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Following Europe's lead? In Sweden, marriage slowly fades

By SeriesRushworth M. Kidder / November 29, 1985


After 30 years in the crucible of social change, marriage in America is being recast in new and different molds. What shape will it take? A clue to its future may lie in trends in other industrialized countries.

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On one end of the scale, Sweden's long history of cohabitation is rapidly overtaking marriage, causing some commentators to ask whether American marriage is headed toward a Swedish model.

In sharp contrast, Britain preserves a more traditional sense of marriage which resembles, in some ways, the American experience of prior decades.

And between these poles, France is struggling to increase its birthrate -- in the face of increasing levels of cohabitation that militates against marriage and childbearing.

Monitor staff writer Rushworth M. Kidder recently visited Stockholm, Paris, and London. His reports follow. HERE in this bustling city of bright, clean stores, you can't find a bridal shop anywhere -- except in the immigrant areas.

Swedes in vast numbers have turned away from the institution of marriage. Nowadays, says Prof. Lars Jalmert of the University of Stockholm, ``the concept of marriage is not very important.'' But, he adds, ``the relationships are.''

The ``relationship'' that is replacing marriage in Sweden is long-term cohabitation. Already, some 60 percent of young people aged 20 to 24 are living with a partner outside marriage.

Until recently, Professor Jalmert was among them. Jalmert, a slender man dressed in jeans and an open-necked shirt, explained in his book-lined office here that he and his wife finally married when their two children approached school age.

The reason for the marriage: fear that if they ever separated, the children would not be as well cared for under Swedish law as they would be if the parents were married.

Cohabitation has been growing in this country famous for its liberal attitudes on sexual relations. For example:

From 1950 to 1982, while the overall population grew more than 15 percent, the number of marriages fell by about 30 percent. Sweden's 1982 marriage rate of 4.5 marriages per 1,000 people was less than half that of the United States, at 10.6 per 1,000.

Conversely, the percentage of unmarried Swedes is rising steadily. About one-quarter of the men aged 30 to 39 were unmarried in 1972 -- rising to more than 40 percent in 1981. If these trends continue, American sociologist Kingsley Davis observes wryly, ``Swedish men aged 30 to 39 would be 100 percent unmarried by 1997.''

They are not, however, living alone. Instead, they are forming long-term partnerships. `The nuclear family is very, very common in Sweden,'' says Ylva Ericsson, who edited a report on equality between Swedish men and women presented at the United Nations Women's Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, last summer. In Sweden, she says, 82 percent of the children live with both biological parents.

One result: few divorces. Divorce has dropped sharply from the peak years of 1974 and '75. The divorce rate is now just over half that of the US.

But that figure is deceptive, researchers say. It doesn't take into account the family breakups among cohabiting couples -- which don't show up in the official divorce figures. David Popenoe, a sociologist from Rutgers University doing research at the University of Stockholm on the Swedish family, says the rate of family breakup here is larger than in the US.