What you need to know about dating and relationships in Sweden.
As an international matchmaker, I am often asked about the cultural differences between how we love in Sweden compared to other countries. I do appreciate the reminder that we are more alike than we are different, but… the quirks of matchmaking Sweden is certainly worth some attention.
Having moved from London to Stockholm in 2016, I was surprised at how differently Scandinavians approached relationships. I had matched people all over the world, but I noticed something interesting happening in Sweden… Equality.
Equality progression in Sweden is ahead of the rest of the world and changing the way we relate. Other countries may want to watch and learn from the Swedes – from both the wins and the challenges – because the rest of the western world is moving in similar directions.
After 5 years of matchmaking Sweden, interviewing thousands of singles in Scandinavia, over 10 years in the industry, and being in a relationship with a Swedish man – this is what you need to know about dating and relationships in Sweden, from the lens of a foreign matchmaker. In this article, I will share the following:
- Equality has changed everything!
- Swedish values are extreme, like literally, evidence-based extreme – in the direction of self-expression and secular-rational values.
- The rules are there ain’t no rules, not any more… so seek not the new rule book, it’s your individual values that is your inner compass.
- Equality is great for relationships in the long-term, but challenging on the dating scene, so be kind to one another.
- There is a new femininity and masculinity that is sought after by singles in Sweden.
- Stockholm is said to be the most single city in the world, but is it?
- Are we lonelier in Sweden?
- My humble tips for dating a Swede
- My even more humble perspective on what society needs now: beautiful, admired, independent, self-sufficient individuals – don’t stand alone, nest yourselves in a loving community – the paradox of dependence is that the more dependent you dare to be the more independent you become.
Okay, let’s get started you’ll.
The biggest cultural difference I observed in relationships in Sweden compared the rest of the world is equality. Comparing Sweden to London, the dating scene is totally different and the expectations in relationships are totally different. In Sweden, equality was not just a word thrown around, but something that is very much present in dating and relationship behaviour.
Foreigners or expats in Sweden might notice in heterosexual relationships: men are out pushing the buggies because in Sweden men take paternity leave; that there is much more balance in taking care of the family/ home; it is not assumed that a couple takes the man’s name in marriage – they may take the women’s name or a new name in marriage; it’s common for a woman to take lead in asking a man out or even proposing – that’s not just a leap year thing in Sweden; it’s common to split the bill or take turns paying; in divorce, couples usually share custody 50/50.
Equality and liberal values also means that there is a general acceptance in society for LGBTQI relationships. I might even say that there is higher acceptance in Sweden for alternative relationship models, such as living apart, open-relationships or polyamorous relationships… to some extent.
More of the differences in the culture are explored in the values section below.
Is equality good for relationships?
There is some research that says equality is great for relationships in the long term – it’s great for sex, communication, and overall relationship satisfaction, However, I think that right now, the state of caution between the sexes is not so helpful for heterosexual couples trying to spark new connections. I will talk more about this below.
John Gottman says that when you have shared power, a sense of equilibrium, in a relationship, you are more satisfied. He said that gay relationships tend to have better shared power than straight relationships because, us gays don’t have roles defined by society… we just make it up depending on what is best for both of us as individuals. When you are two men or two women in a relationship the societal norms have gone out of the window – so when we can create a relationship from a space of what is works for two equal individuals there is much better relationship satisfaction (not to say that there is always that healthy dynamic in gay and lesbian relationships).
In straight relationships, Gottman noted that equality is often lost when a baby arrives as the couple can often default into more traditional roles.
This is perhaps why in Sweden, there is a lot of government support to help maintain this equality – e.g. parental leave, return to work policies, the abortion act and other things…
The challenge equality brings to romantic relationships is sparking new connections – finding love – and now Sweden has a matchmaker, so problem solved 😉 – right? Before we get into solving this little problem let’s look at the Swedish value system.
The world values survey shows Sweden as an extreme country in terms of their value system, compared to other countries. Check out this cultural values map with Sweden in the far top right. Swedes have much more secular-rational values versus traditional values and much more self-expression values versus survival values. With less emphasis on the traditional values, things like divorce and abortion are more acceptable. With less emphasis on survival values, there is more tolerance – e.g., for gay and lesbian relationships, gender equality and non-traditional relationships (there is also more focus and engagement with sustainability and world affairs).
Swedes tend to be more independent, self-sufficient, interested in self-discovery and exploration. One of the reasons I love working with Swedes is that they are willing to do the inner work to meet the love they desire… and deserve.
Teenagers tend to be more open about sex and relationships with their parents, and parents tend to be more accepting of their teenagers starting this exploration. LGBTQI kids tend to come out early and find support in their family.
With a more open attitude towards sex. Women are less shamed for having sexual relationships than in other countries. When I was interviewed by a podcaster and matchmaker in New York about such differences, she was firm that women should never have sex until the 3rd date, otherwise men will not respect them. Whereas when I am matchmaking in Sweden, whilst I don’t think it is wise to rush into sex, I say that – the rules are there ain’t no rules – instead I recommend tuning in to your individual values and doing what is right for you from value system. Whilst sure, the level of slut-shaming is still too high, it’s better than most places… maybe it’s just much more covert – people in Sweden are very careful not to cross the line!
Values Versus Rules – The new rules of conduct.
Research supports that equality is great for relationships – it’s great for sex, communication, and overall relationship satisfaction. Check out this article in business insider which summarises lots of the evidence on this. The challenge in the current state of affairs, however, is for heterosexual couples initiating romantic connections.
Why? They don’t know the rules are anymore.
There have been heteronormative rules of conduct and etiquette for men and women to court for…ever… (I often cringe going to formal dinner parties as a gay couple fitting into the old-fashioned etiquette for a gentleman and a lady). Society has given men certain rules and women certain rules, the man should try to court the woman, win her over and then take her into his protection to keep her. The woman should be a pretty flower to attract the man and keep him happy in exchange of his protection. The traditional narrative is ingrained in us. Social situations are much easier when you know the rules, but now, the rules have changed, and quite suddenly too. No one knows the correct conduct anymore.
Opinions among us on where the boundaries are, vary. Some people think that a man should still act like a gentleman: pull out the chair; hold the door; walk on the outside of the pavement. Others feel that if a man dare offer to pay the bill, it’s offensive! So, what the hell should one do? To pay the bill, or not pay the bill… If that is the question, I say the answer is simple: offer to pay the bill if it is aligned with your value system and don’t if it is not. Your date might not like that, they may even be offended, but we must allow space for that. If you are acting in line with your inner compass and with respect, you can’t go wrong.
The rules are there ain’t no rules. There is no longer a correct way for a man to act or a woman to act. Making it even more difficult, when we are uncertain, or feeling vulnerable, we seek rules to makes us safe. What’s needed now is self-knowledge, knowing and being grounded in your values, and using this as your inner compass from which to act. This is totally messy because we all have different values and beliefs. And that’s why it is important that we are also accepting of different boundaries and forgiving of people stumbling on our toes a little, trying to work out how to dance with us.
We are all trying our best. We are here, just one person in front of another asking them to like us.
At a relationship retreat I was at, the facilitators encouraged the approach of ouch and whoops – If someone treads on your toes, just say ouch that stings a bit, and if you tread on someone’s toes say whoops, I’m sorry! Done. No drama. They are not an evil human being who should not walk the face of this earth, they are just a humble human with their humble foibles… and maybe a different value system, different beliefs, or different ideas to you. Still worthy of love and kindness.
Women’s fight for equality
I had a chat with a man in his 60s whose mum was significant in the fight for equality in Sweden. He said that as a child, he had a lot of awareness and respect for equality. A bit of a late bloomer, he was sure not to man-spread and take up too much space, was cautious about asking girls out and did not want to cross any delicate lines to make girls feel disrespected. Now in his 60s, after going through a divorce and starting to date again he developed a new confidence with relationships. He dares to take the space that he was scared to take when he was younger. In his dating experience today, women appreciated him approaching them, or even complimenting them, because it was clear that there was a foundation of respect.
Sweden is now one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. However, there is further to go in this direction. I won’t go into this too much here, but an example is the gender wage gap – men still earn more. Another related example is paternity leave – although Sweden is known for dads taking care of their kinds, only 30% take full paternity leave. If you are interested in a summary of women’s rights in Sweden read this.
When it comes to relationships, equality comes with challenges that we need to work out, but it’s progress and we have further to go.
How to spark connection from a space of quality.
Women have had to fight hard for equality and have further to go. As with any fight, to get here, they had to be strong and stand their ground firmly; they needed their armour to protect themselves whilst trying to take on their opponents and get a seat at a table still dominated by men. Parallel to this, heterosexual men and women might want to stand together, side by side, sharing power in a loving relationship. That is tough. I can only relate it to being in an interracial relationship and trying to reach a mutual understanding on race issues… We can never fully ‘get it’ and despite our best efforts end up in a tug of war. My husband and I have written in our family mission statement that we only win if we are both winning. If we want to stand next to each other as lovers sharing power with mutual respect, we must get out of fight mode – create expansion in our hearts where there is space for both, possibility conflicting, realities.
Countless straight men that I have interviewed in Sweden have said that they fear crossing a boundary, so they wait for clear signs from women. I have interviewed countless women in Sweden who want men to step more into their power. This may be controversial but the majority of very powerful women I interview say, when it comes to love, “I don’t want to be the CEO, I just want to feel like a woman”. A guy I coached, also very powerful businessperson, said that “as a male boss in the #meetoo movement, I am very careful to always conduct myself professionally”, to which I said, “even on a date!? How do you flirt, or show that you are interested?” “I don’t”… okay then…
Sandra, a lady in our singles network, said “I need to stop poking at them (men) when I spot insecurity, expecting them to man up”.
Men are understandably cautious, and careful not to cross the boundaries. Women are understandably standing their ground firm, carefully protecting their boundaries.
Men must get out of fear mode. If you find that you are shrinking yourself, dare to be more you – whether that means, leading, following, laughing, being loud, being quiet or whatever…as long as it’s authentic. Women must let down your armour to come out of protection mode – maintain firm boundaries with soft edges – don’t poke at men who are being overly cautious, instead show them that that you want them to take the lead. Don’t come down too hard on a man who was a little clumsy with his gender – just let him know where the line is and that he’s leaning on it. You can both share this space as equals, both taking turns to lead, being loving and respectful of each other’s space and boundaries.
Women owning their femininity. Men owning their masculinity. Women owning their masculinity. Men owning their femininity. All of us being open to all the spaces in between and dimensions beyond – to tune in to your unique energy and power.
A workshop at The Borderland festival in Denmark, celebrating femininity really impacted me. I wasn’t going to go because I thought I already owned my femininity, and I don’t need to work on it anymore. I needed to work on accepting my masculine. Apparently, I was wrong. In that workshop, I was confronted with all the shame I held in my femininity. Like many others, I cried through the whole workshop. This part of me that, as a gay man, I thought I boldly embodied, was still hiding behind a wall of shame. My feminine was not free. And my masculine certainly was not free. Like, what the fuck! And looking around the room, I certainly was not alone. There were people with all different identities in the room, and we were all releasing our shame.
There is shame for being too feminine, or the wrong kind of feminine. There is shame for being a man, being the wrong kind of masculine. Women must put on a suit, not because they like how it feels, but because it’s their professional armour. Men must be cautious with masculinity in fear of being labelled misogynist. Masculine gay men are considered more attractive. Feminine lesbians are considered more attractive. No one is free to just be.
To correct this the imbalance, many of the single women, we have interviewed in Sweden are conscious of working on and embracing their feminine. Likewise, many of the single men are conscious of being in and working on their mature masculine.
Imagine that you have your own unique sexual energy with your own unique notes of feminine, masculine and beyond – in shame you are turning down your volume or trying to muffle it so that no one hears. Then you wonder why you are attracting the wrong people, or not finding your person. Imagine what would happen if you tuned in to your unique sexual energy and turned that volume up?
There is so much I could say about femininity and masculinity but for the scope of this, I’ll leave it at that. Own it. The mature masculine. The divine feminine. Whatever the hell you call it. Own all of it.
The most single city in the world, or not?
Stockholm has been called the most single city in the world. According to Eurostat over half the homes in Sweden are single occupant homes. That’s pretty good stats for a matchmaking business right!? But… I’m not sure this is a reliable picture. Stockholm is also quite a wealthy city, where people can afford to live on their own. The average age to leave home in Sweden is 18-19 compared to 26 in Europe overall (Eurostat). People in Stockholm buy their first apartment in their 20s whilst in London the average age of a first-time buyer is 40 (from memory). Valuing one’s independence, people may also choose to have separate homes or share their separate homes. The stats are not about relationships it’s about living alone. In London lots of strangers live together to afford housing. In Sweden lots of people in relationships don’t live with their partner.
In relationships or not, there are lots of people living alone in Sweden. The value of independence in Swedish culture, means that one moves away from home early and learns to fend for oneself. Independence and solo living may be a factor contributing towards loneliness in Sweden, and this BBC article, adds a bit more colour to that. But whilst Sweden is notorious for being a cold and lonely country, stats from the same article suggests that only 5% of Swedes experienced frequent loneliness, lower than the 7% European average.
Loneliness is certainly an issue in Sweden, but perhaps it’s not so unique to Sweden.
Dating a Swede
Here are a few things to consider if you are a foreigner dating a swede:
- In Sweden, equality is a way of life, and we are keen to maintain this and will take a stance if you step out of line. Afterall, we have much further to go.
- Compliments on body can easily be seen as objectification… maybe just don’t. You have to be very mindful when complimenting appearance. Compliment qualities or character instead.
- Consent is sexy. Always ask for consent before getting up in someone’s space.
- If you like pushing the boundaries of political correctness with jokes, make sure you have the right audience.
- In Sweden people give each other space to speak in conversation, we don’t talk over each other. Make sure that you and your date both have space to share and that when one is sharing the other can fully receive.
- Swedes can sometimes find me harsh, whilst Londoners think I’m too soft. Early on in my relationship I threw an insult at my husband, as one does, and his reply was “I don’t think that was very kind”. Maybe the banter is a bit more mature with the Swedes?
Swedes are people too. Remember, they are more like you than they are different and if you are a foreigner, they might forgive you breaking a few of the cultural norms.
Final thought –
Sweden has progressed further in a direction most western countries are moving, towards equality. Sweden was early on the mission, leading the way, and other countries will follow in Sweden’s footsteps.
The equality fight is happening for a reason, it’s necessary! The benefits of the equality movement is evident – most relevant to us matchmakers, equality is undoubtably great for relationships. There are, naturally, some challenges as well, for example, working out the new normal and making new connections – both friendships and romantic relationships.
Sweden was, about 100 years ago, the poorest country in Europe and now it is one of the richest. Being a wealthy, stable, and safe country with lots of trust in the government, Swedes can be more independent, stand on their own and dare to take risks knowing they are protected. However, we can only go so far alone. We need our flock. We need close attachments. We need the safely of a loving community around us to thrive.
With this, we can go far from the nest knowing that we have it to come back to. It is not sustainable for all of us to be on our individual paths without our tribe. There is only so far you can go alone. I think this is the shift we are at now in society. The self-sufficient, independent, solo path is becoming less sexy. Instead, the importance of community is apparent. The need for close connections, a loving family, warm friendships, a loving partner, your tribe. We have come far alone and now we need to be connected again. That is how we go even further, together.