Runaway brides in Singapore: Janice’s story (part 1)

Janice's bridal veil, set of keys to her new home, and lucky hairpins she will never use. (Yahoo! Photo / Elizabeth Soh)Janice's bridal veil, set of keys to her new home, and lucky hairpins she will never use. (Yahoo! Photo / Elizabeth …

(Correction made 3 Jan 2013 to Ken's age - he is 25. There was a typo error in Janice's text responses to Y! SG when we asked for their ages. )

Amid falling birth rates and higher rates of divorce in Singapore comes another worrying new trend – that of young engaged couples calling off their big day right at the final moment. Marriage counsellors Yahoo! Singapore spoke to have seen more and more of such cases of young “runaway brides”. Is it the fear of missing out on that choice HDB unit or simply the immaturity of youth? Yahoo! digs deeper to find out the startling truth.

To everyone else outside of their relationship, Janice, 23, and Ken, 25, appeared to be the perfect fairytale couple. Secondary school sweethearts, their relationship outlasted the trials and tribulations of National Service and getting their degrees. They were an item for a whopping nine years before Ken proposed in early 2012 after they found out that their BTO flat would be ready soon,  and Janice accepted.

So it came as a huge shock to all their friends and family when five days before their wedding at a five-star local hotel in September 2012, Janice called it all off and took a flight to Thailand to “escape” her fiancé and disappointed guests.

“The pressure had been building since the day he proposed, but I didn’t realise that I was truly not ready until about a week before, and I panicked. Everything had been planned, paid for, the invitations and guestlist confirmed. It was a nightmare, but once I knew I couldn’t do it, there was no point going ahead,” said a still-emotional Janice during a two-hour long interview at her home in the East with Y! Singapore last December.

“Yes, I was a coward. I couldn’t bear to tell Ken to his face that I wanted to call off our wedding, so I booked a flight and called him just before boarding then I switched off my phone and didn’t talk to anyone for days.”

“But why?” was the question on everyone’s lips when she finally returned four days later, ashamed and terrified. Was there a third party, everyone wanted to know?

Yes -- in a way.

“You could  put it like this – the third party was HDB. I feel like I was forced to decide to get married early because if I waited until I was, say, 30 and ready to settle down, to wait another three to four years to get a BTO flat would leave me no time to start a family. Everyone told me that Ken and I had to hurry up and apply for a flat together and then quickly get married once the flat application was successful,” said Janice, who just started work as an accountant last year.

“It wasn’t important to them that I still don’t know what I want with life, and I don’t know yet whether I want to spend the rest of it with Ken. It seems selfish, but it’s my life, and it’s more selfish to get married to Ken and later change my mind – divorce would be ten times more painful.”

As it turned out, their BTO development took just over two and half years to complete and not three to four as they had initially expected, leading to a rush proposal.

In January 2011, The Straits Times reported that flats under the BTO scheme in 2009 and 2010 were completed in 32 months on average.

In September last year, HDB announced that to meet demand, a total of 7,055 flats would be launched under the joint BTO and Sale of Balance Flats exercises in 2012, on top of another 6,400 flats which were launched in November 2012.

Trend on the rise

According to marriage counselors here, Janice is not alone. All three marriage counselors Yahoo! Singapore spoke to said that cases of young women and men backing out of marriages at the last minute are on the rise by as much as two times in the past two years – and most cases were because they were not ready but forced to commit in order to secure a home in advance.

“These girls, mostly aged between 21 to 26, come to me as late as three days before their wedding and tell me they are terrified and want to call it off,” said counselor A. De Souza, 42, who counsels couples through a religious organization.

“When I ask them why, the answer is almost always the same – ‘I said yes because we needed to hurry up and get a flat first, and I thought we could work things out in between and I’d be ready later’,” said De Souza, who along with her husband, has been helping young couples for about 10 years.

“I would say that I am now seeing at least double the number of such troubled brides. It used to be that most of them split up just before because of third party issues or quarrels over financial matters, but now it’s always “I wasn’t ready” and “I felt forced because of my flat”,” said De Souza.

“It’s a serious problem – these young people are so worried about practical concerns like getting a home that they neglect the most important question – are they emotionally prepared?”

Marketing executive Marianne Wong, 24, counts herself lucky to have “realised” earlier on in her engagement that she was not prepared to settle down yet.

'Suddenly overwhelmed’

In 2011, Wong and her 33-year-old bank officer ex fiancé had already successfully balloted for a five-room flat which was expected to be completed by 2013. They had paid deposits totaling about $20,000 to a contractor and interior designer but had not booked their wedding banquet or photographers yet.

“About one year before our wedding, we went for a marriage preparation course. There, we had to discuss issues like financial planning, future children and so on, and I was suddenly so overwhelmed. I looked at my ex and I realised that I could not really see him as the father of my children and a life partner,” said Marianne, who cried many times during the hour-long interview with Yahoo!.

“I was so scared I couldn’t breathe, but I knew I had to do us both a favour and call it off. Before the course, I was so caught up in his “idea” of getting a flat – everyone was saying how difficult it was to get a good unit, horror stories about a five year wait stuck in bad rentals, I just got carried away, I guess.”

“I told my mother, and she was 100 per cent supportive that I should not get married unless I was completely sure – that helped a lot.”

Janice, however, who called her family “very strict and traditional”, did not dare to tell them about her misgivings about getting married.

Instead, she summed up the courage to call it off after going online to forums like Flowerpod and SingaporeBrides and finding out that she was not alone in her turmoil. Entire threads devoted to "pre-wedding jitters" and "brides with cold feet" are active and full of young women confiding in each other.

A 2012 forum post on Flowerpod where young women discuss cold feet (Internet screengrab)A 2012 forum post on Flowerpod where young women discuss cold feet (Internet screengrab)

“There were so many threads where brides to be (BTB) were talking about deciding whether or not to call it off, and I felt exactly the same as them – I posted anonymously about my problems and they assured me that I should not go through it because marriage should be for life. I was up until 3-4 am chatting with my new “friends” online. If not, I am sure I would have gone ahead with the wedding,” said Janice.

“I made the right decision in backing out – it’s a life-long commitment, and it cannot be forced.”

Janice may have called off her wedding, but the real price she had to pay was in the months after – getting the cold shoulder from Ken, having to pay off large debts, and an overwhelming shame at having “let my family down” caused her to have a nervous breakdown. Read about her struggle and Ken’s side of the story in Runaway Brides Part 2: The Aftermath.

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Runaway brides in Singapore: Picking up the pieces (Part 2)
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