Love and Relationships in the "Happiest Country in the World"
By: Zoe Weiner
March 12, 2012
Denmark ranks among the most “feminine” societies in the world. Feminine societies are traditionally seen to emphasize good relations, cooperation, charity, and modesty. They consider family and safety as their most important values, and failure is regarded as an accident rather than a disaster. Caring and tender attitudes, as well as expressions of emotions, are not disregarded. Likewise, conflicts are solved by compromise and negotiation rather than force.
Such qualities characterize Denmark’s broader culture and can be seen quite clearly in everyday life. When I first arrived in Denmark, I was completely shocked by the way the Danes adhere to traffic laws. After living in New York for three months, the thought of waiting for a light to turn green before I crossed the street seemed ludicrous. The first time I went out with my Danish roommate, Michael, he got very upset when I jaywalked and made me promise not to do it again while I was in Denmark. He was not only concerned with the law, but also with my safety.
Such cooperation is rarely experienced in the United States, especially in 22-year-old males. Men here are allowed to openly discuss their emotions without being seen as weak, as evidenced by Michael’s open discussion of his concern for my well-being. Denmark’s feminine tendencies are made clearer by its status as a welfare state. The nation’s egalitarian nature holds everyone to the same esteem—rich or poor, woman or man—and offers the same support to all.
Male-female relationships start at a very young age in Denmark. Friendships between boys and girls are encouraged when children are toddlers, and it is considered normal for boys and girls to have sleepovers when they are 10 years old. In America, a parent who allowed a prepubescent child to spend the night with a friend of the opposite sex would be extraordinarily controversial.
Danish children are raised to be more independent than Americans and are thus trusted to make their own decisions at a younger age. My 16-year-old visiting brother spoke openly to his parents about spending the night with his girlfriend, which I found extremely awkward. In my experience, teenagers who want to sleep together have to lie to their parents about it. By teaching children how to interact with the opposite sex when they are children, Danes lessen the gender gap and ensure that the younger generation respects each other as men and women.
A common characteristic of feminine culture is the tendency for gender roles to overlap. There are fewer strict “male” and “female” stereotypes, thus giving people the opportunity to explore their interests without worrying if they are appropriate. Girls are expected to participate in sports at a young age, and boys are encouraged to embrace their sensitivity. Because these ideas are fostered during childhood, they characterize the way men and women interact throughout their entire lives.
During my first week in Denmark, I was extremely surprised at how many couples I saw engaging in public displays of affection. They were holding hands, kissing, and hugging on nearly every street corner. All the men seemed to be very tender with their significant others, which is not as common in the United States. The masculine culture of the United States encourages its citizens to view men as “sissies” if they openly express their emotions; this, of course, challenges their very manhood.
In Denmark, men are free to express themselves without sacrificing their masculinity. They are expected to be sensitive, tender, and caring—especially toward their girlfriends—and have no reason to worry about what society will think of their open displays of affection.
Denmark’s relaxed attitude toward male-female roles fosters an environment for untraditional relationships. Many couples are characterized as LAT (living apart together). These couples are romantically involved but are not married. In Denmark, marriage is not a prerequisite for starting a family. Unlike in the United States, there is no taboo associated with having children out of wedlock.
Denmark also has a very high divorce rate, with nearly 45 percent of all marriages resulting in divorce. The lack of pressure to marry in combination with the social normalcy of divorce breeds healthy relationships, which could explain the Dane’s tendency toward public displays of affection.
The Danes’ nontraditional relationship ideals are further made evident in their liberal attitude toward sex. It is not uncommon for Danish men and women to talk about and even engage in sex in public places. During a dinner party with some Danish friends, I was shocked when one of the men turned to me and casually asked at what age I had lost my virginity. When I uncomfortably refused to answer, he teased me for being a “prude American.”
He went on to explain that it is common for Danes to start having sex at 11 or 12 years of age, and it is expected that they have many different partners throughout their lives. The most surprising part of the conversation was how candidly these strangers discussed their own sexual histories.
This openness is not only witnessed in discussions about sex, but also in the act itself. Denmark’s flexible gender roles allow for a wider acceptance of sexual experimentation. Two of my male roommates have spoken frankly about their experiences with other men, despite the fact that they are in serious relationships with women. In the United States, such activities have enormous stigmas attached to them. When it comes to American sexuality, there is often very little flexibility. When examining the Danes' untraditional standards for gender, relationships, and sex, one must consider the degree to which such factors contribute to the nation’s status as “the happiest in the world.” By allowing men and women to be themselves without having to fulfill certain gender stereotypes, Danish culture allows men and women to be themselves without worrying about what society will think. Boys can be emotional and wear tight jeans without being called sissies, and girls can play sports and cut their hair short without being labeled as lesbians.
Denmark’s gender equality fosters an environment of freedom. There is no such thing as an unconventional relationship, which allows people to make their own rules when it comes to romance. People don’t have to get married in order to start a family, which safeguards against unhappy marriages. There is no pressure to live up to particular standards of “manhood” or “womanhood,” which in turn puts more emphasis on individual interests. Danish men and women are not asked to conform or fit into certain masculine and feminine stereotypes. This allows them to be themselves and find happiness in their own unique way, regardless of gender identity, relationship expectations, or sexual preference.