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Love & Marriage: Scandinavian style

A new myth about the Nordic countries has been born, joining the ranks of the popular perception abroad that Scandinavians practice “free-love.”

Photographed by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin
Will wedding bells stop ringing?

The new myth is that the institution of marriage is disappearing. Researcher Stanley Kurz raised the red flag a couple of years ago, when he claimed in the influential conservative journal The Weekly Standard that marriage is slowly dying in Scandinavia. “A majority of children in Sweden and Norway are born out of wedlock. Sixty percent of first-born children have unmarried parents,” Kurz declared. Not only that, but Sweden is singled out as “the world leader in family decline”. USA Today echoed these sentiments recently, suggesting that “marriage in parts of Scandinavia is dying.”
These obituaries sound ominous. One assumes that there are tens of thousands of abandoned children wandering the streets of Stockholm and Helsinki, neglected and unloved, while the only people getting married, presumably, are romantically-minded gay couples. Of course, statistics are open to interpretation. My personal reaction to Kurz’ claim—as someone who has lived and worked in Sweden since 1986—was amazement. In the first place, I wondered why the American researcher would be so worried about marital bliss, or the lack thereof, among people living on the roof of Europe.
About half of my Swedish friends with children are not formally married. But these unmarried couples are all in ordinary family relationships, no better or worse than the relationships of couples I know who are married. Unmarried Dad takes turns with Mom in picking Junior up from the day-care center each afternoon. Neither Mom nor Dad wants to go to their kid’s school parent night, but they finally reach a compromise. Some of these unmarried couples decide eventually to have a wedding, if only as an excuse to have a big party.

No stigma
In fact, the argument by Kurz and other researchers in the USA that marriage is dying in Scandinavia is debatable. The Nordic Statistical Yearbook 2004 comes to the opposite conclusion: “Overall, the number of marriages in the Nordic countries has increased since 1990 but with very individual patterns and fluctuations among the different countries” This statistical bible goes on to say that “the total number of divorces in the Nordic countries has been quite stable from 1990 to 2004.”
How can this discrepancy be explained? Who can one believe? Perhaps the great British statesman Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) had a point when he remarked: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Part of the confusion may be a question of definition. What exactly is a marriage? Is marriage a church wedding, a civil marriage, a legal declaration of partnership, or simply a long-term cohabitation? In any event, critics like Kurz are correct when they note that a lot of children are born to unmarried parents in this region.
The conservative pundit underplays the fact, however, that the “out of wedlock” concept, which has a decidedly negative ring to it in America, simply doesn’t exist over here in Scandinavia. There is no stigma attached to what Americans consider “out-of-wedlock” parenthood. Nor are there real legal or economic disadvantages to people in common-law marriages, or their offspring.

“Sambo” and “avoliitto”
The man or woman in an unregistered partnership is referred to as one’s “sambo” in Sweden or as an “avoliitto” in Finland. These terms do not have derogatory connotations. It is also relevant to remember that domestic life and marriage customs are not set in concrete, but have in fact changed and developed over the centuries. For example, the whole idea of the central importance of love to marriage apparently didn’t exist until medieval times. Twelfth century troubadours are given the credit for popularizing the notion of courtly love as we know it today.
One thing that makes marriage special in Scandinavia, compared to North America, is that Scandinavians frequently wait to marry until after they have had one or more children—hence the statistics about children born “out of wedlock.” People in the Nordic region regard legal marriage as a serious step, but not more serious than having a loving, long-term relationship, or parenthood.
“The marriage ceremony is fine, but it is hardly a priority,” says unmarried and six-months pregnant model Maria Rhodin, 27, who appears on the cover of this issue of Nordic Reach. Maria has at this writing been living with father-to-be David Dalmo, a member of the successful “Bounce” dance company, for 1 year and three months. “The main thing for us is that our relationship works, and we will fight just as much to make it work whether or not we are married,” Maria says.
Marriage is a contract and a symbolic commitment to remain together forever; at the same time, it is an expression of love. These ideals of stability, love, and commitment haven’t gone out of style, even in progressive and liberal Scandinavia. “The biological, nuclear family and true love are still very popular as ideals, and people are getting married more now than they did five years ago,” according to Berthe Linddal Hansen, a researcher at the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies.
It can be difficult, however, to realize the dream. How does one reconcile ideals of the traditional family with other drives for individual fulfillment and self-realization? This is one reason people are waiting until they are older to settle down, have children and possibly marry. “In Scandinavia individual freedom is valued so high. The trend is very much for individualism. You have your destiny in your own hands and can do anything you want. But if you have a family you have to give up the ski holiday together with the guys. Or you have to give up the chance for continuing your education, or running in the marathon, because you have to spend time with the family.”
One result of this individualism vs. community conflict is that nearly half of all Danish marriages end in divorce. “But the funny thing is, as soon as people get divorced they start to hunt for a new partner. It is like one is hunting for the forever soul-mate. But this soul-mate goal may be a utopia, if you still have this idea of developing as an individual without sacrificing any of your personal ambitions,” the Danish researcher reflects.
Despite the high divorce rate in Scandinavia, many marriages are actually lasting longer. “The prognosis for marriage duration has gotten better,” says Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen of Denmark’s National Social Research Institute, “We can see that marriages entered in 1990 collapsed at a much slower tempo than in 1980,” Christoffersen recently remarked to a Danish newspaper.

Marriage as an afterthought
Scandinavians seem to be waiting longer to get divorced, and waiting longer to get married. Swedish attorney David Sommerstad, 30, and his common-law-wife Malin Larsson, 30, are typical of those who are in no rush to go to the alter. This couple, which recently had their first child after living together for some 12 years, plans to get married July 23 in Nyköping. “I don’t know why we decided to do this just now, but it felt right to do it this summer,” says David, holding nine-month-old daughter Frederika against his shoulder.
Similarly, art historian Eline Meyer of Oslo, who plans to wed in April, says that official marriage is no longer necessary to prove that a relationship will last: “The decision that my intended and I would share our lives was taken as soon as we became sweethearts. There was no doubt in my mind, at least, that this relationship would last.”
Eline, who has been living with her life-partner Morten Størseth for eight years, will be married in a church in April The couple’s children, ages 3 and 6, are also looking forward to the ceremony: “The youngest believes that all four of us are getting married,” says Eline. One reason that this Norwegian couple has waited so long to wed is they had been living in a housing collective with friends, and were busy completing their higher education. Now they have an apartment of their own, and their children are a bit older. “Now, we want to get married to celebrate our relationship and our love, get the church’s blessing as well, and in order to sort out some legal issues with respect to the children.”
But why get married now, after two children? “It’s just that we’re not as busy as we were before. Children, at least the first one, and the purchase of a house are the first priorities, and when everything is sorted out one can celebrate oneself, and have a [wedding] party afterwards,” she explains. Is marriage dead in Scandinavia? “No way,” says the Norwegian bride-to-be.
To many Americans, the widespread Nordic practice of waiting until one has a child or two to get married—or not getting formally married at all—seems strange. But there are various reasons Scandinavian couples decide to wait. Putting a priority on education, career, or buying an apartment are some of the reasons. The high cost of a traditional wedding is another. “If you have children you may not be able to afford to get married. A wedding can be very expensive,” observes soon-to-be-married Malin Larsson of Sweden, currently on paid parental leave to take care of her young daughter.
Weddings in Scandinavia have been becoming increasingly elaborate and expensive, often costing over USD 9,000 for the entire shindig. The high cost of church weddings is a major reason that majority of couples in Denmark now choose a civil ceremony instead of a church wedding. Danish Bishop Jan Lindhard says that the church is seen as very distinguished, “with no escape from the big dress and the flower maids and a terribly expensive arrangement.” “I wish we could scale down those weddings, so that everyone could afford them,” he told a Danish newspaper early this year.

Changing rituals
Wedding rituals in Scandinavia are continuously changing, influenced by practices in other parts of the world. “Nowadays, it has become fashionable for the father to hand over the bride. This isn’t a Scandinavian custom, but is something that people have picked up from watching American TV programs,” according to Yvonne Hirdman, professor of history at Stockholms University. Another new imported trend is the practice of placing gifts on the table for guests at the wedding banquet. “That is another new custom that comes from America,” says Anna Lundgren, editor-in-chief of bridal magazine and internet site Bröllopsguiden.
The fact that Scandinavia is a more secular society than America, that daycare is readily available to working parents, and that government polices actively encourage equality between the sexes all contribute to the widespread pattern here of uncertified or delayed marriage. Women don’t feel so insecure about their future, or dependant upon a male “breadwinner” for her financial security. Mom and her children enjoy a safety net provided by the state, and the woman in the family may well earn more money than the man in her life.
High quality public heath care at little or no cost contributes to the sense of freedom and security among women. Paid parental leave and subsidized daycare are also readily available. In Norway, for example, parents of infants 1 to 2 years old who do not use subsidized childcare receive a tax-free payment which last year amounted to NOK 3,657 (nearly 600 dollars) per month.
The sense of security afforded by generous social policies partly explains why birth rates are relatively high in the Nordic countries despite a very high female participation in the labor force. It is easier here for women to combine childbearing and employment, if they choose to do so. “The development from about the mid-1980s with rising fertility in all Nordic countries caught the attention of researchers and politicians far beyond the region. The reason, of course, is that this pattern was in sharp contrast to the experience of most other European countries,” according to Marit Ronson of Norway, writing in the August 2004 issue of “Demographic Research.”

The controversy of same-sex marriage
But why has the propensity of Scandinavians to have children–inside or outside of matrimony–suddenly emerged as a hot topic in the USA? After all, the survival of marriage is not an issue here in Scandinavia. The reason for the sudden interest abroad in Scandinavian matrimony, it turns out, has to do with domestic politics in the United States. In his oft-quoted essay “The End of Marriage in Scandinavia,” Kurz argues that the widespread Nordic practice of having children out of wedlock is partly a consequence of the fact that the equivalent of gay marriage has been permitted in Scandinavia for a decade or more. Denmark led the pack in this regard, legalizing de facto gay marriage in 1989.
“Out-of-wedlock birthrates were rising; gay marriage has added to the factors pushing those rates higher,” Kurz writes. “Instead of encouraging a society-wide return to marriage, Scandinavian gay marriage has driven home the message that marriage itself is outdated, and that virtually any family form, including out-of-wedlock parenthood, is acceptable.” Single-sex marriage is a controversial and polarizing issue in the United States, where it played a prominent role in the recent presidential election debate over family values. Scandinavia is thus used as a warning example for Americans. But from the perspective of most Scandinavians, to claim that gay partnerships have had a negative effect on the institution of marriage seems bizarre and divorced from reality.
“Gay marriage has had little or no impact on heterosexual marriage,” states Frode Lagset, 33, one of eight Canons at Oslo Cathedral in Norway. He is unequivocal in stating this opinion. The Norwegian clergyman is more amused than concerned when asked if the institution of marriage itself is living on borrowed time in Scandinavia: “No, we don’t think that marriage is disappearing. In the 1970s there was a change in that we saw an increasing number of divorces. But the numbers have been stabilized. People are marrying later in life than before, but they are still marrying,” the Norwegian priest told Nordic Reach during an interview in the cathedral’s sacristy. “What we are seeing is a sort of religious revival. This is not specifically Christian in a traditional way, but people are openly speaking about spiritual questions,” Canon Lagset observes.
The increased interest in spirituality is apparently also a trend in neighboring Denmark, where a recent survey showed the share of 13- to 16-year-olds who say they believe in God leaped from 43 percent to 51 percent during the past five years. A survey of 1,200 teenagers by the Center of Youth Studies and Religious Pedagogy (CUR) showed external threats, such as the tsunami catastrophe in Asia and the threat of terrorism, had affected their spiritual lives, the Copenhagen Post reported. Because Scandinavia has a long history of progressive social policies, as well as sky-high taxes, it is convenient to paint societies in this region as model socialist utopias, or alternatively, as immoral godless hells, depending upon one’s political orientation. But reality is much more complex than that.

Accepting attitudes early on
The willingness to accept so-called “open unions” or “uncertified marriages” in the Nordic countries has been under way for a very long time, many decades before the term “same-sex marriage” was even coined. In Finland, for example, attitudes to marriage started to change substantially after World War II. During the period 1950 to 1984, there was a sharp increase in the number of unmarried couples.
“Since the late 1960s, the practice of cohabitation had become increasingly common, so much so that by the late 1970s most marriages in urban areas grew out of what Finns called ‘open unions,’ according to the Encyclopedia of Women’s History. This trend continued into the 1980s. When the partners in such unions married, the reference book observes, they usually did so because of “the arrival of offspring or the acquisition of property.”
In Finland, as in the rest of the Nordic countries, young people have much more freedom of choice in terms of education and career than their parents or grandparents. Women in particular are no longer as dependant upon the men in their lives for financial security, and many remain single for longer periods. “Lots of guys and girls want to study, have their careers, just want be independent and enjoy their lives. People are getting older and older before they find a suitable person with whom they can live,” says Hanna Happanen, brand manager for Finnish design company Iittala.
Hanna met her own mate Mikki, a musician with the pop/rock group “Egotrippi,” some five years ago, and the couple is now awaiting their first child. Does she plan to get married? “No, not for now. In my reference group, most of my girlfriends are unmarried but they live with a man, so I think that is quite normal,” she explains.
In Finnish, the spouse in an open marriage is called “avoliitto ,” which is very close to the word used to describe a married person, “avioliitto.” The root of both words is “liitto” which means union. An “avoliitto” isn’t a fiancé, because there is no intent to marry, and one doesn’t wear a ring. But one shares the cost of running the joint household, shares responsibility for childraising, and monogamy is still part of the deal. The same state of affairs applies, of course, to the Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish counterparts to “avoliitto.”
Whatever one calls it, the ideals symbolized by marriage are as potent as ever, even in the Nordic countries.
After Finnish artist Heta Kuchka broke up after a 4-year relationship last summer, she expressed her feelings in a series of self-portrait wedding photos: “The wedding pictures are about grief. It is kind of like mocking the symbolism of the sacred wedding picture, and taking back the future that I didn’t have with this man that I loved,” the artist explains in a phone interview. In the series of photos, exhibited this Spring at Galleri Heino in Helsinki, one can see Heta in wedding dress and with the traditional bouquet of red roses, together with six different gentlemen, who are actually old friends or acquaintances to which she “proposed.” The project, the artist explains, was a sort of therapy for her. When it comes to marriage, she can say: “Been there, done that.” Says the artist: “I am not sure what my own wedding pictures will actually look like some time in the future. To me getting married just means finding someone to be with, and to be loved, and of course that is something that everyone wants.”

Written by David Bartal

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