China / Hot Issues

Marital discord no longer just a family affair in China

By Zhou Wenting (China Daily) Updated: 2016-09-20 07:08

 Marital discord no longer just a family affair in China

Marriage counselor Wang Wenjuan (far right) explains to clients how to properly handle the relationship between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws at a counseling service center affiliated with the local women's federation in Hefei, Anhui province in East China. Xie Chen / For China Daily

With divorce on the rise, marriage counselors say they are helping more couples find their way through troubled waters, as Zhou Wenting reports from Shanghai.

In recent months, marriage guidance counselor Shi Xiuxiong has found his workload increasing to such an extent that he now foregoes the traditional lunch, opting instead for a quick sandwich in the face of a deluge of clients seeking professional help.

The founder of the Good Catch Love Counseling Work-shop in Shanghai, which specializes in providing assistance with relationship issues, is not alone. Many marriage counsel-ors have reported a noticeable rise in the number of couples approaching them for advice.

Figures from the Ministry of Civil Affairs show that last year, 3.84 million couples ended their relationships, a rise from 2.87 million in 2011.

Marital discord no longer just a family affair in China

The trend is most obvious in China's largest cities. Last year, the number of couples in Beijing untying the knot rose to nearly 56,000, from about 32,000 in 2010.In Shanghai, the figure peaked at 60,400 in 2013.

"Marriage counseling is relatively new in China. People only come to us when their marriages are on the verge of splitting up," said Shi, who founded the workshop in 2012. Counseling experts said extramarital affairs, personal differences and fractious relations with parents-in-law are the difficulties most frequently encountered by couples. Despite that, they said, the purpose of marriage counseling is not to salvage the relationship at all costs.

"As counselors, we stay neutral and open, and will never advise a couple to stay together or break up. That is a decision for them alone. Our role is to help them to see themselves and their most pressing needs more clearly, and to help them to figure out whether what they're doing is consistent with their ultimate goal," said Lin Zi, vice-chairman of the Shanghai Psychological Counseling Association and founder of a psychological consultancy that bears her name.

The neutral approach to marital and relationship advice is the one Shi, from the Good Catch Love Counseling Workshop in Shanghai, has also adopted: "We search for the best way for both members of a couple, and won't automatically assume that marriage is better than a divorce."

Generally, Shi's clients are aged 30 to 35, and have been married for less than five years. They are well-educated and highly-paid, and the ratio of women to men is 7-to-3. "The person who comes to us is usually the one who has identified that there is a problem and wants to save the relationship," he said.

For clients of counselors such as Shi, the guidance process usually involves three to eight sessions, each lasting one or two hours and costing about 800 yuan ($120) per hour.

"It's better if a couple attends together because it allows us to see clearly how they communicate with each other, figure out the problems and then fix them," Shi said.

Marital discord no longer just a family affair in China

He said he is always encouraged to see a couple having disputes and disagreements during counseling sessions because it shows that they still care about the relationship: "The biggest problems occur when one or both partners remain silent. That silence indicates that they hope I will advise them to give up."

Extramarital affairs

The majority of counselors believe that extramarital affairs are the most common problem among couples.

Shu Xin, director of the Weiqing Group, an agency based in Shanghai that provides counseling services in more than 40 cities nationwide, said that roughly 80 percent of his clients sought help after discovering that their partner had had an affair. When Shu established the agency in 2001, the number of people seeking advice was between 10 and 20 a day, but the figure has now soared to more than 200.

Improved transportation and the development and rapid spread of communications platforms means it is easier than ever to have an affair, according to counselors, who believe the frequent exposure of related behavior by well-known figures in the entertainment industry is making the public less confident about marriage.

In mid-August, movie star Wang Baoqiang filed for divorce on the grounds that his wife was having an affair with his agent. Meanwhile, 10 days later, rumors spread online that the wife of Zhang Jizhong, one of China's most prominent television producers, was sexually involved with his godson, movie director Xiao Qi, even though no evidence had been produced and neither party had commented publicly about the situation.

Marital discord no longer just a family affair in China

Lin Zi, vice-chairman of the Shanghai Psychological Counseling Association, partly attributed the high incidence of extramarital affairs to the public's "excessive focus" on the pursuit of wealth in the past two decades as China's economy boomed.

"After working hard all day, people don't want to talk much at home. That may lead to anxiety and suspicion among partners and growing conflict between them if the situation persists. When a person has low satisfaction in their family life, they want to make up for it in other ways," she said.

However, when someone who has cheated on their spouse opts for professional advice, the counselor will not necessarily drag them back to the family. Instead, they will observe and assess the client's real needs.

"Everybody needs to feel safe, valued, intimate and stable in a relationship. I help them to compare the two options to see which better satisfies their needs. The costs, both financial and emotional, are much lower," Shi said.

Dealing with differences

The lack of an appropriate way of dealing with differences between couples is another major problem, according to counselors, who said every person has different needs and an important task in marriage is to seek common ground while putting aside minor differences and disagreements.

Moreover, every couple copes with differences in their own way, so counselors prefer both partners to participate in the sessions so they can see how they talk with each other and help them to improve their communication skills.

Lin said she often asks a couple to swap roles and explain how their other half usually responds to certain situations. Then they articulate what they really expect their other half to say in such circumstances.

"Through this process, they often find that what they are used to saying actually hurts their spouse a lot, and that such communication is ineffective and aggravates the problem," she said.

In Lin's experience, the role-playing process reveals to the couple that problems mostly arise from differences in personality, but that doesn't mean their love has come to an end - a common perception when marital tensions surface.

"We listen to their stories of the environment and family they grew up in, and discover where their behavior originated," Shi said. As an example, he explained that he has often noticed that men who say little in times of conflict usually grew up with quarrelsome parents where the father avoided engaging with the issue by remaining silent.

"The role-playing process allows the wife to understand that her husband's silence doesn't mean 'he doesn't love me anymore' or 'he doesn't care about our family'. He was taught to cope with conflict in this way by what he saw and heard during childhood," he said.

"Through counseling, we want to intensify such awareness, so people enter marriage with all their experiences, background and history fully known, which will help them better understand their partner and their relationship so they will learn to treat their partner in the way that person prefers."

Marital discord no longer just a family affair in China

People line up at the divorce registration office in Shanghai's Xuhui district last month. Zhang Ruiqi / For China Daily

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