Witness to Divorce: A Chinese Judge's Perspective
Greetings from Chinarrative.
In our second longread of the year, we shift focus to the domestic sphere.
What is the state of the Chinese family in the late 2010s? Family judge Zhou Bingyi offers some insight in a candid interview with Southern People Weekly’s Qiu Yuanting.
Zhou is the chief judge at the family court of the Yushan District courthouse in the eastern industrial city of Ma’anshan in Anhui Province.
Besides her brutal honesty, Zhou’s account is also remarkable for its rich, revealing anecdotes and blunt policy suggestions for a system that’s still very much evolving.
Family court is a relatively new development in mainland China, the first such court having been established only in 2011. Before that, family cases were considered alongside other civil matters.
Witness to 200+ Divorces a Year: A Chinese Family Judge’s Story
Family judge Zhou Bingyi. Courtesy Southern People Weekly.
I am a judge serving in a local family court. I handle more than 200 divorce cases a year. In other words, I come into contact with more than 200 families on the verge of breakup.
When I first started handling divorce cases, I stuck with the general trend and refrained from granting divorces after the initial petition.
During the first hearing, once the other party challenges the divorce and if circumstances don’t warrant mandatory approval—such as in cases of polygamy or domestic abuse—the judge can start dilly-dallying. Really, he or she can stop listening and go straight to a rejection. That’s the safest move for the judge.
The risks of granting a divorce immediately include threats from either party and a high appeal rate. If a divorce is granted without careful consideration, the fallout might be never-ending.
Many judges figure that anyone who wants a divorce badly can refile their petition six months later, plus an initial rejection is basically expected. Most lawyers and petitioners have already factored it in.
The rejection rate for divorce cases after the initial filing is relatively high in China. When I attended Renmin University’s fourth conference on marriage law last year (2017), a lawyer asked:
Why don’t you judges grant divorces at the initial hearing? What’s your thinking?
I was a speaker that day as well, the first on the schedule that afternoon. I ditched my prepared remarks, offering my views on my work and the relationship between judges and lawyers instead.
Relatively speaking, I am a rather impulsive judge. I’ve granted many divorces after the initial filing. I’ve always been the bad guy (laughter). But I said that day that indeed, many local courts tend to reject initial divorce filings.
The first reason is we’re simply too busy. The current filing system had generated a deluge of cases and the quota system for judges has translated into fewer jurists, which means everyone has to handle more cases. There’s also a time limit on cases. It’s simply impossible to delve deep into a case. An initial rejection is the most hassle-free approach.
The second reason is that some petitioners have acted rashly. An initial rejection gives them time to work on their relationships. We’ve actually run into applicants who initially filed for divorce but ended up heatedly berating us for not suggesting mediation first. I came across a young couple once. One party filed for divorce as a bluff, but lo and behold the other actually agreed, leaving the petitioner dumbfounded.
These are cases that occurred before the recent reforms that implemented a mandatory “cool-down” period before the divorce takes effect. When both parties agree to the divorce, it’s automatically granted. And yet once approval is granted, we face a backlash. “How come you didn’t try mediation?” “Did my spouse pay you off?” “You’re a woman too. How could you do this to me?”
The third reason, which is very important, is that judges and lawyers have different missions, so they look at the same issue differently. A lawyer is advocating on behalf of his or her client to the best of his or her ability, while a judge’s role is to balance competing interests. It’s only natural they arrive at different conclusions about the same case.
The fourth reason is that as “impulsive” of a judge as I am, I am extremely careful when it comes to families that have children. The impact of a divorce case isn’t short-term. More often than not they have profound repercussions on the rest of a child’s life. And these kids will be getting married and having their own children in 10 or 20 years, as they become the driving force behind social progress. Being cautious now is a way of taking responsibility for our future.
The fifth reason is that judges have to look out for their own well-being. Many petitioners don’t consider themselves the main reason for the breakdown in their marriages. Some actually blame the judge for tearing their families apart. Others believe that when a court is biased whenever things don’t go their way, that the judge is in their spouse’s pocket.
“If You Approve the Divorce, I’m Going to Down Pesticide”
The more serious examples of violence against judges in recent years have all stemmed from divorce cases. Headlines like “Petitioner Seeks Revenge Against Judge over Divorce Ruling” can be easily found in a search engine query. There was one such case in Luchuan province in Guangxi Province last year. (Editor’s note: On Jan. 26, 2017, a man stabbed retired judge Fu Mingsheng to death in Luchuan. The man, who physically abused his wife, appeared before Fu on a divorce case. Fu granted the divorce as required by law, but the husband nursed a grudge against him. On Aug. 25 that year, the man was sentenced to death for voluntary manslaughter.)
The worst abuse I have faced is verbal abuse and stalking. Once when a rather fierce-looking woman who had appeared before me asked to see me, I brought along some court documents that didn’t pertain to her case, so I could shield my face in case she decided to pour acid on me.
Luckily, I have escaped unscathed so far. We meet all sorts of characters in court, like Li Yun. All of my colleagues have worked on her case at some point. She is a woman from a farming community whose husband has petitioned for divorce three times.
Li Yun was steadfast in her refusals, saying she loved her husband deeply. Her husband worked in the city and took on a girlfriend. The couple have been living separately for an extended period and didn’t communicate. But Li Yun had heard about a fellow villager whose cheating husband ultimately returned home after getting old, so she was confident her husband would do the same. She also thought getting a divorce was a major loss of face.
In reality, the husband no longer had any feelings for his wife and avoided any contact with her. Li Yun would kick and scream to avoid a divorce. She’s made a scene at the courthouse and the local police station.
She tumbled on the floor in the courthouse’s reception area and broke a glass window at the police station, which led to her arrest for disturbing public order and damage of public property. She called her husband while she was detained, asking him to deliver fresh clothes, but her husband ignored her.
The case was initially handled by my colleague Hou Weijuan, whom we refer to affectionately as Xiao (Little) Hou. Before the initial ruling was handed down, Li Yun visited Xiao Hou with her elderly mother, a bottle of pesticide in hand. She said:
If you grant the divorce, I’m going to down the pesticide.
Xiao Hou was terrified. She was genuinely afraid that Li Yun might drink the pesticide. Caving to the pressure, she ruled against the divorce. Li Yun’s husband filed for divorce again six months later. This time the case was assigned to another judge, but the result was the same.
There were extenuating circumstances behind the second rejection—Li Yun was diagnosed with breast cancer. And her husband didn’t care for her at all, offloading all his problems to the court. We wanted to force him to take responsibility for Li Yun to a certain degree by not granting the divorce.
But the husband had his mind set on a divorce and appealed to the local Intermediate People’s Court, which stood by the initial ruling. Ultimately, we granted a divorce when the husband filed for divorce for a third time, also ruling that the husband pay Li Yun damages.
The case had already met the legal criteria for a failed relationship—the couple had been separated for more than two years and there was no room for improvement or reconciliation after two petitions. To rule against the divorce at that point simply meant inflicting tremendous pain on both parties.
Perhaps the husband’s dogged determination had already worn his wife down—she was starting to lose it. She picked fights with all sorts of people at the courthouse. Even people appearing before court on other cases were subjected to her tirades.
Female judges handled her cases exclusively, so she suspected the judges were interested in her husband when they pushed for divorce. She also asked the court to track down her husband’s mistress. While her case was pending, she removed one part from her husband’s motorbike every day. We were worried she might cause an accident.
The amazing thing is when the divorce was finally granted, Li Yun didn’t appeal. Perhaps it’s because we always treated her sincerely, suggesting solutions and doing everything within our power to help her. Really, that’s all a family court can do. The last time Xiao Hou saw Li Yun, the latter was very calm, even saying thank you while she sat quietly in her chair. “Can you imagine Li Yun saying thank you?” Xiao Hou was blown away.
Time Is the Best Antidote
Later Xiao Hou wondered if she should have granted the divorce at the get-go. But some facts take time to sink in.
I also had two tricky cases that dragged on for a year or so. One of them was similar to Li Yun’s. The couple were at utter loggerheads and wrote to the court separately. The wife threatened to jump from the roof of the courthouse if the divorce was granted, while the husband threatened to do the same if the initial petition was rejected. In this case, I procrastinated.
While the case was pending, we entertained any investigation requests the wife put forward, as long as they were within reason. In the end, the divorce was granted. I wrote a 12,000-word ruling, outlining my overall reasoning and my thinking on custody issues. I wanted them to refer to my ruling in case there was any fallout. Ultimately, neither party appealed.
When it comes to particularly tough cases, we make a point of showing the parties involved that first, the court is willing to do anything within reason to help your cause. For example, I usually agree to meet with either spouse in private, so grievances can be aired. These meetings also help me handle the case.
Second, regardless of what the court is willing to do, you can’t avoid the final outcome. The fact is it usually dawns on the dissenting spouses that they’re dragging out proceedings so they have more time to accept the inevitable.
In the second tricky case, the prospect of divorce broke my heart, so I procrastinated as a way of encouraging mediation. In that case, the husband had been posted to western Africa by his company for five years. He returned to China once a year for a month. The pay was quite lucrative and the wife handled the family’s finances. If you ask me, cases like this are marriage killers.
According to the husband and the two sons, the wife had an affair. That’s understandable. People have physical and emotional needs. But the wife claimed that she spent her husband’s entire income for the five-year period, not so much as saving a single cent. The husband was outraged and made some bitter comments in court.
I thought the husband had to take responsibility too. First, he decided to go to western Africa out of his own free will. Second, he decided to leave his ATM card with his wife. These were his choices and he had to take responsibility for the consequences. But I became sympathetic after the initial hearing.
The first reason was the fact that when asked to break down her spending on paper, many of the items the wife listed didn’t make sense. It also became apparent on further questioning that the wife wasn’t exactly a connoisseur when it came to luxury goods. (For example, she claimed that she spent 500 or 600 yuan ($70 to $90) on cosmetics a month but struggled to name brands.) Her story also changed over time.
Secondly, the wife often took off in the middle of the night, leaving the couple’s underaged son unsupervised. All she did was leave a bit of cash in a drawer each time to cover expenses. This affected the child’s development.
Third, the husband was beaten up on his way home after court one day, suffering a broken nose and eye socket and broken ribs. The attacker, who claimed to be acting on behalf of his wife, escaped. The husband ended up staying home for several months.
If I were to issue a quick ruling from a purely a legal standpoint, the only outstanding issue was their property because they didn’t have any savings left. It would have been a tough pill for the husband to swallow, considering that his hard-earned income from five years of overseas work was gone and he had to split the property he worked hard to pay for.
I set aside the case for some time. I’m required to clear a certain minimum percentage of cases, so I felt the pressure mount whenever it was time to report my clearance rate. But I had no choice but to procrastinate.
If I had issued a ruling immediately, it would have resulted in an unfair division of assets and aggravated tensions. There would be serious repercussions. Both spouses would end up hating the court and hating each other.
About a year into proceedings, the couple struck a deal because the wife was eager to divorce and the husband wanted to return to work. Out of their two properties, the more expensive apartment went to their son and the cheaper one the wife. The husband was still shortchanged, but at least he could pass on some of his hard-earned wealth to his son. Because it was a negotiated settlement, both parties were OK with it and there was no fallout.
The main problem with family cases when it comes to legal procedure is the tight deadline. Family cases often require more flexibility in terms of timing. Speaking from personal experience, sometimes all it takes is a bit of procrastination.
Currently, the time frame for family cases is the same as other cases. From the time a petition is received to a final ruling or settlement, cases that require summary procedure must be completed in three months and those that need regular proceedings six months.
In special circumstances, an extension to up to a year can be obtained from a higher court. In the case of summary procedure, excluding the standard steps, only about a month or so is left for actual court time.
Many families need time to resolve their differences and problems need to be chipped away at over time. How can spouses tackle their differences in the heat of the moment, under time pressure?
A Judge, Also a Therapist
A counselor at work at the Yushan District family court in Ma’anshan. Courtesy Southern People Weekly.
Since being assigned to family court in March 2016, I’ve devoured books on psychology, marriage and family. I’ve also obtained national certification as a Level 2 psychotherapist and a Level 2 marriage counselor. I’ve internalized my knowledge of psychology and apply it in practice to determine if relationships are broken and whether they have a future.
For example, I often use neo-Freudian ideas about relationships to examine whether a vessel exists for a couple’s feelings for each other, such as property, children or sex. I also look at the depth of their communication and affection.
Sometimes we give couples or children that appear before us the “House-Tree-Person” test, an art-based psychological assessment, or conduct sandplay therapy. Xiao Hou had a case two years ago that required a custody ruling. The child in question was a 11-year-old girl. By law we had to consult her.
In the past, courts weren’t as sensitive to child psychology and would ask the child directly which parent he or she wanted to live with. This approach doesn’t sit well with me.
Even after the divorce, the child’s parents are still his or her parents. It’s a cruel decision to force a child to make. The child might choose his or her father in front of him and the same with his or her mother. Why? Because children have to please their parents, otherwise they won’t be able to survive.
The 11-year-old girl wouldn’t say a thing. Girls these days are quite mature. Xiao Hou took her to the courthouse’s therapy room. When children see a sandbox, they think it’s just a game and start placing the toys and figures on the rack to their liking. Xiao Hou sat on the couch and observed.
Xiao Hou said she was shocked when she saw the girl’s layout. For most people, the left side of the sandbox represents the past and present while the right side represents the future. The girl placed a long fence across the lower portion of the sandbox and placed a figure of a grown man outside the fence. Inside the fence was a house, an old man, an old lady and a young girl. An adult woman was placed in front of the house.
All these objects were situated on the left side of the sandbox, in line with what the judge had learned about the girl’s family situation. The girl’s father worked in another city and she was primarily raised by her mother and grandparents.
On the right side of the sandbox, the girl placed a newly-wed couple, a girl and a giant cake. Xiao Hou initially thought it was a wedding scene, so she asked, “Does this mean you want your parents to stay together?” The girl responded:
No, auntie. My birthday is soon. My parents are never able to celebrate my birthday with me. I want them to celebrate with me this year.
In reality, a child’s thinking is quite straightforward. The little girl didn’t want to choose. She wanted her family to stick together, so that she could spend birthdays with both her mother and father. By that point, the girl’s parents were at each other’s throats, all but resorting to physical violence. Xiao Hou asked the girl if she could show the sandbox to her parents.
It was a few weeks before the girl’s birthday. We broke down the sandbox layout for the couple in simple terms and repeated what their daughter told Xiao Hou. Xiao Hou told the couple they could take a timeout. The court was in no hurry, she said. A marriage was at stake, after all. A delay of a week or two was nothing. The father was based in Shenzhen and being home for his daughter’s birthday was a rarity, so Xiao Hou told the couple to come back after the birthday.
Even though there was no official notice, this was effectively a “cool-down” period, albeit a brief one of a week or two. In the end, the couple dropped their petition for divorce. We followed up by phone twice and conducted a home visit. We found out that the husband returned from Shenzhen and bought a new place in Ma’anshan for his family. They’re getting along quite well now.
Advocating Mediation—And Breakup
Judges from the Yushan District family court meet with a couple informally outside the courthouse. Courtesy Southern People Weekly.
We don’t have reconciliation rate targets to meet—and we push for both mediation and breakups. In my opinion, some family courts have veered off track. It’s meaningless to brag about how many couples you have reconciled. People are independent beings with their own thinking. If someone really wants to break up with you, what’s the point of forcing him or her to stay?
The team at the Yushan District courthouse, where I serve, is relatively young. Our generation grew up exposed to more progressive views on marriage. There’s a saying among older folk that you’d rather tear down 10 temples than break up a marriage. There’s some truth to the claim, but I also believe in taking a case-by-case approach.
Perhaps influenced by my training in psychology, I tend to encourage spouses who appear before me to choose their own paths. My most common refrain in court is, “This is your life to live.” You’re in court today because one of you petitioned for divorce, not the court. Once you leave the courthouse, you have to face the consequences.
It used to be common practice—and it still is—for judges to make the mistake of siding with one of the spouses and giving the other a dressing down. “You failed on this count. You failed on that count. Your relationship will improve if both of you adjust your behavior.” Judges need to be mindful of their role as impartial referees.
Public condemnation is a traditional, paternalistic approach. The fact is people are quite independent and confident in their identities these days.
Why should I change? Why should you change? I will only change if I truly love you and want you to stay.
Our “Late Bloomer” mediation team often takes a more patronizing tone. That’s their signature—our older comrades are extremely experienced mediators and they have an edge in terms of age and seniority. The top-down approach works well for them. Their work and ours can be complementary.
So how do I decide whether to push for reconciliation or a breakup? Listening is a big part of being family judge. It provides a great deal of information—information about the case, about the character and personalities of the spouses, as well as how insight into they handle things.
If a family judge isn’t capable of being a good listener, then he or she won’t be able to do a good job. That said, many judges in big cities do have this skillset—they just don’t have enough time.
All I can do is listen and come up with a solution that I think works the best. Take the couple that just appeared before me, for example. They were both born in the 1990s and went to university together. They’re very young. Even though the husband insists that he doesn’t want a divorce and wants to provide his young child an intact home, he uses a very aggressive tone when speaking to his wife, using terms like “dispute” and “interrogate.”
Meanwhile, he steers clear of taking any responsibility for the tension in their marriage, saying his actions are excusable. I called him on it in court just now. “Young man, have you been paying attention to your tone? Is this the way to repair a relationship? Why do you think you two got to this point? Now, you claim you don’t want a divorce, but what steps have you taken to avoid one?”
As for the wife, I asked her what prompted her to finally file for divorce. I listened to both their statements very carefully. I told them flat-out that I thought they had some major issues. The first one was money. The husband’s gambling debts were the main reason behind a breakdown in trust.
The second was communication. They had deleted each other from their respective WeChat contact lists and ignored calls from each other. There were no channels for communication and their communication styles were problematic too. If the husband kept speaking to his wife that way, my take is that their marriage was beyond salvation. If that’s the case, then it’s prime years that have gone down the drain for both parties.
Some spouses think they can delay the outcome forever as long as they disagree with the petition for divorce. Judges can distinguish tactical moves like this from experience. In such cases, I typically say I’m willing to grant a divorce. Sometimes couples don’t respond emotionally.
You can avoid divorce for six months or a year, but you can’t delay it for 10 years. Even if a petition is rejected initially, it’s very likely to be approved when it’s refiled. Barring special circumstances, no marriages are undissolvable.
This was the couple’s first hearing, so I didn’t issue a ruling immediately. After the hearing, I met with both spouses separately. I gave the husband a three-week deadline, asking him to take concrete steps to salvage his marriage, that is, if he truly didn’t want a divorce. Only if he changed his own behavior pro-actively could he count on his wife to change.
As for the wife, I asked her to consider the matter of custody carefully. I also encouraged her to find a job, so she could prove to me that she was capable of raising her child alone.
I agreed with one point she made: “Children suffer under unhappy marriages.” But if a couple are determined to divorce, in most cases, I typically don’t encourage the wife, especially young women, to seek custody, as long as the husband isn’t a total scumbag.
The job market is very competitive these days. It’s especially tough for a single mother, be it social acceptance or in the workplace. Custody is also a critical factor in second marriages. I usually emphasize this point and ask the wife to weigh her options carefully.
Naturally my own values have come into play here. In the end, it’s up to the wives to make the final decision because they’re the ones who have to live their lives. But divorce or not, all I want for them is happiness.
We’ve dealt with extreme cases of domestic violence as well. In May 2016, Yushan District courthouse handled the first case involving a protection order in Ma’anshan since the enactment of anti-domestic violence laws. The court file included photos and medical charts. The wife’s face was completely swollen, her head was covered with bloody wounds and her eye sockets were bruised. She looked downright scary.
The woman had filed for divorce in a different court six months before applying for the protection order. Her divorce petition was rejected, the court citing “insufficient proof that the relationship had broken down.” This was a middle-aged couple of around 50 from a farming background. Neither spouse was well-educated.
The wife had suffered beatings for some 20 years. The children put up with their father and were oblivious to the need for documenting the abuse. The husband attacked his wife repeatedly in the six months following the failed divorce petition.
On Dec. 27, 2015, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the People’s Republic of China Anti-Domestic Violence Law, with the new legislation taking effect on March 1. We received the case on May 17.
On May 19, the Yushan court issued the protection order. We tracked down the husband at his workplace to deliver the order. The middle-aged man was extremely baffled, telling us off defiantly in his local dialect. He said:
My own wife was cheating on me. What’s wrong with beating her?
I told him that regardless of whether his wife committed adultery, whether she had made a mistake and regardless of the magnitude of the mistake, regardless of how much he was in the right, he had lost his legal footing the moment he struck his wife.
I still vividly remember how he took a deep breath and responded:
You city folk think differently than us country types. This doesn’t make sense!
You would think that a case like this merits approval at the initial divorce petition, right? But such is reality. First, many courts routinely reject initial petitions and second, domestic violence is hard to document. It’s a blurry line between regular marital discord and domestic violence.
In the most insidious case of domestic violence we’ve handled, the husband had the foresight of attacking his wife’s body parts that were typically covered by clothing. He also typically made his move when his wife wasn’t paying attention, such as when she was showering. He even encouraged his son to attack his mother.
The husband covered his tracks well and looked like a reputable man. You never would have guessed. By the time the case came before Xiao Hou, it was already the woman’s third divorce petition.
How come the first two petitions were rejected? Because the husband kept insisting to the judge that his wife was mentally ill, arguing that if the divorce was granted, no one would provide medical treatment for her.
Why did the judge believe the husband on the first two occasions? One of the reasons was that the wife does have a family history of mental illness. The wife’s father and younger sister were both diagnosed, as was her son.
But the wife herself was completely functional. She was a licensed pharmacist who managed a drug store. During every hearing, she’d sit behind her son like this (arms crossed, vacant look on her face). After the husband finished his spiel, he’d say, “Son, share your thoughts too!”
The son would say, “Mom, you can’t divorce dad. You have to wait until I get married. Dad says that if you divorce him, I won’t be able to land a wife. I hate you.”
In fact, the wife was paying for the son’s psychiatric medication. She had spent all her money on her son’s medical treatment, but she still wanted a divorce. When the husband realized that divorce was inevitable, he actually forged a document that said the couple jointly owed 160,000 yuan ($23,000) in debt.
But the wife was willing to accept any conditions as long as she got the divorce. She eventually gave up all of their jointly owned property, including an apartment that was worth more than 160,000 yuan.
Xiao Hou remembers the case crystal clear. She was the one was handled the mediation. After taking into consideration his material gains, the husband finally agreed to a deal.
After the settlement was reached, the man carried his son to the judge’s seat and said, in full view of Xiao Hou:
Remember, this is the person who broke up your family.
And so the son glared at Xiao Hou. Xiao Hou said she got a case of goosebumps.
During lunch break that day, around 12 noon, son and father started circling the courthouse in an electric bike. I really believe that no one should serve as a family judge for an extended period. Incidents like this add up and take a mental toll on the judge.
Even professional psychologists have mentors or supervisors they can turn to, so they can take care of their own mental health from time to time. Judges have no such thing. They can barely keep up with their workload. All they can do is manage and process their emotions on their own.
After handling so many divorce cases, I’ve sensed changes in attitudes toward marriage. Take farming communities, for example. Chinese New Year is peak season for divorces because young and middle-aged men and women are typically away working in big cities.
Nowadays grandparents are often agitating behind the scenes for custody. Petitioners are always saying they want their parents to be able to raise their grandchildren.
Women also make up the majority of petitioners. Just take a look at our court schedule for this week—all of the petitioners are women. National statistics show that women account for some 70 percent of petitioners in divorce cases and their ages range from young women to middle-aged to elderly.
This has to do with women enjoying better social status and greater economic independence, as well as a change in attitudes. In many cases, it’s the wives who are fed up with the absence of their husbands in family life over the mid- to long-term.
As for the reasons for divorce, if you ask Director Wu of our “Late Bloomer” mediation team, adultery, gambling and parental intervention are the three most common triggers. Do you know what the trickiest cases are as far as they’re concerned? When the couple’s parents step in.
We deal with so many divorce cases where both old and young get involved. It’s a very scary thing. Not being able to let go of their children is actually a sad commentary on the parents themselves. This is where our “Late Bloomer” mediators come into the picture and work on the elders.
There are also cases where nothing malicious happened, where the couple simply couldn’t stay together because of a difference in values. This is especially common these days, with young men and women paying more attention to their spiritual well-being. Xiao Hou actually believes cases like this make for the worst type of suffering.
Quarrels or disputes can be resolved, but couples that appear to get along and treat each other with respect who in fact are covering up a difference in values or life goals—that marks the real death of a marriage.
This may strike an older generation as unreasonable. That’s not fair, though. Life is long, so if you’re married to someone you have nothing in common with, no matter how well he or she treats you, you will feel very lonely.
Xiao Hou once said the worst form of loneliness is when you’re feeling lonely even though you’re married and have constant company.
But people have different mindsets in different stages of their lives. About two years ago, Xiao Hou handled a divorce case that involved a dashing couple. Both husband and wife were very good-looking. The wife met her husband while studying in South Korea.
They only got into one fight while they were married, over something quite trivial. The wife asked her husband to buy her a pair of heels that were 8 centimeters high, but the husband ended up picking a pair that measured 6 centimeters. The wife said she felt her husband was being insensitive. She said it was first time she was disappointed in him and their marriage.
The couple later had a baby and had a big fight over conflicting approaches to child-rearing, which led the wife to become “thoroughly disappointed” in their marriage. The wife submitted a statement that was about a dozen pages long outlining how different their values were. But in court, the husband had only one thing to say: that he loved his wife and refused to get a divorce.
Eventually the wife told the husband that being with him was painful and worse than death. The husband responded that he would agree to a divorce to spare her the suffering, but that he would court her again after the divorce.
Cases like that genuinely need a time out or a cool-down period. In the end, the husband agreed to a divorce. If standard procedure were followed, the judge would have granted the divorce and the case would have been over. Really, getting a divorce in China is quite straightforward.
Instead, Xiao Hou asked the couple to return in a month. A month later, Xiao Hou called the couple to ask what they had decided. It was the wife who answered. She said they were doing great.
But of course, odds are the wife will still detect a difference in values on many occasions over the long course of their marriage.
Impulse Divorce in Impulse Marriage
I also came across a similar case recently. The wife wanted a divorce and the husband agreed.
Why agree to the divorce? “If she wants a divorce, then I’m OK with it.”
What about jointly owned property?
There is none. Oh, wait. I forgot about the broom. Let’s saw it in half. Gotta saw it.
Husband and wife definitely had feelings for each other. They were just screwing around. But eventually the divorce was granted. The husband’s behavior had turned creepy and he couldn’t control his emotions. The wife had to move away from Ma’anshan to avoid her husband.
The couple lived separately, but after the wife moved out, regardless of where she ended up settling down, her husband would rent an apartment across the street and spy on her. He would send along the pictures he took of her and ask what she was up to. He even kept tabs on his mother-in-law.
Judge Pan, who handled the case, had told the wife that the court would rule immediately if it didn’t intend to approve the divorce and she could refile for divorce in six months. But given how events unfolded, Judge Pan felt that there could be serious consequences if she didn’t grant the divorce.
The initial petition was approved, after the court weighed all the factors. But the judge also looked out for the husband on many counts. The ruling even ordered the wife to return a certain amount of cash and valuables to the husband.
But the husband actually appealed, not because he didn’t want a divorce. He asked that the original ruling be upheld but that he be awarded an additional 130,000 yuan ($19,000) in damages. He caused quite a ruckus in court—and at the forefront was his mother. The husband was already in his 40s.
When we researched the facts of the case, we found out that the couple got married on impulse. The wife eventually told us that she was determined to marry her husband because her father was opposed to the marriage.
The wife was born into an intellectual family and raised by her father as an obedient daddy’s girl. Her father decided everything for her. And the wife wanted nothing more than to rebel. She and her husband met at a bar and she got pregnant soon after. The more opposed to the marriage her parents were, the more she insisted on it.
Sigh, isn’t the human heart the most complicated thing in the world?
We Can’t Change Anyone
In the first official complaint I ever received, the applicant wrote: “Judge Zhou was in cahoots with the other party that appeared before her. Even though she sided with me on most counts…”
When the judiciary’s disciplinary officials called me and asked me to respond in writing, a single thought percolated in my head: “Nonsense!”
Some folks, especially if they believe that the other spouse is to blame for the divorce, feel that they have been so badly wounded that nothing will mitigate their hurt and all they can do is ask for money.
Even when we explain to them clearly the compensation caps written into the law, or if we give them a range that we can work with, they still ignore you. They’re living in their own universe and simply won’t take no for an answer.
I used to feel powerless all the time, bewildered by how unreasonable the people who appeared before us were. We were clearly acting in their interest, but instead of showing gratitude they exact revenge on you. Or I would wonder how badly people like this lack self-awareness. But as I spent more time on the job and the more I saw, the more I came to terms with the world we live in.
I mentioned quite a few peculiar cases just now. I use the word “peculiar,” but after communicating with the people involved and figuring out the circumstances, I can understand why they behaved the way did. Psychological, familial, societal and other types of pressure, as well as distortions in these areas, cause certain abnormalities.
When I say I understand, it doesn’t mean I side with these people or agree with their acts or comments. I understand as in I understand the inevitability of their behavior.
For example, when someone comes off as making much ado about nothing, it may be the result of unhealthy dynamics in his family that have persisted for some time. Or when a wife suffers from chronic depression. She may think it’s because her husband committed adultery about 10 years ago, but in fact the affair was merely the trigger and the real problem lay with a certain idiosyncrasy in her personality.
Only when we truly understand the parties involved in each case can we develop empathy. Only in the presence of genuine empathy can we consider matters from their perspective.
That’s why I think it’s rather meaningless to highlight the reconciliation rate in family court. Why? Because you can’t expect someone to change after offering him or her a few pointers, considering the fact that he and she has been conditioned by his own family for 20-plus years and been married for so long. It’s impossible. Utterly impossible.
The fact is we can’t change anyone. Sometimes I really want people to change. In most divorce cases, neither spouse is a bad person. I only wish them the best. But someone can only change if they genuinely want to and if they want to accommodate the other person.
As for we judges, we’re not god-like. We can’t literally put ourselves in the shoes of the people who appear before us. We’re not entirely clear what happened. Even if we can get an inkling from their statements in court, we’ve often biased by our own values.
How can I change the people before me in the minutes or hour-plus duration we spend in court together? When they decide to divorce or not, whether or not to fight for custody, these are decisions they make out of their own volition. All we can do is say things that reinforce their conviction. And in many cases, advocating for a split isn’t a bad option either.
Family court is unique in that judges have greater discretion. That’s because our laws aren’t comprehensive enough. They’re very outdated. We are still going by marriage laws passed in 2004, even though they have been clarified since then in several rulings. The law can never keep up with the times, but judges should. They have to learn from the people who appear in court, right? All I can change is myself.
We have driver’s tests and judges need to pass exams to serve, but there is no mandatory coursework on marriage or family, which are actually even more pressing matters. Marriage and relationship education should start in childhood, with schools taking the lead. That’s my biggest takeaway from serving as a family judge.
I believe relevant coursework should be introduced in high school at the latest, such as classes on how to respect women, family and how to maintain intimate relationships. I lecture on family law from time to time and I plan on bringing up these ideas soon. The cases we handle are just work for us, but for the people who appear before us, it’s a life project.
Li Yun is an alias. Xiang Siqi and Li Ailin contributed to this article.
Translator: Min Lee