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Blog:What my wedding taught me about my marriage

It’s hard for me to write about weddings and marriage without sounding like an old crone, which is not what you would expect of a wedding magazine editor of five years and second-time newlywed fresh out of her honeymoon.

The rising middle class entertains and extols this notion of independence – that you can have anything and be anything you want if you put your mind to it – and what better instance to showcase your individuality in modern Singapore than through your own wedding. Young couples are no longer as tied to tradition as their parents were and as a result, they spend and fuss more over their weddings, while their parents fuss and spend less on them.

One of the many articles I’ve written and co-written with my colleagues for Wedding & Lifestyle magazine. Photo courtesy of Love Bug Rent a Beetle.

For every issue of my wedding magazine, I’ve had to pore over tens and hundreds of wedding ideas that are designed for the sole purpose of pleasing and appeasing the bride-to-be (usually) for those several hours of her life when she gets to put on a white dress and feel beautiful.

Wedding blogs and wedding magazines, even the one that I run, perpetuate the idea of the perfect, bespoke wedding, while entertaining a couple’s (usually the bride-to-be) flights of fancy. There are companies now, which did not even exist 10 or even five years ago, that feed these flights of fancy: from letterpress printers, specialised confectioners, bespoke jewellers, tailors, caterers, florists, wedding planners, photographers; the list goes on. After all, it’s the couple’s (usually the bride-to-be) big day and marriage is only once in a lifetime, so they have every right to indulge!

Or so they (she) think(s) – the latest statistics show that one in four marriages in Singapore end up in divorce; the divorce rate among Muslims is one in three.

Like most brides-to-be planning their wedding, I wanted everything to be perfect when I planned my first in 2006. Marrying my ex-husband, who was the youngest of nine children, meant marrying into an intricate network of extended families, many of whom were at least distantly related to my own family. My own family background is rather complicated; being adopted means I have two sets of parents and by default, four sets of relations. In addition, my adopted mother passed away when I was nine years old and my stepfather had remarried since, which meant another extended family to add to the guest list.

Only in my twenties and already running my own public relations business for several years, I was keen to announce that I had arrived as a businesswoman to everyone who knew me. My ex-husband who only had ‘O’ level qualifications but held a senior operations position in a bank entertained the idea and we went on to pool our savings and procure a series of loans totalling up six figures, which was spent on our wedding and renovation and furnishing of our executive flat in Tampines.

The grand white marquee of my first wedding.

So we had a wedding that spanned two days in a grand, white  marquee set up on land that we leased from the Housing Development Board (HDB), next to the Eunos MRT. We sent out 1200 wedding invitations and fed over 2000 people. We hired a TV personality to be our master-of-ceremony. The embroidered lace material of one of three of my wedding gowns alone cost over $3000 not including the tailoring; our wedding was even featured in a local daily.

But the marriage fell apart after some months; so concerned I was about branding and positioning myself for the rest of the world that I had not noticed or refused to notice that in spite of the seven-year courtship with my ex-husband, we had grown apart. My caring and responsible ex-husband loved me; several times and even after I had filed for divorce, he appealed for a reconciliation, but increasingly I found that I had no desire to relate to him, except to cook, wash, clean, pay my share of the bills and accompany him at family functions. Other than similar interests in music and movies – we went out to many gigs, concerts and screenings – we had little else in common.

I realised that I was willing to repress my authentic self for a sense of security and stability. Having had to shoulder responsibilities from when my stepmother passed away, living with my paranoid-schizophrenic biological father and having to struggle to  set up my business, I had thought that my ex-husband, who helped me buy my first printer as a freelancer and supported my business through tough times, was as good as it could get.

And so when I met John, whom I eventually married at the end of May this year, my whole life was turned upside down and partly due to our complicated relationships with other people. For several months from when I first met John, I was juggling not only him and a husband but also an ex-boyfriend. John was a self-professed womaniser in a constant rebound from an on-and-off relationship with a married girlfriend with whom he owned a corporate training firm.

John and I at the start of our relationship in 2008; the surveillance footage was taken by a private investigator hired by my ex-husband after I came clean that I was cheating on him. It was to ascertain that I did not turn around and deny that I had come clean during the divorce proceedings.

Although we fell in love hard and fast and met as often as our schedules could allow in Singapore and abroad, I did not see a future with him; I saw our whirlwind romance as a sign that I should clear my deck and start over on my own. And until I filed for a divorce and started living with him, he harboured the prophecy that our relationship would end up an unsalvageable train wreck, like what happened with his ex.

When I announced to John that I had filed for a divorce, he asked me to move in with him, which was a scary and impossible idea for a woman who was trying to find her feet in the midst of her own internal chaos. At this time, I was spending some days a week at his apartment when he was not travelling while looking up places to rent on my own, but just when I thought that life could not be more disorienting and out of control, it got worse.

It was the end of 2007, and John had just hosted his eldest daughter in his villa for a couple of weeks in Bali, a place we had returned to time and time again for respite and to reconnect after long bouts of travel. Upon his return to Singapore he proposed to me but I did not say yes immediately; my response over the following months would vacillate from jubilation to smugness to revulsion depending on what was going on in our lives.

It would be some time before John was assured of my commitment and had the resources for an engagement ring; in the beginning of 2008, John would lose many of his corporate training clients – mostly banks and financial institutions – and much of his projected revenue for the entire year. I would also lose many of my public relations clients during the financial crisis of 2008, although they were not at all related to the finance industry.

John would spend a bomb investigating a health scare. He would not be able to renew the lease for his villa in Bali. He would officially file for a divorce from his estranged wife who had not been living with him for years and it would take a while for him to shut down the corporate training firm with the on-and-off ex-girlfriend. When she found out about us, she made it very apparent that she was unhappy with our living arrangement; once she broke into his apartment and I had to call the police to take her away.

At the same time, I found canvassing for new work extremely challenging; whatever new work I gained demanded too many hours and paid too little for me to live on if I was freelancing and living with my parents, let alone support two people paying their own rent, office overheads and two fulltime staff. I had to let go of my staff; one offered to work part time with me until I could find my feet again, but soon I could not even afford to keep her. My lack of manpower necessitated my delegation of some of the work to John which I begrudged, but which he mostly excelled at, thankfully.

Working together was tough at first. John and I with our team at an editorial shoot for one of the clients we work for.

As John was over 50 and not yet a Singapore Permanent Resident, and therefore had very little in the way of work options, so we started working together in my public relations firm, which up to date, was the most challenging thing I have ever done . I have always been the sort of person who would try to keep calm and carry on and as much as I appreciated his shouldering some of the existing workload, his inability to find new sales leads for himself or my company was weighing down on me that I found it hard to keep a lid on my growing resentment. We constantly squabbled on how things should be run, sourced and even said.

For the first several weeks in John’s apartment I did not put my clothes inside the cupboard that he had emptied for me until my ex-husband asked to me to empty the marital home of my things as he was going to change the locks; my divorce lawyer had informed me that because I had been unfaithful, I could only recoup 10 percent, if that, of the monies that I had invested in the wedding and the marital home.

On the verge of a breakdown, I sought out therapy with money that John then often said was better utilised paying the bills.

Over the next several months the tide turned; not only had my overall stress baseline been reduced by leaps and bounds, I was getting back my sales mojo, only this time I had good clients who appreciated our strengths and paid reasonably for our work. We became too occupied with work to fight.

One day, I said to him that I still wanted to be part of my very Muslim foster family and so he should convert if we were to marry. John registered at the Al-Arqam which was rather close to our office and after half a year of weekly religious classes, he converted to Islam and presented me with an engagement ring: a one carat emerald-cut diamond ring we saw at a jeweller’s near our gym.

Not only could we now afford to go back to Bali, we were able to extend our trips from just under a week to more than two weeks. And every time we go back, no matter how tough we have had it, we were always able to be ourselves and fall in love with each other again.

Together at last; John and I at a Royal Plaza on Scotts suite just after our solemnisation.

After his conversion, we visited my foster parents and relatives during Eid together. My parents were just happy that he had converted to Islam to care about our nearly two-decade age gap or that he was white and a retired Major with the British Parachute Regiment.

In addition to my personal therapy, we went for couple therapy to help with further processing the issues that would arise from working and living together. This was last year.

We now have fulltime and part-time staff and good clients who’d leave us to do our work and pay us well and on time for the work we do.  I never asked him to do sales again; he is now happily and gainfully employed writing and planning for our clients.

Only in the first quarter of 2014 did we decide to make it official; we took only over two months to organise our wedding and were married by the end of May. On the second day of June, we went on our first trip to Bali as a married couple.

It sounded like we had lived out our entire marriage long before we made it official on paper and God knows how much I had wished that we had started on a less dramatic note, but there was no better way than a shake-up like what we had gone through to test our resilience, but most importantly, our compatibility.

I am not against celebrating weddings, after all it should be a highlight of any relationship, but it should NOT be the only highlight of any relationship.

Sure, if you can afford it, it’s nice to have bespoke invitation cards and customised dessert and enough pink peonies to fill up an entire hall and a Vera Wang tulle gown and an engagement diamond the size of a quail’s egg. But that’s not the essence of a good, lasting marriage. If money was the essence of a lasting marriage, divorce among Hollywood celebrities and multimillionaires would have been unheard of.

Knowing your partner inside and out and finding compatibility that is over and beyond music and movies and the good things in life is essential. As this article so aptly put it, we need to know the intimate functioning of the psyche of the person we’re marrying. We need to know their stances on money, children, fidelity, ageing, attitudes to authority, sexual kinks, and a hundred things besides that would not necessarily be revealed over chats over coffee. Often we might find these views, stances and beliefs as challenging our own, but that’s often the genesis of personal transformation. Are your differences in views, stances and beliefs challenging you to be better people or are they so different that you absolutely cannot find common ground with him or her other than the superficial?

Take this from someone who has been there and done that: have your fancy bespoke wedding if you must, but don’t let the outward show distract you from what’s going on inside. You don’t need to get married to have a party! And if you need to wear the white dress to feel absolutely your most beautiful and your best, you’d definitely need to see my therapist.

PS: Our second wedding was much smaller and private (only 0.025 percent of the guest list of my first wedding) but it wasn’t all that shoddy or cheap (John is still complaining about how much we’ve spent and he’d much rather a barbecue on East Coast Park). And if you’re interested in how we’ve managed to put together our last minute nuptials and pictures of our parties, come back soon!

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