Love & Marriage, Filipino-Style

Cross-posted at In The Fray.

When I was 13 years old, I’d decided that if Pat Benatar was right and love really was a battlefield, then I’d be proud to fight for the grandeur of romance, show off all of my scars, and maybe lose a few emotional appendages, too.

By the time I was sixteen years old and my father revealed that he’d had two children out of wedlock, and that he and my mom were considering divorce, the idealism of happily ever afters had sunken in so deeply that it wouldn’t bleed out of me, no matter how many times my heart broke.

And so it’s been, despite  the unhealthy dysfunction of my parents’ rollercoaster marriage, and my own many strange and twisted experiments with sex, love, and fidelity: I have always held on to the ideas that love is one of the most beautiful things anyone can know, and that the hope of an enduring, loving, and fully supportive marriage is an ideal worth fighting for.

Even though my American peers and I all know about single-parent households, divorce, remarriage, and blended families, there is a legitimacy behind it all, a logic telling us that what matters is not how a family is made, but the definite love and respect between a family’s members.  We carry this knowledge like a badge of superiority, an assured and assumably accurate claiming of life experience and maturity. Sure, bad things happen; sure, marriages end and parents divorce; sure, many teenagers navigate the quicksands of dating and relationships at the same time that their parents reenter those same assailing conditions,  but that’s life. We act out, we drink too much and do drugs, we go to therapy, we become promiscuous, we cry on our friends’ shoulders, and then, eventually, we trudge on with the business of growing up and getting over it all.Throughout these battles, our reverence for love and marriage remain intact.

Apparently, it’s a different love story in the Philippines.

There is no divorce in the Philippines, no empathy for unwed mothers or their bastard children, no faith in the loyalty of men, and no hope in happily ever afters. A hard crust of distrust coats the layers of bitterness which enshroud the Filipino’s romantic experience, and try as they might to shake off the negativity, “common sense” and experience have taught their lessons well: the only  happily ever afters are the ones that exist after you’ve contorted your romantic ideals into an unrecognizable blob of compromise and resignation.

Women are expected to fulfill their supportive and nurturing role of “girlfriend” or “wife” regardless of their partner’s loyalty or lack thereof; cheating and adultery amongst men is not only accepted, but expected. When a woman cheats, she’s a slut, or a whore, or a lunatic. But when power-wielding men do it, when down-and-out men do it, when young men do it, and when old men do it, the common reaction is “But of course!”Either they do it to show off their power, or to show that they still have some kind of power, or because they have the power of youth, or because they’re losing the power of youth. One thing is clear: love in the Philippines is an epic power struggle, and women are not the only ones losing.

Children grow out of these relationships feeling awkward and uncertain about their worthiness of love and their claim on a legitimately successful life.  They question the value of romantic relationships, and doubt their own ability at finding everlasting love. They half-believe what the culture dictates: that they are somehow less desirable as human beings because their parents do not have a storybook romance and marriage. It is in this climate of hostility that far-fetched notions of acceptable loves are brewed, and the significance of the institution of marriage is devalued.

Because there is no divorce in the Philippines, and also because women who have children out of wedlock sentence themselves and their offspring to eternal criticism and condemnation, there is a pervading sense that the solution to the mistakes of romance is not to learn from it all, grow, and move on, but to get married and stay married. And even though some teenagers are lucky to have a teacher deplore this ill-advised measure, the idea of marriage as panacea has sunken deeply into the core of Filipino culture. Shame on you for having sex before marriage. Shame on you for having children before being wed. Shame on you for being born out of wedlock. Shame on you for separating with your spouse and shacking up with someone else. In a country whose culture dictates that everyone know everything about each other, and that they all wield the power of judgment, shame is powerful. For these reasons, marriage becomes a last-chance or last-ditch-effort at keeping one’s life together, and not a lasting tribute to love.

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