April 19, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“I am a senior at UCLA and my boyfriend (Hans) is a Swedish graduate student who I love and want to marry. Last summer, we visited his hometown — Stockholm — and I just fell in love with Sweden. It is just like the USA and I could easily live there,” Anna’s e-mail began.
“Hans tells me in Sweden couples living together have most of the same legal protections as if they were married. He does not want to get married now. My grandparents read your column and tell me that you are an especially good person to ask about these issues because you know the language and have spent time there. If you had a family member in my situation, what would you advise?
“Toto, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore…”
Anna is lucky to have grandparents who risk tossing cold water on her plans. Experience and caution learned across the years is difficult to pass along to someone in love and 21 years of age. This young lady was facing both legal and cultural challenges of which she had no idea.
“How important is marriage — really going through a marriage ceremony? Also, what are your political views. Liberal? Conservative? Republican? Democrat? Finally, how important is personal giving — charitable giving — to you or your family?” I asked.
“I am Catholic and, yes, marriage is important to me. I do understand that it is fairly common in some European countries to live together prior to marriage and I could see myself doing that, briefly. I am Republican, support our President and am proud of my country,” she replied.
“In terms of charitable giving, like my parents, I have always supported a variety of causes and organizations out of my own earnings. I would assume that to be the same in Sweden, as their standard of living is higher than in the States and they have so many things we do not, such as health insurance for everyone provided by their government. It is only right to give back to your community, don’t you agree?” she asked.
Indeed, I agree with her, giving back is important to Americans, from those with modest incomes to the very wealthy. We are a generous people on a personal level. There is nothing similar in Sweden.
“If it is important for you to be in the company of people who will reach into their own pockets to support good things, you will be disappointed. There is no culture of giving, even shockingly, among those Swedes who earn large incomes. And, believe me, they could if they wanted to, but simply refuse,” I pointed out.
Take No Stand
Anna’s comments and assumptions about life in Sweden invite serious disappointment. I can say this because I have spent a great deal of time there, speak the language, admire its educational system and generally like the people and their country.
Yet, I find them to be an enormous disappointment and tragic victims of 200 years of political neutrality.
“Take no stand, no position on anything, especially do not admit that you like the USA” is the way Sweden has been explained to me by a number of Swedish educators. “We still have a Communist Party here, believe it or not!” I was told.
Let’s Live Together — Why Get Married?
So, why do Swedes live together without getting married? I asked a Swedish Divorce lawyer, who I will just call David.
“Many of us feel that it is an extension of our politics, a refusal to commit or to take a position. It is a certain national cowardice we suffer from, never sticking our necks out. It’s what we are told is the right thing to do. Yes, these living together relationships are similar to marriage, and the children are protected, but it is not marriage. Sure, many Swedes do live together faithfully as any husband and wife would, but deep down, it isn’t the same thing, not legally and certainly not the same level of commitment.”
“Tell your American reader to mature a bit before taking such a huge leap. At 21, when you are in love and have limited life experience, it is dangerous to leave home for a new country. Tell her to come here, perhaps study — certainly to study her boyfriend — and see if she could fit it,” he suggested.
“We are called the Japanese of Europe. Friendly on the outside, but a riddle and difficult for outsiders to know what we really think or mean, especially if you do not know our language,” David concluded.
The legal issues here are something which Anne must be aware of. Over the years, I have spoken with many Americans living in Sweden in precisely the same kind of situation her boyfriend desires. While legal protections for couples “living together” are far greater than in the USA, it is still not marriage, and should Anna desire to return home, with children, she could face hurdles undreamed of.
The State Department Weighs In
“Tell your reader to get online and do her research,” were the comments from a Desk Officer I spoke with at our State Department. “Take off the blindfold. Listen to the advice of your grandparents. Go there, spend time, see if you like it, and see if you can legally qualify for residence in Sweden. Just realize that the State Department has an entire department devoted to international custody cases — children taken against the wishes of a mother or father,” she pointed out.
“At 21, love often dictates behavior. Her boyfriend may be a great guy, or just someone who wants a fling for a while. If she really wants to move there, then Anna will have to apply for residence, just as would someone coming to the States. It will take time, and hopefully during those many months, she will better understand herself, and have a clearer look into her future.”
I couldn’t say it better myself.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.