Here Comes the Bride? Marriage, Dating and Korean 30 Somethings

In The Social Fabric on May 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

As a lady approaching the dawn of her thirties, and not really feeling a day over the dawn of her twenties, all I hear these days is marriage, marriage, babies, marriage.   White dresses and sunsets are all over my SNS feeds, and I’ve been asked countless times about when I will be doing the same.  I’m not sure what it’s like for ladies at home and what the social pressures are like, but I can’t help but notice the Korean marriage pressure.  The following are attitudes from  conversations I’ve had with my lady friends about getting hitched.

Usually for a Korean woman in her twenties, the goal of marriage is always hovering somewhere in the day to day.  Dating is great, but loving for the sake of loving is harder to find.   A lady usually has some kind of checklist for that potential husband, and that can range from limited to ultra picky.  Things like job, appearance,  family and even blood type can affect whether or not a woman will continue to date a man.  A single lady friend who is 31 and still on the husband hunt, stopped meeting a man when she found out his blood type was B.

“Every man I’ve dated with blood type ‘B’ has been quick-tempered and yelled at me in public”.

Dating in Korea is often through blind dating or introductions from friends called ‘Sogetting’, so it’s easier to be so officious when checking off the items on the list.   The element of passion and fate are absent, and replaced by an awkward coffee date where you can share score cards.  And in an ultra-consumerist society, money is one of the highest on the must-have list.

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Family pressures also abound, and yes there is still disapproval from families.  One of my recently married ladies, described how she had to secretly date her husband for a year before she could convince her family to marry him.  Rumors abounded, and it was a stressful time for the pair.

Marriage is still the end game for a lot of Korean women, as there still seems to be the idea that a woman must marry, otherwise she hasn’t succeeded in life.  So if a young lady finds herself without a long-term boyfriend, or even a potential for marriage making by the age of 30, panic tends to set in.  It’s like the best days of her life are over once you hit that 30 mark.  Sogetting ramps up and a community of the bitter singles forms, where friends get together and lament their singleness and how they hate seeing couples looking so happy.  During the cherry blossom festival, two single lady friends went to Yeoido and commented on all the couples taking pictures of each other,

“You won’t last! You’ll break up before the year is over!”

It’s all doom and gloom, like being 30 and single is some kind of death sentence, and chances of finding a husband are slim to none.  The expectation is that men will not want to date a woman in her thirties, and he will always choose someone younger.

A disclaimer of course, that this is not all women.  In fact, as Korean society does its sonic-speed evolving thing, so too are Korean women’s attitudes toward marriage.  Even though it’s seen as a success to be married, it’s not exactly a glorious life.  Korean women bear the burdens of being a man’s wife, and the responsibilities are endless.  Not just to her husband, but to her husband’s family and her own family, she is tasked with preparing traditional ceremonies, taking care of the elderly in the family, and taking care of all things domestic.  And then some.   One of the ladies in my circle refuses to date Korean men altogether for this specific reason.  She describes how Korean women think it’s liberating to marry into a Western family, where she is not obligated to fulfill such tasks.  Some modern Korean women don’t want to get married at all, and have given up on the idea completely.  One such lady who is 33 has said,

“I’ve come to enjoy my life and my time, and I don’t want that to change.  I don’t want to become a slave to someone else’s family.”

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Whilst the idea of not having to get married is a step towards the empowerment of women, it still lacks a balance.  The attitude that they don’t want to get married at all is the extreme.  Marriage can be great and it’s important to have a partner in life, and when Korean people don’t leave home until they are married….it’s not exactly a step towards independence.   What I would love to see Korean women start talking about, is what they can expect from a marriage and how they can negotiate their role in the partnership.  Not all men, women, or families are the same.  Traditional roles are important, but not for the sacrifice of love and happiness.

And what about the men?  Well they are having just as difficult a time as the women, mostly because of their financial demands.  Unemployment is still rife in Korea among the late 20’s early 30’s, and that sets off a chain reaction.   A man with no job, cannot date.  A man who cannot date, cannot marry.  A man who cannot marry, cannot have children.  No wonder the birth rate is still so low.  It’s so common it even has a term “삼푸세대”.

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Even if men have the means for marriage, they are finding it harder to find a woman who will be willing to do so.  The women who have found this ‘enlightenment’ that they don’t want to get married are too independent to tie down, or their standards are just set too high.  Korea is still a society that approaches marriage not between two people, but between two very extended families.  The decision to marry is therefore not on your own whim, but on the approval of everyone involved.

Young couples are not allowed the freedom to build their lives together unless they are legally bound .  It’s not socially acceptable for an unmarried couple to even live together,  so tying the knot is the only way they can start to really share their lives.  The idea of being in a long-term monogamous relationship without the necessity of marriage is still an out-of-the-box ideal, and one that forces impatient couples into quick marriages.

It’s difficult to go against the grain, especially when the grain has been growing in the family for thousands of years.  But the role and power of Korean women outside of traditional marriage has the potential to evolve, because they themselves talk about wanting it to.

  1. […] Here Comes the Bride? Marriage, Dating and Korean 30 Somethings […]

  2. Thank you for this candid and sober analysis. It explains to me (from Europe knowing close to nothing about Korea) what I got into while meeting a seemingly longly but extremly talkative korean women in her thirties with child in a tropical vacation paradies. She seeks a way out of marriage she got into “only” because he bought her a BMW. – I didn’t realize she speed-dated me after three days with a series of expecations on marriage and partnership ending with: “Now, it’s your turn.”

    Indeed there are cultural / personal differences I have never dreamt about in my life – I like her very much, but the materialistic and formalistic attitudes scare me. This goes contrary to my expectation to get closer with little intimacies or/and sublimate it with mutual romanticism. I wish women in Korea good luck in learning to play more and demand less. ^^
    Yours, Zach Zappo

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