China’s divorce rates are rapidly on the rise. After some turmoil in China’s political climate, it came out that a politician had been having several affairs in 2014. It was said that he was trading money and power in exchange for sex. This public sex scandal lead to a sharp change in the public. Divorce had previously been unthinkable but now seemed more achievable.
This change came into effect disproportionately, though. While many now saw it as acceptable to part ways with a spouse, marriage is so built into Chinese culture that there was an inevitable pushback. Perhaps the most obvious way this manifests is in the courtroom. The public may have become more liberal, but the law has remained conservative. Applications for divorce in China are almost always turned down the first time and require a six month cooling period before the couple can apply again. It is the hope of many that this will encourage the couple to reconcile.
Parents are much the same. In China, familial patriarchy continues to dominate the culture. A divorce is seen, in many ways, as a disappointment, and betrayal. A couple who become divorced face significant pushback from their families.
A woman, however, is seen as abandoned. The responsibility of maintaining a marriage in China does not fall equally on both sides. Instead, it is the woman’s job to keep things running smoothly. While a man may be happy to escape, few women are comfortable to become divorced. China’s business world knows this and has accommodated for it.
While more marriages struggle, marriage counseling thrives. The business has begun to boom, with new counseling services opening constantly, and books being published constantly. Women are more than happy to spend amounts of money that many would consider exorbitant to keep their marriages functioning. If things are not going well in the home, many women see it as their own failure.
Because of this, marriage counseling in China looks nothing like it does elsewhere. On the surface, it’s not that different. Women will call in or come for an appointment, and be questioned about their marriage. Look deeper and listen in, though, and you’ll find things are not the same.
The man never shows up. Never. It’s not his responsibility to be there. In fact, he often won’t even be aware that his wife is seeking counseling. If he found out, he would cease thinking that his wife had suddenly improved, and assume that she is instead using psychological tricks to keep him happy. Marriage counseling in China is secretive.
The questions asked are entirely different, as well. A therapist in other countries might ask a couple how often they’re having sex – it’s an important thing to know. A therapist in China will ask the same question. However, they won’t spend much time trying to figure out why the relationship has become cold in the bedroom. Instead, they’ll tell the woman that sex is very important to a man, and that she should make a more active effort to please him. All of the questions are centered around the woman’s behavior, and how they believe it can improve. The therapist will tell the woman to nag less, clean more, make him feel better.
Even if she doesn’t want to, the woman will comply.
A New Kind of Private Detective
Marriage counseling is beginning to add another service to their resume,though. Many therapists are building companies with the help of private detectives, or “mistress dispellers.” Chinese men are being caught more and more frequently with a xiao san, Chinese for “Little Third,” or mistress. Understandably, the women they are married to don’t take kindly to this. However, a threat to leave the man would often be empty. Instead, they turn to a third party.
Mistress dispellers take many forms. Some are made official by the government, but many are not. The Chinese government tends to see detective work as dishonest, shady, and threatening. Under the current rule, gaining information in any way is difficult. Even receiving information from the public record is nearly impossible. A mistress dispeller is sometimes hired to gather information to be used in a divorce proceeding. One mistress dispeller operating without a license was able to make a man record himself having an affair, thus giving his wife evidence to use in court.
Most are hired to do what the name implies, though. The primary function of a mistress dispeller is to find the mistress and scare her away. Their methods differ greatly. Some take to seduction, luring the mistress away from the married man. Others use more bullish tactics, such as letting it slip to the mistress’s family what she has been doing. Some use the husband’s personal life to make the mistress become disinterested. They might tell her that he has children, or he is caring for an elderly family member. Whether or not these things are true, they are often enough to keep the mistress away. Telling the mistress that she is part of an affair is risky: while some women are turned away, others will take it as a compliment.
Even this shows how imbalanced the state of marriage in China is. It is not seen as the man’s fault that he is cheating, or his responsibility to stop. No mistress dispeller targets the cheater directly. Instead, they shoo away the mistress, putting the blame on her. One (female) marriage counselor went so far as to say, “There are no enduring marriages. Only mistresses who haven’t worked hard enough at tearing it apart.”
For some women, this is seen as empowering. This responsibility is given to them, and they take it in stride. However, it’s hard to come to the same conclusion from the outside.