SINGAPORE: Some time ago, at a wedding dinner, a male acquaintance on the same table asked when my turn was.
“Maybe you’ll find the right guy and your life will change,” he said.
“Sure but what if I find the wrong guy and my life changes?” I replied tongue-in-cheek. He laughed and turned to another guest for the rest of that evening.
Fast forward to the present. This tale came to mind after news of Mediacorp artiste Belinda Lee’s marriage broke and scores of online netizens expressed how glad they were she found lifelong bliss.
“She no longer lives alone!” said one reader. “I rejoice that God has given you the man who will love you and be there for you,” said another.
“Congrats girl on your happily ever after,” added a third.
MARRIAGE A TEST, NOT A BED OF ROSES
Lee’s wedding was no doubt a joyous occasion that must have brought the couple, their guests and many readers huge joy but most of us surely know marriage is not all a bed of roses.
Friends who have tied the knot tell me it is a lifelong commitment accompanied by constant tests of character, compromise and clarity of values. Throw in kids, aged parents and work responsibilities, and you have a combustible mix.
Marriage as a merging of two potentially very different lives, family backgrounds and priorities is a massive enough challenge.
Yet, there’re plenty of people out there banking on marriage to deliver happiness instead of finding life satisfaction from within, which I find problematic.
If anyone tells you they’re looking for someone to make them whole, I would advise you to run for the hills and don’t look back.
Indeed, what bothered me most about the comments in this episode was the underlying assumption that marriage is some sort of a golden ticket to a lifetime of happiness, that finding a husband will somehow automatically open up the gates to paradise for a woman.
Part of this might be our familiarity with a Singapore narrative we’ve been raised to believe in: Study hard, get a good job, get married and have kids.
Miss one step in this natural order of things and there’s no guarantee what horrible fate lies ahead.
READ: Commentary: Succeed in your career, settle down, buy a BTO. Is this Singaporean dream outdated?
SATISFACTION CAN COME FROM ELSEWHERE
Surely we have to acknowledge that, for some people, marriage is not the silver bullet that can instantly transform a life that seems to be lacking that special something to one that is completely, and permanently gratifying.
Pamela Chng, who was on a SMU panel I moderated last year, gets fired up whenever she speaks of her leaving a high-flying role to found Bettr Barista, a social enterprise that hires women with disadvantaged backgrounds and at-risk youths and gives them a shot at a long-term career in the coffee industry.
OCBC’s Selena Ling, who was at a Bloomberg event I attended last week, speaks fondly of learning and overcoming her newfound challenge of mastering geopolitics in a complex global economy dominated by the US-China strategic rivalry.
Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations president and full-time doctor June Goh, says she finds satisfaction in activities outside work which challenges her to move out of her comfort zone.
READ: June Goh's commentary, On gender equality and whether women can have it all
The proud smiles on their faces when they talk about what brings them fulfillment tell me that happiness can come from doing well at work, contributing back to society and more.
THE CONVERSATION TO BE HAD BEFORE TYING THE KNOT
Could marriage in fact be an obstacle to all the other good things in life one might want to achieve?
We all know partnership comes with sacrifice but when I talk to many households, sometimes it can feel skewed, as if one gender is paying the price more than the other, especially when women shoulder greater family responsibilities.
That doesn’t sound like a good bargain to me at all.
Does it mean those dreams can only be achieved with the right, worthy life partner who champions personal success and shares a vision of what a life together entails, when one is hitched? Perhaps.
Experts say you should have a few important conversations when a relationship gets serious. Figure out how your dual-income life is going to work, says INSEAD Professor Jennifer Petriglieri, in Harvard Business Review's Idea Cast podcast in October.
"If you think back to the early days of your relationship, you’re still on parallel tracks right? You have this career, a friend at work and you just added on top this wonderful relationship," she says.
"It’s wonderful, but it never lasts. Eventually, we face some kind of hard choice in a couple ... how do we make this work? How do we structure our lives so that we can have two careers and a good relationship?"
"The couples who really worked saw their lives as a joint project. They seemed to be as invested in each other’s success as they were as their own. Their relationship moved away from tit-for-tat - like I sacrifice this, you sacrifice that – to looking at like how we can grow the pie for both of us.”
Even before walking down the aisle, in the course of getting into a serious relationship, do we discuss our joint objectives?
Do we negotiate whether we get a shot at pursuing our ambitions or lay out the trade-offs we are willing to make for each other?
A WIDER RANGE OF ROLE MODELS
Back to Selena, Pamela and June, with huge credentials to their names, these women have led life on their own terms.
They are proud of their accomplishments and feel gratified by their contribution to society. They don’t let their marital status define them.
Let’s hope girls find them to be role models worth emulating.
Here, it is important to clarify one should be happy for Belinda Lee. It is not easy finding someone suitable to commit the rest of your life to.
But I long for the day when we watch a woman in her 40s get married and not have to witness an online collective sigh of relief as if some tsunami had been avoided.
Lin Suling is executive editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees the Commentary section.