This month I celebrate eight years of living in Sweden. Celebrate, however, is not really the adequate word. In 2014 I left London very abruptly with my son in the middle of a school year as my husband, out of the blue, was offered a job in Stockholm he said he couldn’t turn down. He promised us a wonderful new life and told us that Sweden was the ideal country for raising a family. Although it didn’t fit with my job situation at the time – I was working in a winery in Bordeaux and the family plans had been to live somewhere where both of us could work – I was excited. I saw it as an adventure and was looking forward to discovering a new culture, beautiful landscape and the northern lights. It was not supposed to be forever either. We had met in Switzerland, lived in London and were, so I thought, internationals. Unfortunately things did not turn out to plan. My husband focused all his attention on his important job and on an employee in the office. Without any attempt at conciliation he walked out on his family leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
For three years now I have been fighting to be able to leave Sweden and return to my family and friends and rebuild a life for myself and my son. My ex-husband, however, will not allow me to leave with my son. He turned his son’s life upside down and broke the family up very brutally, making sure that my son would have no tie left to him and to the life we had together in Sweden. He moved his son out of his home, out of his school, out of his area, away from his friends, his sport activities, he got rid of the family summer house, his son’s childhood toys, small boat, football goal… Everything he could throw out he did. He has slipped into his girlfriend’s life and has not created a space for his own son. He does not contribute financially to his son’s upkeep, does not help in any way to ensure his son leads the best possible life, even though as the CIO of one of Sweden’s biggest pension funds he is a top earner. When his son has pleaded him for help, he has repeatedly reminded him that he owes him nothing. Indeed, under Swedish law after divorce there is no alimony and virtually no child support. My son has been so disturbed by the situation that he cannot face school nor spending time with his father. I find myself in a situation where I cannot change my son’s school even though that is what he wants, I cannot find private therapists for my son, I cannot leave the area, the town, let alone the country without my husband’s consent and he is refusing to give it. I don’t have a proper income and am not in any position to rent a property, to buy a flat. I am living on savings that are running out. I cannot go anywhere, scale down my life because my ex-husband will not allow it. I have been offered jobs in the UK but cannot take them. I am denied the possibility of earning and putting money aside for my retirement. I should be suing my ex-husband for loss of earnings.
Swedish law states that they do not care about what a parent wants and that only the good of the child is important. But they are kidding themselves. Of course the parents’ situation is going to impact the child. In other countries, such as Switzerland, where they really do think about the good of the child, it is considered important to maintain a child’s stability after a divorce. This is why they will make sure that the child is not uprooted, does not lose his house, his friends, his school nor his economic stability if possible. If one parent has the ability to contribute financially that parent does. That is only fair. Not only fair but morally the right thing to do. If you are a parent, how can you not want to do everything in your power for your child?
So today after eight years of living as an expat in Sweden I find myself after a divorce in my late 50s with a very unhappy son who is not attending school, no house, no savings, insufficient income and no pension. Rock bottom. The reason for me writing this – as no one likes a sob story – is to make others aware and especially to make expat women aware. People are under the impression that Sweden is country that is particularly good to women. But beware and do your research if you are planning on moving here. In reality Sweden does not especially favour women on the job front nor on the home front. You only need to talk to an expat to find out how difficult it is to find a job in Sweden. You will not get hired if you don’t fit into the mould. Recent research has highlighted problems of ageism and sexism in the labour market in Sweden. As for the treatment of women after a separation, men and women are deemed equal. After a divorce, assets are split up equally but pension is not. Each worker has to earn his/her own pension. There is no split of pension nor redistribution of pension if one parent has taken time out to look after a child or parent or for whatever reason not been able to work. There is no alimony and no child support, or a very minimal one (approx. Euro 170/month) given to a parent looking after the child.
My advice is to not get divorced in Sweden (and probably to not get married either!). I got married in London, at Chelsea town hall, a favourite wedding venue for many celebrities. It did not occur to me that were I to get divorced it would be the law of the country of residence that I would be subject to and not the UK, my home country, nor the country where I got married. I never would have thought either, that the divorce law in Sweden would be so unfair towards women and in particular those that have taken care of children or supported their husband’s career. Had I known that I would never have agreed to move to Sweden and would not have supported my husband’s career.
Equality is bandied about a lot in Sweden as the best way to treat people. But equal does not mean fair. People do not have equal needs and do not live equal lives. A progressive society, like the one that Sweden seems to take pride in being, should take context and circumstances into consideration, should look out for the disadvantaged and weaker members of society and should change their view on equality of treatment. As regards the end of a marriage, you cannot apply a strict 50/50 approach, let’s-treat-everyone-equally, if one person is earning a fortune and the other doesn’t have a job, if one person is a native and the other not, if one person is healthy and the other is not, if one person has their family and network in Sweden and the other abroad, if the children are unwell or have disabilities, et cetera, et cetera… What kind of a society is this going to lead to? This is not fair and even if the treatment is equal, the outcome will not be. This is a sure way for the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer, the young, sick and elderly to get excluded and not looked after as they should. Swedish society leaves it up to the individual to make decisions and to do what he or she deems right. Sadly, the individual will rather conform to what the law has laid out and will not be motivated by higher principles if he or she can get away with it. More worrying still, the laws of the country seep into people’s psyches and set the standard for what is right or not. That is how my ex-husband sees nothing wrong in the way he has been behaving towards his son and myself.
In a world that is becoming more individualistic and selfish by the day, having a systematically “equal” approach towards all beings and situations is dangerous. It can only create a society where citizens do not care about, do not commit to and do not support each other. Responsibility is outsourced and handed over to external and governmental bodies. That is ultimately a recipe for loneliness, sadness and soullessness. The word equality has become synonymous with justice and fairness, and that is how most people hear it. The reality, however, is quite a different story.
Swedish divorce law where both parties are treated equally, no matter the circumstances, is grossly unfair and shortsighted. It makes a painful situation worse and brings about further conflict. It can prolong unhappiness over years and draws in other parties such as lawyers and courts and school counsellors and heads and the dreaded social services. It is a waste of resources and time. How can a child be chased out of his home on his father’s whim when his mother does not even have a job? A divorce needs to be properly planned. How can an ex-wife not be allowed to move anywhere nor leave the country, when there is no obligation for a father to financially support the mother of his children? How can a father not be required to provide proper financial benefit to his children after a divorce, especially if he was doing so during matrimony? How can a man prevent his ex-wife from rebuilding her life when he has left the marriage and has everything he wanted? Let’s not even talk about the fact that there is no division of pension nor any kind of adjustment. The sad thing is that those that suffer the most from divorce are the children. Divorce will affect them negatively for the rest of their life. If on top of the trauma of divorce children have to endure conflict, the loss of economic and social stability, the loss of their home and everything that goes with it, the impact on them is catastrophic. The very ones that Swedish justice is claiming to be protecting, i.e. children, are suffering more than they should have to. Swedish divorce law has to be amended for the sake of our children, for their future, and for a more, not equal, but fair world.