Our culture celebrates wedding milestones, such as the silver anniversary for the 25th year, gold for the 50th, and diamond for the 60th. A common sentiment I hear from married couples is: marriage is hard. This is why every year is worth celebrating.
In between milestones, there are several tests to a marriage. Even more so today, there are unending lockdowns, financial hardships, illnesses, emotional baggage, infidelity, and day-to-day frustrations.
Recently, last Aug. 17, the Absolute Divorce Bill got a nod from the House of Representatives. Although the bill has a long way to go before it becomes a law, the idea of marriage in our country is changing. Filipinos want the option to leave toxic and broken marriages.
This momentous progress gives way to the question: how do we strive for happier and more long-lasting marriages?
I recently traveled to Bhutan, a country known for its Gross National Happiness Index, a philosophy applied by its government and people in order to measure collective happiness and well-being. I wondered if there is something we can learn from their approach to happiness.
Strive for love that’s not disposable, not the kind that you can just replace when there is a newer model with different specs. Find a love that has a lifetime guarantee.
I interviewed Faith and Loven Ramos, a Filipino couple based in Bhutan, and American author Linda Leaming (Married to Bhutan and A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up) on their experiences in a place ranked as the happiest country in Asia.
In hearing their stories, I discovered five ideas that every couple can foster in their marriage:
Choose to be happy and act with intent.
Faith and Loven have been married for 18 years. They were college sweethearts in Iloilo. After graduation, they broke up to focus on their careers. However, serendipity brought them back together in a chance meeting at a Tower Records store in Metro Manila. Since then, they have been inseparable.
After a simple wedding in Loven’s parents’ garage, they moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a job offer that Loven couldn’t refuse. Then, after more than a decade of living in Cambodia, Faith received a job offer in Aman, Amankora, a luxury resort in Bhutan. So this time around, Loven supported Faith by moving with her to Bhutan.
When asked about the secret to their marriage, Faith said, “We were not pressured to conform to what was an ideal relationship in the Philippines, where you have to get married, have a kid, and build a house.” Instead, they made a conscious decision to support each other and act intently towards their dreams.
Their expat life, one that came with challenges, shows that a happy marriage is possible, but it needs to be a joint decision. And at times, you have to take turns in supporting each other’s dreams.
Learn to accept each other with compassion.
Bhutan is a Buddhist country where they hold in high regard the values of love, kindness, compassion, and acceptance. In A Field Guide to Happiness, Linda has a chapter entitled, “Kindness will save us.”
At the beginning of this chapter, she mentions a Buddhist saying, “Help but don’t hurt.” These two phrases are the cornerstones of any marriage.
Linda has been in an intercultural marriage with Phurba Namgay, a Bhutanese Thangka painter, for more than 20 years. But, she joked, “I tell people that some of those years don’t count.” When I asked her to explain further, she shared that there had been hard years, especially the times they were in the US.
A marriage of Eastern and Western cultures has a lot of differences. Yet Namgay used to tell Linda, “We’re so different, but our hearts are the same.” Linda believes that because they got married in their late 30s, they were mature enough to accept each other and overcome any conflict that came their way.
Even last year, Linda said, “I decided when the pandemic started, I’ll be nice to myself. And, I’m going to be nice to Namgay.”
What’s her advice to other couples struggling to practice acceptance? She said, “You just breathe. You will learn so much about acceptance and compassion. These things will help you have a good marriage while working on yourself, too.” She continued, “You can be married, or you can be single, but whatever you do, pick out the strengths of it, the good things about it.”
Learn to laugh at yourself or with each other.
Laughing has so many benefits, according to Linda, from “having healthy humility, (to) boosting self-esteem as well as your immune system.”
Faith and Loven admit that they laughed a lot before the pandemic as they’d break out in song in public places like a library or a restaurant. It was a scene straight from Glee, the TV musical series, to the embarrassment of their teenage son, Freedom. But, Loven said, “We don’t care about the rest of the world, as long as we can relive these great memories.”
In Bhutanese culture, humor is evident with their patron saint, Drukpa Kuenley, the 17th-century holy man. Linda wrote in her book, “Humor was a big part of his teaching. His stories are raw and raucous and involve fire shooting out of his penis to subdue demons (those who opposed the faith) and a lot of inappropriate behavior with farm wives.”
At times, humor can also diffuse a fight or get rid of egotism. Linda shared that when she gets grumpy, Namgay will laugh midway through an argument. Then, the fight is over. Linda believes that laughing at the little things will prepare you for the bigger things in life.
Think of death five times a day.
Bhutanese contemplate death five times a day. Yet, they don’t fear or live in denial of death.
According to Faith, if there is one thing she appreciates about living in Bhutan, it is “the idea of impermanence.” Loven added, “There is a celebration for everything, like how blue the skies are in winter, not how cold it is. Likewise, they celebrate how green everything is in summer, not how warm or not how rainy it is or how inconvenient it is.”
Faith and Loven have already talked about death. Loven said, “It’s funny because I always told Faith that she’s going to outlive me because all the women in her family have reached 100 years old. And in my family, the men pass away young.”
Of course, some people don’t like talking about death. But for Faith and Loven, life and death are just like the changing seasons of Bhutan.
The way they celebrate the seasons is how they see death. Of course, there will always be the normal emotions of grief and sadness, but there is an acceptance that death is inevitable. And in this thought, people are free to live without fear.
Strive for a minimalist life and marriage.
Towards the end of our interview, Linda was candid. “I sound like it’s all sweetness and light. It’s not.” Here’s a woman that’s written extensively on the idea of happiness in Bhutan, echoing the same sentiment I’ve heard before: “Marriage is hard.”
She explained that it’s about going back to the basics: “We have a bit of a minimalist marriage.” Her statement reminded me of Marie Kondo’s idea of tidying up your house and only keeping things that spark joy.
Linda said, “Routine is really good. Part of my day is when I get up, and I boil water. We live on a basic level. And I think that’s good for marriage. Focus on keeping things clean, boiling the water, fixing the meals. We don’t have fast food here. Everything is from scratch.” Couples can strive for marriage without frills.
Faith and Loven see it differently. Loven said, “Stagnation in your relationship is the biggest threat, which means the daily grind or monotony.”
Instead, he suggested that couples discover something new together, but it doesn’t have to be frivolous. It can be as simple as hiking, coffee, film, or K-drama. Or unexpected simple gifts. Like, when Loven misses home, Faith will make pandesal.
Faith said, “Strive for love that’s not disposable, not the kind that you can just replace when there is a newer model with different specs. Find a love that has a lifetime guarantee.” Yes, marriage is hard, but it’s worth working on if two people are intent on their happiness.