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

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.

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.

Such breakups, he says, constitute ``one of the most serious problems in Sweden today.'' He estimates that 45 to 50 percent of Swedish children are born to unmarried parents.

Cohabitation has virtually ceased to be an issue of ethical or religious concern here. ``The moral discussion happened in the '40s and '50s,'' says S"oren Kindlund of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. Now, he says, the issue of cohabitation has no particular ``moral dimension.''

Already, he says, cohabitants are treated like married people in the tax laws. State support for children is provided regardless of the parents' marital status. A special commission is now being formed expressly to remove all legal differences between cohabitation and marriage.

But there are indications that not all Swedes are content with this situation.

Ann-Cathrine Haglund, a member of parliament with the Moderate Party and chairwoman of her party's Women's Association, says the tide may be turning. ``I think marriage is becoming more popular.''

Her party, one of the two conservative parties that came close to ousting the Social Democrats in last September's elections, tends to frown on cohabitation. ``We think that marriage is the best system of living together,'' she says.

Birgit Skuncke agrees. Over dessert in her spacious older home in the suburb of Enebyberg, she said, ``There are many more people marrying now. Young people are engaged -- it is coming back again.''

Her architect husband, Jan, has serious concerns about the antimarriage trends in Sweden. He feels strongly that marriage, rather than cohabitation, provides the best environment for raising children.

But what effect a renewed enthusiasm for marriage would have on the number of children remains to be seen. Sweden, a nation where 78 percent of the women are in the work force, has a very low birthrate: 1.4 children per woman.

Despite immigration, the current generation of Swedes is no longer even replacing itself. This year, says Mr. Kindlund, the total population will probably decline for the first time since 1811.

Is America headed in Sweden's direction? On the surface, it might seem so: A falling US divorce rate and rising illegitimacy rate could signal that the now-stable rate of cohabitation in America (about 4 percent) is beginning to rise.

But there are several key distinctions. Sweden, unlike the US, has a long history of sexual liberality. It also has a firmly entrenched welfare-state system that tends to shift child-raising responsibilities away from the family and onto the state.

And unlike the United States, where (according to surveys by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago) more than 50 percent of the population goes to church once a month or more, only about 10 percent of the Swedes attend any kind of church service.

``Americans put an excessively high value on marriage,'' notes University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. ``It seems very unlikely that we will go the way of Sweden.''

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