“Lad culture baffles him”: what it's like living with a Swedish boyfriend

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As Brits, we’ve been obsessed with all things Scandi for years – whether it’s Hygge, Nordic Noir or covetable design, we just can’t get enough. But perhaps most fascinating of all is the famed liberal attitude of our Northern neighbours. Can this sense of egalitarianism really translate to personal relationships?

Here, freelance writer Gwendolyn Smith, 25, charts the lessons she has learnt from three years of living with her Swedish boyfriend, Jonas, 27 – from an enthusiasm for cleaning to body acceptance and beyond. 

Swedish accessories are all the rage: think knitted jumpers, minimalist furniture and unflattering, yet apparently fashionable, frocks with weirdly-placed waistlines and impractical sleeves.

Ensconced on this ‘Scandwagon’, I’ve managed to procure all of these and more: along with the candles, the cardamom buns and the box set of The Killing, I’ve got a Scandinavian boyfriend.

In line with the current trend for treating all Nordic exports with roughly the same degree of reverence we’d extend to, say, a cure for cancer, or a plan to get The Great British Bake Off back on the BBC for good, friends and relatives find this immensely exciting.

As soon as they’ve learnt his name (Jonas), seen his hair (blonde) and heard his accent (Swedish), they start metaphorically – or, in my grandmother’s case, physically - patting me on the back for my supposedly wise choice in partner.

Surely, they assume, it’ll be hardwired into his DNA to do an equal share of the household chores? He wouldn’t consider banging on about acts of sexual depravity after a mutually exaggerated chat down the local with his mate Steve, right?

It’s fine, apparently, to make judgements based on crude cultural stereotypes if that stereotype is largely flattering, involving encouraging things like equality, Abba and Ikea meatballs.

Not all of these preconceptions translate into reality.

I haven’t yet come home to find Jonas serenely stirring aromatic pots of foraged mushrooms while simultaneously folding his fabulous collection of knitwear and performing a tender solo of Lay All Your Love On Me.

Yet there are still advantages to extending Scandimania to your love life. Granted, the biggest plus is the translation help. It’s always useful to have someone on hand to fill you in on the monumental plot development you missed on The Bridge when glancing away from the subtitles in order to extract a Malteaser from the packet.

However, there are other benefits too, if the prospect of watching Nordic Noir without having to furiously rewind every 10 minutes isn’t compelling enough. Here’s a few things I’ve learnt from my own Scandi relationship...

Equality at home

With its dedicated vocabulary for female masturbation (klittra, anyone?) and army of stay-at-home dads, Sweden is famous for its commitment to gender equality.

This isn’t unfounded. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2015 survey, which measures things such as female workplace participation, the gender pay gay, female political empowerment, health and education, Sweden ranked fourth behind Iceland, Norway and Finland. The UK came 18th.

Sweden’s stay-at-home dads, so commonplace in coffee shops they’ve earned the nickname ‘latte pappas’, are thanks to the country’s generous shared parental leave policies, which give parents 480 days of paid time off – three months each for the mother and father, with the rest to be shared as the couple choose.

In Sweden, it’s seen as manful to cook, clean and spend weekends de-scaling the kettle

While it is ludicrous to assume that a country’s international profile is mimicked in miniature in the outlook of every one of its citizens (hey, if we worked along those lines, Brits would unanimously be making impassioned pro-Brexit speeches and insisting that they never really liked Marmite that much, anyway), Jonas has so far proven an equality enthusiast. Especially, that is, when it comes to housework.

While my previous (British) conquests were willing to do chores, they tended to look to me for prompting, which was stupid, really, seeing as my interest in domesticity is strictly confined to watching Nigella on telly.

On the contrary, Jonas believes that household tasks are as much, if not more, his responsibility than they are mine.

This is probably because in Sweden, it’s seen as manful to cook, clean and spend weekends de-scaling the kettle and stitching elbow patches onto your favourite cardigans. It might also be because I cause devastation when attempting the most basic tasks. Still, with the current political climate rendering it necessary to proclaim a faint shaft of light a silver lining, I call it the former: an edge towards egalitarianism, and, for that matter, a powerful case for multiculturalism.

Embracing body positivity

The Scandinavians, with their reputation for wandering around starkers and skinny-dipping in hot springs, are known for being comfortable with their bodies. A fast-track induction into this mindset came on a swimming trip in Sweden, during which I was shunted into a changing room with Jonas’s mother, sister, grandmother, cousin and four aunts and told to strip. In Sweden, no crevice can go un-lathered when it comes to showering before a swim.

As British pool time all too often involves strange smells and indeterminate debris, this washing ritual can only be commended. My only point of reference is swimming trips with my mum, the changing element of which entails the two of us shuffling awkwardly underneath towels the size of army parachutes while she hisses variations on the phrase, 'Are my thighs bigger or smaller than the lady’s in the turquoise bathing costume?'. We would forgo the chips from the swim cafe in the fug of self-loathing that followed.

But in Sweden, undressing took place with cheerful abandon. 

I’ve got a few more swimming trips under my belt since then. Yes, Smith holiday snaps are still more likely to feature antiquarian urns than my own abs, but I’ve come to accept that bodies are not, by default, repulsive lumps suitable for public viewing only after a full bank holiday weekend spent being starved, shaved, pumiced, plucked and waxed into submission. (Cognitive dissonance klaxon: that flawless Scandinavian complexion doesn’t come from stressing about stretch marks and dwelling on deforesting your mons pubis, you know.)

I’ve come to accept that bodies are not, by default, repulsive lumps.

How does this openness translate to our relationship? Despite an impressively comprehensive range of insecurities, I’ve never felt particularly body conscious around boyfriends. Momentary wobbles on this are vanquished by memories of my mother saying, ‘No one will notice - and if they’re coming that close they shouldn’t care anyway’ in response to my teenage assertion that a pimple on my left earlobe would preclude my attendance of the school disco.

Still, it’s bracing to be with someone unconcerned with prescribed notions of how bodies should look: a man to whom misery over muffin tops translates as a complaint with his cooking.

Losing the lads

I met Jonas at university, where lad culture, along with middle class angst and complicated relationships with alcohol, breeds wildly. Most of the men I knew were committed to shaking it off, with varying degrees of success.

There were the frontrunners, who listened to Woman’s Hour and berated oafish oddballs who’d bellow things like ‘I’d like to split her in two!’ whenever an attractive woman came on the television. Then there were more muddled types, who spent tutorials pontificating about feminist literary theory but still incorporated whacking your face with their wang into their sexual repertoire.

Jonas stood apart from these groups: to him, lad culture seemed as much of a baffling British institution as Jeremy Clarkson and Jaffa Cakes.

It’s seen as deeply uncool to be old-fashioned or sexist by Swedish millennials

Sweden’s not quite a sexism-free sanctuary yet, but laddishness enjoys less prominence there. Misogynistic jokes don’t cut it, for one. A Stockholmer told me that he and his friends don’t find a lot of British comedians funny because they were turned off by the sexist banter. Indeed, it’s seen as deeply uncool to be old-fashioned or sexist by Swedish millennials, which must, in some part, be down to having equality instilled from a young age - nursery teachers are university educated and clued up about progressive gender roles.

Conversations about feminism are central to society and Sweden’s still working to improve the situation: it was recently announced that every 16-year-old in the country would be given a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. The country also made global news headlines last week when its largest union launched a hotline to call out mansplaining.

It might be down to this cultural background. Or, perhaps it’s merely the result of a childhood rich in influential female figures (see the aforementioned four aunts) and the power ballads of Annie Lennox.

Either way, Jonas didn’t show any signs of viewing women as alien sperm receptacles post 9pm, and has never, to my knowledge, uttered the word clunge.

Reader, I didn’t marry him, but we are still bombing through box set after box set of bleak Nordic Noir together. I haven’t once had to press the rewind button.