Over the years I have helped many Asian American couples heal from affairs. Many of the couples involved have been first or second generation Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or South Korean. These are the Asian countries whose cultures are most organized around Confucian philosophy. Yet, when I ask, invariably, each person in the couple has never read any Confucian philosophy, even as a child.

Even though Confucianism functions somewhat like a religion, it isn’t one. A religion has a godhead. Confucius was a mortal philosopher.

Also, most modern religions have doctrines that are readily accessible to it’s adherents. It is preached in sermons, read in the Koran, or talked about in Hebrew school. As a result, this doctrine can be thought about and made a part of one’s life in a personal way. For example, a Catholic person can know that her religious doctrine states that abortion is a sin. This is something concrete and readily accessible to reflect upon. She can still consider herself Catholic, but choose to disagree w/ this part of the religion. Jewish people can still be Jewish even if they are “secular Jews.” These doctrines are explicitly taught in childhood, as opposed to only implicitly conveyed through family culture as is more the case with Confucianism.

To understand how Confucian philosophy can shape a marriage

it is important to understand a bit about the man himself. Confucius lived in a time of great strife. The land was run by warlords. There was famine, poverty, and much violence. Confucius was passionate about developing a code that would restore and maintain order. His whole body of work was aimed at the goal of reestablishing a harmoniously functioning society. He set about to prescribe, in meticulous form, behaviors which constituted the “moral man.”

Here are three examples:

The expression of feelings is bad because it leads to social disorder.

The moral man demonstrates empathy by knowing what others are feeling without the other person expressing it.

It is a virtue to preserve harmony by saying one thing while feeling a completely different way.

An example is given of this last point; for the sake of the harmony that Confucius was so anxious to maintain it becomes acceptable to have a mistress and protect the home by keeping the affair a secret.

Confucius promises that if all of his prescriptions are followed, everyone will be happy because of a great harmony that can be achieved.  All that has to happen is that everyone does what is is prescribed for their role (i.e., father, oldest son, wife, etc.).

I find that some couples are still living according to these prescriptions in many ways, even though the origins of these prescriptions are not understood.

The romantic ideal of young Asian American couples can be molded by these ideals. Falling in love can include how one’s parent’s would feel about the potential spouse,  how successful he or she would be and if they want children. The idea can be, “we will unite and carry out our own version of fulfilling our role expectations and we will earn the happiness that we will therefore deserve.”

The couples I see who have been married for many years sometimes come to realize that it hasn’t worked out so well. The prohibition against expressing feelings and the emphasis on harmony as well as on becoming very successful to make parents happy does little to keep alive the experience of emotional intimacy in the couple. Sometimes the relationship can feel emotionally dead, but neither spouse may feel that they have a right to complain about it, or may not be able to identify exactly what the problem is since everything may look good on the outside.

When a spouse discovers their partner’s affair, it can feel like everything that was believed in has been betrayed, which can add an extra level of emotional upheaval. Once the emotional trauma of the discovery of an affair has been worked through, there is a lot to sort out, such as how your culturally informed personal histories have made you the couple you are today and how the two of you feel about that. It is possible for a new interpretation of family culture to emerge, one that is created and tailored by the two of you.