These People Challenged Dating Norms and Found Love

We talked about long-distance relationships, arranged marriages, and throuples.
KE
Singapore
February 13, 2020, 10:00am
love, relationships, ldr, long-distance relationships, polyamory, big age gap
Photo courtesy of the subjects.

This story is part of a wider editorial series. Coming Out and Falling In Love is about the queering of our relationships with others, and the self. This month, we look at Asian attitudes to sex and porn, dating in the digital era, experiences of LGBTQ communities, unconventional relationships and most importantly, self-love. Read similar stories here.

Raise your hand if you think dating is hard. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Relationships are never easy, but some of them are a little more complex than others.

This Valentine’s Day, VICE spoke with six couples who challenged conventional dating standards, showed us that love comes in many different forms, and made our hearts melt in the process.

Lennard, 27 and Jennifer, 25

Lennard and Jennifer come from different cultures and have been in a long-distance relationship (LDR) since 2015.

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VICE: How did you meet?

Lennard: We met in Singapore in 2015. She was an exchange student from Scotland and we were in the same group during orientation.

What makes your relationship a bit different from other couples?

We’ve been in a long-distance relationship since 2015. She went back to Scotland while I finished university in Singapore. But in 2019, we both lived in the Netherlands. I moved there for work. Now we are back to doing long-distance as I moved again to Nigeria for work. I hope to be in the same country as her next year. We haven’t decided where we would be long-term.

I think we just had very good chemistry from the very start and really enjoyed each other’s company. The fact that we were from different cultures was also exciting and still is very fun in some ways.

What are some challenges of being in a LDR?

The biggest challenge is the time between seeing each other. You miss out on everyday things when you’re apart. Skype just doesn’t make up for spontaneous conversations, trips to the supermarket, etc.

A long-distance relationship requires a lot of trust and we are lucky that we have that. We communicate openly and honestly, treasure the moments that we are together, and always have something to look forward to already planned.

At this moment, I am very happy with our relationship. You kind of know it’s going well when you’ve seen both of you grow a lot over the years and become better people.

Allie, 20 a nd Barnabas, 22

Allie and Barnabas come from different cultural backgrounds and recently married after spending a total of two weeks together in person. Before getting married, they were in a LDR for nine months.

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How did you meet?

Allie: While scrolling through Facebook, I noticed a friend’s post about a controversial Christian topic. I went straight to the comments section and was caught off guard by Barnabas’ comment which boldly stated his views. Captivated, I decided to send him a friend request, even though it’s out of my character to add strangers. A few weeks later, I sent him a message and from there we began to communicate back and forth online, writing essay-length emails to each other.

A few months later, Barnabas decided to go all in; he had to meet me in person. With very short notice, he abruptly called and said he’s coming to Hawaii (he’s from Hong Kong).

The first time Barnabas and I met face-to-face was at a rural outdoor airport in Hawaii.

What is unconventional about your relationship?

Allie: There were many unconventional aspects in our relationship, one being physical intimacy. The first week we started dating, Barnabas told me he would like to save our first kiss for the altar. We agreed we would not kiss or go past a certain physical boundary because we did not want to have sex before marriage.

Another unconventional aspect of our relationship was not having much time to spend in person together due to long distance. We only spent (a total of) two weeks together in person before we got married. Our relationship was fully long distance for nine months.

We come from very diverse backgrounds. He was born in Hong Kong but grew up living in various countries and changed schools 14 times. On the other hand, I lived on the same island (in Hawaii), in the same small town my entire life. While we had many differences in the way we were raised and our cultural background, we shared the same faith in Jesus.

We decided to get married at a young age because we believe it was God’s will. The long distance was also a big factor that motivated us to get married earlier.

Is there a story behind the wedding?

Barnabas: The story behind the wedding proposal is crazy! I never intended to propose to her during the summer of 2019, when she flew over to visit me in Hong Kong. We had a spontaneous evening trip to a café, and Allie reaffirmed her desire to support and wait for me — whenever I felt ready to get married. I went home thinking about the prospect of proposing. I talked about this idea with my parents and got their approval. The next day, I got the ring, called Allie’s parents and got their approval, proposed, and she said: “yes!”

Allie: The wedding took place on January 3 in Kona, Hawaii. We got married in a cute, small chapel. Barnabas flew in eight days before the wedding. We didn’t have a wedding rehearsal. On the day of our wedding, there were many last-minute changes I didn’t know about until walking down the aisle. The third time Barnabas and I met, we got married.

*Leo, 21 and Libra, 35

Leo and Libra have an age gap of 14 years and are navigating grey-asexuality together.

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How did your love story begin?

Leo: We met each other on a flight to Sydney in June 2018. She was travelling there for a work trip from Taiwan and I was there because I was going through quite a dark and confusing part of my life, so I decided to go on my first solo trip. We ended up chatting so much on the flight and it was the funnest thing ever.

It was my first time experiencing love at first sight (or more like love at first interaction). I had also never fallen for a girl before.

Even though we had only known each other for less than a week, I had never felt so strongly for someone before and I really didn’t want to lose her. So I ended up confessing to her. Then we were thrown into LDR.

What would you consider unconventional about your relationship?

Leo: Our age gap, I suppose. Ever since we got together, we both agreed that the only issue with our age gap is how society treats it. She often asks for my advice and help in solving her issues, and I often take on a motherly role in cooking and caring for her. Sometimes, she’s quite gullible and naïve in life too, so I have to guide and protect her. Our age gap really has little effect on our chemistry and our relationship.

Libra: When I first met her, I was worried that because of our age gap, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. But after getting to know each other, I realised that she was more mature than me. She pays keen attention to what I say and what I like, even when I’m not aware of it myself.

Leo: Our sexualities are definitely unconventional too. I’m a (pan) demisexual and for her my demisexuality might be a more sensitive area because I need certain conditions to be perfectly okay with sex without getting sick, that even I myself am not fully clear about. But she’s extremely respectful and caring towards me so I’m just glad to have her with me while I navigate and attempt to understand my sexuality. For her, she has always known she was a lesbian from a young age.

Were there any problems you encountered in the relationship?

Leo: We were a long-distance couple. I’m in Singapore and she’s in Taiwan. We literally met on a plane to a foreign country. We could only meet every three to five months. There came a period of time when I realised how costly and unsustainable this arrangement was and I decided to talk to her seriously about this relationship and its longevity. But here we are now. She decided to migrate to Singapore to work and it was a tough decision on both ends.

Libra: I think there are not a lot of big problems in our relationship. It’s only when we are angry at each other that we need to learn how to not say anything hurtful or anything we may possibly regret in the future.

Mala, 45 and Sukumar, 57

Mala and Sukumar have an arranged marriage. They are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year.

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When was the first time you met Sukumar?

Mala: One of my uncles is related to Sukumar and he brought him along to our house because Sukumar was looking for a girl to marry. Sukumar proposed to marry me after meeting my family and me for the first time. We married in Bangladesh after three months. We moved to Singapore a year later.

How did you fall in love with each other?

Mala: His smile was very nice and he looked very smart and he was successful as an engineer. He also seemed quite friendly and showed me and my parents respect and kindness. His father was well-known in his village for his businesses and for being honest and kind so I knew that Sukumar would be like that too.

Sukumar: After seeing her I thought she was nice, educated, and had beautiful eyes. But after marriage and some time together, I fell in love with her when I saw her actions and values.

What is it like having an arranged marriage?

Mala: We have an arranged marriage and a big age gap of 12 years but I don’t think it’s an issue because we have an understanding and respect for each other. People with a “love marriage” may not have those values. To me, it doesn’t matter whether a marriage was arranged or not. In our culture, the girl must take the husband’s surname but Sukumar respected my decision to keep my father’s surname and even defended me to my mother-in-law even when we just got married. He also rejected the dowry system but my father still gave a present because he wanted to.

Sukumar: I think I give her a lot of freedom and respect compared to other people in our culture because I grew up in the city and was exposed to literature that showed the importance of respecting women. I think it helped us have equal responsibility and power in the relationship.

What are some difficulties you faced in the relationship?

Sukumar: Early in our marriage, Mala would keep things in her heart and throw tantrums which were difficult to go through. We also had a lot of misunderstandings during that period. After some time, I understood her issues a little better and she also took the initiative to be more communicative, so those tantrums haven’t happened in a long while.

Mala: When we moved to Singapore, I felt very alone and missed our family in Bangladesh because we suddenly had our two children and had to work very hard in Singapore. But I started to work and it gave me a sense of fulfilment and I stopped feeling lonely. I also understood why Sukumar was busy when he had work commitments.

Miyu, 32 and Yoppy, 59

Miyu and *Yoppy have an age gap of 27 years.

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How did you meet?

Miyu: He was a customer of the bar where I was working at. I had decided to go to Australia for a year-long working holiday. On the last day of work at the bar, I said, “I’m sad that we won’t be able to see each other anymore,” and then we started meeting outside of the bar before I left for Australia. At this time we realised that we were in love with each other. We were sending letters to each other for a year between Japan and Australia. Then we started going out as soon as I got back to Japan. One of the reasons why I like him is his handwriting. It was very beautiful.

What makes your relationship a bit different from other couples?

Miyu: He is 27 years older than me. He’ll be 60 years old next year. He is still using a flip phone, and he doesn’t have a PC or tablet so he is living without the internet which I think is amazing. Sometimes in our conversations, I don’t know the names of celebrities he talks about because they’re too old for me. But I don’t feel much of an age gap in our day-to-day relationship.

Sometimes I wish we were a little closer in age, even if it’s only by 10 years. I’m not sure if he’ll still be in this world when I am 60. I’m only 32 years old, but I’m already starting to think about loneliness when I get old.

What are some difficulties you faced in the relationship?

Miyu: My mother’s age is close to my boyfriend’s age. She is worried that I will feel lonely because she and my boyfriend may die soon after each other. But I feel like, precisely because we have less time to spend together compared to other couples, we want to be with each other even more. No one knows when we will die. This is the same for couples with no age gaps. I feel that you can’t do anything even if you’re worried about a partner’s death, but my mother doesn’t understand this. My mother also said that even if we have a child, he can only live until his child is about 20 years old. Regardless of the age difference, I don’t know if I can have children. And I think it should be celebrated if we have a child.

I think the reason why this relationship goes well is because even though we have a big age gap, our values are similar in many ways. For example, we have similar taste in food, so when we eat out, he understands and orders what I want. Nothing is as comfortable, ever. We are also both punctual people. He always gives me a wake-up call at 6:30 a.m. on my workdays. Not one minute earlier or later. Well, maybe it’s because he gets up early anyway since he’s an old man.

F, 25; MW, 28; TJ, 29

*F, *MW, and *TJ are a throuple. MW and TJ had been together for seven years (and married for a year) when F joined them in 2018.

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How does the story begin?

MW: TJ and I met in 2013 when I was interning before university. We did long-distance for a few years before living together and getting married in New York. I actually knew F in 2013 as well. We were online acquaintances and only really got talking when TJ and I were in New York.

F: MW and I briefly lost contact for a few years until I saw their wedding on Instagram. We started talking again and when they came back to Singapore, we all met up!

How did y’all become a throuple?

TJ: With MW, I think I felt it right away. I’m usually very shy when I meet people for the first time but with MW it felt like I had known him forever. The moment I realised just how much I loved him was when my family and I sent him off at the airport. I just broke down. My parents were also crying with me. In such a short period of time, MW had already become a member of my family.

After moving back to Singapore, we started hanging out with F more and more. MW and I were having a really hard time adjusting for a number of reasons. It was definitely a precarious time to bring in a third person to our relationship, but F helped me keep my head above water. I felt like he could understand me and relate to me in a way that’s different from MW and the same was true for him and MW as well.

The amount of risk MW and I were willing to take on and our openness to moving outside a heteronormative marriage is probably the most unconventional. I think it’s a bit aspirational to think that you can fulfil another person’s emotional or physical needs 100 percent, and I don’t think many couples are willing to admit that to each other.

F: We started hanging out frequently, as friends do, and found out that we connected to one another at different levels. We all also share the same interest in design and art, and they’re really cute so that definitely helped. So, we went into this with a “no labels, see how things go” mentality. Like any other relationship, our love grew gradually as we started getting to know each other at a deeper, more intimate level. Eventually we decided to just make it official!

MW: I don’t think there was one defining moment when I recognised that I was falling in love. For me, it was a series of events that made me realise that I wanted to spend a lot of time with these two and that they made me really happy.

What are some difficulties of being in a throuple?

MW: I think there are difficulties in any relationship, conventional or unconventional. The difficulties are just different I suppose. Accepting someone into an existing relationship is never easy. There is always a struggle of expectations, communication, and reworking of the existing dynamic.

F: For me, the fact that I was the “third” entering an existing relationship with its own dynamic necessitated quite an adjustment period. Making this arrangement work requires getting to know how your partners work together, figuring out their existing dynamic, and seeing how you can fit in to create a whole new one together so that everyone is happy. Challenges faced by other romantic relationships also apply to ours, and we need more time and effort to tackle these issues since they come twofold.

TJ: The biggest issue at the start was probably jealousy and feeling left out. It has also been hard keeping realistic expectations of everyone. MW and I have been together for so long, it’s really easy to hold F to the same standard of commitment in the relationship. But that’s unfair to F because our relationship is in its early stages. I’ve also been dealing with depression and severe anxiety, which can make smaller issues feel worse.

What keeps you going in this relationship?

TJ: What keeps me going is how fulfilling it feels. It feels more like a family rather than just a couple, and especially when I’m dealing with mental health issues it really helps to have such a nurturing relationship.

F: For me, just the notion that there are so many new experiences and memories to share, no matter how significant or trivial they may seem, spurs me on. We never know what life holds, so it’s great to be going through it with two partners by my side.

MW: There have been a lot of times when I questioned why I am making it so hard for myself by being in a gay throuple but at the end of the day, I know that being with the two of them is something I won’t exchange for anything.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

*Names have been changed.

This includes reporting from Sachie Itonaga.

Find Koh Ewe on Instagram.