Decoupling: Marital Violence and the Struggle to Divorce in China

125 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2018 Last revised: 27 Sep 2018

See all articles by Ethan Michelson

Ethan Michelson

Maurer School of Law; Indiana University Bloomington, Department of Sociology

Date Written: September 5, 2018


An analysis of a large share of the true population of adjudicated divorce decisions in two Chinese provinces reveals the extent to which and the reasons why Chinese courts subvert the global legal norms they symbolically embrace. In China, uncontested no-fault divorces are readily attainable outside the court system. Courts, by contrast, granted divorces in fewer than half of the cases they adjudicated. Despite an abundance of formal legal mechanisms designed to provide relief to victims of marital abuse, a plaintiff's claim of domestic violence does not increase the probability the court will grant the divorce request. Chinese courts' highly institutionalized practice of denying first-attempt divorce petitions and granting divorces on subsequent litigation attempts disproportionately impacts women and has spawned a sizable population of female marital-violence refugees. These findings carry substantive and theoretical implications concerning the limits and possibilities of the local penetration of global legal norms.

Keywords: China, courts, judges, divorce, gender, violence

Suggested Citation

Michelson, Ethan, Decoupling: Marital Violence and the Struggle to Divorce in China (September 5, 2018). Indiana Legal Studies Research Paper No. 399, Available at SSRN: or

Ethan Michelson (Contact Author)

Maurer School of Law ( email )

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Bloomington, IN 47405
United States
812-856-1521 (Phone)
812-855-0781 (Fax)


Indiana University Bloomington, Department of Sociology ( email )

Ballantine Hall
Bloomington, IN 47405

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