Getting out

  • Share
  • Read Later

Whatever else I thought I would become, I never imagined I would be twice divorced before the age of 40. As a 16-year-old, through shoplifted volumes of Shelley and Keats, I surpassed the peer-group average comfortably when it came to interest in gushing romance. Four years later, I eloped with my then girlfriend and we were married in a registry office above a music store. My abiding memories are of the registrar's ankle boots of bright orange suede, the unspeakable luxury of spending $10 on a taxi home, and of the feeling, as we pronounced our vows, that the marriage was utterly, inviolably, forever. I thought the same of my second marriage, too—moreover, I thought it with the added conviction of maturity (I was 30) and experience (with the first marriage written off as youthful impulse). But here I am: a two-time visitor to the family court. The kind of person that, if I ever make it into the tabloid press, might be snickeringly described as a "twice-divorced father of one." I don't sound good on paper.

But in reviewing my marital history—as one does on a former anniversary, or when chancing on an inscription in the flyleaf of a yellowing book—I have taken some comfort from the fact that, all around me, fellow Asians are divorcing in record numbers. You might think that Asia—with its weighty traditional values, male chauvinism and hang-ups about face—would be less susceptible to the epidemic of divorce that has swept the West these past 40 years or so. If there were one place where two people would be prepared to endure weary decades of unfulfillment for the sake of the children or religion or appearances, you might guess that it would be here. But you would be wrong. While it's difficult to generalize across the region, stigmas once attached to divorce are clearly losing their force across Asia. Says Professor Stella Quah, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore: "There are fewer social pressures to stay married. You feel a bit freer to do your own thing."

In Singapore, the number of divorces is up a third since 1990, while it has nearly doubled in Thailand. In Japan, a couple gets married every 42 seconds, but another couple will divorce before 2 minutes are up. In the past 20 years, the divorce rate has doubled in mainland China and tripled in Taiwan. And the divorce rate in South Korea now exceeds that of many European countries, including the U.K., Denmark and Hungary. Even in India—where a wife was once considered so immutably tied to her husband that she was thrown on his funeral pyre if he died before she did—sociologists estimate that the divorce rate is 11 per 1,000, up from 7.41 per 1,000 in 1991.

Across the region, a battery of counselors, lawyers, publishers and relationship pundits has emerged in response to the lucrative demand for divorce. Pick up the lifestyle magazine of the swanky Lane Crawford department store in Hong Kong and you will be cheerfully informed that "three is the new two"—a reference to the idea that where once two marriages were considered acceptable, it's now O.K. to be married three times. On a quiet back street in Tokyo's sprawling suburbs, you can attend a divorce school to learn the 50 ways to leave your lover. And in Taiwan, you can read marriage counselor Rachel Wang's tell-all chronicle of the breakup of her own marriage. Wang, who had previously penned popular books on the perfect relationship, says her relationship faltered when she learned that her husband was having an affair. "I felt like God had played a joke on me—a marriage counselor who couldn't keep her marriage intact." Now she wishes she had shed her qualms about divorce sooner: "I could have been happier if I had divorced 10 years earlier."

For others, of course, divorce is excruciatingly painful, not merely a liberating transition to a happier life. Many are throwing off a lifetime's cultural baggage when they decide that being a divorcé is preferable to being a battered spouse, unhappy homemaker or being cheated on. Some run the risk that more conservative relatives will never speak to them again.

Indian divorcé Deepa, who asked not to be identified by her full name, filed for divorce in 1997, nine years after her arranged marriage to a man who proved to be an alcoholic. Now 40 and living in the suburbs of Bombay with her parents and her 11-year-old daughter, she recalls how her ex-husband "would get threatening and violent" when he drank. He even blew their daughter's kindergarten admission fees on alcohol. "The salary wasn't coming home at all," says Deepa. "It was spent on bars and drinks even before he got it. I didn't know how I could control him. After seven years of marriage, my life was ruined."

Still, leaving her husband sometimes felt as harrowing as living with him. At times, she wondered if her in-laws were right in saying that she had demanded too much of him, and that his drinking was somehow her fault. At other times, she lamented that she had failed to provide her daughter with what she calls "a proper family life." Now, as a single mother, Deepa works as a financial assistant to support herself and her child. "I don't depend on anyone," she says. "There is nothing shameful in any of this." And yet, she admits, for divorced women in India "there is always a sense of isolation—especially when you see other people go out with a circle of friends, something we don't have. Sometimes we feel like intruders ... It hurts. Why lie about it?" In India, she says, women like her are widely viewed as inferior to those with husbands—and even at family functions, "people make sure you realize it."

Not that Deepa has any regrets. "Whatever I may go through in the future," she says, "it won't be as bad as my past."


The skyline of Seoul is dominated by neon advertising and the illuminated crosses atop the spires of seemingly numberless churches. A first-time visitor will be taken aback by the omnipresent Christianity, but it serves as a vague social indicator. For all the dance clubs of Hong Dae and the wine bars of Gangnam, this has never been a permissive city. Changing something as fundamental to conservative values as marriage, or the status of women, has taken time and patience. Since 1956, the Korean Legal Aid Center for Family Relations has been on the front line of that war of attrition. At its splendidly named One Hundred Women's Building on Yoi Island in the middle of Seoul, it campaigns for female equality and provides women with free workshops, counseling and legal aid, helping them endure the bureaucratic and emotional mess that is the average Korean divorce. The modest brick building sits in the vast, looming shadow of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, and fittingly so: on one side of the street they're solemnizing marriages, on the other they're holding the postmortems.

"South Korea has experienced abrupt change in all areas of society—politics, the economy and culture," says center president Kwak Bae Hee. "In one generation, there has been a whirlwind of change, and that change has been even more acute in the family domain." The causes are familiar throughout Asia: as economies shift from agrarian to industrial, large numbers of women enter the work force and discover that with a regular income comes the ability to delay getting wed or the freedom to jettison a miserable marriage. Meanwhile, the move from village to high-rise housing spells the end of the extended family, leaving unhappy couples bereft of the mediation (and censure) that in-laws may once have provided.

At the same time, the globalization of ideas and popular culture holds up plenty of role models for any woman thinking of going it alone. Many Koreans are addicted to KBS's Love and War, a weekly TV show that claims up to 25% of the country's total viewing audience. Love and War uses actors to dramatize actual divorce cases and marital conflicts, which are then dissected by a panel of actors and actresses. Viewers can vote online on whether a featured couple should stay together or not. Park Hwan Wook, the show's producer, says the program was conceived after Asia's 1997 economic crisis, when men lost their jobs and housewives were forced to go out to work, discovering new freedoms in the process. Park adds that while marriage breakdowns are depicted "frankly and cynically" on the show, divorce is now so commonplace in Korea as to be mundane. So Love and War has turned to dramatizing less tame subjects such as wife swapping, too, which Park claims is the "latest fad" in Korean society.

With these increasingly liberal attitudes toward marriage on the rise, Korean women now initiate twice as many divorces as do men, says Kwak. Yet Korea's laws remain mired in a patriarchal past. One abiding quirk of family law is the hoju, or "head of household" system of family registration. When a man marries, his wife and subsequent children are added to his household register like footnotes. When it comes to the paperwork and minutiae of civil life—dealing with government agencies, banks, school applications for the children—it is the man's signature that matters. Upon divorce, a woman can be deleted from the household register, but the children never can unless the man gives up all paternal rights. If that surrender is not forthcoming, a woman will continue to need her ex-husband's imprimatur every time she wants to apply for passports for her children or put them in a new school.

The tedious consequences of hoju are everywhere. Lee Seung Soon shares a one-room apartment in a suburb of Seoul with her two children and second husband, whom the kids regard as their stepfather. But outside the home, the children are still considered the responsibility of their absent father—and are officially obliged to use his last name. Says Lee: "I went to see my son's teacher one day and she told me, 'Your son doesn't even know what his real name is.' My son used his stepfather's last name, but that's not his legal name." The situation can't be remedied unless Lee's ex-husband can be traced, but she no longer knows where he lives. "My son wants to change his name," says Lee. "I asked him why, and he said, 'My old father isn't even a father.' I hope he can hear him say this."

Fortunately for Lee and many Korean women like her, efforts to do away with hoju are gathering momentum, with opinion polls indicating that about 50% of Koreans are opposed to the system. At the forefront of the campaign is the Organization for the Abolition of Hoju, a coalition of 113 civic, feminist and human-rights groups. The organization has brought a case before Korea's Constitutional Court and expects a verdict later this year. An abolition bill has also been submitted to the National Assembly by liberal legislators. Prominent among them is the Uri Party's Lee Mi Kyung, born into what she calls a "Confucian family"—one where her grandfather took a second wife because his first could not produce a son, then kicked out the second wife when she, too, failed to produce a male heir. Hearing stories like this drove her into feminist politics at an early age. "It's been a long fight," she says over a mid-morning cappuccino in the lobby of her office building. "But the war that has lasted 30 years is about to end." The struggle isn't over just yet. The bill will likely be diluted in the National Assembly by lawmakers eager to appease older Koreans who equate the dismantling of hoju with an attack on the institution of family.


The hoju controversy is just one example of how marital friction is roiling the region's male-dominated societies. Traditionally, many Asian men have done as they pleased with almost absolute impunity—be that taking a mistress, blowing the family savings on a gambling binge, or walking out the door, never to return. Now Asian women are doing the walking, too. "The gap between how women and men view marriage has grown ever wider," says center president Kwak. And the difference isn't only in Korea. In India, the word divorcé used to be "associated with a Jezebel image," says sociologist Imtiaz Ahmad. But "in today's India, women just don't take as much nonsense as they used to," says Madras-based marriage counselor Vijay Nagaswami. Nisha (not her real name) is an Indian woman who at age 22 left her home in Britain for an arranged marriage in India. It was, she says, a miserable union, which culminated after 18 years in her attempting to kill herself. She finally left her husband in September 2002 with her two sons, and is now filing for divorce. "For years I chose not to leave, believing that loving a man was enough to change him," she says. And now? "I've wised up."

That wisdom has been spreading throughout Asia as women demand more equality in home life. Even in the staunchly Catholic Philippines, where divorce is not allowed, the grounds for annulment of a marriage have been widened (especially to include cases where one partner has a low IQ), and legislation has been enacted to speed up the annulment process. "The culture is changing in that many women no longer wait for men to make them happy," says Irma Hutabarat, chairwoman of the Legal Aid Consultancy for Women and Family in Indonesia. More than half of all divorce proceedings in the country are initiated by women, and marriage breakdowns are occurring at rates never before seen (the number of divorces in Jakarta increased 15% from 2001 to 2002). And in Malaysia—where last year a Muslim man attempted to divorce his wife by mobile-phone text message (a divorce was at first upheld but subsequently overruled by the courts, under intense pressure from women's groups)—many women are also beginning to call it a day. "Women are more independent financially than before," says Kuala Lumpur-based Shari'a lawyer Kamar Ainiah. "When divorce happens, they are capable of bringing up their kids sometimes even without the support of their ex-husbands."

It was not economics but the knowledge that something vital had gone from her marriage to a childhood sweetheart that drove Indonesian TV personality and actress Alya Rohali to take action. After a year of joint therapy with her husband, they agreed to end their five years of marriage, and today the 28-year-old has joined the ranks of many high-profile women in Indonesia who are divorcés or single moms and wear the badge proudly. This is a significant cultural shift in a country where the same word means both "divorcé" and "widow." But according to Rohali, "We have proved that we can succeed financially, with or without a man."

Indeed, the willingness of many Asian women to view their own needs as secondary to those of their husbands is decreasing. "Divorces are on the increase because the younger generation has been brought up differently," says Uthaiwan Jamsutee, a public prosecutor in Thailand. "They are more individualistic. When they get married, if there is a problem, they tend to think more of their own interests instead of family harmony."

But the divorce boom is not merely a reflection of generational shifts. After all, in many parts of Asia it isn't just sobbing twentysomethings but much older couples who are breaking up. The children have grown up, the husband has retired or retrenched, and the wife weighs up her options—which are increasingly likely to include claiming half of her husband's retirement package to start a new, single life. There may be no overt conflict between the spouses, but that isn't the issue—fulfillment and the search for meaning are. Senior divorce has taken root with especial tenacity in Japan, where, like China, 70% of all divorces are initiated by women, and where a large senior population has plenty of leisure time and the wherewithal to ponder how they will spend their remaining years. In 1975, 6,810 Japanese couples divorced after 20 years or more of marriage. In 2002, the total was 45,536. "I think that one has to be happy in one's life," says Atsuko Okano, a Tokyo-based marriage consultant and author of A Perfect Divorce Manual. "If it takes a divorce to attain it, then I'm all for it."

It is the men who are having a hard time dealing with this new reality. In Japan, discarded husbands seem to be approaching single life with visible bewilderment. The figure of the abandoned salaryman, struggling to cook for himself or do the laundry for the first time, is becoming an increasingly common one in Japanese suburbs. These are men who doggedly commuted to city jobs for the greater part of their lives, in the service of their country's once spectacular economic growth. But in their declining years, they are faced with a double restructuring—one from a corporation that no longer values their contributions, the other from a wife who has grasped that there is more to life than keeping house and is now agitating for her freedom. There's even a term for the kind of divorce the wife is seeking: risutora rikon (restructuring divorce), meaning divorce as the first step in the positive reorganization of one's life.

That phrase was coined by Hiromi Ikeuchi, author of numerous relationship manuals and president of Tokyo Kazoku Labo—an organization providing counseling, workshops and legal guidance to would-be divorcés. "Men don't cope with divorce that well," she says. "In Japan, women almost always get custody of the children, so a man loses his status as a husband and father too. And he is hurt." It seems these men are more than hurt. They are, apparently, on the run. "Japanese women are strong now," says Ikeuchi, whose own divorce at the age of 32 led to ostracism from her family. "Divorced men tend to fear them."

Still, new role models are lighting the way for the disoriented. Kazutomo Miyamoto, a former star pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants, became a single father in 1996, when his marriage ended and his wife ceded him custody of their daughter, Sayano, then seven years old. Instead of panicking over the prospect of solo parenting, he wrote a best-selling book about his experiences, meanwhile pursuing his new career as a sports announcer. In his ball-playing days, Miyamoto would spend six months of the year on the road. Now, at 40, he still travels a lot (his parents take care of Sayano in his absence). But in the vital times when he's home, he says he meets far more of his daughter's emotional needs than he did when he was married. In particular, Miyamato says, he has finally come to understand "the importance of talking and listening to one's child." Looking back on his breakup, he adds, "I don't think it was a tragedy for me to part from my wife. On the contrary, I think I learned a lot from the experience."

I don't want to beat up on my own gender, but there is some karma in all of this. Numberless Asian men have loved and respected their spouses. But that doesn't alter the fact that historically, as a sex, we have insisted that our women have bound feet and not talk back, that they remain virgins before marriage, live in purdah, and content themselves with earning less than men—if, that is, we permitted them to have jobs at all. We have demanded dowries as a form of compensation for marrying women, we have trafficked in them, and we have asked them to find a lifetime's fulfillment in preparing meals, cleaning up after us and ferrying the kids to school. We have created cultures where women are executed for committing "fornication." We have bullied and ranted and had our way. Across much of Asia, those days are now over.

According to counselor Ikeuchi, divorced men live on average nine years less than their married peers. These words ring in my head as I leave her office and step out into a crisp, Tokyo afternoon. It's just as well that I plan to marry again. If three really is the new two, then there's life in me yet.