Behind closed doors: The reality of picture-perfect marriages

By Pham Nga   July 8, 2024 | 12:48 am PT
Thu Cuc and her husband were seen arm in arm at a colleague’s wedding, but as soon as the party ended, she drove home while her husband headed to his lover’s apartment.

Cuc, 40, admits there have been times that she’s wanted to "make a scene and shatter everything," but she lacked the courage to do so.

"I have two children, elderly parents, and a fear of societal judgment," she said.

Cuc’s husband, a city man, pursued her, a girl from a small town, for over three years before winning her affections, leading to a relationship that became the pride of her youth. Early in their marriage, Cuc often posted about her husband’s love on social media, and she shared the more intimate details with friends and family in private.

Whenever her husband gave her a gift or verbally expressed his love, she would take photos and post them on social media. When they went out together, he would carry her bag and take care of every little detail. They were admired everywhere they went, and the birth of their two children, a boy and a girl, further solidified Cuc’s belief in their marriage.

However, 10 years ago, she discovered her husband’s infidelity. He said he no longer loved her but did not want a divorce for fear of affecting his career.

Cuc did not want to lose her family either, so she clung on. She tried every way she could think of to separate her husband from his lover, but to no avail. Instead, the husband and wife came to an agreement: they would endure each other and play the role of happy couple for the public, sweeping their troubles under the rug.

Thu Cuc at a cafe in Hanoi, in 2024. Photo courtesy of Cuc

Thu Cuc at a cafe in Hanoi, in 2024. Photo courtesy of Cuc

Miserable façade of happiness

But this is not just the story of Cuc’s family.

A 2015 survey of over 1,500 participants by The Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE) revealed Vietnamese public opinion on different family models. It showed that most participants hold traditional views, believing a family must consist of both parents and children. Because of this, many try to maintain the "shell of a family" even when the core values of love and respect no longer support the relationship.

Psychologist Nguyen Thi Tam, with 20 years of experience in marriage and family counseling, said the reason couples accept "playing the role of being happy despite an empty marriage" is due to pride, professional fears, worries about the division of assets, and concerns about upsetting children and parents.

Minh Hung, 39, a local communal People’s Committee leader, often posts family photos on social media, with flattering captions about wife Hong Hanh, an office worker, underneath images of them smiling while eating out or traveling.

Speaking at annual women’s association meetings on International Women’s Day March 8, he talks about the nice things he does for his wife, advising men in his commune on how to cherish and honor women.

But only the neighbors next door know that he often beats his wife during arguments.

"When that happens, I have to take sick leave to heal the bruises or make up excuses like falling off a bike to cover up my husband’s actions," said Hanh.

When talking about her husband to others, Hanh always uses the nicest words, appearing to be living happily with him. Her 10-year-old daughter has often urged her to divorce, and regularly tells her to "stop acting," but Hanh does not have the courage.

"I endure the humiliation because I don’t want people to gossip," she said.

According to Dr. Pham Thi Thuy, a professor at the National Academy of Public Administration, people live fake lives, creating facades in many other aspects, not just in marriage. And it’s not that people Thu Cuc hide their misfortune, many try to paint their lives as even brighter than normal.

"Deep down, the attempt to appear happy is out of insecurity and low self-esteem," Dr. Thuy said, adding that people who are confident with their true selves often comfortably express their emotions, but those with low self-esteem who feel inferior thus pretend by showing off to prove they are okay.

"Deep down, they wallow in self-pity," said Dr. Thuy.

All about insecurity

A survey of 108 couples conducted by researchers at Northwestern University in the U.S. reinforces Dr. Thuy’s view. Over two weeks, participants were asked to record their daily feelings of security in love. Researchers found the respondents posted more affectionate photos with their partners on days they felt insecure. The more insecure they were, the more they tried to prove that the relationship was still okay.

Experts agree that having to strain to fit the image of a happy couple causes couples to suffer and tire from not being themselves. They may lose energy, disconnect from themselves, and feel tormented living a double life.

Hanh said she feels contempt every time her husband acts caring and loving, or advises others on how to pamper their wives.

"I also hate myself for cooperating with him on that fake stage," she said.

The contempt makes their relationship even worse. Hanh often says hurtful words to her husband when they are alone. He then lashes out at her even more.

Dr. Thuy believes that no matter how well one endures, eventually, the truths about relationships become exposed. When that happens, the couple’s families, especially their children who don’t know, will be shocked and psychologically hurt. And people like Cuc or Hanh’s husbands will not only face public opinion but could also lose credibility and status or standing in their careers.

Instead of straining to play the role of happy couples for outsiders, experts advise unhappy spouses to sit down together and find the root cause of the cracks in their relationships in order to fix them. It’s just like treating a headache early, they say, rather than waiting until the pain, or personal conflicts in this case, become too tense to remedy.

Couples should do so as soon as they notice that the feelings between them are not the same. This can help pinpoint the reasons and prevent them from becoming problems right from the very start, according to Dr. Thuy.

In cases where the future of a partnership cannot be salvaged, it is better to leave a toxic relationship than to continue covering it up, she argued.

"No amount of money, land, or pride is worth more than the freedom to be oneself in life," Dr. Tam said.

Hanh’s husband was recently promoted to a new position, so he is even more keen to maintain his image. Thus, he no longer hits her face but shifts to less noticeable body parts. He also buys her a lot of makeup.

"The way he paints over my appearance to cover my bruises is just like how he paints over our marriage," she said.

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