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What happens when you move across the world for love, then break up?

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
What happens when you move across the world for love, then break up?
Cross-cultural couples make up one in ten of Sweden's married couples – but are up to 2.5 times more likely to divorce. Photo: Ruslan117/Depositphotos"

Why did you move to Sweden? It's the question immigrants find themselves asking and answering time and time again, and often the reply is 'for love'.


This is an article from The Local's archive, first published in 2018.

In 2010, cross-cultural couples – or those involving a native Swede and a foreigner – made up nine percent of all married couples in Sweden. And according to a survey of expats in Sweden by Internations, more foreigners relocate to Sweden to be with their partner than for any other reason: 25 percent of those who responded said they moved to the country for love.

This group faces unique challenges, from where to spend Christmas to which language to use with their children, while the partner who relocates must adjust to an entirely new culture, often leaving behind a job, family and friends.

So what about the people who uproot their lives for a relationship which later ends? It's not an uncommon situation; the divorce rate among cross-cultural couples is significantly higher than that of both native couples and those where both partners come from the same foreign country, yet they're a group which is rarely discussed.


"It's odd being here without a purpose; people ask what you're doing in Sweden and I can say 'my children are Swedish' or 'I'm divorced from a Swedish woman' but it doesn't really answer the question," Shaun, 35, tells The Local. "It's a grey area – I'm just paying the taxes and using the oxygen."

Shaun moved to northern Sweden with his wife after living together in the UK for several years. At the time, their two children were both under five years old, and his wife had always wanted to raise them in her home country. But sadly both the move and their roles as parents took their toll on the relationship.

"The relationship changed when we had the children, and there were lots of arguments about me not doing things in the way that I was expected to," explains Shaun. "I can't fault the Scandinavian family model but it's very, very difficult to adapt to and there's not much room for movement or flexibility."

He also experienced a "loss of identity" as a father in Sweden. Whereas new dads in Britain can expect a maximum of two weeks' paid parental leave before often resuming work and other activities, in Sweden a 50-50 split of parental leave and childcare is more common. "That affected me a lot, I didn't know if I could do the things I was used to doing," Shaun says.

READ ALSO: Dads in Sweden are taking more parental leave than ever

The couple are currently in the process of getting divorced but still share an apartment, with Shaun sleeping on the sofa while he looks for a place to live. This is a challenge due both to Sweden's well-documented housing crisis, and Shaun's status as a recent immigrant: having lived in Sweden for around two years and being self-employed for that time, he doesn't have sufficient financial records in the Swedish system, but has been away from the UK for too long to use references from there.

"Every day is a new challenge. I still find the people a bit strange and they probably find me strange; communication can be very difficult. I miss certain things – like conversations! – but I do want to be here, even though it's a bit sad. I'm here with one eye smiling and one eye crying, shall we say," he explains.


While he might struggle to explain to new acquaintances exactly why he's still in Sweden, in his own mind the reason is clear. "I've got two kids and I didn't want to be a weekend dad. I could have fought in courts to return to England with the children, and maybe the judge would have agreed, but it was all about what was best for the children," says Shaun.

When children are involved, cross-cultural divorces can get very complicated. Under the Hague Convention, if a child is taken abroad without explicit permission from both parents, this is considered abduction, something which can cause problems for divorced parents wanting to move back home with their child. Even in an amicable split, such as Shaun's, choosing between uprooting your children, returning home without them and rarely seeing them, or staying in a country you perhaps no longer have strong ties to is not an easy decision.

For now, Shaun plans to stay in Sweden for at least a few more years and reassess his situation when the children are older and he has built up his own life here.


Coming from a multicultural background himself, he argues that the Swedish lifestyle is a particularly tough one to get used to.

"My parents are both from different cultures but were able to adapt to each other's, and many of my friends met foreign partners through work but they didn't have the same issues. I've spoken to Swedish male and female friends who have agreed that it's a difficult lifestyle in terms of the fact that many things are very fixed so it's hard to compromise."

A 2008 rendering of the World Values Map. Image: Koyos/Wikimedia Commons

One explanation could be that Sweden is a global outlier or an extreme in terms of values, particularly when it comes to family. Speaking generally, Swedes are extremely secular, extremely independent, and extremely rational, placing them in the far top-right corner of the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map, put together by social scientists for the World Values Survey. These results are backed up by other reports: a 2017 survey of expat networking site Internations members showed that Swedes were rated as most "reserved and calm" and least "passionate and outgoing" of the 65 nationalities included in the report.

This kind of data might not sound like it would have any bearing on personal relationships – the WVS measures national values rather than individual ones – but Swedish researcher Martin Dribe, a professor at Lund University's Economic History department, found that cross-cultural couples were between ten percent and 2.5 times more likely to divorce than native Swedish couples.

READ ALSO: 'Sweden is a paradise but we've lost simple human values'

His study showed that the further away the non-Swede's native country was on the values map, the higher the risk of divorce.

"Because Sweden is an outlier, basically all immigrants take a less extreme position than Sweden, but there are also large differences between different immigrant origins," Dribe told The Local.


His team of researchers used Swedish administrative data to look at both married and cohabiting (sambo) couples who had at least one child together, and controlled for variables including age difference, education, income, and age of the youngest child. More than 400,000 relationships were included in the study, part of a project examining cross-cultural marriage and immigrant integration. 

"Previous studies have often pointed to the role of intermarriage in fostering integration; leading to better language ability, higher education, and higher earnings for the immigrant partner," Dribe tells The Local. The divorce study, he says, came from the desire to look at "possible negative aspects of intermarriage in terms of family stability".

He notes that studies on divorce typically find that couples with very different characteristics, such as age or education, have a higher divorce risk, and it seems that the same applies to coming from countries with very different values.

"Of course, this does not mean that value differences causally affects divorce risks, but the associations are clear and suggestive," the professor says. 

The values expressed in the WVS don't only have an impact on personal interactions, relating to privacy, communication, and self-expression, but also to customs connected to key life events from marriage itself to child-rearing, burials, and holidays. 

However, that doesn't mean these differences will cause problems for every couple.

"I had to totally change myself when I moved to Sweden to be with my [now ex-]wife; I had to change how I think, how I communicate, how I react to situations," says 33-year-old Mayowa*, who lives in Dalarna. 

"But I didn't mind doing that at all. I loved her so much, and she still is the best woman I've ever met, so you do what you have to do."

Originally from West Africa, Mayowa met his ex-wife online and after several months of talking online and visiting each other, he made the move to Sweden to join her. 

"There are little cultural differences in terms of society, values, friends, but you can learn to deal with those and they never caused any issues between us. I'm black and my wife was white, but I don't think there was any connection between our different backgrounds and the problems we had," he says. Mayowa and his wife divorced after six years of marriage, but in their case it was due to an issue that's not exclusive to international couples: Mayowa wanted to have a child and his wife didn't. 

But he has decided to stay in the picturesque region of central Sweden because he is settled there, with Swedish citizenship, a good job, and a social network – including his ex-wife, who remains a close friend.

He notes that it can be tough to find work and accommodation as an immigrant in Sweden, particularly with an obviously foreign name, but hopes to stay in Dalarna long-term and feels that he has adapted to the lifestyle.

READ ALSO: How a Swedish name made employers finally notice this Iranian's CV

"After time, you learn how to deal with Swedes and have to let yourself adapt to make yourself fit. It does take a certain kind of person though, and I have lots of divorced friends whose marriages or relationships didn't even last six months because of communication issues," Mayowa says. 


Beth Rogerson PhD, a Stockholm-based relationship counsellor with years of experience helping international couples, tells The Local she has found that the biggest issues tend to occur when people don't anticipate this kind of difference beforehand.

"Many often do not grasp quite how different the other's world view is and how that will impact communication in the relationship. Often the Swedish partner speaks English so well that it is expected that they will also understand all the deeper layers to communication in English," says Rogerson.

Those from countries with very obvious cultural differences from Sweden, such as South Asian countries, tend to go into the relationship well aware of these different views, she explains, and often work harder with their partner to adjust and understand each other. On the other hand, people from cultures with many apparent similarities to Sweden might underestimate how differences in their views and experiences will influence their partnership.

"It seems that the more the cultures resemble each other on the outside, the more difficulties; when you think you share a similar view you then assume more. Suddenly you are in a huge fight and don't know how you got there," says Rogerson.

On the other hand, there's the risk that if you go into the relationship expecting to face communication issues, cross-cultural barriers can obscure deeper issues.


"In retrospect, I think it was hard [for me] to separate cultural differences from things that I normally would have seen as a red flag," Judi tells The Local. "Some behaviour I attributed to being borne from cultural differences was actually just shitty behaviour."

Judi met her Swedish partner through his sister while at university in the US, and moved to Sweden two years later. When they divorced after more than 20 years together, being in a foreign country made both the break-up and the decision to stay in Sweden afterwards much more challenging.

"Living here and knowing only him and his family at first made me quite isolated and reliant on him, so it put an odd pressure 'to make things work'," says Judi. "The commitment was much bigger, much faster than I think it would normally have been if we had both been from the same country. And after this big commitment, it wasn't easy to walk away when things didn't feel right."

READ ALSO: 'It could be lonely,' says Queen of first year in Sweden

She chose to stay in Sweden primarily for her two teenage children; the family had lived in several countries, and she wanted them to have stability. But Judi also says she found that while Sweden wasn't quite "home", she had been away from the US for so long that returning there wouldn't have felt like going home either. She had a close group of friends in Sweden and was enjoying the lifestyle in her adopted country, but still isn't sure whether she will end up staying for good.

"Long-term it depends on a number of factors, but no matter how things play out I will always have a strong connection with Sweden," she says, but adds: "It was challenging having my family so far away while creating a new life after we divorced, particularly financially. The good news is you find out what you're made of in circumstances like that."

The practical side of the break-up was also tough; in Sweden, the conditions to receive alimony are much stricter than in many other countries. In Judi's case, the fact she had spent several years moving from country to country to support her husband's career didn't entitle her to extra financial support.

And even if the practical and financial aspects aren't a problem, moving on can be tough for immigrants who choose to stay in a country strongly associated with an ex-partner following a break-up.

"It's often sad to think that [a relationship] didn't work out, because you hold a lot of memories attached to cultural traditions and the country that you learned from them, for example my first Midsummer," says Rikki Thornton, an American who first came to Sweden seven years ago.

She broke up with her first Swedish partner after five years together, but says they remain friends. Despite the fact that all their belongings had been bought together – Thornton sold her possessions in the US before moving to Sweden, while her partner had been renting before buying their shared apartment – the pair have been able to divide things up fairly, with Thornton living in the apartment and her ex-partner renting an apartment elsewhere.

But she says: "It makes it harder to move on when everything around you reminds you of them; it's their country and culture that they taught you."

After meeting her first Swedish partner as an exchange student, Thornton returned to the country on a sambo (cohabitation) visa, which requires the couple to live together and answer questions proving the relationship's validity, while the Swedish partner must prove they have enough income to cover the couple's living costs.

Thornton says that being thrown into living together having only spent six months dating in person was one of the biggest issues they faced as a couple; not being able to date "like a normal couple". And while the move itself is a huge hurdle, she explains that the pair always had to "think internationally", regularly facing decisions couples with a shared background might not do. This included their choice to move from Uppsala to Stockholm, for example, where there were more job opportunities for non-native Swedish speakers, and having to compromise on where to spend Christmas, with Thornton's parents living in different parts of the US.

Beyond logistics, she and her partner had to deal with communicating in each other's second languages. The language barrier is an issue that is easy to overlook given Swedes' well-deserved reputation as proficient English speakers. But the level of English that allows a Swede to watch American TV and get by in Anglophone offices doesn't necessarily translate to picking up on nuance in an argument or deeper conversation.

READ ALSO: Why is it so hard to make friends with the Swedes?

"A lot of the time, he couldn't express himself fully while obviously I found it easy to just rant forever in English and had to work on letting him take time to find the words," Thornton explains. While he was finding his feet in a non-native language, she faced the challenge of settling into an entirely new culture, and says she sometimes felt like an outsider with her partner's family.

"My ex's family were very supportive about helping me learn Swedish but I think they always saw me as more American than Swedish, simply because that's the context in which they first met me. And although they never did this, in generaI, Swedes ask non-Swedes to say things in Swedish and ask a lot of questions about the States, our culture and language, which can really make you feel like a zoo animal at times!"

By the time the couple split, Thornton had been a Swedish citizen for over a year and had a job she enjoyed, meaning she was able to stay living here on her own. In fact, she says she never considered any other option, and having lived here for most of her adult life, she now feels more Swedish than American.

Since then, she has met another Swedish man, and the couple have now been together for almost a year.

"I would say this relationship is very different because of all the lessons I learned in my previous one. I am more understanding of the language barrier and having to compromise on holidays," explains Thornton. "It's also different being around his family and friends since they met Swedish-Rikki not American-Rikki, and those people are very different. I've lived here so long and know the traditions and often speak Swedish with them, so I feel a lot more 'Swedish' in this relationship than my previous, and I really enjoy that feeling."

Solveig Rundquist, a former journalist at The Local, is another American who doesn't see herself moving back to the US. "On my first visit to Sweden I already knew I loved it. I come from a very conservative, religious state in the US, and as a liberal millennial, Stockholm just fit me better. My first impression was during the summer so I was overwhelmed by the vibrant palette of hundreds of greens and blues. Stockholm has always felt like home to me."

She met her first Swedish partner while visiting a friend in 2010. After a year of long distance and another year back in Sweden, she graduated in the US and finally moved to Stockholm "with the intention of staying and living happily ever after".

And although the couple eventually broke up, and she is currently single having had several long-term relationships with Swedish men, she hasn't wavered in her decision to stay in Sweden. 

Despite feeling that the Swedish culture is a better fit for her than that of her home state, Rundquist has still experienced culture clashes in relationships with Swedes, and points out that even things which may seem trivial can lead to friction over time within a cross-cultural couple.

"In my experience, Swedish men have a hard time expressing their feelings; they have tons of feelings but communicating them can be problematic. But maybe that's just men in general!" she says. "One of the most intense fights I've had in a Swedish relationship was actually about ketchup. I dated a guy who, like many Swedes, puts ketchup on pasta. When I made lasagne and he wanted to put ketchup on it before even trying it, I exploded! To me that's just rude."

But Rundquist also points out that many of the challenges of dating a Swede as a foreigner would apply to any couple with differing experiences. "I've discovered that it's easier to date 'international Swedes', those who have travelled prolifically or lived abroad for a time. They're generally more outgoing and easier to relate to than Swedes who have only lived in Sweden their whole lives," she says. "But I suspect that's true of all cultures; if you've only lived in one place and one culture it's harder to identify with the experiences of someone who has transplanted their entire life to a foreign country."

She also notes that one of the main problems expats experience in Sweden – making friends with the typically reserved locals – can be particularly hard when dating a Swede. Since it can be difficult to make close Swedish friends as a newcomer, those with a native partner often find themselves simply joining their existing friendship group, which can be very isolating after a break-up.

"That's an experience I've had a couple of times now; it took me a while to learn. But even when I've found myself without a social network or without a place to stay after a break-up, I've managed," she says. "In a way, I'm here because of a man because it's thanks to dating Swedes that I first got a residence permit. But my desire to be here was always about more than a man. I just feel at home here. I wouldn't leave; this is my home."

*Name has been changed. Some of the other interviewees preferred to use their first name only.


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