Family practices in non-cohabiting intimate relationships in China: doing mobile intimacy, emotion and intergenerational caring practices

Author: Shuang Qiu1
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  • 1 University of Birmingham, , UK
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This article applies David Morgan’s work on ‘family practices’ to the non-cohabiting intimate relationships in China. Through the lens of living apart together (LAT) relationships, I carried out in-depth interviews to examine the family life of working-away men and staying-at-home women in Chinese society. The activities which ‘doing’ family and disclosing intimacy involved when intimate couples are split geographically are contextually varied and, within this regard, three dimensions of family practices are teased out: practices of mobile intimacy, emotion and caring. While many of the studies on the practices approach emphasise ‘doing’, this research provides insight on how acts of not doing (emotion) can also be articulated as a way of doing family. It is argued that by focusing on the everyday ‘doing’ families can be experienced and constructed differently, while also being informed by cultural discourses and social institutions of family and gender.

Abstract

This article applies David Morgan’s work on ‘family practices’ to the non-cohabiting intimate relationships in China. Through the lens of living apart together (LAT) relationships, I carried out in-depth interviews to examine the family life of working-away men and staying-at-home women in Chinese society. The activities which ‘doing’ family and disclosing intimacy involved when intimate couples are split geographically are contextually varied and, within this regard, three dimensions of family practices are teased out: practices of mobile intimacy, emotion and caring. While many of the studies on the practices approach emphasise ‘doing’, this research provides insight on how acts of not doing (emotion) can also be articulated as a way of doing family. It is argued that by focusing on the everyday ‘doing’ families can be experienced and constructed differently, while also being informed by cultural discourses and social institutions of family and gender.

Introduction

This article applies David Morgan’s (1996) work on ‘family practices’ to the non-cohabiting intimate relationships in the Chinese context. People’s experiences of family life and intimate relationships have long been given great importance by researchers due to the primacy of the family and intimacy (Gabb, 2008). In Western societies, recent years have seen an increasing sociological concern with change and diversity in personal relationships accompanied by a marked decline in the popularity of marriage and the rise in heterosexual cohabitation (Chambers, 2012). Such transformation of intimacy has been marked by the detraditionalisation of family life where the controlling influence of traditional values and social ties which once bound families together have now been lost (Giddens, 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002). In this way, the traditional notion of ‘the family’ as a social institution has conceivably been challenged. However, debates about the detraditionalisation of family have been comprehensively and persistently criticised for ignoring the structural constraints and the relational bonds that continue to tie individuals to others (Heaphy, 2007). Even in Euro-American family relationships institutionalised family and marriage have not been erased, and the ways in which people live out their personal relationships are still modified by gendered traditions and norms (Jamieson, 1998; Carter and Duncan, 2018).

China’s dramatic social and economic transformation over the past few decades has brought about significant changes in people’s personal relationships and family life. Non-traditional partnerships and living arrangements, such as living apart together (LAT) relationships where committed couples living in separated households while maintaining their intimate relationships, are not uncommon in China. For example the family pattern of out-migration of men and stay-behind married women with children (if any), as a result of rural-to-urban labour mobility under the process of urbanisation and modernisation, has been documented in migration literature (Fan, 2003). This gendered mobility pattern has, in some respects, reinforced the prescribed social norms on gender roles, where women’s contribution to family life is significantly shaped by their family roles (He and Gober, 2003; Chen, 2005; Chang et al, 2011). In the study of family and intimate relationship, scholarly attention tends to focus on intimacy in intergenerational relations by examining the potential impact of the gendered pattern of labour migration on older parents in rural China (Yan, 2016; Liu, 2017). However, much remains unknown with respect to people’s lived experiences in LAT relationships and, more importantly, the extent to which this new form of living arrangement has shaped the ways people construct and make sense of changes in their actual day-to-day family living. In addition, few attempts have been made to interrogate how digital-age technologies have shaped the transformations of personal relationships and intimacy in network societies (Valentine, 2006; Jamieson, 2013). In this light, this first qualitative research on LAT relationships in China brings literatures of family, intimacy and gender closer together to contribute to the ongoing sociological debates on social change and intimate practices beyond the Eurocentric perspective.

The cultural discourses surrounding the family of two heterosexual people in co-residential partnership have been informed by ‘hegemonic heterosexuality’ and are deeply ingrained in people’s perceptions of monogamous coupledom (Hockey et al, 2007). Committed couples living apart together, as a new form of intimate relationships and family living, challenge the conventional assumptions about being a couple and doing a ‘family’ (Roseneil, 2006). The conceptual shift from an understanding of the family as a structure to one that focuses on fluidity, process and the everyday dimensions of ‘doing’ has been memorably captured as ‘family practices’ (Morgan, 1996; 2011). Family practices from an analytical perspective is useful here in capturing the distinction between the relationships of the families we live with (our relational connections with others) and the families we live by (the ideal) (Gillis, 1996).

In this article, I explore how people within couple and family relationships construct their family lives and experience intimacy, when they are apart by physical distance for various reasons. Following a theoretical discussion of family practices and practices of intimacy, I then move on to provide a context for debates about gender relations and family life in the transforming society of China. This is followed by a brief discussion of the study in which individual interviews with 39 people were carried out in China. Drawing on people’s narratives about their LAT relationships, I argued that the activities of ‘doing’ family and disclosing intimacy are contextually varied. In this light, three dimensions of family practices are teased out in this article based on interview data. First, it looks into people’s practices of mobile intimacy with respect to digitally mediated communication in fostering family and affective ties. The article then considers how families can be experienced as unique in ways that people reflexively perform emotions. Finally, it examines how practices of family intersect with caring (especially for the absent partner’s parents) and gender roles. This article concludes by highlighting how families, by focusing on the everyday ‘doing’, can be experienced and constructed differently, while also being informed by the cultural discourses and social institutions of family and gender.

Family practices and intimacy in a mediated digital age

In the field of sociology of the family, Morgan’s (1996) theorisation of ‘family practices’ is very influential in shifting the sociological analysis of ‘family’ as a structure to understanding families as sets of activities which are both significant and unremarkable. In this delineation, ‘family’ has come to be understood as process-oriented and relational, rather than as a static and abstract ‘thing’: ‘the family’. Hence, families are ‘done’ by individuals creatively constituting their families through a set of intimate interactions and ‘practices’, which are culturally and historically variable and negotiated over time (Morgan, 2011).

This conceptual shift, with its greater emphasis on the ‘doing’ of everyday activities, provides a useful analytical perspective to capture different dimensions of family living. Emotions, for example, within the context of family relationships, are seen as an integral part of everyday routines. Gabb (2008) develops the ‘emotion map’ as a research tool to examine the ways in which emotions are expressed within the private sphere. In an attempt to link emotion into the analysis of family practices, Morgan (2011) argues that the practices approach as a whole has a broader meaning, encompassing not only those practices identified as emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983) or emotional work (Duncombe and Marsden, 1998). It also enables a particular relationship tie to be reaffirmed by enacting a set of emotional practices in relation to others. Family practices also have close relations with discussions of care within family settings (DeVault, 1991). In Morgan’s (2011) view, caring practices, for the most part informal and unpaid, are embodied practices, where tensions and ambivalence may arise from the intermingling of the physical and emotional labour involved in the caring relationship. In this sense, the emphasis on ‘doing’ enables us, at least in some respects, to explore how inequalities, power and divisions are practically constituted on a daily basis (Morgan, 2020).

One related concept, that of ‘intimacy’, has also been widely recognised as central to understanding family relationships and personal lives (for more extensive work on the conceptualisation of intimacy in family relationships, see Gabb, 2008; Jamieson, 2011). For Giddens (1992), intimacy is built through a dialogue of mutual self-disclosure between equals by talking, sharing inner thoughts and feelings, and listening. Fundamental to this is the importance of intimacy of the self, which is also called ‘disclosing intimacy’ (Jamieson, 1998). This particular type of intimacy does not, in itself, privilege the physical co-presence of face-to-face relationships (Jamieson, 2013: 18). Existing literature on transnational families shows that people can still sustain a sense of deep knowing and understanding of others, through the information and communication technologies (ICTs), when families members are stretched across geographical distances (Valentine, 2006; Wilding, 2018). In this sense, self-disclosure is not necessarily confined to territorially fixed designations but can be applied to more individualised and mobile patterns of relating, leading to people experiencing ‘mobile intimacy’ (Elliott and Urry, 2010). Holmes and Wilding (2019: 1) go further, arguing that ‘relationships no longer require physical presence in order to be emotionally and socially significant’, especially in the context of ‘mobile lives’ becoming increasingly common (Elliott and Urry, 2010).

Building on Morgan’s concept of ‘family practices’, Jamieson (2011) develops the idea of ‘practices of intimacy’, which refers to practices that ‘enable, create and sustain a sense of a close and special quality of a relationship between people’. Notwithstanding the significance of mutual discourse claimed by Giddens in the formation and maintenance of intimate relationships, Jamieson (2013: 18) demonstrates that it ‘may not always be a sufficient way to sustain an intimate relationship’. In practice, there are other practices of intimacy to sustain family bonds and intimate ties, whether they are acts of practical care, physical contact or emotional support (Jamieson, 1999). In addition, existing studies have indicated that in reality, intimacy and gender inequality can coexist in many people’s personal lives, and people are still expected to fulfil their gender roles as prescribed by social norms (Jamieson, 1999). In this light, the ways in which people maintain relational connections with others and live out their everyday family lives cannot be fully captured without considering the social and cultural contexts in which discourses and practices of ‘family’ are produced.

Gender relations and family life in China

With a long history of the patriarchal and patrilineal family system in China, two sets of familial relations – conjugal (between husband and wife) and intergenerational (between parents and children) – have been considered to be the key organising principle of family relationships (Fei, 1939). Horizontally, conjugal relations were traditionally regulated by gender roles prescribing women as care providers and homemakers and men as primarily financial contributors (Evans, 1997; Hu and Scott, 2016). This division of labour in the domestic sphere contributes to the ‘typical’ practices of family: nan zhu wai, nü zhu nei (men are in charge of the outside and women take care of inside the home) (Shek, 2006). Vertically, the traditional Confucian practices of filial piety served as the foundational elements in maintaining the Chinese patriarchal family system prescribed young adult children to provide old age support for their parents (Jacka et al, 2013). In light of the strong tradition of patrilocal marital practices, the caring responsibility for elders has, thus, largely fallen on married women (Yan, 2003).

However, it has been widely recognised that both gender relations and family structures have undergone significant changes in China over the past few decades (Xie, 2013). A growing body of literature on social change and transformation of intimate relationships has witnessed a rise in non-traditional family practices, such as greater tolerance to premarital sex and cohabitation, an increasing divorce rate, age at first marriage, and the declining rate of marriage (Ji and Yeung, 2014; Xu et al, 2015). Evidence also shows that Chinese women’s educational attainment and growing participation in the labour market since the economic reforms, along with the influence of Western ideas of individualisation, have empowered them to free themselves from prescribed gender roles and family obligations (Song and Ji, 2020). It is in this ever-changing social context that the discourse of the de-institutionalisation of family and marriage has started to appear in China (Davis and Friedman, 2014).

Despite these social changes, traditional values on gender roles still have a great purchase and continue to affect the ways people understand and construct their own family life (Yan, 2010). The ‘family’, as a social institution, where two heterosexual married people with dependent children living in the same household, has been perceived as being an ideal and dominant living arrangement even in contemporary Chinese society (Xie, 2013). Within heterosexually, patriarchally ordered patterns of relating, women continue to undertake primary responsibility for caring for family members in their everyday lives (Raymo et al, 2015; Ji, 2017). In addition, the practice of family obligations remains crucial in Chinese society where adult children are, by law, obligated to care for their parents, given that the lack of a substantial social welfare system has transferred the caring responsibility from the state to individual families (Chou, 2011). As a consequence, the traditionally patrilineal culture and discourse regarding filial norms reinforce the gendered patterns of parent care. In this light, researchers argue that family practices throughout China, and other Asian societies sharing a Confucian ideology of patrilineal family formation, remain heavily patterned (Jackson et al, 2008; Liu et al, 2019). In order to understand the transformations in intimacy and families during the social and economic development of China, we should attend to cultural specificity and local social contexts within which discourses and practices of gender and family are constructed.

The study

The data presented in this article are derived from a systematic study of changes in personal relationships and family life in China that I conducted in 2016. Despite the dominant co-residential pattern of ‘the family’, committed heterosexual couples living at some distance from their partner are not uncommon in China, especially under the wave of urbanisation and modernisation. In line with the aims of this research, to understand why people are in couple relationships, but physically living separately in their everyday lives and, more importantly, how they negotiate their gender roles and make sense of the changes in their everyday lives, I adopted a feminist methodology to construct knowledge from those living in a silenced and unconventional partnership (Jamieson et al, 2011; Ryan-Flood, 2013). In this light, the qualitative interviewing was crucial to the study of relationships and everyday living (Gabb, 2008), especially for gaining in-depth insights into the complexities and dynamics of the lived experiences of people who have gone through social changes (Liu, 2017).

In total, 39 heterosexual people (including four men), aged between 23 and 57, were interviewed in Beijing and Liaoning Province. Twelve people contacted me and were recruited after I posted ‘call for participants’ on social media – WeChat – the most popular social networking application in China. Given the sensitivity of the research topic, I also asked my friends and family members to introduce anyone they knew in LAT relationships. This led to 27 people, whom I had never met before, being enrolled. In this way, recruiting participants through personal network and snowballing are significantly beneficial with respect to building rapport and mutual trust. Among these 39 people, 11 were unmarried, while the rest (28) had their married partner living somewhere else. None of them had experienced divorce. In terms of education, over half of the participants (26) had university degrees with eight of them having postgraduate degrees. People varied in terms of the length of their relationship and frequency in seeing each other. They also varied in social status and occupations, ranging from graduate students, to housewives, professionals and retired people. Men were largely excluded from this study not only because of the focus of this research project, but also due to the fact that they were mostly working away from their partner during the course of my fieldwork.

The questions asked of participants covered their relationship history, reasons for ending up living apart, and how to keep a sense of closeness while being absent from each other’s daily lives. In recognition of people’s intimate life experiences being involved during the course of interviews, my personal experience of being in a LAT relationship was shared where appropriate, and some participants could relate and feel more comfortable to share their own stories. What surprised me is that my ‘outsider within’ identity (Collins, 1986), as someone with a higher education living and working in the UK, had facilitated them to openly express their feelings. On some occasions participants were emotional, especially when they evoked the hard times they had experienced. As I listened, I was also engaging and attending to their emotions while offering tissues and the option to stop recording. Instead of jumping to other topics, participants preferred to continue and reveal their innermost thoughts to me. This implies that my status as an ‘outsider’ and ‘otherness’, in the sense of living far away from participants’ immediate social networks and being unlikely to appear in their everyday lives in the future, helped people to be more open when talking about their lived LAT experiences.

All the interviews were semi-structured in nature and conducted in Mandarin Chinese, were audio-recorded, and transcribed verbatim. Selected quotes were translated into English for the purpose of analysis. All participants in this study have been given pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality. Thematic analysis was employed to each of the transcripts to identify recurring topics that emerged (Braun and Clarke, 2006). This was followed by further in-depth analysis of people’s narratives about their varied experiences of living apart together. In light of this, three themes were identified here in relation to ‘doing’ family through practices of mobile intimacy, emotion and caring. While acknowledging that this qualitative study is inevitably limited in diversity due to the small sample size, the rich in-depth data presented here offer insights into the nuanced ways in which practices of family across physical distance are contextually and socially constructed.

Practices of mobile intimacy

Disclosing intimacy is important for developing and maintaining intimate relationships and family bonds. When physical distance prevents co-presence, digital communication, as part of the mundane routinised practices in people’s LAT relationships, has changed the practices of family relationships by providing an alternative way for communication (Wang, 2016). Almost all participants in this research reiterated that they often contacted their absent partner by WeChat. They revealed a range of nuanced accounts of how WeChat text messages, voice messages and video calls help them rebuild a sense of having linked lives with absent intimate others. For example, Xueyi (25, unmarried) worked as a hotel receptionist in Beijing and her partner worked in north China. During the course of being apart, Xueyi used WeChat to contact him, mostly talking about the trivia of everyday life, such as eating, shopping and details about work. For her, a series of actions of constantly communicating, exchanging messages and phone calls, instantly sharing photos, and even arguing with each other over trivial things, help develop a sense of deep knowing that is thought to be fundamental in marking out intimate sexual relationships (Bawin-Legros, 2004; Jamieson, 2013; Gabb and Fink, 2015).

In a similar way, Xiaobo (26, married), an accountant, would update her husband about her daily life in Beijing. She regularly arranged WeChat video calls with her husband who, during the course of the interviews, remained in the UK for his PhD study:

‘We have a video chat every week, talking about things that had happened for us during the week, no matter whether they were good or bad. We also shop online together, and sometimes I would pick things for him. Or, we would talk about newly released British or American TV dramas. Normally we would talk for at least one hour, even though there was nothing particularly important to say.’

It is clear that communication technologies provide new ways for people to do old things (Tyler, 2002). Spending time together digitally, to some degree, may correspond with ‘the building of a relationship through co-present spending time together’ (Jamieson, 2013: 19). In contrast to the kind of disclosure of major aspects of the self, which was seen as central to ‘pure relationships’ by Giddens (1992), these ‘small talks’ about ‘what’s going on’ and phatic communication about ‘nothingness’ in each other’s daily lives have become an indispensable part of people’s intimate relationships, especially when people rarely see each other on a regular basis. In this way, these intensive practices of disclosing intimacy, evident in the technology-mediated communication among people in a non-cohabiting partnership, are not indicative of the decentring of family life and couple relationships as suggested by the detraditionalisation thesis, but demonstrate that people reflexively work out how to create their family and ‘linked lives’ threatened by geographical separation (Qiu, 2022).

Nevertheless, it should also be noted that the communication technologies are not always used by family members, in particular men, for ‘doing family’. Anli’s (41, married) example is a good illustration of this point. Anli was a homemaker, and her husband worked as a truck driver with a tight timetable. Sometimes his workload was quite demanding and he could only stay at home for three days a month, whereas during the slow season he might stay for nearly a month. However, while he was at home, Anli hardly experienced a sense of closeness, which she attributed to her husband misusing WeChat:

‘[When he was away] at least he would call me and talk by WeChat, asking me if I have had my dinner. When he was back, I didn’t get those feelings. Sometimes we had arguments when he was home, because he seldom talked to me, but very much to others on WeChat […] Since using WeChat, he joined a group chat with his former classmates. So, he often went out with them, leaving me alone at home. I had to take care of him every time when he got drunk. So, I do hope he could work away.’

My analysis shows that intimate relationships are subjectively experienced, and the ways people engage in disclosing intimacy are variously dependent on age, the stage of their relationship, and the contexts in which people are embedded. In some cases, young people, and those in the early stage of their relationship, were heavily involved online, through which practices of everyday talks enabled them to get to know each other and secure attachment. In other cases, they also identified that they “cannot have a hug” when they need it (Xiaobo, 26, married) and “talking on the phone is not as close as seeing and feeling each other physically” (Minzhou, 38, married). For other people, the ways in which they constructed a family were not confined to verbal communication and textual discourses, as the younger generations are more likely to be, given that they had usually been together for longer than younger couples. For example, having been married for 13 years, Xuanye (39, manager) claimed that they would not keep checking up on each other on a daily basis by phone, but his wife would express care by sending him a package of healthcare products during the time when he was relocated to work in Tianjin. Even though he did not ask for it, “she has known me for a long time”. For him, the deep knowing of each other beyond words was fundamental to maintain their marital connections. This resonates with Jamieson’s (2011) argument that disclosing intimacy may not necessarily become the key principle of personal life, as self-disclosure may only be appropriate for a particular group. In practice, there are other ways in which people ‘do’ intimacy and construct their familial relationships.

(Un)doing emotional work

Emotions are a key element in everyday family life (Morgan, 2011: 110). There is evidence that when distance prevents co-present communication and practical care, people are more likely to seek and provide emotional forms of support: for instance, through talking and listening (Gabb and Fink, 2007; Holmes, 2015). Previous studies have demonstrated that the emotional work within the family is usually seen as highly gendered in that women, in particular, are viewed as responsible for maintaining relationships and providing emotional support (Hochschild, 1979; Duncombe and Marsden, 1993). In some cases, my interview data support the idea of the gendering of emotion work. This is evident in the case of Mei (34, married) who worked in Beijing as an engineer, whereas her husband flew to the US for work on the first day after they married. She was reflexive about emotional intimacy, illustrating that emotional connections are much needed within her family and intimate relations, especially after knowing how this was ‘done’ by her husband’s family:

‘His parents often watch TV together, but without communicating or interacting with each other. Regarding family, their role-playing is child-centred, like he is the father and she is the mother. But they forget the fact that they are husband and wife [to each other]. I wouldn’t do that [to my family]. No matter how many children I have, I’ll keep reminding myself that we are not only parents but also partners. I might have a higher standard for this and would keep communicating and negotiating with my husband about the importance of keeping emotional communication and family interactions.’

Although the number of male participants included in this study is limited, their accounts of the ways they managed emotions are highly gendered. Xuanye (39, married) provided a fairly typical example of men’s unwillingness to talk about the difficulties that might be encountered during the time of living apart:

‘Basically, I rarely talk about my work with her. This is the difference between men and women [in relation to] facing pressures. Women can mitigate their pressures by talking or crying, but men basically would not. Men hide or hold back [emotions] by themselves […] [talking and sharing emotions] might be important, but I’m not good at it.’

Contrary to men’s reluctance to talk about work-related stress and vulnerable emotions (anxiety, fear and sadness, for instance), women are seen as vocal in articulating their feelings. Having been with his wife for 16 years, but physically together for only five years, Xuanye further recounted:

‘One day at night, she called me and cried to complain. She was on her period, so she had a bad mood. She felt alone and depressed at night while children were not home. [She complained that] she couldn’t have a hot meal ready for her when she was back home, even the bed was also cold. Actually, I didn’t say that I haven’t yet had my food here. At that point, I need to comfort her.’

Xuanye’s wife’s wronged feelings towards his absence of emotional caring and the bodily connection during living apart seem to reflect ‘the phenomena of male non-disclosure and gender asymmetry in emotional behaviour’ (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993: 229). What might be missing, however, is a more nuanced understanding of the complexity and the ambivalences of emotions that arise and involve here. By saying “I need to comfort her”, we can see emotional reflexivity (Holmes, 2015) and a sense of emotion work (Erickson, 2005) that Xuanye would provide to prioritise the need of comforting his wife, despite his own feelings.

While emotional forms of caring can be mediated or moderated by engagement in mediated communication practices, my data indicate how practices, in family and intimate relations, may sometimes involve not ‘doing’ emotions, in the sense that people may consciously and reflexively not share unhappy moments with their absent partner. This is exemplified in the case of Lianbao (51, married). During the time of our interview, he has been deployed to work as a manager in Tianjin for over two years. His wife and other family members had all stayed in their hometown. Although having no other connections and roots in Tianjin, Lianbao mostly shared good news with his wife, as he highlighted:

‘For me, I say more if it is good news, but less if not […] [I’m] trying not to talk when [I meet] difficulties. Because it is my own work business. No need to make her worried […] After all, I am a man coming to this age [who] has already experienced things. I myself can handle these pressures associated with work and others.’

Culturally imposed gender expectations have significantly shaped the ways in which people construct and make sense of their family life (Qiu, 2020). The breadwinner’s role attached to men informed by the gendered division of labour has been considered as the most fundamental foundation of masculinity identity (Connell, 1995). In post-reform Chinese society, social constructions and practices of hegemonic masculine ideals have predominantly focused on men’s capacities to financially support a family while suppressing their emotional feelings (Zhang, 2010; Osburg, 2013; Louie, 2015). Under the circumstance of couples living apart, Lianbao demonstrated his masculinity by not talking or only talking about certain things. From his understanding, managing emotions are of importance in the ‘doing’ of family, because such acts are not necessarily emotionally detached but may arguably be understood as a way of making the effort, in his way, to maintain the couple relationship as it is (Gabb and Fink, 2007).

It is not only those who work away (mostly men, in this study) but also those left behind (mostly women) who are engaged in managing their own emotions. For example, Minzhou (40, married) lived with her son in north China while her husband migrated to south China for work and could only come back home once a year:

‘I hardly told him when I was [emotionally] down because he is working alone also, having a difficult life there. If I tell him, he’ll feel bad too. So, I called him just to check on him and it [low mood] would go away then […] sometimes my son made me angry, I wanted to tell him but bit it back. We adult people have to control [our emotions].’

Hiding or holding back emotions to place minimal emotional demands on her husband are performed as part of a wife’s responsibility (Finch, 1983). Minzhou is not the only one with the view that talking about emotion ups and downs appear to be an extra burden on her husband. Similarly, Hongli (40, married) recounted how mobile intimacy during the course of living apart could also be experienced as not being communicated with her husband, who worked as an electrician:

‘I don’t want to mention these trouble things to him. It’s useless. He couldn’t come back anyway. I know he was also not easy working outside [the home]. His work was relatively dangerous with lots of pressures. So, not necessary to make him worried.’

Partly because of deep ‘knowing’ of her husband, Hongli concealed her loneliness and had no intention of diverting his attention from work. In the context of couples living apart, the practice of familial intimacy here is closely associated with how people ‘undo’ emotions in such a way that controlling or maintaining silence about their own (negative) feelings are performed. Although they were left behind at home, some women said that they could easily receive help and talk things through because at least relatives and friends live nearby. This was fundamentally different from the circumstances of their absent partners, who, on most occasions, could not have that support. In this sense, emotions can be ‘done’ differently as people need to reflexively navigate their emotions in accordance with the contexts in which they are embedded. ‘Unspeaking’ and silences are arguably also crucial in order for relationships to remain intact. As Gabb and Fink (2007: 54) indicate, keeping silent may be used in an attempt at kindness, a deliberate strategy to prevent further distress.

Intergenerational caring practices

Care is identified as the indispensable parameter of intimate relationships (Gabb, 2008; Morgan, 2011). There are different types of caring, but when couples live apart, the practical and embodied character of caring becomes particularly difficult (Jamieson, 2013). In participants’ narratives about what their ‘family’ was about, providing practical care for their in-laws, especially when their partners were absent from their daily lives, was considered crucial for maintaining harmonious family relationships. For example, Xutong (40, married), living with her children and in-laws, made sense of her caring practices as evidence of doing a family, while her husband was working away for the family’s financial needs: “We’ve been married for so many years and the feelings that I had when we were just married have already gone. Taking care of parents[-in-law] is more important now.”

In a similar way, Qingyan (46), having been married for over 20 years, commented on the shift from romantic love and passion in her marital relationship over the lifecourse to qinqing. She articulated the common goal she valued, to live a good life, even at the expense of couples living apart: “There was love at the early stage of our marriage. With the children growing up, our [marital] relationship has upgraded from love to qinqing [familial love and affection], with more mutual understanding being involved. [The common goal is] living a better life together.”

The ways of how ‘to live a good life’ are subject to cultural discourses regarding what a ‘family’ should be like. As Morgan (2011: 68) puts it, ‘practices and discourses, the families we live with and the families we live by, are mutually implicated in each other’. In the context of Confucian familism, the gendered division of labour dictates women’s morally prescribed duties in filial care for elders, spousal care for husband, and motherly care for children, which constitute the functional axis of family life (Kyung-Sup and Min-Young, 2010: 545). Although family obligation has substantially weakened as a consequence of the individualisation process and China’s dramatic changes through economic transitions (Yan, 2010), ideals of the practice of doing gender roles is still an indispensable part of ‘doing’ family in contemporary Chinese society. One example of gendered practices of family can be seen from Anli (41, married) who lived alone at the interview of our interview. As I mentioned earlier, Anli’s husband was a trucker driver and the sole financial contributor in the family. Every time before her husband went out to work, she would prepare a bag of newly washed clothes for him, considering that he might be exhausted and lack time to wash. So, when her husband came back home with a bundle of dirty clothes, Anli would wash and get them ready for him again. Although she and her husband did not have children and she appreciated the release from childcare labour ‘cooking and cleaning a messy house’ offered by couples living apart, she was the taken-for-granted family carer for her in-laws. She revealed: “He’s been working away these years, and it’s me taking care of his mother and cooking for her every day […] Even though when he was home, he didn’t help me do housework. He thought this is woman’s business, which he shouldn’t do.”

In a similar way, Guanya (37, married), a mother of two children, was the primary homemaker and saw cooking, doing laundry, and washing as her ‘duty’. These activities seemed to be a given, a consequence of becoming a wife and a mother. In this way, Guanya felt grateful for what her husband has done on her birthdays in making her breakfast and taking her out for dinner:

‘Every year on my birthday, he’d get up early and make me breakfast if he wasn’t tired. In return, I’d take good care of his parents, children and housework […] I don’t want men to do much domestic chores. Because I think he’s already very tired working outside the home, and cleaning dishes and the house ought to be women’s work.’

Birthdays are occasions for family practices. Her husband’s ‘gifts’ of doing housework have been seen by Guanya as part of being in a marital relationship and doing family.

Although gender roles and inequalities remain embedded and persistent even in non-traditional living arrangements, everyday practices of doing gender appear to be important for Guanya in the course of day-to-day family living, especially when family members are geographically split. In this regard, prescribed by the norms surrounding the gendered division of labour and the feminised notion of care work, the ‘doing’ of gender roles as a virtuous wife, good mother, and filial daughter-in-law have contributed to the gendered way that family is done. In other words, how people do family and maintain their conjugal intimacy is deeply informed by how they perceive their (expected) gender roles.

People construct their family lives in ways that are shaped by the social institutions of gender and marriage. In a collectivist culture, such as China, the construction of family is not simply about two individuals,which is apparent in the traditional Chinese saying that When you marry, you don’t just marry your spouse, but their whole family. With a strongly patriarchal and patrilocal family tradition, male heirs and their wives are obligated to provide all-round support for their parents in old age. The norms of patrilocal marriage practice place married women on the filial map of their in-laws (Liu, 2017). In the absence of sons in everyday life, upon marriage, it is the daughter-in-law who performs the care (Song et al, 2012). For example, Xinyi (26, married), a school teacher, encouraged her husband, a junior doctor, to attend further training in a different city for a year. When they were apart, Xinyi explained:

‘I would come over when my father-in-law had problems with technologies, such as downloading apps onto his smartphone or fixing TV cable wires. Sometimes I had to drive my mother-in-law to her mum’s home. I have undertaken his [her husband’s] role as I have to do more things for his family now [while he is away].’

Gendered expectations of women being the caregivers contribute directly and indirectly to the ways in which family is socially constructed and culturally negotiated and practised. In accordance with filial obligations, ‘doing’ the role of daughter-in-law as part of their gender roles is fundamental to a woman’s construction and maintenance of a stable and harmonious marriage relationship. By this, I would argue that practice of family is culturally mediated by perceived practices of filial piety; considering the institutionalised family obligation remains prevalent and continues to shape the overwhelming majority of people’s personal lives in China (Qi, 2015).

Concluding discussion and comments

In this article, I used ‘family practices’, as an analytical perspective, to capture the complexities of the ‘families we live with’, focusing on the experiences of LAT people in China. The central aim of this research was to examine the ways in which people in non-cohabiting partnerships construct and make sense of their everyday family lives and intimate relationships. Before I elaborate on the theoretical implications of this research, it is important to identify some limitations. The findings of this study draw on interviews that I conducted in China with 35 women and four men who, during the time of my fieldwork, were in LAT relationships. Partly due to the fact that partners were away for different reasons, joint couple interviews were not possible; therefore, how men ‘do’ family and maintain intimacy across distance remains indiscernible. Despite the inclusion of very few male participants in this study, their narratives about practices of emotions are still useful and are therefore included. Future study would be benefited by including more men’s voices and, in doing so, explore specifically how masculinity informs their identity and everyday family practices.

My analysis provides subtleties and nuanced understandings of the various ways people in LAT relationships create, negotiate and reproduce familial ties, through a set of practices of mobile intimacy, emotion and caring. When distance prevents co-presence, intimacy is largely restricted to verbal/textual self-disclosure, and communication technologies have become an integral part of people’s everyday lives within the context of family separation. My analysis shows that practices of everyday talks and sharing day-to-day types of feelings between separated couples play a role in generating and maintaining a sense of subjective closeness. People frequently use communication technologies and act as ‘networked individualism’ (Rainie and Wellman, 2012) to build relational connections with intimate others, which contests the idea of the breakdown or decentring of family life. Although by no means exclusively, young people are far more likely to disclose intimacy through mediated communication. This is partly due to their extensive digital experience and the early stages of their relationships. Although disclosing intimacy can be mediated by digital media, it remains problematic if physical touch and embodied forms of support, for some people, are a primary way of expressing a sense of intimacy and being a ‘family’ (Gabb and Fink, 2007).

Another dimension of family living that this article concerns with is emotion. Within the context of family relationships, emotional work is performed in various ways. Although gendered stereotypes that associate men with emotional reticence have been found in this study, this did not mean anything in terms of the depth of feelings experienced in their relationships. While many of the studies on the family practices approach place emphasis on ‘doing’, this research provides new insight on how acts of not doing can be articulated as a way of doing family. Both men and women seek and provide emotional support to each other; at the same time, they consciously ‘undo’ emotions. This blurs the ways in which emotions are (expected to be) experienced and expressed. It could be argued that practices of hiding and managing emotions can also be seen as important as sharing emotions.

In the split households that are a result of the gendered pattern of migration in China, family practices often operate in a way involving gendered care for family members. Couples living apart does not necessarily mean that women can avoid the obligations of care. Instead, doing gender in conformity with the social expectations of gender roles in the provision of family care has greatly contributed to the stability of the normative form of ‘family’. However, there is evidence of change in the patterns of parent care practices, whereby women have increased capacity to provide practical, financial and emotional support for their natal family and even refuse to provide old age support for their in-laws (Liu, 2017). Through the examination of family practices among people in non-conventional partnerships, this research highlights the various ways in which people reflexively construct and make sense of their family lives, while simultaneously being shaped by the cultural practices and social conventions of ‘family’ in China.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my research participants for sharing their stories with me, without whom this work would not have been possible.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
  • Chou, R.J.A. (2011) Filial piety by contract? The emergence, implementation, and implications of the ‘Family Support Agreement’ in China, The Gerontologist, 51(1): 316, doi: 10.1093/geront/gnq059.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Davis, D.S. and Friedman, S. (2014) Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Urban China, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DeVault, M.L. (1991) Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duncombe, J. and Marsden, D. (1993) Love and intimacy: the gender division of emotion and emotion work, Sociology, 27(2): 22141, doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-4508-1_4.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duncombe, J. and Marsden, D. (1998) ‘Stepford wives’ and ‘hollow men’? Doing emotion work, doing gender and ‘authenticity’ in intimate heterosexual relationships, in G. Bendelow and S.J. Williams (eds) Emotions in Social Life: Critical Themes and Contemporary Issues, London: Routledge, pp 21127.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Elliott, A. and Urry, J. (2010) Mobile Lives, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Erickson, R. (2005) Why emotion work matters: sex, gender, and the division of household labor, Journal of Marriage and Family, 67: 33751. doi: 10.1111/j.0022-2445.2005.00120.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Fan, C.C. (2003) Ruralurban migration and gender division of labor in transitional China, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(1): 2447, doi: 10.1111/1468–2427.00429.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fei, H.T. (1939) Peasant Life in China, London: Routledge.

  • Finch, J. (1983) Married to the Job: Wives’ Incorporation in Men’s Work, London: George Allen & Unwin.

  • Gabb, J. (2008) Researching Intimacy in Families, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Gabb, J. and Fink, J. (2007) Couple Relationships in the 21st Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, doi: 10.1007/98-3-319-59698-3.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Giddens, A. (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Gillis, J. (1996) A World of Their Own Making, Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • He, C. and Gober, P. (2003) Gendering interprovincial migration in China, International Migration Review, 37(4): 122051. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-7379.2003.tb00176.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Heaphy, B. (2007) Late Modernity and Social Change: Reconstructing Social and Personal Life, London: Routledge.

  • Hochschild, A. (1979) Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure, American Journal of Sociology, 85(3): 55175, www.jstor.org/stable/2778583. doi: 10.1086/227049

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hochschild, A. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Hockey, J., Meanh, A. and Robinson, V. (2007) Mundane Heterosexualities: From Theory to Practices, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Holmes, M. (2015) Men’s emotions: heteromasculinity, emotional reflexivity, and intimate relationships, Men and Masculinities, 18(2): 17692, doi: 10.1177/1097184X14557494.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holmes, M. and Wilding, R. (2019) Intimacies at a distance: an introduction, Emotion, Space and Society, 32: 14, doi: 10.1016/j.emospa.2019.100590.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hu, Y. and Scott, J. (2016) Family and gender values in China, Journal of Family Issues, 37(9): 126793, doi: 10.1177/0192513x14528710.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jacka, T., Kipnis, A.B. and Sargeson, S. (2013) Contemporary China: Society and Social Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, doi: 10.1017/CBO9781139196178.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Jamieson, L. (1999) Intimacy transformed?, Sociology, 33(10): 47794, doi: 10.1080/08858190209528804.

  • Jamieson, L. (2011) Intimacy as a concept: explaining social change in the context of globalisation or another form of ethnocentricism?, Sociological Research Online, 16(4): 113, doi: 10.5153/sro.2497.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jamieson, L. (2013) Personal relationships, intimacy and the self in a mediated and global digital age, in K. Orton-Johnson and N. Prior (eds) Digital sociology: Critical Perspectives, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 1333.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jamieson, L., Simpson, R. and Lewis, R. (2011) Introduction, in L. Jamieson, R. Simpson and R. Lewis (eds) Researching Families and Relationships: Reflections on Process, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ji, Y. (2017) A mosaic temporality: new dynamics of the gender and marriage system in contemporary urban China, Temporalités, 26, doi: 10.4000/temporalites.3773.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ji, Y. and Yeung, W.J.J. (2014) Heterogeneity in contemporary Chinese marriage, Journal of Family Issues, 35(12): 166282, doi: 10.1177/0192513X14538030.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kyung-Sup, C. and Min-Young, S. (2010) The stranded individualizer under compressed modernity: South Korean women in individualization without individualism, British Journal of Sociology, 61(3): 53964, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-4446. 2010.01325.x.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Liu, J. (2017) Intimacy and intergenerational relations in rural China, Sociology, 51(5): 10341049, doi: 10.1177/0038038516639505.

  • Liu, J., Bell, E. and Zhang, J. (2019) Conjugal intimacy, gender and modernity in contemporary China, The British Journal of Sociology, 70(1): 283305, doi: 10.1111/1468–4446.12338.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Louie, K. (2015) Chinese Masculinities in a Globalizing World, Abingdon/New York: Routledge, doi: 10.4324/9781315884646.

  • Morgan, D. (1996) Family Connections: An Introduction to Family Studies, Cambridge: Polity.

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