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'It felt like I fell into hell, it hurt so much,' the voice of one Thai woman whose husband took a minor wife

Thursday 16th November 2017 7:19pm

Fascinating research from a leading Thai university gives us an insight into what happens when Thai marriages break down. A very small proportion of these Thai women seek foreign husbands. Most, however soldier on, often with spiritual assistance.

A major study undertaken by Thailand prestigious Mahidol university has found 23.5% of middle class Thai men living in Bangkok engage in extended extramarital affairs or take minor wives according to Thai custom.

This information emerges from a report into 18 Thai women whose husbands had taken up relationships with minor wives. Thailand is a patriarchal society where at the turn of the last century married men were considered to own their wives and children as well as having the freedom to take up to four wives at the same time. The extent of patriarchy in Thailand can be gauged from the fact that up until the 1932 revolution in Thailand, which installed a constitutional monarchy, Thai husbands had the power to punish and even condemn their wives in the event of them being unfaithful.

Background to marriage in Thailand

In 1935 Thailand introduced a law setting marriage on a more western footing where a Thai man could only take one wife. However the power of tradition in Thailand meant that this was interpreted by most Thais as a license for Thai men to take concubines or mistresses to the extent that they could afford such activities outside marriage. 'I know Thailand tries to be a modern country and in many ways, yes it is, and there are many women and feminists who work hard to improve the lot of Thai women, but even in 2017 it must be admitted that the majority of men in Thailand, even in Bangkok still hold to the tradition that men are entitled to take minor wives. Personally I used to think that this was changing as the country has become so modern but maybe it's my own personal experience, but I think the tradition is very much alive,' says Carla Boonkong, a journalist and writer who works extensively with Thai women who develop the relationships with foreign men.

While the figure of 23.5% emerges from the Mahidol University study, it is estimated that the extent of the trend is far greater. Some estimates put the figure at over 50% for Thai married men who have extramarital affairs or take a minor wife. This must be seen, of course, in the context of western society where some research also suggests a similar number of western men and women have affairs outside marriage. 'The divorce rate in western society is higher than that of Thailand although this is changing,' says James Morris, a western commentator who writes international publications in Thailand.

Thai women soldier on for the children and family

While most Thai women whose husbands take minor wife are prone to accept their lot, a small proportion look for divorce and some even seek new relationships, in some instances, with foreign men. 'The internet and internet dating has offered many middle-aged Thai women in particular, an opportunity to find the new relationships.' says Carla Boonkong. 'However the problem is, and this is confirmed in nearly all studies, that Thai women, who have a strong belief in Thai culture and worry about disturbing their children's prospects, will not confront their Thai husbands, legally at least. They will soldier on for the good of their family,' says M/s Boonkong.

Thai women whose husbands take minor wives lose face

In the research conducted by the Mahidol University, many of the Thai woman have reported that they were less likely to attend social events or meet with friends after discovering that their husbands had taken minor wives. One woman, who participated in the research, told the investigator that her husband's affair had left her feeling dishonoured and that she felt that her friends looked down on her. She, like many other women in the survey, claimed the affair was her own 'karma', according to Buddhist tradition. The women believed that this was a penance for some infringement in a former life. 'It was like I fell into hell. It hurt so much!' one woman told the researchers. She explained that she felt that it was her own fault for marrying the wrong Thai man. 'It is my karma,in my past that made me live with my husband in this life,' the woman said.

Thai wife packs clothes for husbands stay with mistress

Researchers found that this attitude was common among nearly all the women interviewed. They found that many of the women resorted to spiritual advice in dealing with the emotional trauma that resulted from the discovering that their husbands had taken a minor wife. 'I remember the time I stayed with my husband with love and now the situation was changed. I had to solve this problem by myself. I hold the Buddha's teaching that I should stay with him peacefully,' one participant told the investigators. The ability of Thai women to accept the situation as being something that they should accept as a cultural tradition can be seen by the fact that at least one woman told investigators that she regularly prepared clothes and luggage for her husband and drove him to the train station when he went on weekend visits to be with his minor wife. She would collect him from the train station on his return even though she felt that this practice lowered her and left her traumatised.

Marriage patterns and relationships changing in Thailand

Carla Boonkong points out that this issue is not just limited to middle-aged married Thai women and older relationships in Thailand, but that it is also an issue in relationships involving younger Thai men and women dating and living together. 'Thailand has, along with many countries in Asia and around the world, seen an increase in sex outside of marriage or before marriage, as well as this western trend for couples to live together before marriage' she says disapprovingly. Carla believes that, while infidelity is an issue in all relationships around the world, it is particularly emphasised in Thailand and with Thai men. 'I have looked at the studies and you can even see it here. Thailand is a great place to be a man and I think there is a certain sense of machismo among Thai men and this includes younger Thai men, even in Bangkok. The feeling is that a man is entitled to have it all from a relationship and Thai women are conditioned by the culture to approve and even support of this attitude.' A study by the Department of Mental Health and Public Health in Thailand identified a number of reasons for why Thai men take minor wives or have affairs, these included:

  • Wanting to have a new or strange experiences.
  • A lack of understanding between the husband and wife.
  • A presence of problems in the sexual relationship between the husband and wife.
  • Simply that the woman and man were not getting along with each other. A study by a number of social researchers also explored contemporary reasons such as a lack of intimacy between the Thai women and men who were not getting along.

Another study by social researchers offers more contemporary reasons, such as:

  • Lack of intimacy between the Thai woman and man in a relationship.
  • Simply an attitude on the part of the Thai man that he could have minor wives.
  • Interestingly, it was observed that Thai men look to extramarital relationships when facing work pressures or financial stress. This is ironic because one of the outcomes of such relationships is the emergence of financial issues associated with the cost of maintaining two homes. 'You look at the fact that there are many different strands in Thai Society. Many of these relationships can take on a different form, for instance, for a wealthy Bangkok businessman, the financial considerations of keeping a minor wife are not as onerous as they would be for a middle class, public servant or company employee. 'There is a huge difference between the living standard and relationships that may occur between middle class Bangkok residents and Thai men and women from rural backgrounds or even at the low end of the social economic scale,' says Carla Boonkong. 'It is true to say, that in the majority of relationships between Thai men and minor wives, it creates financial pressures and at least some misery for all concerned.'

Sometimes minor wives support Thai men

'Another key aspect that emerges in some reports is that many minor wives are not fully supported and most work to find the income despite the stereotype,' says Carla. 'I have even seen situations where the minor wife, at least for a time, supports the Thai man. It must be said that such a situation usually occurs at the tail end of such relationship which must fail ultimately.'

Thai women seeking relationships with foreigners

In the last 20 years there has been a boom in the numbers of Thai women seeking relationships with foreigners and marrying men from countries around the world such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Europe. The numbers have been so substantial as to warrant official government investigations in Thailand at local level. The numbers involved relative to Thai population overall, are quite small but they are significant. It can be said that relationships and marriage between Thai women and foreign men has become a minor fashion in Thailand. Carla Boonkong points out that must also be remembered that there is still some stigma involved in such relationships.

Positive trend on Thai foreigner marriage

Despite many positive reports on the trend, including academic research and official studies, there is adverse publicity in some western countries. Notably the U.K. where stereotyped attitudes, sometimes based on evidence, it must be said, prevail in the popular press. The true picture is that the overwhelming majority of such relationships are both healthy and successful bringing benefits to both Thailand and the U.K. In Thailand, the disapproval in certain parts of society is largely silent while in some rural parts of Thailand, notably Isan, relationships between Thai women and foreigners have been embraced. What has surprised many commentators is a growing trend among educated and well off Thai women from affluent backgrounds to seek foreign husbands or relationship partners. The Thai government in 2017 launched an initiative to educate Thai women marrying foreigners on their rights and to provide English lessons. The programme aims to encourage Thai women living abroad to avail of Thai consular services. This followed decades of research which consistently showed that Thai women living in foreign countries were reluctant to seek help when required.

Background of Thai women marrying foreigners

It is also the case that many of Thai women, seeking relationships with foreigners, have been the subject of some life trauma including divorce, relationship problems, or financial hardships. A smaller proportion or minority of Thai women seeking such relationships are looking for a new relationship and experience. Many of these Thai women are either college graduates or seeking to travel throughout the world. 'Some Thai women may come from an extended family that already has a foreign son-in-law,' says M/s Boonkong.

Boom in Thai foreigner marriage continues

Carla Boonkong explains that, over the last twenty years, experience of Thai foreigner relationships and marriage has been seen as a positive thing for the overall community particularly in the northeast of Thailand. There is no doubt such relationships became very popular at the turn of the century. However, she points out that in recent times, there has been some negative coverage with an increase in the divorce rates between partners and Thai women in the local Thai court. 'I would say that the option of finding a foreign husband still remains an attractive one for many Thai women. Although we must always remember that this is a quite small minority. In the last 5 or 6 years, while a more conservative attitude has emerged, what I am able to see is more of a determination by Thai women to find opportunities for themselves including traveling to foreign countries and finding employment opportunities.

Foreign marriage good for Thailand and Thai women

Boonkong also explains that there has also been increasing interest in finding partners from Asian countries such as China, Korea, and in particular Japan. Twenty years after the internet heralded a boom in Thai women seeking relationships with foreigners, the numbers are still, in fact, rising. While changes in demographics and greater economic opportunities now offer younger Thai women from poorer backgrounds more options, the increasing globalisation of world affairs and a surge in middle class and more affluent Thai women seeking love with foreigners have helped boost the numbers. 'Over the last twenty years or so we have seen this phenomenon come into the open and even though we have some bad stories, the general opinion is that this is a favourable development for Thailand and the Thai women involved.'

Study: Thai women with Thai partners tolerant of marital affairs

The research from Mahidol University shows Thai women to be very tolerant of Thai men who take minor wives or engaged in marital infidelity. However foreign men who might expect to be able to behave in the same fashion would be on the wrong track. 'One of the reasons that many middle-aged even younger Thai women opt to seek a foreign relationship is that it is considered among some Thai women certainly not in general, that foreigners, particularly western foreigners, may perhaps be more romantic and faithful,' says Carla Boonkong. She explains that bearing in mind the break with Thai culture and to a certain extent the stigma that attaches to breaking out and finding a foreign husband or partner, the sense of loss and devastation would be infinitely greater if the foreign husband or partner behaved badly. 'I think, if that were to happen with the foreigner, it would be even worse. Unfortunately I have to say that it does happen although the vast majority of such relationships are successful beating averages both in Thailand and western countries.'

Thai women experts at unearthing unfaithful husbands or partners

What is also evident from the report by Mahidol University is that any foreign man thinking that he can assume the rights of a Thai man and that his Thai wife will not find out about his transgressions will be in for a very rude awakening. Some of the more fascinating aspects of the research show the lengths that Thai women will go to in order to discover what their relationship partners are up to in order to discover their infidelity. Starting with glances or looks, many of the Thai women who took part in the research, described what they called a weird look from their partners being the first indication that something was up. One participant in the research said: 'He looked strange. Normally he went to work and came back home on time. He phoned every time when he had other schedules that I didn't know about. 2 years ago he changed. He looked weird.'

Not listening to Thai women - tell tale signs of a love cheat

Other Thai women also describe how their husbands became less patient in listening to them. And It was this behavior that prompted them to investigate further. As anyone who is married to a Thai women will know, they have a keen sense of smell. One of the revelations on the research was that Thai Women could identify strange smells and female perfumes from their husbands clothes when put out for washing. They also examined their husbands smartphone and communications, even checking messages and numbers. The search for the Thai women didn't end there. Many employed friends or colleagues to investigate their husbands. This included, in some cases, identifying younger women working at the same office where their husbands were working. One of the participants in the research described how her friend acted as a private detective within the workplace checking her husband's phone contacts and following him in his relationship activities with the minor wife.

Thai wife obtains video of husband with his girlfriend

This included recording video clips and sending them from her smartphone to the man's wife at home. Many Thai women, who participated in the survey, reported that friends espcecially elder friends offered to assist them in this sort of detective work. The initiatives and comradeship between Thai women reported in the study should serve as a warning to any foreigner contemplating the wrong course of action. Foreign men must realise that the chances of keeping an affair in Thailand a secret from a Thai wife is not an option.

Aussie with Thai wife learns the hard way

James Morris is a journalist and commentator in Bangkok. He describes an incident with an Australian man who boasted that he had the ideal relationship. 'He was a genuine, nice bloke, who worked in an international firm as a marketing executive. He had a nice house in the centre of Bangkok. It was in one of the most relaxed neighborhoods. His household had two servants. He had a little boy and little girl. His Thai wife was simply happy to have a beautiful home, take care of the children or so he thought.'

'He started by going out two or three nights a week and his wife didn't make much of an issue. Then he met an entertainer and things became a little bit more involved. Some nights he would not make it home. The relationship with his wife reached the level that no explanation was necessary until the day he returned home to find his family gone and the servants presented him with a message. His wife had returned to her family in Kalasin province and simply requested a divorce. Initially he thought that he could simply apologise, but his wife was quite firm. As the weeks passed by, he was simply stunned by this and to complicate matters, his new girlfriend, the entertainer, was insisting on moving in with him! This simply was not in the playbook, and none of his friends could even accept what he was saying was the truth. I didn't speak to him afterwards, but I heard that his wife had married a local Thai school teacher, a man who was her former sweetheart from the past, and the Australian man simply returned to Australia.'

Carla Boonkong, a researcher who has studied many Thai Foreigner relationships confirms that she has seen such situations but these usually only occur where there has been a certain amount of abuse including physical abuse. It is still quite unusual for Thai women to take this action. She suggests that Thai women are less likely to tolerate abuse from foreign husbands but there is no research on this.

Thai women make a choice when marrying a foreign man

The research by Mahidol University into how Thai women dealing with unfaithful marriage partners does highlight the fact that, in nearly all instances, the Thai women will opt to continue the relationship and preserve the home for the sake of the children. The other motivation is to save face. She agrees it is this is less likely to happen where a foreigner is concerned. It is true that for some Thai women, particularly from Isan and the northeast, marrying a foreigner for a status upgrade. But what many foreigners do not perceive is that the Thai woman pays a price. The stigma of marrying a foreigner puts the woman beyond the pale among more conservative elements in Thai society. In return the Thai woman's understanding or expectation of the relationship with a foreign man, is that the man will be more faithful. She will also expect him, to some extent, to be a better provider.

Thai woman in the UK defends abusive UK partner

On the other hand, Carla Boonkong tells a story of a Thai woman married to an Englishman in London. The unfortunate Thai woman was being physically abused by her partner. When interviewed by the UK social services, she told government officers that she was still very happy to be married to the UK man. She explained that he was romantic and really a good man at heart! When she detailed her experiences of abuse with her former Thai boyfriend in Bangkok, the officers were horrified at both the Thai woman's background but also her reasoning. 'I was thinking when I heard about the story in this UK report how Thai women must expect better. I would also say that in most cases the relationships with foreigners are indeed better but no Thai woman should accept an abusive relationship.'

Thai wife keeps relationship breakdown a secret

The Mahidol University study details how one Thai wife with an unfaithful husband coped with the destruction of her blissful married life. Like many women in western countries, the overwhelming response to keep a marriage together for the sake of the children. Carla Boonkong explains that it is not surprising that this response was almost uniform among women taking part in the research. Thai society is very conservative and divorce is still considered a personal failure by most of the Thai women involved. This sense of failure extends also to the woman's family. The research showed that in most instances the children were not aware of what was going on. This may also highlights a difference between Thai society and western society. In Thailand, discretion, politeness and the avoidance of aggression are highly prized virtues. 'I was patient for my children's sake. I wanted my children to have a faithful and caring father rather than being fatherless. I had to accept that... it was my Karma. The woman my husband had an affair with was young and fresh. It would be difficult for him to let her go,' said the Thai woman interviewed. 'My children didn't know that their dad had a minor wife. I dare not tell them about this problem.' 'When their dad didn't join their activities at the school, I told them he was very busy at work or he had work outside of Bangkok for a few days.' said another woman about the same experience.

Heartbroken Thai women curtail social life

The Mahidol University research also showed that the response from many Thai woman involved was to curtail their social activities and keep the breakdown of their marriage a secret. They would only share their secret with a few trusted friends and close relations. Significantly, the study also revealed a pattern where Thai men, confronted with their infidelity, became aggressive and in many instances upbraided their partners for being older and less attractive than younger women. Amazingly the research found that Thai women, when confronted with this behavior from their husbands, rationalised the situation and tended to accept that their husbands were more attracted to the younger women. One woman described the scene when she confronted her husband with his unfaithful behavior: 'He threw a stone at me and ridiculed me that I was old, kind of fat and not beautiful. I did think very slowly. I am not attractive. I do not look like when I was young. He likes to look at younger women because he says it makes his life bright and lovely. I hear such comments every day. I feel hurt, sometimes crying when no one else is around.'

Physical fights as Thai wives confront unfaithful partners

Some of the women involved in the research even reported physical abuse from their marriage partners after confronting them on extra marital affairs. When the Thai women's patience was exhausted, they tended to confront their husbands. One woman describe such an occurrence: 'When I said I found out that he had affairs with other women, he got very angry. He slapped my face and severely shook my body, sometimes bumping my body against the wall or the cabinets... At that time, I was afraid of him, but I tried to suppress fear and fought back throwing things at him that I could grab.'

Thai women seek spiritual help to deal with marriage rifts

Carla Boonkong explains that the trauma caused by physical oppression such as this cannot be underestimated. 'This is a very normal response when these situations occur, nearly all Thai women have a very strong aversion to violence or any sort of emotional outburst. In Thai culture this is considered a sign of weakness or failing. I think to be confronted by such violence from the husband, on top of confirmation of the existence of a minor wife or an extramarital affair, it would be devastating for the Thai women involved. After this, their first instinct might be to avoid such scenes and to turn to Thai cultural spiritual belief in order to make sense of the situation.'

Research confirms spiritual aspect of marriage breakdown

Carla's explanation is confirmed by the research which reports that many women resorted to using Dharma, a facet of Buddhist practice in Thailand. Many of the Thai wives resorted to the religious activities in the aftermath of the disturbance within their marriage. This included visiting temples, making merit and dressing in white clothes as well as meditation. The aim of such activities to deal with the stress of the situation and also to the level of anger and anxiety that the situation has caused. One Thai woman who participated in the research said: 'I held the peaceful Kharma Dharma, this made my mind calm and peaceful. I read Dharma Book, prayed, donated money and offered food to monks on a daily basis. I often did these things... then I felt good. According to Buddhist teachings, when my mind is peaceful, I can understand the problem. After using Dharma I was able to return to my role as a wife and I did my best.'

Money and socio economic status key to Thai relationships

According to Carla Boonkong, the outcome of such relationship disturbances or breakdowns is actually quite diverse in Thailand. Many Thai men remain married to their wives while the family continues as normal dealing with the existence of a minor wife or even wives. There are certainly incidences where divorce occurs or where the family falls apart, this is particularly so where there are financial problems: 'I think that the family is more likely to fall apart, if there is debt involved, or where one or more parties to the marriage is immature, or lacks standing in society. Obviously this would be seen more at the lower level of the society or social economic scale.

Buddhism is at the heart of Thai life and families

'The importance the Buddhism or Thai culture or religion must be appreciated. This is one of the reasons why religion practice is so strong in Thailand. Because it is a living tradition. This is a very real situation in a Thai person's life. I have even seen situations where husbands during this period of life have turned to Buddhism and become monks. Thereafter returning to their wives more prepared to be faithful.'

Major study from Thailand's Mahidoll University- how Thai women deal with marriage breakdown
Twenty years after the boom in Thai women seeking foreign relationship partners began, a new study explores how Thai wives deal with marriage issues and minor wives in Thailand.


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