The Danish Way: 3 Tips to Divorcing Happily Ever After

11 November 2019

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We all know how popular divorce is. These days you have about a 50% chance of your marriage surviving and judging by the bitter divorces battles that get splattered all over the news, it’s no wonder the first sentence uttered when a split is imminent is “get a lawyer”.

You may or may not know that divorce is big business in America. Some estimate it costing up to 50 billion dollars a year. The average divorce costs around $15-$20,000 depending on the state you live in, but can easily run into the hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.

More money passes through family divorce courts than all other courts combined. I learned that couples can even take out a loan to fund their divorces and some companies have sprung up which actually “invest” in couple’s divorces according to the Economist. Apparently, National Divorce Capital is doing so well that they plan to open offices in Australia and Canada!

As I write a lot about The Danish Way of Parenting, and how Denmark’s way of raising children contributes to the country being voted as one of the happiest people in the world for over 40 years in a row, I wondered what the Danish way of divorce looked like, particularly with kids. Was it any different?

While Danes divorce as often as Americans 46.5% versus 40-50% according to the APA, they are not a litigious society. “Get a lawyer” is a foreign phrase and the concept of focusing on “winning” in a divorce is equally as strange. No one wins in a divorce. “I think Danes want first and foremost for their kids to be ok.” Says Camilla Semlov, Danish author and divorce counselor. “Focusing on the children’s wellbeing trumps all else. This is a core value for us as a society.”

In fact, according to a national Danish study, around 80% of couples said their divorce was done in a nice atmosphere or neutral and only a remarkable 4% said their divorce was quarrelsome or involved conflicts. How in the world is it possible to have so many drama free divorces?

Camilla says there are many factors that play into these numbers, however she recognizes three key elements from my book The Danish Way of Parenting, what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids I co-authored with Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl, which contribute not only to happier kids, but also to more amicable divorces.

So if you or someone you know is contemplating divorce, here are three things that might help.

Empathy-Danes fundamentally try to see the good in others and are naturally good at using a lot of empathy. Empathy is taught in Danish schools from pre-school onwards so they are naturally more empathic. However, there are clear exceptions to this and Camilla sees this in her work. “It is precisely the couples that are less empathic where I see the biggest problems” she says. “When you always start with your own needs, feelings or wants, then it is difficult to get out of a negative cycle.” She believes that when a couple works on understanding the other person and focuses more on the children’s needs, rather than their own, it is hugely beneficial moving forward. It seems paradoxical, but being empathic can actually help the more jaded or hurt party feel better. Empathy is a skill that that can be improved at any age and it is well worth the effort to learn this life altering skill.

Reframe: Reframing is also an ability which can be learned and has been shown to improve wellbeing. Danes reframe naturally because it is a skill they pass onto their children. Our language is a choice so how we choose to interpret a situation has a direct affect on how we feel about it. Being able to focus on the bigger picture and what matters most in 5 years (like a child’s wellbeing rather than a leather sofa) makes it much easier to rebuild a new, more positive storyline and not hate each other. This can require help. In Denmark, they have something called “skillsmisseterapi” or divorce therapy. This is not therapy to prevent a divorce as it sounds, but rather to make a divorce go more smoothly. What was fascinating to learn was that many couples actually continue this therapy long after the divorce is finalized to make sure they build a good relationship for the children. “Reframing is a big part of a successful divorce” Camilla says. “By not focusing on conflict but instead focusing on what they can do to rebuild logically and sensibly for the betterment of the child (using empathy and understanding, not greed and competition), gives new goals which can be incredibly positive.”

Hygge. The very Danish concept of hygge (pronounced hooga) or cozy times together is not limited to happy family moments. This was astounding to me. Even during divorce, many couples still manage to “hygge” together for the children. That could be a walk in the forest or a dinner, but continuing to maintain a safe psychological space for the family doesn’t just disappear when things get bad. Danes are so good at hygge –ing together that many manage to keep it up during these difficult times despite the pain. Simone Lohman, a Danish communications expert and daughter of divorce says “I think it is pretty common that divorced families try to have dinner together or share drama free time somehow. When my parents divorced I don’t ever remember them fighting and we always saw each other regularly to hygge.” It seems no matter what the situation, the art of hyyge provides a panacea for families to come together for periods where they can leave the drama at the door for better or for worse. You can read more about hygge here.

No divorce is ever easy, but by incorporating more empathy, reframing and hygge, we could start to build up a new kind of fairy tale ending than the ones we are all brought up believing in. No one wants to divorce, but like many things, it is a part of life. If we focus more on how to make divorces logical and harmonious and less competitive and litigious, then maybe divorcing happily ever after wouldn’t be such a surprise ending after all.

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