With one of the highest divorce rates in western Europe, Denmark would like breaking up to be a little harder to do – while making sure that when it does happen, the fallout is made less painful for everyone concerned.
Until recently Danes could divorce by filling out a simple online form. But under a package of legislation that came into force in April, couples determined to split must wait three months and undergo counselling before their marriage can be dissolved.
Meanwhile, a survey by Politiken newspaper found that 68 of Denmark’s 98 local authorities were offering relationship therapy to couples in difficulty, on the grounds that keeping families together saves municipalities money on housing and services.
The initiatives, which in some countries might be seen as unwelcome state intrusion in citizens’ private lives, have been broadly welcomed by both the public and politicians in Denmark, with only the small Liberal Alliance party criticising them as over-reach.
The country has long championed family rights, offering year-long parental leave and universal public daycare, but it recorded 15,000 divorces in 2018, equivalent to nearly half the marriages that year.
“This is about reducing the human and the financial costs of divorce,” said Gert Martin Hald, a psychologist and associate professor of public health at Copenhagen University who helped devise the counselling course, which is now compulsory for all couples with children under 18 before their divorce can be finalised.
“It’s good for both the individual couple but also for the municipality – prevention is always better than cure,” said Jette Haislund, head of the healthcare department at Ringkøbing-Skjern municipality in western Denmark, one of the first local authorities to experiment with couples therapy.
The government’s three-month waiting period and “cooperation after divorce” course, taken online or via an app, aims to smooth the process for divorcing couples and children by helping them improve communication and avoid pitfalls.
Parents can tailor their course individually from 17 half-hour modules offering concrete solutions to potential areas of conflict during the divorce process, including how to handle birthday parties or how to talk to an ex-partner when angry.
“It’s about understanding yourself, you and your children’s reactions, and about coping, co-parenting, after the divorce,” Hald said. “It helps deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and reduce the number of days they take off work.”
Trialled with 2,500 volunteers before launch, the course has been praised by specialists and those who have completed it, according to Hald. “The data is clear: the programme works,” he said. “In 13 out of 15 cases it had a moderate to strong positive effect on mental and physical health and led to fewer absences from work. After 12 months, couples were communicating with each other as if they had not divorced.”
Hjalmar, a marketing executive in his 40s who preferred not to give his full name, said he took the course in its trial phase nearly four years ago and found it very useful. “Obviously it’s not going to repair a broken marriage. But it helps you sort out some pretty important stuff when you may not be thinking very clearly.”
Relationship experts said the course was a step in the right direction but would not work for all couples. “It’s a fine tool and you can’t argue with its results,” said Trine Schaldemose, the deputy head of Mødrehjælpen, a family help association. “But it won’t help couples who are in very high conflict or violent relationships, or with a very low level of resources. They are going to need more than an online course. They will need personal, individual counselling. This won’t be a quick fix for them.”
In general, Schaldemose said, Denmark’s new divorce rules were “a big improvement. Before, the system was focused more on parents’ rights than children’s. And divorce involved a lot of different institutions, none of which were aligned. That’s changed.”
She said a ban on firm custody arrangements for the first three months, meant to ensure no decisions are taken in the heat of divorce, was problematic. “For children it just means they’re stuck in the middle of the conflict for longer,” Schaldemose said.
“It means parents are forced to stay together and can’t start applying for new housing, for example, because they don’t know what they’ll need. And it means they can’t answer the children’s first question: where will I be living?”
Some experts are unsure about the boom in local authority-provided counselling. Five years ago only 20% offered any couples therapy at all. “The programmes they offer are not always evidence-based,” said Hald. “Their intentions are good but I’m not sure how effective some are.”
Schaldemose said any counselling was a positive development but the quality of programmes varied and some couples may not be as open when counselling was provided by a local authority rather than independently.
Municipalities insist their programmes work. In Ringkøbing-Skjern, one of the first to offer free relationship therapy in 2011, the council says the divorce rate has fallen by 17% and last year 92 local couples sought counselling – the highest annual number so far.
All couples with children under 18 are entitled to five free sessions. “If we keep families together and avoid divorces, we save money in the long term,” Haislund told Politiken.
Steen Kruse, of Denmark’s Centre for Family Development, said it was “sensible” for local authorities to “take a share of the responsibility in relationships and family life”. The economic cost of divorce, both for the families involved and for the state in terms of new homes and schools and health and welfare services, could be enormous. “Many would like to help try to figure it out, to avoid divorce if possible,” Kruse said.
Politicians, too, have been broadly welcoming. “Municipalities deserve praise for taking the initiative to help more families prosper and stay together,” Jane Heitmann, of the liberal Venstre opposition party, told the Ritzau news agency.
Hald, for one, believes states are right to act. “Divorce rates are 25% to 50% across western countries,” he said. “It costs a huge amount of money and causes a lot of individual pain. Individual treatment would be too expensive. If we really want to take this seriously, we need to work together to develop something scaleable.”