Coronavirus: How being forced together is tearing couples apart

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Psychologist Huang Jing has been busier than ever since a deadly coronavirus pandemic erupted in China late last year.

Huang, based in the eastern city of Hangzhou, has clients in China and overseas, and her services have been in greater demand as the pressures of the disease and enforced isolation strain families and marriages to breaking point.

She said the pandemic was putting a "magnifying glass" on relationships, bringing cracks into sharper focus, with families in many cities forced to stay at home together for months on end.

"More people are under stress under the circumstances. Their anxiety or depression is easily magnified and can hurt their relationship with their partners," Huang said, adding that more clients were consulting her about frustrations with their marriages.

So far, those frustrations have yet to be reflected in statistics. Official numbers show that both marriage and divorce applications fell in the first quarter, as government office hours were cut back and severe restrictions placed on movement.

In Beijing, authorities recorded 9,100 divorces in the first three months of the year, down 46 per cent from the same time in 2019, and about 16,000 marriages, a 48 per cent year-on-year drop, according to quarterly data issued by the Beijing Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau on Tuesday.

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But there are signs of marital discontent elsewhere.

Last month, after government services reopened up, several cities were reportedly overwhelmed with divorce appointments. The cities of Xian and Shenzhen, for instance, saw their divorce appointment slots fully booked for a month.

Wu Jiezhen, a divorce lawyer from F&P Law Firm in Guangzhou, has witnessed a similar trend.

Despite more than doubling his consulting charges to 3,000 yuan (S$610) per hour, Wu said more people were making inquiries about divorce compared with the same period last year.

"Free consultations - those who left messages for us online - have increased considerably," he said.

"But we haven't seen a rise in contracts signed - the number of people who actually want to take it to court - probably because they are concerned about travelling during the epidemic."

One of Huang's clients has felt the stresses first hand. Los Angeles-based Amy Liang said she sought professional help when she realised that she had been arguing with her husband twice a week since they started working from home last month.

The worst fight between the Chinese couple occurred during a shopping trip when the husband took off his face mask before getting into their car, something Liang thought was dangerous.

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"The pandemic has kept me in a bad mood. And now all this fighting is getting us into a vicious circle," Liang said.

Wu, the Guangzhou lawyer, said that under such pressure-cooker conditions, small issues between couples threatened to undermine long-standing relationships.

"The pandemic has forced couples to spend more time together and for many of them, they fight more than usual, often over trivial things, which can trigger conflicts that have accumulated for a long time," he said.

Among his clients, those "trivial things" have included one partner playing too much mahjong and one spouse giving scarce face masks to a friend of the opposite sex.

"Of course, the confinement led by the epidemic is also bringing some couples together. Some clients have decided to abandon plans for divorce," Wu said.

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This article was first published inĀ South China Morning Post.