Cross-national marriages meet higher divorce rates due to cultural differences, parenting styles and lack of communication

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/11 5:03:40

In recent years, cross-national marriages have increased and so has cross-national divorce rates for Chinese and foreigners. Photo: IC

When 33-year-old Elaine Chen met her Chilean ex-husband three years ago in Beijing, she believed that she finally found "the one." Despite the fact that they spoke different languages and came from diverse cultures, the two leapt into marriage one month after they met.

"He is handsome and he has lived in Japan for several years. Since I studied Japanese language and cultural for many years, we had a lot to talk about," Chen said.

"Besides, he and I share the same eagerness to start a family, so we decided to take a leap of faith," she said.

Chen had no idea that only four months later they would be divorced.

"I guess the tragic result was mainly due to lack of understanding each other's past and character before we were married; the different cultural backgrounds caused tension and communication issues and we fought a lot because of that."

In recent years, the number of cross-national marriages in China has made a noticeable increase. According to a August 2015 report by news portal, the website of a daily newspaper run by the Xinhua News Agency, cross-national couples that are married in Beijing have increased by about 1,000 every year over recent years.

Cross-national marriages have a sense of romance; two people falling in love and tying the knot after they travel through the world and find each other. Unfortunately,  they also have a high divorce rate, according to Shi Qingpan, a cross-national marriage lawyer from S&P Law Firm in Beijing. Shi said that in recent years, cross-national marriage divorce rates have witnessed a steady growth.

A staff from Beijing Civil Affairs Department told Metropolitan that in recent years, the divorce cases are increasing. There were 173 cases in 2013, 203 cases in 2014 and 254 cases in 2015. Those numbers do not include the divorces in process and ones handled overseas.

Shi said according to his observation and experiences in cross-national divorce cases, the top reasons that these marriages end are cultural differences, conflicts on how to raise their children, extramarital affairs and long-term separation caused by work or visa problems.

According to a Southeast Business Daily's report on July 2013, the cross-national marriage divorce rate reached 20 percent in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province the first half of that year, excluding the divorces processed overseas. The top reasons behind the divorces were lack of communication, the different styles of daily life brought on by cultural differences and long periods of separation.


Cultural differences are the top reason that cause divorce in cross-national marriages. As China becomes more international and the interaction between China and foreigners become more frequent, the differences will grow smaller. Photos: IC

The truth hurts

For Chen, one of the main flaws in her marriage that led to divorce was the lack of understanding her ex-husband's past.

Before they got married, Chen's ex-husband told her that he divorced once before, in Chile and he has a son.

However, after they were married, he began to let out more information little by little. He revealed he had a son when he was at university and another son with his ex-wife in Chile and he married and divorced again while he was living in Japan.

"It was not that his complicated history startled me, but his lying showed a lack of sincerity in our marriage," Chen said.

"I guess that's one of the disadvantages in cross-national marriage; you don't really know what that person had been like before he or she came to China."

According to Chen, she never had the chance to meet her ex-husband's parents, and because of the language and culture barriers, she was not able to have much communication with his friends either, which added to her inability to know her husband more.

"If I dated a Chinese man, it would have been much easier for me to get to know him," Chen said.

Shi said in cross-national marriages, it is much more difficult to know a person completely. He has handled many cases where one partner hides that they had previously been married in another country and when the facts surface, it hurts the relationship.

Shi said cross-national couples should try to spend a lot of time communicating and getting to know each other's friends and family before getting married.

Shi added that cross-national couples also face conflict related to children's education.

He is currently handling a divorce case for a German man and a Chinese woman. The husband wants their child to accept local Chinese education, while the woman wants their child to go to international schools and receive higher education in German. The conflicts over their child's education grew over time and finally led to divorce.

Shi also handled a case last month where an American husband, who does not agree with Chinese culture and politics, wanted to educate their child on his beliefs. The wife did not agree with this and the conflicts led to divorce.

Being separated for a long amount of time is also one reason for divorce. 

"The foreigners in China are a very mobile group. They may have to move back to their home country or to another country, and sometimes their spouses are unwilling to follow or cannot because of visa issues. I have handled many cases where the couple has been separated for years, and their love fades away," Shi said.

According to the Southeast Business Daily report, long-time separation caused nearly 45 percent of cross-national relationships to fail in Ningbo. Most cases involved one person returning to their home country or having to go to another country for work and their spouse could not follow.

The last straw

After Chen's ex-husband confessed his past, startled as Chen was, she decided to let the past stay in the past and move their life toward the future.

However, she later realized that there was an even bigger barrier waiting for them - the deep-rooted cultural differences that exist in small things in their daily life.

The first was the conflict between Chinese and Western traditions, and the independent attitude of Westerners.

After they were married, Chen suggested that they should visit her parents. She told her husband that according to Chinese tradition, he should bring some gifts for her parents. However, he told her that in Chile it is the other way around.

Finally, Chen convinced her ex-husband to conform to the Chinese tradition, but he told her he did not have enough money with him for the gifts. Chen was angry, but like what most Chinese people do when dealing with family conflicts, she chose to bury her feelings instead of speaking up.

"Later he realized I was unhappy, and kept asking me why. I was even more upset that he seemed so immature and couldn't understand why he hurt my feelings," Chen complained.

Chen's ex-husband complained a lot when Chen's younger brother came to visit, saying that he interrupted their personal life and demanded that her brother stay somewhere else.

The little grudges add up, gradually Chen and her ex-husband started to fight more frequently. Four months later, Chen decided she could not take it anymore and demanded a divorce even though she was pregnant with their son. Chen is now a single mother, raising their son alone.

Love is a double-edged sword, it hurts men the same as women. Matthew Cuerdon, a 61-year-old American, also said that the cultural differences between Western and Asian countries broke up his marriage of 30 years with a South Korean woman.

He said many Asian cultures tend to be more passive, and this caused many misunderstandings in his marriage and led to divorce.

"My ex-wife was never direct. She always expected me to read her mind. If I had to ask, then it meant I did not love her. It was so tiring," Cuerdon said.

Western culture is very different from Asian culture, according to Cuerdon. Americans learn to be direct and not to hold back their feelings, always to say thank you and express affection to loved ones and praise each other; Americans believe you should tell the truth and not worry about "saving face," and to be independent in relationships, whether economically or emotionally.

"But those traits are not shared in Asian cultures, so after 30 years of misunderstanding each other, we lost our love," Cuerdon said.

New relationships

Cuerdon is now dating a Chinese woman. He said that her character is a lot like a Korean, such as they are not direct, some times yes means no but they expect foreigners to be direct and they expect guys to carry their handbag in public because it gives them face and they also expect guys to pay for everything.

Since he is aware of the cultural differences, he digs deeper for truth and explains to his current girlfriend why.

"I dig deeper to find out what she really means. I also help her explore her true feelings and drop face as an unnecessary barrier to true love," he said. "I make educated guesses at what the real issue is and express them to her and explain that being open is the best way to demonstrate true love."

Shi said that with the exchange between China and foreign countries becoming more frequent, cross-national marriages will become more common.

"There are more challenges in cross-national marriages but every marriage needs couples to understand and embrace each other's differences. Cross-national marriages just need a more open attitude and a bigger heart," Shi said.

Newspaper headline: Parting ways

Posted in: Metro Beijing

blog comments powered by Disqus