Dangerous undercurrents

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Extramarital sex is becoming more widely accepted among married couples but is undermining the traditional family values previously seen as sacrosanct in Vietnamese society

A couple buy a toy for their son in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Experts warn that the rise in extramarital sex among married people is undermining social cohesion. (Photo by Nghia Pham)

Thang has been having an affair for the past several years even though he has the basic trappings of a successful life: a well-paid job, a responsible wife, a child and a house.

"I don't know why but I just couldn't help falling in love with her even though she is married and has a five-year-old daughter," said the white-collar worker of a clothing company in Ho Chi Minh City. Thang added that he felt guilty towards all the people involved, especially his and his partner's family.

After learning of her husband's affair and finding herself powerless to stop it, Thang's wife Phuong, who works as an office cleaner for a company in the city, reacted by dating another man, her son's tutor.

Thang and Phuong still live together and have their lovers come over when one of them is away from home.

Their situation is not uncommon. Experts have warned about the growing number of married people having extramarital sex and its detrimental effect on family and the family values that used to be sacred in Vietnamese society, and still are to many people.

In a survey of 228 men aged 15- 60 in Hanoi, HCMC, and Can Tho City, 43 percent of married men admitted they'd had extramarital sex. They also admitted their affairs were not related to the quality of their relationship with their spouse, according to survey results announced May 25 by the Institute for Social Development Studies.

In another survey of 324 men and women in Hanoi, Hai Phong and HCMC on sexual decision-making among high-risk men in urban Vietnam conducted by the non-governmental organization Family Health International, the respondents estimated that 70-90 percent of the married men they knew had sex outside marriage.

And it's not only men who stray from the nuptial bed. Experts note the growing trend of married women having affairs in response to their husbands' infidelity as the status of women in society improves and the opportunity for an extramarital fling becomes more available.

By chance or on purpose?

A recent report by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the General Statistics Office notes that divorce, once almost unheard of in Vietnam, has "increased rapidly in recent years" to 2.6 percent of a survey's respondents aged 18 to 60.

Nearly 28 percent of the divorced men and women cited differences in lifestyle and 25.9 percent adultery while only 13 percent blamed financial troubles and 6.7 percent cited domestic violence.

Psychologist Nguyen Thi Tam, director of Hon Viet (Vietnam Insight) Psychology Science Application Company in HCMC, has seen a significant increase in the number of clients, including men, complaining of infidelity by their spouses in recent years.

"Nowadays, women have higher status in society, and are more independent and decisive. They refuse to be exploited by their families or meekly put up with their husbands' infidelity or alcohol abuse," she said.

"Women are no longer housewives but are well-educated, well-dressed and have more relationships. These issues have imposed more risks to a family's happiness and a third person, either male or female, can easily step in."

When a married man strays, particularly during the much-touted midlife crisis, it's often because he feels trapped, Tam said.

"Adultery is common among men of 35-45 years old. They face existential crises at this stage and begin to ask themselves who they are, what they want out of life and similar questions after building a stable life with a job, a house and a family," she said.

Harmful expeditions

The greater opportunities for married women and the feeling of middle-aged men being trapped in unsatisfactory wedlock are enough to fuel the spread of extramarital sex, Tam said.

While it can easily lead to divorce, some couples choose to stay together for financial reasons or for the sake of their children.

Tam said she only describes to her clients' problems that they could face and it was their choice to continue their love affairs or return to their spouses. "But either way hurts," she said.

"Sex outside marriage is considered a failure in marriage and it can have bad consequences for years afterwards. It can shatter beliefs and engender deviant conceptions of gender," Tam said. "Traditional values are overturned, and it's the children who suffer the most."

Shopkeeper Hoa in HCMC's Tan Binh District began dating a man recently although she still lives with her husband and six-year-old child.

She became aware of her husband's infidelity several years ago and found she could do nothing to end it. All Hoa got for her efforts to save her marriage was a series of arguments that led her on one occasion to stab her husband deeply in his thigh with a knife.

"Recently, he didn't return home for a week and I only found out he was in hospital after a serious road accident because his aunt phoned me.

"I am so tired of my marriage. I'm not angry with him anymore. We live in the same house to bring up our son but I don't care about him anymore. We each have our own affairs," Hoa said.

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