A Trusting and Free People

Denmark ranks high in both happiness and divorces.

Posted Sep 02, 2019

Burak Kostak/Pexels
Source: Burak Kostak/Pexels

How come a tiny kingdom like Denmark situated in Scandinavia, famous for “The Little Mermaid” and known for LEGO, has been voted as one of the happiest countries in the world for more than 40 years in a row and still has an explosively high divorce rate?

In my book, The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, I highlight many of the great things about being a Dane, but one thing I don’t mention is the fact that the divorce rate in Denmark is very high.

As a Dane I don´t think much about it, but readers in the US and other countries might wonder, “Is it really possible to raise happy children, when almost half of all families are torn apart?”

According to Statistics Denmark 54% of all married Danes were divorced in 2014. That is the highest number of divorces ever in Denmark. Last year it decreased to 46%, a 17% decrease compared to 2014. That´s still an average of almost half of all married couples in Denmark—pretty close to the US divorce rate, which hovers between 40 and 50 percent.

As part of a new divorce law that entered into force on April 1st 2019 in Denmark, parents with children under the age of 18 who want to end their marriage must take a 30-minute online course designed to help them and their children adapt as smoothly as possible. That is a change from when parents could get divorce with a simple online click. The course has been designed as an aid to improve communication and avoid some of the most common pitfalls that can arise when a family breaks up. If the parents fail to complete the course within the three-month waiting period, the couple will remain married. It is too early to see the impact as of this course yet, but the idea of getting better at understanding children's reactions and how everyone are affected, while getting good advice on forgiveness and concrete tools for conflict management and communication sounds beneficial, for sure.

Regardless of the country they live in, there’s no denying the reality that when parents choose to divorce, the children almost always experience confusion and sadness. I see that when counseling young people in my private practice. Many of the kids feel alone, and torn between mom and dad. That´s also what the children’s organization Børns Vilkår observes. They, among other organizations in Denmark, work to ensure that no children fall through the cracks, and offer free and anonymous counseling and other services. They advocate that parents keep their internal conflicts to themselves and give children space to be children.

Besides these readily available social services, Danes have a realistic view of life´s ups and downs. As I point out in the book, it’s one of the reasons Denmark ranks at the top of the happiness rankings year after year.

Danes’ authentic approach to each other and their challenges helps them face reality -- and that goes for adults and children alike. We are not afraid of being honest and vulnerable or of openly expressing how we feel; this pragmatic approach helps our kids build up a toolbox of coping skills so that life´s challenges won’t topple them.

Another reason that Danes’ high divorce rate doesn’t topple their happiness is that Denmark is a society that operates very democratically. Men and women share both parenting and wage-earning responsibilities. Children are involved in many family decisions and they are used to being respected as independent individuals. Therefore, when parents split up, children will not necessarily experience their everyday routines being changed significantly, as both parents continue to work both in and out of the home. In a very important sense, everyday life goes on.

While Danes rank high when it comes to divorce, we still believe in the dream of marriage, and I’m hopeful that the divorce rate will continue its downward trend.

And in response to the question of whether it’s possible to raise happy children despite the high divorce rate, the answer is a resounding yes. I´m not proud that we top the rankings in divorces, but I am proud to be part of a society where we all try to live life to the fullest—with honesty, respect, and the courage to face whatever twists and turns our lives take.