Saturday, July 9, 2011

What's love got to do with it?

Boy meets girl and they fall in love.  There’s a big wedding with all of their family and friends, they buy a nice house with a yard, have a few kids, and get a dog.  Isn’t life grand?  The couple loves and supports each other, the kids play sports, do well in school and maybe even play an instrument.  Before long the kids are off to college and the cycle begins again.  This is the American ideal-but is it realistic?  What is it based on?  Do other countries have the same ideal when it comes to love and marriage?  What does the ideal tell us about the culture and its people? Are those ideals working for us?  It’s a pretty well known fact that, in America, when you say ‘I do’ you have about a 50/50 chance of it ending in divorce. Yikes!

I’ve been thinking a lot about love and marriage lately since one of the assigned readings for our Thai sociology and literature classes is The Lioness in Bloom: Modern Thai Fiction about Women (Kepner, 1996).  The book is a collection of short stories about Thai women and the many roles that they play. One of the main roles is, of course, being a wife.  However, the marriage portrayed in these short stories isn’t based on romance but rather duty. This is such a foreign concept to me.  I can’t think of one person that I’ve ever met that would get married without love simply because that was what was expected of them whether it be for status, a match made by the local match maker, or an agreement between your father and the groom’s father.  After reading some of these stories, falling in love almost seems selfish.  The Thai women see a bigger picture and a higher purpose because the marriage isn’t just about the bride and groom.  They truly marry each other’s families and often take members of the family into their home. If you are royalty, your fate in marriage has almost certainly been decided, perhaps before you were even born. 

The women in these stories each have their own story to tell but, in the end, duty and family come first.  Often the women marry men they have never met.  One of the most popular stories in Thailand, Four Reigns (Pramoj, 1953), does a good job at depicting the fears and uncertainty that come with an arranged marriage.  Even though the woman is privileged and wealthy, she has still lived a very sheltered life and is about to leave the only home and people that she knows and loves.  She leaves not knowing who is waiting at the other end to take her as his bride.  The bride in this story, Phloi, describes this feeling by saying “Two people who have never spoken a word to each other, all of a sudden thrown together, face to face, by themselves…I may just die of fright.”  She wonders if he is kind. Will she grow to love him? However, this is all secondary to the fact that it is her duty to honor this marriage and this man.  The marriage is based around tradition, loyalty, and duty.  There was a purpose to every gift given, every conversation, every ceremony and every piece of clothing. Personally, I can’t imagine taking on that kind of responsibility or making such a huge sacrifice at such a young age.

So, is there something to dutiful love?  Can you marry a stranger and grow to love them?  Can you have a happy life without love if you do have a good husband and family? What is really important? How much of a role should love play in marriage?


  1. Bethany,

    I'm glad you conclude your article with questions rather than statements, because this is one of those topics that is always going to divide opinion.

    I think you are fair to both traditions--the "higher purpose" of selfless, dutiful marriage versus the ideal of personal love and an all-consuming romance.

    I agree with you that, so far, our literary readings have favored the dutiful tradition the most.

    Ajarn Rob

  2. Bethany,
    A nice thoughtful post. You raise excellent questions about the relationship between duty to family/society, and duty to self. I suspect that the Thai are more likely to come down in favor of love, and the American towards honoring the self. But the two goals are in tension with each other, aren't they? I guess that it is not really possible to resolve this tension, though. But as Rob seems to point out, a different type of literature seems to come out of Thailand as a result.