China Is Making It Harder for Couples to End Their Unhappy Marriages

One city says a new divorce rule has prevented 832 couples from breaking up.
April 7, 2021, 10:15am
China divorce rate civil code
China says the new law can reduce irrational divorces. Photo: Hector RETAMAL / AFP

A Chinese law that requires couples to wait one month before their divorce requests can be processed is facing strong opposition from the public for keeping people in unhappy marriages. 

The law, which took effect in January, requires couples filing for separation to wait a 30-day “cooling-off period” before they are allowed to proceed. The government hopes the measure could lower divorce rates, but it has prompted widespread criticism, especially from women’s rights advocates.

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The policy has kept at least hundreds of couples from getting separated since it was enacted.

The eastern city of Hangzhou, for example, said among the 2186 couples who filed for divorce in January, 16 withdrew their requests within the cooling-off period, while 816 couples never came back to finalize their divorce, according to local newspaper Dushi Kuaibao. The applications expire 30 days after the end of the mandatory waiting period. 

The policy has proven effective by keeping 38 percent of the divorce applicants married, the report said, citing Hangzhou’s Civil Affairs Bureau. 

Following the path of many developed countries, China’s divorce rates have been on the rise thanks to easing stigma around failed marriages as well as women’s growing financial power and their unwillingness to stay in unhappy marriages. 

The rising divorce rates, however, has alarmed the Chinese leadership, which places a great emphasis on traditional family values and social stability. 

While officials hail the canceled divorce requests as a success, the numbers have triggered online backlash over the state’s interference in people’s freedom to divorce. 

Although divorce lawsuits are exempted from the waiting period, many women say the policy has made it more difficult for victims of abuse to leave toxic relationships, given the lax law enforcement on domestic violence in China

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“Where did the people go after failing to divorce?” a person commented on microblogging site Weibo. “Are there more divorce suits these days? For those who cannot afford lawsuits, are they suffering further from domestic violence?” 

“How about just canceling divorce services? We will become the happiest country in the world,” another user commented. 

The Chinese government says the waiting period could reduce “irrational divorces” and contribute to the stability of families. In Hangzhou, officials offer free counseling services during the cooling-off period to prevent eventual break-ups. 

One counselor surnamed Qian told Dushi Kuaibao that she persuaded a woman into dropping her divorce request during the 30-day waiting period.  

The woman complained about her husband’s failure in caring for her, while her husband said he was working hard to support the family, Qian recalled. The counselor said she helped the two improve their communication.  

“They have 30 days to adjust their way of living together and lower their chances of getting divorced irrationally,” the counselor said, “so they won’t regret in the future.” 

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.