Shakespeare’s Danish prince was a young man deeply troubled by his widowed mother’s precipitate remarriage to his uncle. And that was just the beginning Hamlet’s problems. For Danish children today, parental upsets are more mundane but still traumatic, and there were 15,000 divorces in the country last year, equivalent to nearly half the number of marriages.
For the family members, that represents a lot of pain. For the state, it means a lot of money from the public purse. A country that offers year-long parental leave and universal public daycare is not going to leave broken families in the lurch; housing, health and welfare services come into play. Individual employers and the economy as a whole also take a hit from days off work as divorcing couples deal with the chaos.
The money side of it seems to be the main reason Danish authorities are now intervening in what has recently been merely a matter of filling out an online form. Under legislation that came into force in April, couples with children under 18 and determined to split must wait three months and have counselling before their marriage can be dissolved.
The counselling takes the form of a “co-operation after divorce course” taken online or via an app. The aim is not to prevent break-ups so much as to “smooth the process for divorcing couples and children by helping them improve communication and avoid pitfalls,” reports The Guardian. Modules deal with issues such as “birthday parties or how to talk to an ex-partner when angry.”
The results of a trial run with 2,500 volunteers showed that the programme works, according to a public health professor who helped devise the course.
“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,” said Dr Gert Martin Hald of Copenhagen University. “After 12 months, couples were communicating with each other as if they had not divorced.”
As if they had not divorced. If that’s the case, perhaps those marriages could have been saved.
Already it seems that marriages are being saved by “relationship therapy” (which would include cohabiting couples) that has been offered by local authorities in recent years. Of Denmark’s 98 municipalities, 68 offer this counselling “on the grounds that keeping families together saves … money on housing and services.”
In Ringkøbing-Skjern, where relationship therapy has been offered free since 2011, the council says the divorce rate has fallen by 17 percent 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,” a local health official says.
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.”
In fact, Denmark’s divorce rate is among the highest – above 50 percent in some recent years. But more than 50 percent of children are born outside of marriage – to cohabiting couples or single women – and these situations are less stable than marriage on the whole.
Cohabitation also helps to depress the birth rate, which is relatively high in Denmark (total fertility rate 1.78 in 2018) compared to some parts of Europe, but that may be thanks to the higher fertility of Muslim immigrants. Since 1980, the number of Danes in Denmark has remained constant at around 5 million and nearly all the population growth, from 5.1 up to the 2018 total of 5.8 million, was due to immigration.
Many Danes are becoming worried about their national identity and values, prompting government measures to promote integration of immigrants from non-western countries. One of these is a new contract for Danish Radio requiring the public broadcaster to bolster Denmark’s native cultural heritage, as well as emphasise the foundational role of Christianity in Danish society.
Nothing will contribute as much to a healthy national culture, however, as stable, married families. So Denmark has every reason to take steps to stop the rot of divorce.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.