Global Times 2015-02-17 08:26:00
Between protecting the feelings of their family members and avoiding social embarrassment, people who choose to keep their divorces secret carry a heavy psychological burden. Photos: Li Hao/GT
To avoid social judgment, some separated couples in China pretend they are still married
Chinese actor Chen He's recent admission on Sina Weibo that he had concealed his divorce for the past six months has prompted a feverish discussion in the country about the emerging social phenomenon of yinli, or "invisible divorce" - referring to mutual arrangements in which a couple who are legally divorced continue to pretend that they are married for the benefit of their friends, family members and colleagues.
In some cases, the divorced couple might continue to live together, either to maintain the illusion that they are married, or because they cannot afford another apartment.
While it is difficult to ascertain precisely how common invisible divorces are in China, their existence is well-known, and the fact that a specific term has emerged to describe the arrangement speaks to their prevalence.
Like acting in a play
Lin Huan, 41, told the Beijing Evening News that she has been secretly divorced for three years.
She said that she ended her 20-year-long marriage due to her husband's extramarital indiscretions, but perpetuated in the ruse of still being married for the sake of her 15-year-old daughter.
Lin said she did not want her daughter to grow up with the experience of being in a "broken family," or to be negatively affected in her future relationships due to her parents' divorce.
"An invisible divorce is like acting in a play," she said. "You get sucked in deeper and deeper."
Lin said that every weekend, when their daughter returned from boarding school, she and her ex-husband would put on a "show" that all was still well with their marriage.
Lin said that she and her husband had not told their parents that they were divorced either, out of fear that they would not be able to handle such a blow in their old age, and to avoid having to repel attempts to persuade them to get back together. She said that they continue to regularly visit their parents' houses as if they were a happily married couple.
"It's better to let them live out their twilight years in the blissful ignorance of a white lie," said Lin.
Chen Zhilin, a Chonqing-based psychologist and marriage counselor said that in his experience, arrangements like Lin's were not uncommon. There were also those who told their family members, but kept the information of their divorce from their friends and colleagues, said Chen.
As to the psychological reasons for keeping one's divorce a secret, Chen gave the example of a woman in her 20s he had treated, who had kept the fact of her divorce from her colleagues for more than a year.
Chen said she did this out of fear of being slandered or ridiculed.
"Deep down, she still thinks of divorce in the traditional way, as something that is immoral," said Chen. "In public, she still talks about her ex-husband and feigns affection for him as if they are still married."
Reasons for concealment
Chen said that it was more often the woman in a relationship that pressed for an invisible divorce, and that it was more common in older women, who were more likely to hold traditional views with regard to fears of what others will think of them.
"Chinese women tend to consider being hurt in a relationship to be a shameful thing, so they have a strong sense of wanting to guard against other people's judgment," said Chen. "As the saying goes: A divorced man is like found treasure; a divorced woman is like discarded trash. [Chinese society] is still dominated by patriarchal values."
Chen said that many women have been hurt before by gossip or ridicule, so they were less likely to trust people to give them the benefit of the doubt about their divorce.
Wang Xiuquan, a lawyer at Beijing Jihe Law Firm which specializes in divorces, echoed Chen's comments that the fear of gossip-mongering and public shaming was a significant factor in why some couples chose to conceal their breakup from others.
"In China, even if people say that their divorce was due to 'irreconcilable differences,' the assumption and the reality are often that it was because of an extramarital affair," said Wang. "To avoid having their dirty laundry aired out in public, people prefer to hide their divorce to avoid embarrassment and negative judgment."