Spousal Distancing: The Chinese Couples Divorcing Over COVID-19


Zhang Ning will soon be reunited with her husband. He left the couple’s hometown of Wuhan to visit relatives in late January, and just days later the central Chinese city suddenly went into lockdown, leaving him unable to return for over two months. But China is now easing travel restrictions as its COVID-19 epidemic subsides, allowing him to finally come home.

Zhang couldn’t be less excited.

“I’ve told him I’ve decided to divorce him,” the 34-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

Rather than making their hearts grow fonder, the prolonged separation has exposed deep fissures in the couple’s relationship that they’d previously ignored, according to Zhang. She was left alone taking care of her elderly parents-in-law and 8-year-old son in a city at the heart of a global pandemic — and her husband was less than sympathetic.

“When I called him wanting to release my emotions, at first he comforted me a bit, but then he became impatient,” says Zhang. One day, he snapped at her: “Aren’t you supposed to do all this?”

For Zhang, it was the final straw. For years, she’d stayed with her husband for the sake of their child, but from that moment on, she decided she was better off without him.

“I’ve never felt that determined in my life,” says Zhang. “The pandemic helped me make up my mind.”

Many Chinese couples have had similar realizations during the past few months. As cities began relaxing their virus-control policies in early March, registry offices across the country were swamped by an unprecedented number of divorce appointments.

The northwestern city of Xi’an saw a surge in divorces, while a district in the southwestern city of Dazhou also reported a sharp increase in divorce applications between Feb. 24 and March 11.

Lan Zi, a divorce counselor at a marriage registry office in the southern city of Shenzhen, says she’s been overwhelmed by the growing number of couples seeking her services since the start of the pandemic.

“Couples are having to make reservations a month in advance before they can get a divorce,” Lan tells Sixth Tone.

The recent spike follows years of rapid increases in China’s divorce rate, fueled by economic and societal changes that are empowering the nation’s women and undermining traditional taboos against dissolving marriages.

Nearly 4.5 million couples got divorced in 2018, a 2% year-over-year increase. Over a longer time frame, the increase is even more striking. China’s divorce rate in 2018 — 3.2 for every 1,000 people — is nearly six times higher than the rate for 1987. In the United States, by contrast, the divorce rate has been falling over the past decade and now stands at 2.9 per 1,000.

The Chinese government has even felt the need to introduce policies designed to discourage couples from splitting. Getting a divorce in China is easy and cheap, with the formalities often taking less than an hour and costing as little as 9 yuan ($1.25), but legislators in December of last year proposed requiring couples to observe a 30-day “cool-off” period before officially ending their marriages.

Local registry offices have also started offering free premarital and divorce counseling in recent years. Lan, the Shenzhen-based counselor, says she’s helped 115 couples reconcile with each other and cancel their divorce appointments during the past two months.

The recent crisis, however, has been unlike anything Lan has seen before. For many couples, being locked up at home together for weeks created new tensions in their relationships and exacerbated old ones — and even counseling is not enough to resolve them.

“Home isolation can cause many family conflicts to erupt,” Lan tells Sixth Tone. “A lot of ordinary little things may cause divides, or even become more intense — directly affecting the intimate relationship between husband and wife or leading to a marital crisis.”

Hong Lanzhen, a divorce lawyer based in the southern city of Dongguan, says she’s already handled multiple cases in which her clients have emerged from lockdowns determined to get divorced as quickly as possible.

“One thing these couples have in common is that their relationships were fragile before the outbreak,” says Hong. “Quarantine forced them to stay together. The longer they were locked down, the more problems they had and the more disagreeable they were with each other.”

Xiao Mei, a 32-year-old from Beijing, moved out of the apartment she used to share with her husband and filed for divorce soon after life in the city started to return to normal. She tells Sixth Tone the crisis revealed her husband’s “true face.”

According to Xiao, her husband always used to tell her he was too busy with work to help with housework and child care. “But this time (during the lockdown) he had plenty of time, yet he still did nothing,” says Xiao. “I finally realized my husband is a giant baby, and I don’t want to carry on with this widow-like existence anymore.”

“The pandemic has been like the final straw to break marriages,” says Li Hua, a psychologist based in Zibo, East China’s Shandong province. “The small spears and shields that could be ignored or tolerated get suddenly exposed and pile up one on top of each other like a sharp knife, cutting mercilessly at the relationship.”

The lockdowns came as a particular shock to the huge number of Chinese couples in long-distance relationships. The country has an estimated 288 million migrant workers as of 2018, with many living apart from their spouses and children for large chunks of the year as they work long hours in the big cities.

Until the pandemic, Zheng Rujun only saw her husband once a month, as the pair had jobs in cities a three-hour drive apart in the southern Guangdong province. Their relationship was stable, and the couple treated each other with respect during their monthly visits, according to Zheng. Things quickly changed, however, once they found themselves living together for the first time since their wedding in 2017.

“He throws dirty clothes and smelly socks all over the house; he plays video games on his phone all day long; and when I share with him my worries about the virus, he mocks me for making a fuss,” Zheng tells Sixth Tone.

After a few weeks, Zheng couldn’t take it anymore and told her husband she wanted to break up. He was against the idea, telling her things would go back to normal once the lockdowns were over. But Zheng’s mind was made up. “Since I’ve already uncovered these problems I can’t bear, why waste time?” the 27-year-old says.

For others, it was the stress of being separated during the lockdowns that opened up new marital rifts, according to Li, the psychologist. “Women especially often feel anxious and insecure about their relationships,” says Li. “They worry about their husbands’ safety and whether they’re cheating.”

According to Li, many of her female clients repeatedly asked their partners to send photos and videos of themselves to prove they were where they said they were. “I’ll help them … understand that their behavior will only push their husbands away,” she says. “When you feel inferior, you’ll be afraid of others abandoning you.”

Financial pressures have been another source of strife, with firms cutting staff and the self-employed sometimes suffering drastic reductions in income as a result of the pandemic. The added stress has sometimes pushed marriages to their breaking point, according to Lan, the divorce counselor.

“The outbreak cuts off household incomes and the stress that comes with it triggers emotional crises,” says Lan. “We’ve seen this a lot during our daily work during the pandemic.”

Not every relationship has been damaged by the crisis, however. Some couples have emerged from the lockdowns closer than ever. According to a survey by LoveMatters China, a platform for sex and intimacy education, nearly 300 of 1,500 respondents said they’d “stuck together” with their partners 24/7 during the lockdowns. Of those that had done so, 55% agreed that the daily super-close contact helped them communicate better and improved their relationships.

Although disasters bring huge trauma and loss, researchers have found that they often also push survivors to move forward: People who are afraid and lonely marry earlier; those in the wrong relationships end them faster; and families considering having children stop hesitating.

Chinese regions that experience earthquakes typically see their divorce and marriage rates rise by 6.1% and 1.9% respectively the following year, a study published in 2016 found. In the United States, the marriage, divorce, and fertility rates in South Carolina also increased following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, another study showed.

“The disaster may simply act as an accelerator or catalyst for people’s actions,” explains Li. “They come to recognize the status of their marriages during the pandemic — this special life-or-death period — and make firmer decisions.”

Wang Liting, 35, says COVID-19 helped her understand what truly mattered to her. She’d been thinking about divorcing her husband of nearly 10 years before the pandemic struck.

“I felt like he didn’t get me,” says Wang. “And I had a really bad relationship with my mother-in-law, who was always pushing me to have kids.”

Wang had a change of heart, though, after the couple was confined to their home in Shenzhen. She started to feel unwell and panicked, fearing she’d been infected with the coronavirus.

But then her husband stepped up, according to Wang. He took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with just a regular flu bug. He cooked for her, did all the housework, and watched comedy shows with her to help her relax.

“I felt so loved in our marriage for the first time,” says Wang. “That’s when I knew he was the one I could rely on.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Dial D for Divorce: Court Uses WeChat in Moroccan-Chinese Breakup


A judge in east China resolved a Moroccan-Chinese couple’s long-running divorce case with the help of a video call through messaging app WeChat.

The ingenuity ended 20 months of cross-border litigation, the Intermediate People’s Court of Nanjing, in Jiangsu province, said on its WeChat public account Tuesday. The district court responsible for the piece of technological wizardry granted the divorce on Sept. 18.

The couple reportedly met when the Moroccan woman was studying in China. They registered their marriage and made plans to open a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Morocco. However, after the woman moved back to her home country in 2015, she cut all communication with her Chinese husband.

The husband filed for divorce in January 2016. A trial date was set for Sept. 12, 2017, but by July this year the court still had not received confirmation from the woman as to whether she would attend. Instead of setting a new hearing date and repeating the complicated process of sending a court summons internationally, Judge Chen Wenjun opted for WeChat, a first for the court.

During the hearing, Chen compared the woman on screen with her photo on the marriage certificate and also verified her other personal information. A camera was set up in the courtroom to record the video call.

Protocol for divorce cases in China recommends that both parties appear in court so judges can question them. But, Chen was quoted as saying, “this can be achieved by WeChat video as well.” He added that using WeChat made it easier to persuade the woman to take part in the trial. One precondition for using WeChat was that the case wasn’t complicated, the article said, adding that the couple did not have any joint property.

A court in Zhangjiajie, in central China’s Hubei province, took a similar approach in May, when Chinese-Malaysian couple were also granted divorce via WeChat. Local media reported that the case “made it convenient for the parties involved, improved the efficiency of the trial, and embodied the judiciary’s concern for humanity.”

Think Twice About Marriage, Shanghai Counsels Couples


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On a Tuesday afternoon in March, one of the young, soon-to-be-married couples at Shanghai’s Putuo District marriage registry was less than excited. Wei Jun, a premarital counselor, was asking the spouses-to-be to rate each other on a 10-point scale.

“Seven,” said the woman of her fiance.

This, according to counsellor Wei, was a little on the low side. In her experience most couples who come to her right before registering to marry score each other at least a nine, she told Sixth Tone.

Wei said the woman then burst into tears, asking aloud whether her fiance really cared about her. After some prodding, Wei found out the couple had come to get married because of constant pressure from the man’s family. Wei told them they ought to think twice about whether they should get married.

After their counselling session, the couple still chose to wed at the registry office later that day.

Wei is one of several volunteer premarital counselors at the Putuo marriage registry. Every Tuesday she talks to couples — sometimes as many as 30 a day — who come in to apply for a marriage certificate. Wei, 46, works as a full-time lab technician in a hospital. Out of an interest in psychology, she took a course to become a registered counsellor a decade ago. She had been volunteering at a school until December 2015, when Shanghai started with a new program aimed at preventing unstable marriages.

Shanghai was ahead of the national curve. Regulations recommending that every marriage registry in China hire premarital counsellors came into effect on Feb. 1, 2016. Now every couple has to sit down for a free, mandatory counselling session before they can apply for a marriage certificate. The new rules are a reaction to China’s rising divorce rate, which has increased more than tenfold since 1980in 2014 3.6 million couples ended their marriage.

Sun Xiaohong, the deputy director of the marriage management department at the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, told Sixth Tone that 58,302 Shanghai couples filed for divorce in 2015, a 9.5 percent increase compared to the year prior.

Part of this rise can be explained by easier, cheaper ways to get a marriage annulled — the fee is usually less than 10 yuan ($1.50) in most places, and it is waived entirely in Shanghai. The whole procedure only takes about half an hour. Also, as has happened in other countries, economic growth means more and more people discover they are no longer financially dependent on their spouse.

Sun said this has also meant that “people pay more attention to emotional demands.”

More recently, new rules making it more expensive for couples to buy a second house in Shanghai have led to them filing for divorce as a way to circumvent these regulations.

In the hope of halting the tide of ended marriages, divorce counseling has been available in Putuo since 2006. According to Qian Cuiping, head of the Putuo marriage registry, about 70 percent of couples who go through these sessions either delay a divorce or decide against one altogether.

With premarital counselling, the government hopes to lower the divorce rate by stopping couples who are not ready from rushing into a marriage that will likely end in tears. Wei has come across many young couples who fall into this category.

“A lot of people don’t really know themselves, let alone their partners,” she said.

Many people leave Wei’s office with more problems than they realized they had when they came in. Wei says she often makes happy couples feel “sad and confused,” but she thinks it is necessary.

“It’s my job to help these couples face reality,” she said.

On the same Tuesday that Wei saw the first pair, another young couple from Shanghai visited her for their mandatory counseling session. Although initially very excited to be registering for marriage, they realized after speaking to Wei that they had different opinions on whether they would live with his parents after the wedding and, crucially, on when to have a baby. The couple left the counselling sessions unhappy. “This is not ideal,” Wei said with a smile.

“But it can also save them from the heartbreak of divorce later.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

New Hot Job in China: “Mistress Discourager”


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A new career is recently emerging in China. So-called “third person dissuaders” or “mistress discouragers” specialise in persuading mistresses to step back from their client’s marriage, and make an annual salary of approximately one million yuan (157,500 US$).

Saving a marriage does not come cheap. China’s “third person dissuaders” or “mistress discouragers” sometimes charge as high as 250,000 yuan (±40,000 US$) to persuade ‘the third person’ (小三), or  ‘the other woman’, to step back from their clients’ marriage.

The mysterious occupation initially started in the cities of Shanghai, Chengdu, and Shenzhen, but is now spreading throughout China.

The phenomenon was pushed to the forefront during the Second Chinese Marriage and Family Counseling Services Summit (中国婚姻家庭咨询服务行业高峰论坛) on October 10th, and became a hot topic in Chinese media and on social media platforms.

“80% of failed marriages have to do with a mistress problem.”

According to Shu Xin (舒心), head of the China Association of Marriage and Family (中国婚姻家庭工作联合会), it takes time and money to drill a “third person dissuader”. Training them to become qualified takes at least six months and costs over 300,000 yuan (±47,000 US$) per person.

But the money apparently is worth it, as specialized senior “mistress discouragers” make around one million Chinese yuan per year (around 157,500 US$).

During the Chinese Marriage and Family Summit, it was stated that China’s divorce rate has been on the rise for twelve consecutive years, and in 80% of the cases, the failing of these marriages has to do with a “mistress problem” (小三问题).

At the summit, Shu Xin pleaded for a regulation of the profession and its training, in order to avoid ruining the market.

“This shows that more and more people in China are having affairs.”

Users on Sina Weibo are also actively engaging in this hot topic. So far the topic “third person dissuader” (#小三劝退师#) has accumulated nearly 6,000 comments with more than 15 million views.

A lot of netizens see it as a weird yet promising career with Chinese characteristics (中国特色). “Demand determines supply. We all know that the common cause of Chinese divorces is marital infidelity. The rise of such a profession shows that more and more people are having affairs now,” Weibo user Tangguoyun says.

A user who calls himself PQ agrees: “The emerging of the ‘third person dissuader’ is the result of market demand.” He goes on to emphasize that the profession faces the risk of violating the law and moral codes: “The process of getting rid of a ‘third person’ might involve monitoring and stalking. It could also cause personal safety issues. That is why specific professional norms should be established by the relevant departments.”

“Curing the symptoms, not the disease”

The China Association of Marriage and Family called together the relevant professionals this month to develop guide regulations for ‘mistress discouragers’. The association also opened a nationwide complaint hotline to supervise the service quality.

However, the majority of Weibo users still have doubts on this occupation and consider it to only “cure the symptoms, not the disease”.

User Domi says: “Such actions are just a temporary solution. Those who have affairs are not loyal, and have weak self-discipline. Even though the ‘third person’ might be persuaded to leave the love triangle this time, there will be a ‘forth person’ or even ‘fifth person’ in the future.”

“Couples should do workshops on how to maintain a healthy marriage.”

In most western countries, it is common for couples to go for marriage counselling when they are having relationship problems. But couple’s therapy is not popular in China yet, as most Chinese people do not feel comfortable discussing personal matters in front of a total stranger. Although professional counselling is offered at local Civil Affair Bureau and Divorce Offices, people generally feel ashamed to share such private matters.

Some users on Sina Weibo point out the importance of marriage counselling, and encourage couples with ‘third person’ issues to go into couple’s theory together. “Apart from third party counselling courses, it would be good for couples to do workshops on maintaining a good marriage.” says user ClaraSY. Until then, mistress discouragers can make a good living out of other people’s love affairs..

By Yiying Fan

This article was published on What’s on Weibo.

“Divorced Yet?” – Why China Has a Soaring Divorce Rate


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The divorce rate in China increased to 3.9 percent over the last year, with 3.63 million couples bringing their marriage to an end, according to the latest data released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The rate has been rising for twelve consecutive years since 2003. “Have you divorced today?” (今天你离了吗) has recently become a common joke between Chinese people. While some blame China’s social media, others say the reasons for the soaring divorce rates can be found elsewhere.

In its Social Service Development Statistical Bulletin, the Chinese government recently reported that the national divorce rate soared to 2.67 percent in 2014, compared to 1.05 percent in 2003, and 0.4 percent in 1985. The renowned Chinese magazine Banyuetan (半月谈) interviewed couples about their reasons for divorce in June, concluding that the mass adoption of social media across China is mostly responsible for the rising divorce rate in China. A lot of couples think that social media has turned them away from each other.

The report also stated that Chinese social media apps such as Weixin (微信, WeChat) and Momo (陌陌, Chinese ‘Tinder’) have made it easier to reach out to people, which has messed up a lot of marriages.

On Sina Weibo, over a dozen of media, including People’s Daily (人民日报) and Global Times (环球时报), recently took the topic online to initiate a discussion amongst netizens on whether social media is the killer of marriages in China.

“Social media have made having an affair so easy.”

User AkiraHunter commented: “It’s really not easy to maintain a relationship or a marriage. In my opinion, social media is a major problem. WeChat, Momo and Century Love (世纪佳缘) have become key tools when it comes to hooking up. Social media have made having an affair so easy.”

Other users, however, do not believe that social media are the biggest reason to trigger divorce. Some think that the higher divorce rate can be explained by the social progress and growing gender equality in China.

“I don’t think social media are to be blamed for the high divorce rate. It’s rather just a medium for expressing human thoughts and desires,” says user Night of Anhui Sound: “The divorce rate in China would have kept rising without the existence of social media too, as society is making more progress and genders are more equal. Women now know how to protect themselves in cases of domestic violence or extramarital affairs.”

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User Arale1 added: “We used to think that divorce is a shame for women. A lot of Chinese women put up with a dead marriage for the sake of their children, and because they needed financial support from their husbands. But nowadays, women don’t really need men to support them, as many women start to make more money than men. We have realized that we shouldn’t discommode ourselves anymore. Getting divorced is not the end of the world. On the contrary: it could be the beginning of a new happy life.”

“Nearly 40% of marriages in Beijing end in divorce.”

It’s worth noting that the comments above only apply to women in urban areas, where the divorce rate is much higher than in rural China. Nearly 40 percent of marriages in Beijing end in divorce – a remarkable peak compared to the national divorce rate of 2.67 percent.

Chinese women in big cities and urban regions now have more opportunities for higher education leading to well-paid jobs, which makes them financially independent. Young women in China don’t need to rely on their husband to support them anymore. Thus, money is no long the reason for not getting a divorce.

In rural areas, however, people are still not that tolerant of divorce. Many women are forced to stay in a broken marriage in order not to ruin their families’ reputation. It would also be more difficult for a divorced woman in rural China to find another man who is willing to marry her.

Another factor that cannot be neglected in this issue, is the China’s one child policy (独生子女政策). The post-1980s generation (80后) has been raised as an only child in the family, without having a siblings to interact with. This so-called “me generation” is often described as being selfish, impulsive and unwilling to compromise. Their parents urge them to get married, and then interfere with their marriages. The combination of these factors seems to be a major contributor to the higher divorce rate. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, of all couples filing for divorce in 2014, those born in the 80s had the highest divorce rate. “Lightning divorce” (闪婚闪离) has specifically been a trend among this ‘me generation’.

“We didn’t want to compromise, so we just got divorced.”

Unlike the dating culture in most western countries, Chinese couples usually do not live together before they decide to tie the knot. Typically, they date for a year or two – going to the movies, having dinner, occasionally having sex in a hotel room, or taking a few short trips together. Then the parents start to pressure them to get married. Some young women choose to get married in order not to become ‘leftover women‘ (剩女).

“Parents and other relatives won’t give you enough time to figure out with whom or when you want to be married. They believe it’s time to do it when you reach certain age. They pressure you so hard! We got married shortly after dating, and then realized we don’t even share the same values in life. As the only child in the family, no one wanted to compromise, so we just got divorced,” confesses Weibo user Kianase.

“Getting divorced for two dollars.”

In addition to the above reasons, the easy procedure and low cost of getting divorced in China also cause rising divorce rates. Before 2003, a reference from either the employer or a community leader was required for applying for a divorce. Many couples would not consider divorce due to the humiliating process. But now the rules have changed, and this is no longer needed. Unlike couples in other countries that are required to separate for a period of time before they can legally file for divorce, separation is not required in China. Couples can quickly, easily, and privately file for divorce. The divorce fee is less than two dollars and even free of charge in some cities.

However, these procedures are, again, changing. Some local civil affair departments have just launched the new policy of “limited numbers of divorce” (限号离婚), in hopes of decreasing impulsive divorces. Citizens in Guangzhou posted on Sina Weibo that they have to wait for at least a month to file for divorce.

The new policy finds online support. As the user Yefuping says: “Some government working efficiencies should be improved, while others should be slowed down. The speed of processing divorce should definitely be reduced, so that couples have some time to think twice before they sign the papers.”

By Yiying Fan

Images by Manya Koetse

This article was published on What’s on Weibo.