Paid Relationships in Thailand

Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes. Your definition of a good relationship may be quite different from those of a different culture. We all assume that our way of thinking is the only correct one. But this assumption can be shaken severely when you travel to other parts of the world. The concept of paying for a relationship may not agree with your way of thinking, but in Thailand this is quite common.

Putting the kids on the spot

I live in Thailand, and I am married to a Thai woman. She has two teenage children from a previous marriage. When someone finds out that their step father is a “farang”, a foreigner, typically the first (and mostly last) question is: “Is he rich?”

The kids don’t like to hear that, since they know I am not rich. But if they tell that to  their friends,  they lose face in front of them, and their status gets knocked down a few notches.

‘Why did their mother marry a foreigner if he is not rich?’ ‘What’s the use?’ ‘Bad choice, why didn’t she pick a rich one!’ To avoid those judgments, the kids are forced to lie or to evade the subject somehow.

Putting mom on the spot

When my wife is in a similar situation, she gets asked two questions:

  1. Is he rich?
  2. How much does he pay your per month?

If she says that I am not rich and that I don’t pay her for being my wife, again this would result in a loss of face and a loss of status for her.

How westerners respond

To westerners, these questions appear to be very strange. We just don’t think in those terms about relationships. My wife works mostly with westerners in her profession. When they find out that she is married to a westerner, they don’t ask questions about the relationship since they consider this intrusive, an invasion of privacy.

If the westerner knows my wife well, he or she might ask questions like

  • How nice, how long have you been together?
  • Do you get along well?
  • How did you meet?

But nothing about money – not one word ever! But for the Thais it is primarily about the money. Quite the opposite, and hard for us to relate to.

Privacy and curiosity in Thailand

Here in Thailand the concept of privacy is different from the West. Sometimes when my wife introduces me to a friend of hers, the other party exclaims: “Oh, he is handsome, I want one like him too! Good, he is not fat. How old is he?” This is done partly jokingly and partly out of sheer curiosity and with a child-like innocence that makes it impossible to be offended.

In the western world, such statements would be considered highly inappropriate or even offensive.

Money issues and family pressure

Money is often a primary consideration in relationships between western men and Thai women, which is by far the most common combination. Even if the woman is not expecting a “wife salary”, her parents will often put considerable pressure on her to extract money from her “farang” partner. This can put quite a strain on relationships.

I have several friends whose relationships suffer from this issue. The woman feels compelled to keep sending money to her family. If she does not, she will lose face and status in the eyes of her family. If her family is really poor, there is a justification for this, but it can also happen that the family abuses this income stream by expecting an easy life through this goldmine.

There are regional differences in Thailand. A high percentage of Thai wives come from Thailand’s northeastern province of Isaan. This is one of the poorer regions of the country. Family bonds are very strong, and financial support by western men is a highly prized income source. The methods for obtaining that range from genuine need to dishonest and manipulative ways.

Options on how to handle financial pressure from the family

Here are some tips how western men can  deal with this issue.

1. If you are rich enough that paying regularly for your wife’s or girlfriend’s extended family is not an issue – just pay.

2. If you are not so wealthy, you have two choices. The first one is that you agree to support the family, but there have to be clearly established limits. It cannot be an open ended arrangement where you are constantly called upon to cover an unending stream of real or pretended emergencies. Once you allow that to happen, you will always feel the pressure of constant and unexpected financial obligations.

You need to establish your boundaries right in the beginning of the relationship, not later in response to the frequent requests for money. If you first pay freely, and then cut back later, you will be seen as “keeniao”, a miser. It will reflect badly on your wife/girlfriend and it will be a constant source of friction.

3. If you cannot afford paying for family, or if it really goes against your grain to do so – if you just don’t want to have the obligation to be financially responsible for an entire family, then you have to make this very clear to your wife/girlfriend. She will mostly expect you to follow “Thai culture”, but let’s clarify this.

Is it really Thai culture?

It is part of Thai culture to support elderly parents. However a constant pressure on the husband to support an extended family and cover regular emergencies is not part of Thai culture. The reason is that the rich-husband-poor-farming-girl-from-Isaan relationship which is very common between western men and Thai women does not really exist in Thai society at all.

Most Thais marry within their social environment. The scenario of a wealthy Thai man marrying a poor girl from a simple farming family practically does not exist. Therefore when your Thai wife/girlfriend tells you that you should follow Thai culture and pay all the time, she is not so much reflecting Thai culture, but rather the typical Thai attitude that all westerners are rich and are walking ATM machines.

Suggestions what to establish right in the beginning of the relationship

  • you are not Thai and have no intention of totally following Thai culture
  • your own cultural background is different, but just as valid as Thai culture
  • your values do not allow for supporting her entire family
  • either she loves you for who you are, without the financial pressure, or it won’t work for you
  • you agree to a relationship with her and only her
  • you expect her to acknowledge and respect your culture and your way of thinking as much as you respect hers. It cannot be a one way street in favor of Thai culture, especially in regards to money. You will end up resenting it.
  • you both agree to meet somewhere in the middle of the two cultures
  • you do not accept responsibility for her extended family
  • make it clear that for you love and money do not go hand in hand

Establish clarity right from the beginning

I am not saying that you should insist on all these points. As in all relationships, the two partners have to acknowledge their differences and meet somewhere in the middle. But I am saying that if you do not clarify your position and set your boundaries right from the start, there is a good chance that it will end up hurting your relationship sooner or later.

Once you allow a financial pattern to be established on your Thai partner’s terms and based on her understanding, it will be very difficult to change it. Since in most cases she has never left Thailand, and knows very little, if anything about other cultures, she therefore has no idea how you are thinking and where you are coming from. She is a victim of the common misconception that all foreigners are rich and should pay as much as possible.

It is not about right and wrong, but about how to make it work

It is best to rectify this perception right from the beginning and establish clear boundaries what you are willing to do and what not. Establish the fact that your way of thinking is as valid as hers. This can go a long way towards increasing your chances of having a successful cross-cultural relationship with a Thai woman.

This is not an issue of right or wrong, good or bad. If you would have grown up in cultural isolation with little or no direct experience of other ways of thinking and living, then you would be thinking and feeling just like her. This is also not exclusively a Thai attitude, but is fairly common in many developing countries.

Cultural differences can be dealt with effectively. I am telling you this as someone who has been in the best relationship of his life with a Thai woman for almost a decade. Good luck to you too!