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.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A masked family of statues, in which the female statue’s mask is missing on a snowy day, in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 15, 2020. Yuan Zheng/Changjiang Daily)