Over the last few weeks, trending topics on Weibo — one of China’s biggest social media platforms — and the Quora-like Chinese Q&A forum Zhihu have posed the question: “When you get out of [coronavirus] quarantine, what will you do?”
Without fail, one highly upvoted comment will read: “Immediately divorce.”
While the comment is in most cases assumed to be a sardonic joke, during an unprecedented nationwide quarantine many Chinese couples have indeed been forced to reexamine their relationships in confinement — and to vent their feelings online.
In response to the novel coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak, which reached national headlines in late January, the government implemented widespread self-quarantine and enforced lockdown measures. For the past two months, most of China has been working from home — many of them, for the first time in their lives — ordering groceries to their doorstep with little human contact, and avoiding unnecessary social activities outside of their households.
But as cities gradually return to their normal routine, there has been a flurry of news and discussion about divorces rates rising all over the country, leading many to speculate that there may be a post-Covid-19 divorce phenomenon waiting in the wings.
In Dazhou, in western China’s Sichuan province, the head of the local marriage office told Pear Video that they had seen a surge in couples divorcing since the office reopened on February 25. “With all the appointments for divorces that have been made,” he said, “we will be fully booked up to the end of March.” Elsewhere, districts in the city of Xi’an, in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, reported an “unprecedented” number of divorces once marriage offices reopened on March 1. The hashtag “Xi’an divorce appointment explosion” (#西安离婚预约爆满#) has gained 32 million reads to date on Weibo.
Similar reports of divorce appointments being fully booked until the end of April are circulating across major cities in China such as Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu, and Guangzhou.
The trend has caused many users on Weibo to remark: “The first industry to rebound in China — divorce!”
These early reports project a less than ideal scenario for the Chinese government and relevant authorities, who were hoping nearly two months under lockdown would lead to an increase in China’s birth rate, which has been decreasing for a number of years.
Since the one-child policy was relaxed back in 2017 to help offset an aging population, the government has seemingly taken every opportunity to encourage the population to conceive children — even during an epidemic.
Weeks ago, a photo made the rounds online — supposedly taken in Luoyang, Henan province — of an official banner that read: “Contribute to your country by staying at home, and making a second child.”
Though there could still be a post-quarantine baby boom later this year, many others took to social media to say they were choosing to split from their partners because they’d found out about spouses’ affairs, or discovered irreconcilable differences that were previously bearable.
The quarantine restricted movement such that couples could peel away the layers of routine, work and mundanity to truly examine the relationship and state of their interactions.
When one female netizen found out about her husband’s infidelity while in confinement with him, she took to her Weibo to announce their decision to divorce. According to her, the two clashed over their different views of marriage. “He doesn’t consider anything besides going to bed with someone as cheating,” she writes. “But in my view, even questionable texts are cheating.”
Local officials urged couples to reconsider these “impulsive” divorces, which they blame on spending an unprecedented amount of time together at home. Some cities have lowered the number of divorce appointments allowed per day. But this does not seem to be slowing the trend.
As one user on Weibo put it, “If you can’t get along well for just one month, can such a marriage be counted on for a lifetime?”
For many married couples, the quarantine was a period that revealed the “true side” of their spouses.
Whilst some have appreciated the opportunity to spend time with their partners, others are suffering from the pressures of childcare without support and from imbalances in responsibilities around the home. With businesses being forced to close for weeks on end, and people being out of work as a result, couples have complained of household finances under increased strain.
Women in particular have also turned to social media to vent about the inequality of shared responsibility in their marriages. In a post on Zhihu entitled, “After the epidemic, the first thing I want is a divorce?” user Xuebi writes that she has been working as a nurse on the frontlines in Wuhan during the Covid-19 crisis. She has been married to her husband for over six years, and has a five-year-old child.
As she worked in the hospital during the outbreak, the problems in her marriage were magnified due to the resulting pressure. Her husband is a decorator who has just lost his job, and yet still refuses to do any chores around the house or help with their family. She writes:
“I’m doubling as both the man and the woman in this family. With the outbreak of the virus, my in-laws and husband are also avoiding all physical contact with me as they are worried I might have contracted the virus.”
She adds that she has decided to end her relationship and will be getting a divorce as soon as the marriage office’s hours return to normal.
The strain has taken on an even darker edge in some cases, with a growing number of domestic abuse reports emerging from the Covid-19 period.
In late February, during peak quarantine period, one Weibo user observed about his neighbors: “The residents in the opposite building must have domestic violence, quarreling, crying every night. […] I wonder if this will turn into a lunatic asylum before the epidemic is over.”
Some of the issues may lie in broadly held attitudes toward marriage across much of China.
The average age of marriage in the country is 26 for women, and 27 for men. Barring major first tier cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, a majority of Chinese couples are settling down in their mid- to late twenties, with some in third or fourth tier cities marrying as young as 21 or 22 years old. Much of the pressure to marry, still comes from family and society. And within this context of a perceived “expiration date” for both men and women, many young couples are tying the knot earnestly and hastily after a certain age, sometimes without enough time for a full examination of the reasons behind such a life changing decision.
While it would be overstating things to say that the quarantine’s intensity has forced a reappraisal of such pressures, it has led some to renew their voicing of misgivings about marriage and child rearing — a sentiment especially popular among China’s post-‘90s generation.
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Of course, the forced quarantine has also been a blessing in disguise for other couples, particularly those who are used to conducting part of their relationships remotely over WeChat and FaceTime calls. Zoe Z, an internationally-educated product manager, says she has rejoiced in having this time with her Swiss consultant boyfriend. “This has been the first 14 consecutive days we have spent together, because he travels for work all the time,” she says.
But in a country where the average person in China spends over six hours on their mobile every day, the luxury of a partner’s physical presence has not been universally welcomed. Many netizens expressed having a total communication breakdown with their significant other once real-life contact became a constant. A recent article on WeChat lifestyle platform Huayang summarized some common sentiments being shared online:
“‘We’ve been at home together over a month, and haven’t spoken more than 10 sentences to each other.’ ‘Even though we are both at home, it feels like I’m living like a widower.'”
Based on these stories, it’s clear that many people still feel very much “alone” despite being with one’s closest company.
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While the coronavirus outbreak has elicited the largest global sales of physical face masks the world has ever seen, it has also seemingly torn away the “masks” worn in modern day China — forcing people to confront the realities of who they are and what they have chosen their lives to be.
It’s proven to be a test not just for individual relationships, but also for how greater society wants to organize itself in the post-Covid-19 age.
Cover photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash
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