ICELAND: A comparison between divorce in the U.S. and Iceland

(This article was originally published on January 1, 2009)
Filed in World Divorce News: Divorce in Iceland vs. Divorce in America

Reykjavik, Iceland: Icelanders are very happy people and they also have one of the highest divorce rates in the world. Divorce is no big deal in Iceland. Hardly the same is true in the United States. Nobody would describe America as being the happiest country in the World, probably; and no one would say we handle divorce all that fantastically, either .

Why are Icelanders so cool with divorce?

At least, I don’t think so. On the contrary, while we have the most material possession of all other countries in the world, studies show that Americans, by and large, are not all that happy.

As far as divorce in the U.S., not only is it generally a toxic experience for all concerned, but when some Americans get divorced, the court battles can become epic wars pretty quickly. If you have people (especially people with money) fighting over custody of the kids, the blood baths are possibly unmatched anywhere else in the world, and children are often trapped in the crossfires.

By contrast, according to John Carlin’s May 2008 article in UK Observer about Iceland, it’s not that way in Iceland.  Iceland is not only the happiest country in the world, it is reportedly the country with the least number of post-divorce custody battles, even though it has one of the highest divorce rates in the world.(Iceland also has one of the highest birth rates in the World as well.)   What gives? Something doesn’t seem to add up, does it?

It seems that the Icelanders, descendants of the Vikings, have always sort of been less uptight about matters of the heart and family than, say, Americans. Divorce has no stigma, because by and large, Iceland is a “Pagan” society where belief in religious deities is not the “norm” necessarily, and so, getting a divorce is strictly a civil matter and not “ecclesiastical” if you know what I mean. Thus, if a relationship does not work, Icelanders simply end it. They do not stay in “lousy relationships” out of fear of religious reprisal.  Calin says, “as the natives like to see it, [they are] unburdened by the taboos that generate so much distress elsewhere. That means they are practical people. Which, in turn, means lots of divorces [especially in Reykjavik].”

At the same time, joint custody is generally a foregone conclusion, post-matrimony. Post-divorce relationships generally lack the bile that is present in a lot of Western American divorces for some strange, but welcomed reason, in Iceland. Icelandic parents naturally share the kids with no issues and problems. They are very unlikely to use their children as pawns. Theirs is the original blended family, you might say. Says Carlin, “none of this happiness would be possible without the hardy self-confidence that defines individual Icelanders, which in turn derives from a society that is culturally geared – as its overwhelming priority – to bring up happy, healthy children, by however many fathers and mothers.”
According to Carlin, back when the Viking roamed the Nordic lava-land, when the men were away, the Icelandic women would play with their slaves and whomever else was available. When the man of the house returned, he happily accepted any spawn that resulted from his wife’s dalliances – without jealousy. As a result of all this ancestral programming, it seems jealousy is not in the Icelanders DNA. They are not likely to respond say, to adultery the way we would here. So chances are,  adultery would not be a basis for  a divorce in Iceland, as it is so often is in the United States. 
Icelanders would more likely get divorced only if they just were no longer making each other happy. And they will share the kids….Perhaps we Americans can learn valuable lessons from the Icelanders, at least with respect to how we handle our post-divorce custody issues.