The Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our personal relationships in unprecedented ways, ‘forcing’ couples to live closer together, but social distancing measures have isolated us from our friends and wider communities.
In China, which was the first country in the world to go into full lockdown when the virus emerged —– where schools closed, shops were shuttered, and employees sent home. Now the virus has been brought under control but the pandemic has unfortunately left some cracks in some Chinese families.
The ‘Cooling-Off’ Period Introduced
Even before the COVID-19, the divorce rate has steadily been rising in China since 2003 when the process was made easier and faster. Making an appointment to file for divorce can now be done on the social media platform WeChat. In 2019, 4.15 million couples filed for divorce but a new law, which comes into effect on 1 January 2021, requires those seeking to end their marriages to complete a 30-day “cooling-off period”, except for those who suffer from domestic violence.
And it would seem that in more extreme cases, these conflicts arising during lockdown have led to a surge an increase of cases of domestic violence. In China’s Hubei province, the heart of the initial outbreak, reported cases of domestic violence increased threefold since the pandemic started. A similar increase has also been reported in many other countries across Europe where lockdowns have been implemented.
In Beijing, the women rights NGO Equality reported a surge in calls to its helpline on issues of domestic violence, after lockdown measures were implemented throughout the country in early February. —edited from Yi-Ling Liu, BBC
Families Split by Extra Closeness
Some case studies from China show the COVID-closeness intensifies conflicts between Chinese husbands and their wives.
As the coronavirus raged through China, Ms. Wu, a housewife in her 30s in China’s Guangdong province, spent almost two months in isolation with her out-of-work spouse. They fought constantly. Wu ticked off a familiar list of marital irritants, including money (too little), screen time (too much), and housework and child care (not evenly split). One particular annoyance was her husband’s habit of engaging their two children in play in the evening when they were supposed to be going to bed. “He’s the troublemaker in the house,” she says. “I don’t want to endure anymore. We’ve agreed to get a divorce, and the next thing is to find lawyers.”
The city of Xi-an, in central China, and Dazhou, in Sichuan province, both reported record-high numbers of divorce filings in early March, leading to long backlogs at government offices. In Hunan province’s Miluo, “staff members didn’t even have time to drink water” because so many couples lined up to file, according to a report in mid-March on the city government website. Clerks struggled to keep up, processing a record number in a single day, it said. “Trivial matters in life led to the escalation of conflicts, and poor communication has caused everyone to be disappointed in marriage and make the decision to divorce,” the city registration center’s director, Yi Xiaoyan said.
Shanghai divorce lawyer Steve Li at Gentle & Trust Law Firm says his caseload has increased 25% since the city’s lockdown eased in mid-March. Infidelity used to be the No. 1 reason clients showed up at his office door, he says, adding that “people have time to have love affairs when they’re not at home.” Like Christmas in the West, China’s Lunar New Year holiday can strain familial bonds. When the virus hit in late January, on the eve of the festivities, couples in many cities had to endure an additional two months trapped under the same roof, sometimes with extended family. For many it was too much. “The more time they spent together, the more they hate each other,” Li says of his new cases. “People need space. Not just for couples—this applies to everybody.”
Unexpected Divorce Boom Instead of Planned Baby Boom
Chinese officials had hoped that cooping up couples would actually lead to a baby boom, helping offset birthrates that have fallen to a record low since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, despite the loosening of the one-child policy and the ramping up of campaigns to get women to marry and have children. More than one municipality put up posters urging couples to get busy in the bedroom to support the nation.
“As you stay home during the outbreak, the second-child policy has been loosened, so creating a second child is also contributing to your country,” read one unromantic banner from the local Family Planning office hung on a gate in Luoyang, in central Henan province. Of course, the fruit of these efforts will not be apparent for seven to eight months.
In China it’s almost always the woman who initiates the divorce process—74% of the time in 2016-17, according to the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, Zhou Qiang, at Tsinghua University. But women are also more often on the short end of marital finances. Among urban Chinese, it’s customary for young single men to purchase a home, often with the help of their parents, to demonstrate to prospective mates that they’re financially secure. In a divorce, the husband retains the right to his premarital assets—sometimes even when the wife has helped pay the mortgage. Fortunately for Ms. Wu, her parents paid for the couple’s home, as well as a car, which means she’s not in danger of being dispossessed.
Young people are more likely to divorce than their parents, many of whom still see a stigma attached. “Now one person just says, ‘I don’t like you anymore,’ and they file for divorce the next day,” Li says. Yang Shenli, an attorney at Dingda Law Firm in Shanghai, says his four divorce cases since the lockdown involve couples born after 1985, two sets of which decided to divorce because “quarantine intensified their contradictions.”
Some lucky couples have rediscovered marital bliss thanks to the pandemic. “The home quarantine and social distancing has reminded me how much I love the person I married,” says Rachel Smith, a Canadian artist in Hong Kong who met her husband while on a backpacking trip to the city 21 years ago. Over time, the couple had gotten busy pursuing separate careers and activities, leaving them little leisure time together. Now, as they work on their home computers while still under partial lockdown, they regularly take breaks to chat and check in with each other. “It turns out I really like spending time together,” she says. “It was a nice surprise.” —edited from Dong Cao, Charlie Zhu, and Mengchen Lu，Bloomberg Businessweek
I do not know if it would be appropriate to call divorce boom a bad news, but the boom is set to be relaxed as the lockdowns terminated in China. Meanwhile in Australia, especially State of Victoria is facing unprecedented challenges in domestic harmony as the stage 4 lockdown applied in Vic’s most livable capital city Melbourne.
Edited by Joreal Qian