GUANGDONG, South China — Divorce lawyer Hong Lanzhen sensed her marriage was failing some six years ago. “I knew I was ill-tempered and always hurt my husband before I realized it,” she tells Sixth Tone.
Hong, 43, was determined to fix the relationship. But when she heard about the concept of marriage counseling, she decided not to book a session; instead, she wanted to become a counselor herself. Hong began studying the art of fixing marriages, and a year later, she received her certificate from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, joining the ranks of China’s 100,000 official marriage and family counselors.
Marriage counseling is a relatively new industry in China that began growing in earnest after the government listed it as a national profession in 2007 and introduced a certification process. Liu Weimin, director of the Guangdong Province Marriage and Family Counselor Association, says there is great opportunity for further development of the industry. “Demand is increasing rapidly, and we need at least another 1 million professional marriage counselors,” Liu predicts.
China’s divorce rate has been climbing for 14 consecutive years. Nearly 4.2 million couples filed for divorce in 2016, an increase of 8.3 percent from the year prior and a more than fourteenfold increase compared to 1980. “China has entered a new era for divorce, where marriage has become a challenge and the divorce rate keeps increasing,” says Chen Yiyun, a researcher in the field of marriage and family at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Chen attributes the rising rates primarily to societal changes and economic development that have improved the status of women.
To address the spike in divorces — which the government believes has a negative effect on social stability and harmony — official marriage registries have in recent years started offering free premarital and divorce counseling. Hong worked as a counselor at a marriage registry for a few years; she left last year to establish her own company in her hometown of Dongguan, in Guangdong province.
Despite the apparent increase in unhappy couples over the last few years, Hong says that many potential clients still need convincing that marriage counseling is worth it. She charges 300 yuan ($47) per hour, about 200 yuan cheaper than what she identifies as the going rate among the 100 or so marriage counselors in Dongguan. Even so, when Hong informs people they will need to pay to discuss their problems after an initial chat, many think it’s too expensive.
He Qiaofeng speaks with a couple at a marriage registry in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, September 2017. Courtesy of He Qiaofeng
So far, Hong’s business, Harmonious Family Service Company, has counseled over 100 individuals, mostly women. “They often realize their marriages are in trouble only when a third person becomes involved,” Hong says, using a euphemism for having an affair. “Then they feel like it’s the end of the world.” But in her eyes, infidelity is a symptom of other problems that her clients usually fail to recognize.
Chen, the researcher, says that when there are problems in a marriage, men commonly remain silent, while women — if they are willing to share — seek advice from their female friends. “This is not a good idea because the friends will mostly stand on their side and fail to analyze the situation from a neutral and professional perspective,” she explains. “Sometimes they will even give misleading guidance.”
“My friends didn’t help me solve my marriage problems; on the contrary, they made me more confused,” a woman surnamed Lin tells Sixth Tone. Lin, who declined to use her full name for privacy reasons, wanted to divorce her husband years ago due to their constant bickering. She didn’t know about marriage counseling until a friend introduced her to a therapist in 2016.
“I was told to change my own attitude first,” Lin recalls. “Instead of thinking about my husband’s weaknesses all the time, I tried to look on the bright side and consider things from his point of view.” After months of putting this advice into practice, Lin’s husband noticed the change and agreed to couples therapy.
In Lin’s case, communication between her and her husband was the central problem. Following their counselor’s suggestions, the couple — who are both in their mid-30s and live in Dongguan — began writing their thoughts in a diary every evening and sharing their entries with each other. “We spent 4,000 yuan on therapy, and it was the best investment we’ve ever made,” says Lin.
He Qiaofeng has been working as a counselor at a marriage registry in Shenzhen, also in Guangdong province, since she received her certificate in 2013. An average of about 20 couples line up to file for divorce every day, of whom she selects a few based on their stated grounds for divorce and offers them free counseling. “It’s not our job to prevent all couples from divorcing,” she says. “We aim to prevent impulse divorces.”
Among the most common reasons for couples to split up are loss of affection, financial difficulties, living apart, disputes over their children’s education, a poor sex life, and a bad relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law. “Most of the divorces caused by these factors are impulsive,” He says. “In these cases, it’s worth mediating.” When more serious problems lie at the root of a couple’s split — such as domestic violence, gambling, or extramarital affairs — “then the free counseling at the marriage registry is far from enough,” she says.
There’s a generational gap in the way Chinese people look at marriage counseling, says He. As a common Chinese saying dictates, many people still believe that “a family’s shame shouldn’t be made public” and therefore prefer not to speak openly about problems in their marriage. “They are worried other people will point fingers at them and talk about their private lives behind their backs,” He explains. But in the past five years, He has noticed newlyweds begin to adopt a different view of marriage counseling. “Compared with the older generation, the younger generation is more willing to accept this kind of service,” she says. “They believe it is necessary to have a mediator analyze their problems.”
Born in 1985, marriage counselor Liu Yiman is a millennial herself. She has been working as a counselor for seven years and says most of her clients are in their 30s and 40s. “These are the people who believe paying some 1,000 yuan an hour for therapy is worthwhile,” says Liu Yiman, who is not related to Liu Weimin of the Guangdong Marriage and Family Counselor Association. Over the past seven years, Liu Yiman and her team of six counselors have seen a shift in perceptions of marriage counseling: When the company was just starting out, most people didn’t even know such an industry existed. “In the beginning, we were mostly giving lectures and doing our own advertising,” she says. Now, they are usually fully booked weeks in advance.
Compared with older counselors, Liu Yiman says she and her younger peers are more open to trying new techniques and more accepting of modern relationship concepts. “[Older counselors] might hold the belief that being a DINK couple is wrong, as married couples are supposed to have children, but we can accept this idea,” she says, referring to the “double income, no kids” lifestyle. In addition, she says that during therapy sessions, older counselors focus on persuading and criticizing. “We don’t tell our clients what they did wrong; instead, we just present the facts to them,” Liu Yiman says.
Liu Yiman counsels a couple at her studio, Yiman Emotional Post, in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, 2017. Courtesy of Liu Yiman
Liu Yiman established her counseling studio, Yiman Emotional Post, in 2010. Unlike other companies that serve mostly individual clients — the majority of whom are women, as men have proven reluctant to participate on their own — she focuses on couples therapy, which is still in its infancy in China. So far, she has provided services to over 1,000 couples in Shenzhen. She charges 1,500 yuan for one and a half hours and says that seven out of 10 couples are able to save their marriages after the sessions. As for the other 30 percent, Liu Yiman is optimistic, too: “Even if their marriage is over, the therapy will help them in their next marriage.”
In the studio, Liu Yiman says, she often witnesses changing attitudes between a couple after each party hears the innermost thoughts of their partner. “Every couple have the desire to be loving and intimate, but they forget about their original intentions at some point in their marriage,” she says. “My job is to remind them of their vows and rebuild the intimate relationship.”
Dealing with family conflicts every day makes Liu Yiman cherish her husband and her loving family even more. “Seeing couples argue and cry in the studio makes me realize how wonderful my husband is,” she says. “I think I am the one who benefits the most from my work.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Daniel Holmes/Sixth Tone)