The Reality Show Tackling China’s Divorce Crisis
Traditional Chinese culture has long discouraged families from airing their dirty laundry in public. There’s even an idiom for it: jiachou buke waiyang, or “family scandals shouldn’t be spread outside the home.” It may count as a mild surprise, then, that one of China’s hottest shows is a reality program about the thorny realities of divorce.
The premise of “See You Again” is straightforward: Producers invite three celebrity couples in relationship trouble on an 18-day vacation before they decide on their next step. The couples are carefully selected to represent different stages of the divorce process: The show’s first season, which aired in 2021, featured one couple still in the planning stage, another in the legally mandated “cool-off” period after turning in their divorce application, and a third already separated.
The chance to see celebrities at their lowest point may draw audiences in, but the real hook is the show’s frank depictions of family strife. Each season, the show’s producers invite a psychologist, sociologist, and journalist to engage the couples in in-depth, face-to-face conversations about their marital problems. The resulting discussions are often wide-ranging and touch on hot-button social issues like unrealistic expectations of childrearing and the uneven division of household responsibilities, topics that have resonated with the show’s target audience. A hashtag related to the show’s ongoing second season on microblogging platform Weibo has accumulated more than 2.9 billion views and 1.5 million comments.
Many of these comments express a desire to have similar discussions with their own partners. But the taboo against airing family disputes, combined with poor social awareness of mental health resources and a lack of trained counselors, limits access to services like marriage counseling or couples therapy in China. Those services that do exist tend to be far crueler and more conservative-minded than their idealized depiction on “See You Again.”
In fieldwork conducted at one of China’s largest relationship counseling companies from 2016 to 2018, I found that the two most popular types of paid relationship counseling are what the company marketed as “getting your ex back” and “fixing your marriage.” Both services are prohibitively expensive, ranging from a few thousand to more than 100,000 yuan ($14,500). Calling them “couples counseling” would also be a misnomer: The vast majority of Chinese relationship counseling services are entered into by just one party, typically the woman.
Many of the clients I encountered during my fieldwork were women whose husbands had cheated on them. Some had been married for years by the time they found out about their husbands’ mistresses. Their goal for counseling was not to talk through the pain and suffering caused by their partners’ actions — their husbands were rarely willing to participate in counseling anyway — but to regain their affections.
Although divorce rates are rising in China, it remains a difficult choice, especially for women. Whether because their children were still young or because they had no income after quitting their jobs to look after their families, the women I spoke with typically felt they had to swallow their anger and stay in their relationships. Counselors responded to this by teaching women how to “improve their communication skills” and “boost their sex appeal.” In more extreme cases, women might pay the company to get rid of their husband’s mistresses.
There are a number of reasons why women feel forced to win back their cheating husbands by any means necessary. Income inequality within families can be stark, and the stigmas attached to divorced women are hard to shake. Even when they are unfaithful, men often have the upper hand in divorce proceedings. Meanwhile, women — many of whom have sacrificed their careers for their marriages and families — have a much harder time securing an equitable division of property or returning to the workforce after a divorce.
Marriage counselors often stress that female clients, especially full-time housewives, simply can’t afford to leave their husbands. Many counselors struggle with the realities of their work: They recognize that the women seeking their help have less power in their relationships and that they are not equals to their partners, but they continue to emphasize that, “Whoever suffers should pay (for counseling) to change.”
Even in cases where the counselor tries to get both partners involved, reconciliation can be a challenge. To start, traditional teachings instilled in Chinese men from a young age make them reluctant to pay money to a third party to resolve what they consider “private affairs.” Many also believe that talking about their emotions is feminine.
The consensus among counselors and clients I interviewed was that women are far more willing than men to learn and change to sustain their relationships. Keeping a relationship alive is seen as the woman’s responsibility, one best undertaken quietly. Because of men’s hostility to counseling, many women say they do not want their husbands to know about their sessions — or the money they spend on them.
These issues reflect broader social inequalities. Sociologist Eva Illouz has argued that marriage counselors in the West often push communication as a panacea for all marital problems, with the corollary that this communication be facilitated by professionals like themselves. Relationship counselors claim that better communication skills can bridge any problem in a relationship, even though many of these issues extend beyond communication and are tied to structural problems like family and gender inequality.
For all the praise “See You Again” has received for its open, realistic depictions of marital disputes, the hard work of resolving marital difficulties is often uglier and messier than shown on TV. The show steers clear of common problems like cheating during pregnancies, domestic violence, and affairs while portraying men — largely absent figures in real-life marriage counseling — as active participants.
That said, it has accomplished one thing, at least according to producer Liu Le. “Some of the celebrities we spoke to have said that these issues are unspeakable in their own marriages,” Liu said in an interview. “If they tell their parents, their parents will say that that’s how it goes. They can tell their friends, but if they talk too much about their problems, they’ll be accused of overreacting.”
Indeed, sometimes, all a person needs is a friendly ear. Several of the counselors I interviewed said they don’t need to say anything: Their clients confide in them immediately, finding comfort in simply getting their problems off their chest.
The Chinese taboo against talking about family or marital problems, coupled with the lack of popularity of counseling and couples therapy in China, has left many people under the belief that they have to bear their problems silently. “See You Again” won’t fix anyone’s marriage, but it’s provided a positive example of couples expressing their emotions and talking through their problems together.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the second season of “See You Again.” From @再见爱人官微 on Weibo)