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Married life, Being married and getting married in Shanghai and Divorce

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Shanghai is a great city for married couples. Dinner dates together can be fun and cheap and there is always the possibility of an inexpensive massage together to rub away the daily stresses. With all the household help available, it’s easy to avoid the mundane disputes that arise elsewhere over who left whose dirty dishes on the counter and who always gets stuck doing the laundry. An ayi, who is practically part of the family, makes it easy to slip away from the kids for quality couple-time. There may even be the luxury of a car and driver to schlep the kids around town. Your time together in Shanghai may be the time of your life. But it may not be all wine and roses, and like marital partners everywhere, spouses in Shanghai may experience any or all of the sticking points that couples commonly wrestle with such as money issues, sex and intimacy problems, differing views about parenting, and frustrated expectations arising from cultural differences.

Shanghai is a great city for married couples. Dinner dates together can be fun and cheap and there is always the possibility of an inexpensive massage together to rub away the daily stresses. With all the household help available, it’s easy to avoid the mundane disputes that arise elsewhere over who left whose dirty dishes on the counter and who always gets stuck doing the laundry. An ayi, who is practically part of the family, makes it easy to slip away from the kids for quality couple-time. There may even be the luxury of a car and driver to schlep the kids around town. Your time together in Shanghai may be the time of your life. But it may not be all wine and roses, and like marital partners everywhere, spouses in Shanghai may experience any or all of the sticking points that couples commonly wrestle with such as money issues, sex and intimacy problems, differing views about parenting, and frustrated expectations arising from cultural differences.

Getting married in China.
If you are a foreigner considering getting married in China, you will need to register your marriage in accordance with the laws of China. Generally speaking, at least one member of the couple must be a resident of China and at least age 22 for men and 20 for women. Chinese citizens who are diplomats or hold other significant government positions are not free to marry foreigners. The US Consulate also reports that Chinese students who marry foreigners should expect to be expelled from school as soon as they do so. To find out how to register their marriage, the couple should contact the Shanghai Marriage Registration Office and, in the case of the foreigner, the home country consulate for necessary documentation.

Western-style pre-marital counseling is also available in Shanghai from a number of mental-health practitioners. (See Resources, below, for specifics.)

Moving your marriage to Shanghai
Experts say that moving, along with death and divorce, is considered to be one of life’s most significant stresses, so it’s safe to say that moving a marriage internationally to Shanghai will bring to the surface any hidden flaws in the marriage. Robin Pascoe, a veteran expat who has written and lectured extensively on expat family issues, says: “Ask accompanying expatriate spouses anywhere in the world to identify the most overwhelming loss they feel after moving abroad and ‘identity’ will likely be the near-unanimous reply.”

In a fairly typical situation, he has an exciting new job, an office, staff who speak his language, and dinners out at glamorous restaurants. She, on the other hand, may be on her own trying to cope with day-to-day home life, unable to communicate well with Chinese helpers, and possibly trying to deal with unhappy children. Maybe his job is more daunting than exciting, and maybe he’s exhausted, too, by much longer hours than he is used to and a lot of travel. Perhaps she has given up a job in her home country and is financially dependent for the first time. They may have left behind aging parents, whose care is a concern. The stage is set for strong feelings of isolation, loss of identity, and guilt. Unless the marriage can cope with these, it’s easy to slide into a communication breakdown accompanied by simmering resentment and a loss of intimacy, which may in turn lead to escape into workaholism or infidelity. And here in Shanghai, where there is still enormous economic inequality between expats and most locals, and lots of opportunity to stray, the reports of male infidelity are legion.

Ms Pascoe addresses these move-related issues and gives advice on how to restore balance in her book entitled A Moveable Marriage: Relocate Your Relationship Without Breaking It. A wealth of resources and information pertaining to expat family issues appears on her website, as well. A particularly helpful feature on her site is a discussion forum in which trailing spouses from all over the world share experiences and offer advice on coping with the marital problems that accompany expat life. Those spouses have seen it all.

The factors that will help someone to re-gain a sense of identity are specific to each invidual. But there are lots of opportunities in Shanghai, a city where people seem constantly to re-invent themselves. For some, it’s as simple as making friends by joining some of the many international organizations and attending social events or programs to introduce aspects of Chinese culture. Some of these, such as the American Women’s Club, have special small-group get-acquainted programs. Most of these same organizations do significant charity work in China and it’s easy to get involved in the community through them. Many people find that learning Chinese bolsters their independence; the available programs range from immersion at local universities to more moderately-paced but excellent courses at language institutes, to taking a class at the Community Center Shanghai, to hiring a private tutor. Professionals may find networking opportunities through such organizations as the Expatriate Professional Women’s Society or the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, whose members include journalists and non-journalists alike.

When self-help help isn’t enough.
If just getting settled and getting life up and running isn’t sufficient, or if a couple is troubled by stubborn issues, there are other resources. Websites such as www.marriagebuilders.com offer the opportunity to go online and get help anywhere in the world. Marital counseling is also widely available in Shanghai at present through the Community Center, health-care providers such as Shanghai Family United Hospital and Parkway Health, as well as several private practitioners.

When marriage ends.
Ultimately, of course, some marriages fail here. Divorce and child custody issues may be quite complicated as a result of the international aspect of the marriage. Jeremy Morley, a British lawyer who specializes in international divorce and works in New York, advises spouses to hope for the best but plan for the possible worst. He further advises that “First steps are critical. The important early decisions include whether to stay overseas or return home, whether to give up the overseas home, or whether to take the children out of school and bring them back to… the home country. A [spouse] should never make these decisions without being fully informed of their possible repercussions on her legal situation.” To that end, he urges consulting with local attorneys as well as attorneys in the home country.

Claudia Zhao, a Chinese attorney specializing in family law, advises that “If a foreigner marries a Chinese in Shanghai, their divorce as well as their jointly owned properties in China gained during the marriage can be settled here. The same is true for two foreigners who married in Shanghai; however, usually the overseas property will not be divided by the court in China unless they can reach agreement on property division. If two foreigners married in any other country, and they can reach agreement on divorce, the divorce can also be settled here.”

For referrals to local attorneys, or help with local police in emergencies, for example if there is domestic abuse, expats should contact the consulate of their home country.

Resources

Books and Websites:

Bryson, Debra R. and Hoge, Charise M., A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining A Sense of Self While Moving Overseas

www. international-divorce.com. This site is maintained by Jeremy Morley, a British lawyer working in New York. See especially his Top Ten Tips for Expats, www.international-divorce.com/family_law_tips_for_expats.htm and the Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China, which governs both marriage and divorce, at www.international-divorce.com/d-china.htm.

For online marital counseling, see www.marriagebuilders.com.

Pascoe, Robin, A Moveable Marriage: Relocate Your Relationship Without Breaking It, published by Expat Press. Her website, www.expatexpert.com, has a wealth of useful information and links. See especially groups.yahoo.com/group/moveablemarriages for an online discussion forum on the issues concerning expat marriage.

The US Consulate website summarizes the requirements for marriage between a Chinese national and a U.S. citizen at shanghai.usembassy-china.org.cn/marriage_in_china.html and provides a list of attorneys, including family law experts (only one of whom currently practices family law, see below) at shanghai.usembassy-china.org.cn/law_firms.html.

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