You’ve signed your little red booklet, you’ve had a lavish ceremony and now you’re going to live happily ever after, right? For a growing number of Chinese, that’s not necessarily the case.
China is facing a marriage crisis. 3.84 million Chinese divorced in 2015, a 5.6% increase year-on-year. Beijing witnessed a 65% increase in divorce between 2011 and 2013 alone. Figures abound attesting to the trend that chances of Chinese marriage lasting are slimmer than ever.
What’s driving this latest development? Is it women’s new found economic and emotional independence, divorce becoming more acceptable, or a selfish one-child generation unable to compromise in marriage? Or is it rather a tendency of Chinese people to marry much too soon in our Western opinion (often within the first six months of dating)? I believe all of these factors contribute to a reality in which the crude divorce rate in China more than tripled between 2002 and 2015 to 2.8.
But from looking at my Chinese friends and family, as well as my own relationship, I have come to the conclusion that there is another major factor in this whole story: it’s the unrealistic expectations placed on newlyweds to act in a way appropriate to their newly-acquired status.
Partly due to my own cultural background but probably also due to a hearty sense of realism instilled by my parents, I don’t believe that marriage changes anything about my relationship. In fact, I didn’t necessarily feel the need to get married for romantic reasons at all. I was as sure of my relationship with or without tying the knot. Which meant I had no illusions about me or my partner when the big day came. I never thought that the little red booklet would suddenly mean we would both turn into perfect people and leave all our imperfections and idiosyncrasies at the door once he metaphorically carried me over the threshold of our non-existent home.
But in China, things are different. I’ve seen many an example of relationships that have been placed under increasing strain, and some that even ended in entirely avoidable divorce, because a partner or the in-laws somehow expected the spouse to turn into a model version of themselves over night.
Men’s Job is to Provide, and Provide Well
On the men’s side this is unsurprisingly all related to career and success. Let’s take the example of my friend Wang Han (name changed). He got married to his partner of almost 10 years. That’s actually very atypical and I would have thought it a good sign that theirs would be a marriage that, if not successful, would at least last. They divorced within two years.
Wang Han had never been a very successful guy. In fact, he gave up the opportunity to receive further education and remained in the third-tier city of his birth so he could maintain the relationship with his future ex-wife. He started a number of different businesses. None of them went anywhere, although in fairness not for lack of trying.
Then they got married. And within months of tying the knot all of a sudden his in-laws and wife started to complain about the fact that he was not bringing home the bacon. The complaints grew into veritable insults. They looked down upon him for not suddenly and miraculously making a million yuan. When he lost his job, he didn’t tell them, instead going out every single day and pretending to go to work. Every day upon returning home, they would shout abuse at him for his perceived failure to provide (not even realizing that he wasn’t in fact employed at the time). In the end he just couldn’t take the constant insults anymore and filed for divorce.
Wang Han’s is not an exceptional story. I know of other men who face exactly the same problem; in-laws who are not content with these young men’s earnings and even try and convince their daughters to divorce. The onus lies on the women and their strength of character. Will they be brain-washed by their parents, or stand by their man?
Then there’s Li Xiaoxue (name changed). She’s a very bubbly young girl, in her early twenties. She just got married this past year to her boyfriend whom she met while partying at a club. However, even before they had their wedding party the relationship was in crisis, so much so that there were rumours the whole thing would be called off. Why? Because she thought that now they were getting married, her future husband shouldn’t be allowed anymore to go out to clubs and party. Keep in mind that this is where they met and where they had spent most of their free time while dating. She was expecting him to suddenly become an entirely different person.
Granted, in her case it had to do with being very young and inexperienced – in the way we try to control our boyfriends in high school – but this behavior isn’t uncommon, as many Chinese do not have extensive dating experience before marriage and can’t get these unhealthy habits out of their system. More importantly, when she chastises him in front of her elder family members none of them step in and tells her to grow up.
“You’re married now so act like it” is the mantra that you hear left and right, reminding once again of the fact that China is in many aspects similar to Europe of the 1950s. But what most people in China seem to not have realized, is the minute you try and force someone to change according to your standard, you’re destroying the relationship as they will end up feeling trapped and resentful.
You Marry Me, You Marry My Flaws
For me this has also been a minor issue, though not on the worrying scale of my local peers. I have been going through a phase of increasing forgetfulness and clumsiness over the past year, and once or twice my husband has tried to throw the argument at me that a married woman should have it more together. There has also been a growing sense of displeasure when I have been going out for drinks and parties with my friends.
A discussion with my mother-in-law in which I expressed my frustration at the latter actually turned out to be no help at all, since she then began asking what time of night I return home on these occasions. While she did me the favor of not outright criticizing my behavior, I could feel that on some level she tended to agree. It doesn’t behoove a married woman to run around bars drinking alcohol and talking to anyone other than my husband after all.
In the end a swift discussion with my husband has definitely improved the situation. At the end of the day, no matter how much people try to place post-marriage expectations on me, by the simple fact that I’m a foreigner, I have a “get out of jail free card.” And boy, am I going to make use of that.
Laura Nutchey-Feng first came to China to study and become a translator, though eventually found herself working as a journalist and news reporter. She holds a German passport, her mother is from the UK, and she is married to a Chinese man. Through beijingkids she’ll be exploring multi-cultural marriages and the observations she has since she is so intertwined with Chinese culture.