussed, the formal meeting with the family is often omitted. Big mistake! There's no reason why an older, respectable Thai known to the foreign guy cannot be engaged to attend the formal meeting with the family of the bride-to-be and represent him.
The best families may even insist on it. Given that most foreigners are not that familiar with Thai culture - and as such the lady's and her family's expectations - what follows might be a surprise - never a good thing in marriage!
When it comes to sin sot, which needs to be talked about openly and honestly, often the message is that the foreign man must pay xxx,xxx baht - way over the odds.
For him, there may be little or no understanding of the significance of this payment, what it represents and what will happen to the money. Failure to get a respected Thai involved is potentially asking for trouble.
Thais are pragmatic when it comes to marriage and it's no secret that some families from difficult - read poor - backgrounds whose daughter presents a white man to them may get excited at the perceived benefits he brings. Failure to look after himself physically, hygiene issues, lack of familiarity with and failure to adhere to local customs, to say nothing of being twice the daughter's age can all be overlooked.
In some cases it is understood from the outset that this is a marriage of convenience that will not last - the pay off makes it worthwhile. In the past it would be considered shameful for a Thai woman to knowingly marry a foreigner with the intention of later divorcing him for financial gain, changes in attitude have been so great that it may not just be overlooked, but admired by some, looked at as a legitimate way to get ahead.
When a foreigner enters the equation, traditions can take a backseat.
The approach of Thais to dating pre-marriage might be conservative, but it seems to work. There's a decent argument that adopting some of the principles Thais follow might increase the odds of a foreigner finding marital bliss with a Thai lady.
The notion of chaperoned dating can be awkward for Westerners, but it's hardly the ordeal it once was. Typically no more than one date will be accompanied. Use it to your advantage and be sure that your trusted friends meet your darling long before you even start to discuss the idea of marriage with her!
As with modern Thai couples, in Bangkok at least, there needn't be any great rush. Date for at least a couple of years before even thinking about marriage.
The pre-engagement discussion *is* important and should not be avoided. Take along a senior, respectable Thai you trust. Don't let your first meeting with your in-laws take place on the day of the wedding ceremony!
And when it comes to the sin sot, don't be afraid to point out that it is a dated ritual with little relevance and in many ways has no place today.
When considering marriage with a Thai woman, I believe that doing most things the Thai way can help your chances of finding happiness. Reluctance on the part of your Thai darling to do things as a Thai couple typically would should be looked at with skepticism, even suspicion.
Perhaps the biggest problem foreign guys considering marriage with a Thai lady face is that as soon as they meet their first Thai femme fatale they forget everything they have been told or have read. Commonsense disappears. Sometimes with Western men in Thailand it's just hopeless!