It seems ever harder for a marriage to go the distance. But to prove that it can be done, #TeamThir.st has scoured the streets of Singapore in search of couples whose marriages have lasted the test of time against unfavourable odds.
How’d they do it? Is there a secret ingredient? Honestly, is it even worthwhile?
“If you live to 99, I want to die one day earlier – because I never want to live without you.”
We spoke to 8 couples who, cumulatively, have been married a total of 330 years.
The “rookies” among this group of seasoned Valentine’s Day veterans have been married for 34 years, while the Yongs set the standard at 52 years of marriage.
Join us as we pick their brains for valuable nuggets of wisdom on love.
ON FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Jerry Chia couldn’t hold back his laughter as he recounted his first impression of his wife Samantha, whom he met in university.
“I was fresh out of the army and I first saw her as some cocky Hwa Chong overachiever. I thought I’d be able to sort her out,” said the trained counsellor. “Of course one thing led to another and I realised she wasn’t that bad.”
Samantha shot back: “You should’ve seen him. He had long hair. When I first met him, he had a hole in the back of his shirt. I thought to myself, ‘How could anyone be that sloppy?’ I only talked to him because he gave me a book that everyone wanted.”
“Please! That book cost just 10 dollars, and gullible you thought it was so valuable.”
The Chias tied the knot 34 years ago and have two sons.
ON “THE ONE”
Our veteran couples seem to agree that “The One” doesn’t exist – at least not in the rom-com sense.
Patrick and Geraldine Kwok believe the magic happens only after you say your marriage vows. “Once you marry, your partner becomes The One,” quipped Geraldine. Her face was radiant as she turned to the man holding her hand as she spoke:
Her husband of 38 years, Patrick. “After a while, all the rationality eventually gives way to something you feel inside. It’s intuition.”
ON MAKING THE FIRST MOVE
Mr Yong, who turns 90 this year, is old-fashioned about how to make contact with a potential partner. Phone calls are still the way to go, he said.
Does replying too quickly make someone appear desperate? “No, you should reply immediately,” he said.
His wife, watching her husband’s face closely, weighed in. “Can I speak for you, Daddy? He means that if you really love someone, you really don’t want to keep them waiting, right?”
Mr Yong beamed, both thumbs raised. Our question of desperation suddenly seemed rather petty.
“Back in the day we didn’t have Facebook or Whatsapp. If we really were interested in someone we had to pluck up the courage to ask for their phone number in person.”
Seasoned wedding solemniser Jeffrey Goh also said phone calls are the way to go. He recounted the moment he made contact with Alice, who was 10 years his junior.
“Back in the day we didn’t have Facebook or Whatsapp. If we really were interested in someone we had to pluck up the courage to ask for their phone number in person,” recounted Jeffrey, an officer in the military for over 20 years, while Alice was an air stewardess.
“Nothing says I like you as well as walking right up to a person and saying, ‘I like you’. I didn’t think she’d want an old man like me, but I told myself I had nothing to lose.”
“I asked for her phone number and thank God, we clicked immediately. No point pursuing someone who isn’t the least bit interested in you, but thank God she reciprocated.”
The Gohs have been happily married for 42 years.
ON ROMANCE VIA SMS
Of course, if your first contact comes in the form of text messaging, there’s still hope, said the Kwoks.
“You must learn to craft your text message properly,” said Geraldine, who said her background in marketing taught her the importance of effective communication.
“Use those emoticon things, but please – not too many hearts ???? early on.”
And, no, there shouldn’t be a rule that the boy has to approach the girl, she said, adding that girls need to be self-confident and have the courage to approach boys if necessary.
“We shouldn’t care so much about how other people think. Nothing to lose.”
Most of the couples we spoke to advised young people to be cautious when using dating apps like Tinder. They warned against putting too much information out there before meeting in person.
But ultimately, to Jerry and Samantha Chia, “it doesn’t quite matter how you meet. It’s what happens next that that really counts.”
ON SHARED INTERESTS
Other couples met their Significant Other in the same line of work. David and Mary Pak met as nurses, posted to the same premises.
Their relationship grew even after David went into a different professions thereafter because they were willing to make little sacrifices. This has kept their 47-year marriage fresh, they said.
“Over the years we continued to learn each other’s interests, and made an effort to cultivate those interests in ourselves so we’d always get along,” said Mary.
Among the impressive and ever-growing list of couple-activities the Paks have tried their hand at: Hitting the gym together, Chinese calligraphy, painting and dances of various genres. To prove it, they offered to dance the cha-cha-cha for us on the spot.
ON REAL LOVE
How can you tell if someone really loves you?
“Actions speak louder than words,” says Mrs Yong of her husband of 54 years. She looked tenderly into his old smiling eyes. “For as long as I know, he’s been a good husband to me and father to our kids. That’s how he loves me.”
Yap Ah Eng complained that before she married Yap Chook Sung 51 years ago, he was very attached to her – but come Wedding Day, he didn’t even hold her hand.
The same happened after each of their children was born, she said. He laughed out loud on hearing this, his wrinkles seeming to fold upon themselves with each laugh.
In Mandarin, he told us he was just extremely excited. His wife shook her head, but the corners of her lips were upturned.
Amid a culture of chronic busyness, Ronald and Angelic Lee – who work together in a recruiting agency – said the key to their 34-years-and-counting marriage is intentionally guarding time for each other
Despite tight work schedules, they’ve tried to eat every meal together for years. And they still create space for romance. “We make it a point to travel together – just the two of us. It is important that we never take each other for granted. In fact, over Valentine’s Day we’re going to check out the Northern lights!”
Freddy and Agnes Tan, who have been married for 37 years, literally walk the talk.
Agnes suffers from eczema, and upon learning that stress is a possible trigger of eczema, Fred pledged to go for night walks with his wife to help her relax, sacrificing his sleep to do so. And when Agnes’ condition began to improve, Fred was glad to continue accompanying her.
ON SPEAKING THE TRUTH (IN LOVE)
“Honey, do I look fat?” Most men would keep their mouths shut, but marriage counsellor Jerry believes husbands should ask another question in response. “We should say, ‘Dear, would you like a nice or an honest answer?'”
In any mature relationship, sensitivity and truth come hand-in-hand, he said. “The mirror doesn’t lie, but we must always communicate that we love our wives regardless. It’s not just appearance, but also health.”
“Honey, do I look fat?”
“Dear, would you like a nice or an honest answer?”
It’s easy for spouses to live secret lives unknown to their partners – for example, meeting an ex for lunch, or who we connect with on social media.
Navigating such a landscape as a couple requires a good deal of carefulness and communication, said Mary Pak, who added that it all boils down to trust. “I trust him. I know he will keep me in the loop, so I give him his freedom.”
Husband David added: “You must be sensitive. If you know your wife has a problem with it, respect her decision even if you don’t agree. She’s your wife, after all.”
Yap Ah Eng told us that when either of them finds themselves in the wrong, they immediately raise the issue and apologise to their spouse. By doing this, they effectively communicate that it is more important to value the relationship above the need to be right. She credits the love of God with keeping their marriage strong over the years.
ON RIDING OUT TOUGH TIMES
Facebook albums full of photos of happy moments – your wedding day, the birth of your children, family holidays – present a lopsided view of marriage. We know the spaces between these moments are filled by the not-so-happy, the ugly and the painful.
While modern romantics might view these as ominous signs, the veterans understand their deeper purpose.
Jerry Chia gestured with his hands, two upward-pointing index fingers starting far apart, then drawing closer the higher they got. “In marriage, there is always compromise. You both give up a little more of yourself each day that together you may become something new.”
His two fingers finally combine and begin to move skyward as one. “Now you are one.”
It’s obvious that he’s been practicing this movement for a while now. “If not for Samantha, I would not be where I am today.”
Ronald and Angelic Lee acknowledged there are always hard times, but said both had to know what they were committed to.
“We had our share of quarrels and fights. But once we married, we knew we were in this for life. The D-word was never a consideration,” said Angelic.
Noticing our confusion, she clarified, “Divorce.” Beside her, Ronald nodded, then held her hand. To the Lees, the key to a lasting relationship is patience.
ON KEEPING THE ROMANCE ALIVE, POST-KIDS
Children are said to be the death of romance.
“It’s easy to forget that marriage is more than just parenting. At times we felt guilty about doing things without the children. But it’s important that we still make time for romance,” lamented Jeffrey Goh.
To David and Mary Pak, the missional aspect of marriage kept them on their toes. Said David: “We always had things to do. Raising kids, supporting the family. Now we just focus on enjoying life. Now I’m back in school, learning art. She cooks yummy food for me and we go dancing together.”
Jerry and Samantha Chia conveniently solve this problem by planning holidays in two phases. “Now that our kids are grown up, we travel as a family first – then we go off and do our own thing somewhere else.”
ON VALENTINE’S DAY
While Valentine’s Day is a good a day as any to celebrate their union, the couples warn against buying into an overcommercialised event.
“If you really love someone, every day is Valentine’s Day,” cooed Jeffrey into his laughing wife’s ears. “Why go to great lengths to prove your love? Some guys these days buy 300 roses for their ladies. I’d spread them out over 300 days to maximise the effect.”
In fact, why be selfish about Valentine’s Day? Why not use it to spread the joy, said Patrick Kwok. “Of course we’re going to celebrate. And it’ll be a family affair. We’ll have some friends over as well!”
Mr Yong, whose memory is starting to fade as he approaches 90, said: “I don’t know what is Valentine’s Day. I don’t even remember how we met.”
He coughed. His wife of 52 years leant closer, and their eyes met. “I just know her face, and I know I love her.”