210th Meeting – Monday, June 11th 2001

'Money Matters in Marriage'

A talk by Brian Hubbard

 
The speaker's summary of his talk:

From pocket money to pension, money is an important issue in life. Most of us spend most of our life working to make enough to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. As the pressures upon us to make more money have increased with the advances our ever more materialistic western culture has made, so the length of time in which we have to work to make money has shortened. Consider the example of a 23-year-old university graduate starting work today. If they are single now they will probably be married within the next 3-5 years. If the present policy of many western governments of lowering retirement age continues, today's graduate will probably be retiring at 55, if not earlier, and if they don't get made redundant first. This will mean that they will only have about 30 income-earning years in which to pay back their student loan, marry and raise a family and at the same time invest enough to ensure that they will live comfortably for 30-40 years after retirement.

For most of us there are at least four distinct stages in life in our relationship with money. The first is from the time when we first receive pocket money to the day we start working. During this time others, usually our parents, control how much money we have and, often, how we spend it. The second stage is from the day we start work until the day we marry. During this time we become financially independent, very much more in control of how much we earn and what we do with it. In the third stage, marriage, the first challenge many people encounter is the readjustment from financially independent to financially accountable; from my money to our money. For the purposes of this talk 'marriage' includes any relationship in which what one partner does effects, or has the potential to effect in the future, the life of the other partner. The last stage is retirement, the enjoyment of which greatly depends on just how well we managed to invest a portion of our income while we were working.               

During my time in practise in England as a psychotherapist, the majority of my clients were middle-aged women, most of whom were married. Of these clients, the presenting problems concerning their relationship with their partner were most commonly issues around money, sex, control and individuality – maintaining their individual identity. These issues were not necessarily in that order of priority and rarely mutually exclusive. In addition to the initial transition from financially independent to financially accountable, women face more changes as the relationship progresses. When the woman who has been working; with an independent status and source of income, becomes pregnant and starts to raise a family, she must come to terms with the inherent change and/or loss of social status and becoming once more financially dependent. When one partner becomes the sole breadwinner, issues around who decides when, on what and by whom money will be spent become virtually non-negotiable if the sole breadwinner says "It's my money, I work hard to earn it (in a job I don't like, working with people I don't like). I will decide how it gets spent." This may seem extreme but, while it is rarely spoken so plainly, it is an attitude that lurks beneath the surface when negotiations concerning money take place in a relationship.

In Thailand, particularly in cross-cultural relationships, you find the same issues around money, sex, control and individuality as there are in western mono-cultural relationships, but here they are often exacerbated by aspects of Thai culture.

I wrote the following article based on my own experiences and observations and conversations with foreigners here in Thailand. None of the content of this article is from sessions with my clients. Whilst the events in the article actually happened, 'Chris' is a fictional character.

'THE BOTTOM LINE'

Money matters.                                                                         By Brian Hubbard.

It’s 8 o’clock on a warm, sunny Sunday morning in Chiang Mai. Chris is sitting on the patio in the shade of a tree, quietly contemplating life as he savours his first coffee and cigarette of the day when his neighbour comes to join him.

“Morning Chris.”

“Morning. Coffee?”

“Thanks. Haven’t seen you for a few days. Have you been away?”

“Yes. Noi got a call from her brother asking us to go to Buri Ram to see the family. They had a problem and they wanted our help.”

“What was the problem?”

“Noi’s mother was about to lose her house and land.”

“How'd that happen?”

"About a year ago, Noi’s brother-in-law had persuaded her mother to sign over the deeds for her land to him. He'd told her some story about a friend of his in Bangkok who had a really good business deal going that was making a lot of money, and how his friend had offered him the chance to buy-in as an equal partner. He’d assured her that it was a sure thing, that her money would be safe and that when he was rich he’d come back and take care of her and the family; they’d never have to worry about money again. The rest of the family knew nothing about this because the brother-in-law had told Noi’s mother that it had to be kept a secret. He’d said that if anyone else knew, the deal would fall through and he'd make nothing."

"I take it the brother-in-law didn’t make his fortune."

"From his point of view he did. He'd borrowed 100,000 baht against the land and then disappeared.”

“Disappeared?"

“Yes. He’d told his wife he was going to Bangkok to look for work and that as soon as he found a job he’d send her money every month. He never did of course. She wasn’t overly concerned; in fact I think if the truth were known she was pleased to see the back of him. What he hadn’t told her about, of course, was the money that he’d borrowed. Nobody in the family knew about that until the moneylender turned up at the house a week ago. He'd talked to Noi's older brother and told him about the loan, and the interest, and reminded him that if it wasn't repaid on time, in full, then the land was his by default."

"Can the family raise that sort of money?"   

"Not all of it. The total amount, with the interest, is 125,000 baht. Between them they’ve managed to raise 75,000 baht. They asked Noi and me if we could help with the other 50,000."

"Are you going to?"

"Yes. When I married Noi I knew I was also marrying into her family. My mother-in-law became my 'mother' so to speak. Thais have a concept called bunkhun, which, between friends and acquaintants, is the granting of a favour or benefit and the unspoken obligation to repay. Between parents and children this is called prakhun, and this is the favour or benefit that parents grant to their children by bringing them into the world and caring for them. For a son or daughter this is a debt for life that can never be fully repaid. When I proposed to my wife, she told her mother and her mother said, yes, I could marry her daughter, and the bride price would be 30,000 baht. The bride price is kha nom in Thai, which colloquially translates as 'the price of the mother's milk' and it's another part of prakhun.

"I knew that I'd be obliged to respect prakhun, and I also knew that, for my own piece of mind, I had to establish some limits because I'd already had a difficult experience with a previous girlfriend.”

"What happened with her?”

“Thanee had come to work in my restaurant as a cashier. I'd had a 'Job Vacancy' sign at the front gate and her sister, who worked as a cashier in the bar next door, had seen it and brought her in. Thanee was 23, she had a diploma in accountancy from the Commercial College, her English was quite good and she was smartly dressed, so I hired her."

"Sounds like she was perfect for the job."

"She was but from day-one she'd made it very clear that she wanted to be more than just my cashier. I’d made a rule for myself that I’d never mix business with pleasure by dating my staff but after a month or so of her ‘coming-on’ to me, my resistance weakened, we consummated the relationship and she moved in. For the first few months it was great, she was good fun, very sexy and very willing; she never said no. 

"About a month after she’d moved in, she went back to visit her village and told her mother all about me. Her mother liked what she heard, said she could marry me, and the bride price would be 100,000 baht.”

"You'd asked her to marry you?"

"No. I'd never talked to Thanee about marriage."

“So what did you say when she told you all this?”

“Nothing. I'd listened with interest, smiled and then changed the subject. I guessed that my lack of response would speak volumes and that, with the passage of time, the issue would resolve itself. However, I soon discovered that there was another facet to our relationship which couldn’t be resolved by ignoring it.”

“What was that?”

“Thanee had three brothers; two older, who were working, and one younger, who was still at school. I knew that she was using some of the money I gave her every month to help support her younger brother through school, and I had no problem with that. But I found out that she was also giving money to both of her older brothers to support their 'leisure' activities; drinking, women and gambling. I'd talked to her about this and asked her why she was giving money to them when they were both working and could take care of themselves. She'd said the money was to take care of their families because however much the brothers earned every month was gone in the first week. I told her shouldn't give them money and she'd said that she couldn't say no because they were her older brothers. They were doing the same thing with her older sister, the cashier in the bar next door. They’d go into her place, usually with their friends, drink all they wanted and leave her with the bill.

“The first time they did it in my place, both brothers came in with two friends. They ate and drank their fill and then, while I was in the toilet, left without paying their bill. When I realized what’d happened Thanee said it was okay she’d pay their bill - but she didn't have any money. The only money that she had was what I gave her, so I was paying their bill. I wasn't angry with her because I understood the situation. The brothers figured that as she now had a farang boyfriend, they were in for a free ride.

“About a week later, one brother came back with two of his friends. They’d brought a half bottle of Mekong with them and when that was finished they ordered another set and some food. I said nothing and just kept an eye on them. When I saw that they were about finished, I sent Thanee out for some shopping. I then totalled their bill and presented it to them. At first the brother said Thanee would pay. I said no, she had no money, it was their bill and they’d pay it. Then they said that they couldn't pay because they had no money. All three of them opened their wallets and they didn't have a single Baht between them. When I said I’d call the police, one of the friends said that he had some money in his room and he'd go and get it. He left and never returned. I knew they weren’t going to pay the bill. I let them 'stew' for a while then I went out to their table, picked up their whiskies and poured them onto the ground, picked up the bill, tore it into small pieces, dropped it on the table in front of the brother and told him to get out and take his friend with him. The brother was drunk and now angry. He lurched out of his seat and tried to take a swing at me but his friend, who was quick enough to see that he was being presented with a way out of their predicament, and to hell with the loss of face, grabbed his arm and dragged him out as fast as their drunken legs would carry them."

"And was that the end of it?"

"Yes."

"But why did you pour their drinks on the ground and tear up their bill, in front of them? When you knew you weren't going to get paid, you could've just told them to get out."

"And they'd have been laughing at me all the way home, thinking they'd got away with it, and they would probably have come back and done the same thing again. I had to make the brother lose face, especially in front of his friend, then he could never come back. I was angry, but I wasn't going to lose my temper, then I'd have lost face. I had to show that I was 'superior' to him. So I stayed jai yen; kept a cool heart, and then by pouring their drinks away and tearing up the bill, I showed them that I could afford to throw away what they couldn't afford to pay for. When the brother tried to take a swing at me, I didn't back down and I didn't retaliate. That reinforced my position of strength, especially for his friend, who was still sober enough to understand what was going on."

"And what about Thanee? Wasn't she upset with you for what you'd just done to her brother?"

"She’d come back from shopping in time to see me pouring their drinks away and tearing up the bill. She’d helped her brother out of the restaurant and, after getting him into a tuk-tuk to take him home, when she came back she said nothing about it and neither did I. We didn't have to. We both knew that I'd just done something that she wanted to do but couldn't because her brother was family, a man, and older than her. She could never have caused him lose face like that. She'd lost face because of his behaviour, but she was a woman, and her loss wasn't important."

"And was she still your girlfriend?"

"Oh yes, she wasn't going to leave me just because of that. When she did leave it was because she realized that I really didn't have as much money as she’d thought I had, and I wasn't going back to England in the foreseeable future. When another man came along and made her a better offer, she took it. She went off to Australia with him, but I heard it didn't last long. After that her sister's husband got her a visa to go to England. Last I heard she had a good job with a good salary and she's enjoying herself. She's got more now than she would've had if she'd stayed with me.”

“Walking out on you like that seems very callous and calculating on her part. Didn’t she have any feelings for you?”

“Not if she had any sense. One of the Buddha’s teachings is that, because nothing lasts forever, to remain 'emotionally detached' in a relationship will avoid pain and suffering when it ends. Having to leave me would've caused her a lot more suffering if she'd been in love with me."

"Why does it always come down to money as the bottom line in a relationship in this country? What ever happened to love, you know, for richer or for poorer?"

"Well, in my experience, it doesn't always come down to money. I've had other girlfriends who’ve never asked me for a single Baht; not for themselves or for their families. When I married Noi she knew how much money I had and that didn't stop her from wanting to be my wife.

"I think I understand what was happening with Thanee. She came from a poor family and she wanted something better. Before she met me, she'd been with a farang; I think he'd paid her mother some money to take her, who'd supported her through Commercial College. Once she graduated she knew that she could make more money working in another country than she could in Thailand. The only way for her to get to another country was to find a farang 'boyfriend' who'd take her. She has a good mind, she's pretty, cute in a way and very sexy. She knew that she could use her 'natural assets' to get ahead and make a better life for herself. And that's exactly what she's doing.

"Reading between the lines, I’d guess that she is also under a lot of pressure from her family; to provide for them in the best way that she can. She could’ve gone to work in the bar with her sister and made money that way, but she chose not to go down that road. With her good looks and an education, she knew that there had to be more for her in life than hanging around a bar with drunken farangs every night. I've no hard feelings towards her for leaving me the way she did. I could see what was going on for her and I knew she couldn't stay. She has a dream and a determination to make that dream come true, I wish her only good luck for that one."

"'Follow your dream', I'll drink to that. But tell me, just to go back a bit, you said that you had to put limits on your contribution to the family, this prakhun business. Why and how, did you do that?"

"Well it wasn't just my experience with Thanee. I've been around here long enough to see other farangs having money problems with their wife's family and I didn't want to jeopardize my marriage by getting into the same situation. Before we were married, I sat down with Noi and we talked about money. She's always known what my business was doing and how much money I was making, so she knew that the bride price of 30,000 baht wasn't unreasonable for me, and I agreed. Then I explained to her that I wasn't prepared to enter into an open-ended arrangement in which I'd give money to her family as and when they asked for it. I'd said I'd contribute a fixed sum; either every month or once a year, to take care of her mother, but I wasn't going to support anyone else in her family. She agreed with this and we settled on a figure of 2,000 baht a month, or 25,000 baht a year, for her mother. She then went to her mother and told her what I'd said. Her mother said she was prepared to accept my 'terms', said something about it was the farang way, and opted for 25,000 baht a year. Noi was happy with this because she has enough brothers and sisters living in the village to take care of her mother month by month. So every year we have a family get together and Noi presents her mother with the 25,000 baht. Her mother is delighted with this. She’s used most of the money to improve her home; running water into the house, an indoor bathroom and some new furniture, and the rest to buy a one Baht gold bracelet, which she's very happy to show off in front of her friends."

"So what about this 50,000 baht for the brother-in-law's loan?"

"That's a one-off. It's a family crisis and I'm part of the family. Noi knows that we've enough money right now to be able to do this, so we aren't going to say no. And it's for her mother; it's saving her mother's land and her home. If it’d been for the brother-in-law then she'd have said no over the phone and we wouldn't have even bothered going to the village.

"Noi considers that the money I earn is 'our' money, and she's more careful with it than I am. I have to justify buying a new golf club or another lens for my camera! We don't have a lot of money, but what we also don't have is any problems with money. Noi always makes sure that we are living within our means."

"I think I'll have to find a wife like yours."

                                          ___________________________________

 

Bunkhun and prakhun are described by William Klausner in his book 'Reflections on Thai Culture' as 'meritorious debt' and are probably the most pervasive aspects of Thai social relationships. To be katanyu is to be constantly aware and conscious of the favour or benefit bestowed upon you, and the obligation to repay it. Being katanyu is a highly valued character trait in Thai society, one which will earn a person much merit both in this life and the next. The obligations inherent in bunkhun are carefully considered by a Thai person before they enter into such a relationship by accepting the favour or benefit offered. With prakhun a Thai person has no choice in accepting the favour or benefit their parents bestow upon them by giving birth to them and caring for them. They are born into a life-long debt relationship which they are obliged to repay, irrespective of the quality of their relationship with their parents. It could be said that the only person who does have a choice in whether or not they enter into a prakhun relationship is the prospective son or daughter in-law.   

Not so many years ago, in rural communities, the bride price, kha nom, meant that the son-in-law was obliged to move into his wife's family compound and work for them for a year or two before moving out to set up on his own. Nowadays kha nom is a cash payment made by the son-in-law to his wife's parents. The amount for kha nom is usually determined by the mother and as such can be used by her to determine who her daughter will marry, or not. If her daughter is being courted by a man whom the mother likes and thinks will make a good husband, and productive son-in-law, then the figure will be low, well within the prospective son-in-law's means. If the parents are approached by a man asking for their daughter's hand in marriage who the mother does not like then she will set a high price. If the man is able to pay the amount asked for then her mother will accept the money, allow the marriage to take place and, if the man proves to be a total wastrel, find ways to force him out and end the marriage. Kha nom is not refundable.      

The situation that Chris found himself in with Thanee is not uncommon in Thailand. Many Thai people have a stereotypic image of farangs – both male and female – as a source of unlimited wealth, prepared to buy their way into a relationship. If Chris had wanted Thanee to stay with him, how much would he have had to give/pay her, and her family? The 100,00 baht that her mother asked for as a bride price would have been just a down payment.