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 eventually 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 postgraduate research fellow 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 long-term marriages among Malaysian Chinese.
“Marriage is, after all, to a large extent shaped by our cultural norms but marital studies for ethnic 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.