The End of Marriage in Scandinavia
The "conservative case" for same-sex marriage collapses.
Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By STANLEY KURTZ
The taxes necessary to support the welfare state have had an enormous impact on the family. With taxes so high, women must work. This reduces the time available for child rearing, thus encouraging the expansion of a day-care system that takes a large part in raising nearly all Swedish children over age one. Here is at least a partial realization of Simone de Beauvoir's dream of an enforced androgyny that pushes women from the home by turning children over to the state.
Yet the Swedish welfare state may encourage traditionalism in one respect. The lone teen pregnancies common in the British and American underclass are rare in Sweden, which has no underclass to speak of. Even when Swedish couples bear a child out of wedlock, they tend to reside together when the child is born. Strong state enforcement of child support is another factor discouraging single motherhood by teens. Whatever the causes, the discouragement of lone motherhood is a short-term effect. Ultimately, mothers and fathers can get along financially alone. So children born out of wedlock are raised, initially, by two cohabiting parents, many of whom later break up.
There are also cultural-ideological causes of Swedish family decline. Even more than in the United States, radical feminist and socialist ideas pervade the universities and the media. Many Scandinavian social scientists see marriage as a barrier to full equality between the sexes, and would not be sorry to see marriage replaced by unmarried cohabitation. A related cultural-ideological agent of marital decline is secularism. Sweden is probably the most secular country in the world. Secular social scientists (most of them quite radical) have largely replaced clerics as arbiters of public morality. Swedes themselves link the decline of marriage to secularism. And many studies confirm that, throughout the West, religiosity is associated with institutionally strong marriage, while heightened secularism is correlated with a weakening of marriage. Scholars have long suggested that the relatively thin Christianization of the Nordic countries explains a lot about why the decline of marriage in Scandinavia is a decade ahead of the rest of the West.
Are Scandinavians concerned about rising out-of-wedlock births, the decline of marriage, and ever-rising rates of family dissolution? No, and yes. For over 15 years, an American outsider, Rutgers University sociologist David Popenoe, has played Cassandra on these issues. Popenoe's 1988 book, "Disturbing the Nest," is still the definitive treatment of Scandinavian family change and its meaning for the Western world. Popenoe is no toe-the-line conservative. He has praise for the Swedish welfare state, and criticizes American opposition to some child welfare programs. Yet Popenoe has documented the slow motion collapse of the Swedish family, and emphasized the link between Swedish family decline and welfare policy.
For years, Popenoe's was a lone voice. Yet by the end of the nineties, the problem was too obvious to ignore. In 2000, Danish sociologist Mai Heide Ottosen published a study, "Samboskab, Aegteskab og Foraeldrebrud" ("Cohabitation, Marriage and Parental Breakup"), which confirmed the increased risk of family dissolution to children of unmarried parents, and gently chided Scandinavian social scientists for ignoring the "quiet revolution" of out-of-wedlock parenting.
Despite the reluctance of Scandinavian social scientists to study the consequences of family dissolution for children, we do have an excellent study that followed the life experiences of all children born in Stockholm in 1953. (Not coincidentally, the research was conducted by a British scholar, Duncan W.G. Timms.) That study found that regardless of income or social status, parental breakup had negative effects on children's mental health. Boys living with single, separated, or divorced mothers had particularly high rates of impairment in adolescence. An important 2003 study by Gunilla Ringbäck Weitoft, et al. found that children of single parents in Sweden have more than double the rates of mortality, severe morbidity, and injury of children in two parent households. This held true after controlling for a wide range of demographic and socioeconomic circumstances.
THE DECLINE OF MARRIAGE and the rise of unstable cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbirth are not confined to Scandinavia. The Scandinavian welfare state aggravates these problems. Yet none of the forces weakening marriage there are unique to the region. Contraception, abortion, women in the workforce, spreading secularism, ascendant individualism, and a substantial welfare state are found in every Western country. That is why the Nordic pattern is spreading.
Yet the pattern is spreading unevenly. And scholars agree that cultural tradition plays a central role in determining whether a given country moves toward the Nordic family system. Religion is a key variable. A 2002 study by the Max Planck Institute, for example, concluded that countries with the lowest rates of family dissolution and out-of-wedlock births are "strongly dominated by the Catholic confession." The same study found that in countries with high levels of family dissolution, religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, had little influence.
British demographer Kathleen Kiernan, the acknowledged authority on the spread of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births across Europe, divides the continent into three zones. The Nordic countries are the leaders in cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births. They are followed by a middle group that includes the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, and Germany. Until recently, France was a member of this middle group, but France's rising out-of-wedlock birthrate has moved it into the Nordic category. North American rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth put the United States and Canada into this middle group. Most resistant to cohabitation, family dissolution, and out-of-wedlock births are the southern European countries of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece, and, until recently, Switzerland and Ireland. (Ireland's rising out-of-wedlock birthrate has just pushed it into the middle group.)
These three groupings closely track the movement for gay marriage. In the early nineties, gay marriage came to the Nordic countries, where the out-of-wedlock birthrate was already high. Ten years later, out-of-wedlock birth rates have risen significantly in the middle group of nations. Not coincidentally, nearly every country in that middle group has recently either legalized some form of gay marriage, or is seriously considering doing so. Only in the group with low out-of-wedlock birthrates has the gay marriage movement achieved relatively little success.
This suggests that gay marriage is both an effect and a cause of the increasing separation between marriage and parenthood. As rising out-of-wedlock birthrates disassociate heterosexual marriage from parenting, gay marriage becomes conceivable. If marriage is only about a relationship between two people, and is not intrinsically connected to parenthood, why shouldn't same-sex couples be allowed to marry? It follows that once marriage is redefined to accommodate same-sex couples, that change cannot help but lock in and reinforce the very cultural separation between marriage and parenthood that makes gay marriage conceivable to begin with.
We see this process at work in the radical separation of marriage and parenthood that swept across Scandinavia in the nineties. If Scandinavian out-of-wedlock birthrates had not already been high in the late eighties, gay marriage would have been far more difficult to imagine. More than a decade into post-gay marriage Scandinavia, out-of-wedlock birthrates have passed 50 percent, and the effective end of marriage as a protective shield for children has become thinkable. Gay marriage hasn't blocked the separation of marriage and parenthood; it has advanced it.
WE SEE THIS most clearly in Norway. In 1989, a couple of years after Sweden broke ground by offering gay couples the first domestic partnership package in Europe, Denmark legalized de facto gay marriage. This kicked off a debate in Norway (traditionally more conservative than either Sweden or Denmark), which legalized de facto gay marriage in 1993. (Sweden expanded its benefits packages into de facto gay marriage in 1994.) In liberal Denmark, where out-of-wedlock birthrates were already very high, the public favored same-sex marriage. But in Norway, where the out-of-wedlock birthrate was lower--and religion traditionally stronger--gay marriage was imposed, against the public will, by the political elite.
Norway's gay marriage debate, which ran most intensely from 1991 through 1993, was a culture-shifting event. And once enacted, gay marriage had a decidedly unconservative impact on Norway's cultural contests, weakening marriage's defenders, and placing a weapon in the hands of those who sought to replace marriage with cohabitation. Since its adoption, gay marriage has brought division and decline to Norway's Lutheran Church. Meanwhile, Norway's fast-rising out-of-wedlock birthrate has shot past Denmark's. Particularly in Norway--once relatively conservative--gay marriage has undermined marriage's institutional standing for everyone.
Norway's Lutheran state church has been riven by conflict in the decade since the approval of de facto gay marriage, with the ordination of registered partners the most divisive issue. The church's agonies have been intensively covered in the Norwegian media, which have taken every opportunity to paint the church as hidebound and divided. The nineties began with conservative churchmen in control. By the end of the decade, liberals had seized the reins.
While the most public disputes of the nineties were over homosexuality, Norway's Lutheran church was also divided over the question of heterosexual cohabitation. Asked directly, liberal and conservative clerics alike voice a preference for marriage over cohabitation--especially for couples with children. In practice, however, conservative churchmen speak out against the trend toward unmarried cohabitation and childbirth, while liberals acquiesce.
This division over heterosexual cohabitation broke into the open in 2000, at the height of the church's split over gay partnerships, when Prince Haakon, heir to Norway's throne, began to live with his lover, a single mother. From the start of the prince's controversial relationship to its eventual culmination in marriage, the future head of the Norwegian state church received tokens of public support or understanding from the very same bishops who were leading the fight to permit the ordination of homosexual partners.
So rather than strengthening Norwegian marriage against the rise of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth, same-sex marriage had the opposite effect. Gay marriage lessened the church's authority by splitting it into warring factions and providing the secular media with occasions to mock and expose divisions. Gay marriage also elevated the church's openly rebellious minority liberal faction to national visibility, allowing Norwegians to feel that their proclivity for unmarried parenthood, if not fully approved by the church, was at least not strongly condemned. If the "conservative case" for gay marriage had been valid, clergy who were supportive of gay marriage would have taken a strong public stand against unmarried heterosexual parenthood. This didn't happen. It was the conservative clergy who criticized the prince, while the liberal supporters of gay marriage tolerated his decisions. The message was not lost on ordinary Norwegians, who continued their flight to unmarried parenthood.
Gay marriage is both an effect and a reinforcing cause of the separation of marriage and parenthood. In states like Sweden and Denmark, where out-of-wedlock birthrates were already very high, and the public favored gay marriage, gay unions were an effect of earlier changes. Once in place, gay marriage symbolically ratified the separation of marriage and parenthood. And once established, gay marriage became one of several factors contributing to further increases in cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birthrates, as well as to early divorce. But in Norway, where out-of-wedlock birthrates were lower, religion stronger, and the public opposed same-sex unions, gay marriage had an even greater role in precipitating marital decline.
SWEDEN'S POSITION as the world leader in family decline is associated with a weak clergy, and the prominence of secular and left-leaning social scientists. In the post-gay marriage nineties, as Norway's once relatively low out-of-wedlock birthrate was climbing to unprecedented heights, and as the gay marriage controversy weakened and split the once respected Lutheran state church, secular social scientists took center stage.
Kari Moxnes, a feminist sociologist specializing in divorce, is one of the most prominent of Norway's newly emerging group of public social scientists. As a scholar who sees both marriage and at-home motherhood as inherently oppressive to women, Moxnes is a proponent of nonmarital cohabitation and parenthood. In 1993, as the Norwegian legislature was debating gay marriage, Moxnes published an article, "Det tomme ekteskap" ("Empty Marriage"), in the influential liberal paper Dagbladet. She argued that Norwegian gay marriage was a sign of marriage's growing emptiness, not its strength. Although Moxnes spoke in favor of gay marriage, she treated its creation as a (welcome) death knell for marriage itself. Moxnes identified homosexuals--with their experience in forging relationships unencumbered by children--as social pioneers in the separation of marriage from parenthood. In recognizing homosexual relationships, Moxnes said, society was ratifying the division of marriage from parenthood that had spurred the rise of out-of-wedlock births to begin with.
A frequent public presence, Moxnes enjoyed her big moment in 1999, when she was embroiled in a dispute with Valgerd Svarstad Haugland, minister of children and family affairs in Norway's Christian Democrat government. Moxnes had criticized Christian marriage classes for teaching children the importance of wedding vows. This brought a sharp public rebuke from Haugland. Responding to Haugland's criticisms, Moxnes invoked homosexual families as proof that "relationships" were now more important than institutional marriage.
This is not what proponents of the conservative case for gay marriage had in mind. In Norway, gay marriage has given ammunition to those who wish to put an end to marriage. And the steady rise of Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate during the nineties proves that the opponents of marriage are succeeding. Nor is Kari Moxnes an isolated case.
Months before Moxnes clashed with Haugland, social historian Kari Melby had a very public quarrel with a leader of the Christian Democratic party over the conduct of Norway's energy minister, Marit Arnstad. Arnstad had gotten pregnant in office and had declined to name the father. Melby defended Arnstad, and publicly challenged the claim that children do best with both a mother and a father. In making her case, Melby praised gay parenting, along with voluntary single motherhood, as equally worthy alternatives to the traditional family. So instead of noting that an expectant mother might want to follow the example of marriage that even gays were now setting, Melby invoked homosexual families as proof that a child can do as well with one parent as two.
Finally, consider a case that made even more news in Norway, that of handball star Mia Hundvin (yes, handball prowess makes for celebrity in Norway). Hundvin had been in a registered gay partnership with fellow handballer Camilla Andersen. These days, however, having publicly announced her bisexuality, Hundvin is linked with Norwegian snowboarder Terje Haakonsen. Inspired by her time with Haakonsen's son, Hundvin decided to have a child. The father of Hundvin's child may well be Haakonsen, but neither Hundvin nor Haakonsen is saying.
Did Hundvin divorce her registered partner before deciding to become a single mother by (probably) her new boyfriend? The story in Norway's premiere paper, Aftenposten, doesn't bother to mention. After noting that Hundvin and Andersen were registered partners, the paper simply says that the two women are no longer "romantically involved." Hundvin has only been with Haakonsen about a year. She obviously decided to become a single mother without bothering to see whether she and Haakonsen might someday marry. Nor has Hundvin appeared to consider that her affection for Haakonsen's child (also apparently born out of wedlock) might better be expressed by marrying Haakonsen and becoming his son's new mother.
Certainly, you can chalk up more than a little of this saga to celebrity culture. But celebrity culture is both a product and influencer of the larger culture that gives rise to it. Clearly, the idea of parenthood here has been radically individualized, and utterly detached from marriage. Registered partnerships have reinforced existing trends. The press treats gay partnerships more as relationships than as marriages. The symbolic message of registered partnerships--for social scientists, handball players, and bishops alike--has been that most any nontraditional family is just fine. Gay marriage has served to validate the belief that individual choice trumps family form.
The Scandinavian experience rebuts the so-called conservative case for gay marriage in more than one way. Noteworthy, too, is the lack of a movement toward marriage and monogamy among gays. Take-up rates on gay marriage are exceedingly small. Yale's William Eskridge acknowledged this when he reported in 2000 that 2,372 couples had registered after nine years of the Danish law, 674 after four years of the Norwegian law, and 749 after four years of the Swedish law.
Danish social theorist Henning Bech and Norwegian sociologist Rune Halvorsen offer excellent accounts of the gay marriage debates in Denmark and Norway. Despite the regnant social liberalism in these countries, proposals to recognize gay unions generated tremendous controversy, and have reshaped the meaning of marriage in the years since. Both Bech and Halvorsen stress that the conservative case for gay marriage, while put forward by a few, was rejected by many in the gay community. Bech, perhaps Scandinavia's most prominent gay thinker, dismisses as an "implausible" claim the idea that gay marriage promotes monogamy. He treats the "conservative case" as something that served chiefly tactical purposes during a difficult political debate. According to Halvorsen, many of Norway's gays imposed self-censorship during the marriage debate, so as to hide their opposition to marriage itself. The goal of the gay marriage movements in both Norway and Denmark, say Halvorsen and Bech, was not marriage but social approval for homosexuality. Halvorsen suggests that the low numbers of registered gay couples may be understood as a collective protest against the expectations (presumably, monogamy) embodied in marriage.
SINCE LIBERALIZING DIVORCE in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Nordic countries have been the leading edge of marital change. Drawing on the Swedish experience, Kathleen Kiernan, the British demographer, uses a four-stage model by which to gauge a country's movement toward Swedish levels of out-of-wedlock births.
In stage one, cohabitation is seen as a deviant or avant-garde practice, and the vast majority of the population produces children within marriage. Italy is at this first stage. In the second stage, cohabitation serves as a testing period before marriage, and is generally a childless phase. Bracketing the problem of underclass single parenthood, America is largely at this second stage. In stage three, cohabitation becomes increasingly acceptable, and parenting is no longer automatically associated with marriage. Norway was at this third stage, but with recent demographic and legal changes has entered stage four. In the fourth stage (Sweden and Denmark), marriage and cohabitation become practically indistinguishable, with many, perhaps even most, children born and raised outside of marriage. According to Kiernan, these stages may vary in duration, yet once a country has reached a stage, return to an earlier phase is unlikely. (She offers no examples of stage reversal.) Yet once a stage has been reached, earlier phases coexist.
The forces pushing nations toward the Nordic model are almost universal. True, by preserving legal distinctions between marriage and cohabitation, reining in the welfare state, and preserving at least some traditional values, a given country might forestall or prevent the normalization of nonmarital parenthood. Yet every Western country is susceptible to the pull of the Nordic model. Nor does Catholicism guarantee immunity. Ireland, perhaps because of its geographic, linguistic, and cultural proximity to England, is now suffering from out-of-wedlock birthrates far in excess of the rest of Catholic Europe. Without deeming a shift inevitable, Kiernan openly wonders how long America can resist the pull of stages three and four.
Although Sweden leads the world in family decline, the United States is runner-up. Swedes marry less, and bear more children out of wedlock, than any other industrialized nation. But Americans lead the world in single parenthood and divorce. If we bracket the crisis of single parenthood among African-Americans, the picture is somewhat different. Yet even among non-Hispanic whites, the American divorce rate is extremely high by world standards.
The American mix of family traditionalism and family instability is unusual. In comparison to Europe, Americans are more religious and more likely to turn to the family than the state for a wide array of needs--from child care, to financial support, to care for the elderly. Yet America's individualism cuts two ways. Our cultural libertarianism protects the family as a bulwark against the state, yet it also breaks individuals loose from the family. The danger we face is a combination of America's divorce rate with unstable, Scandinavian-style out-of-wedlock parenthood. With a growing tendency for cohabiting couples to have children outside of marriage, America is headed in that direction.
Young Americans are more likely to favor gay marriage than their elders. That oft-noted fact is directly related to another. Less than half of America's twentysomethings consider it wrong to bear children outside marriage. There is a growing tendency for even middle class cohabiting couples to have children without marrying.
Nonetheless, although cohabiting parenthood is growing in America, levels here are still far short of those in Europe. America's situation is not unlike Norway's in the early nineties, with religiosity relatively strong, the out-of-wedlock birthrate still relatively low (yet rising), and the public opposed to gay marriage. If, as in Norway, gay marriage were imposed here by a socially liberal cultural elite, it would likely speed us on the way toward the classic Nordic pattern of less frequent marriage, more frequent out-of-wedlock birth, and skyrocketing family dissolution.
In the American context, this would be a disaster. Beyond raising rates of middle class family dissolution, a further separation of marriage from parenthood would reverse the healthy turn away from single-parenting that we have begun to see since welfare reform. And cross-class family decline would bring intense pressure for a new expansion of the American welfare state.
All this is happening in Britain. With the Nordic pattern's spread across Europe, Britain's out-of-wedlock birthrate has risen to 40 percent. Most of that increase is among cohabiting couples. Yet a significant number of out-of-wedlock births in Britain are to lone teenage mothers. This a function of Britain's class divisions. Remember that although the Scandinavian welfare state encourages family dissolution in the long term, in the short term, Scandinavian parents giving birth out of wedlock tend to stay together. But given the presence of a substantial underclass in Britain, the spread of Nordic cohabitation there has sent lone teen parenting rates way up. As Britain's rates of single parenting and family dissolution have grown, so has pressure to expand the welfare state to compensate for economic help that families can no longer provide. But of course, an expansion of the welfare state would only lock the weakening of Britain's family system into place.
If America is to avoid being forced into a similar choice, we'll have to resist the separation of marriage from parenthood. Yet even now we are being pushed in the Scandinavian direction. Stimulated by rising rates of unmarried parenthood, the influential American Law Institute (ALI) has proposed a series of legal reforms ("Principles of Family Dissolution") designed to equalize marriage and cohabitation. Adoption of the ALI principles would be a giant step toward the Scandinavian system.
AMERICANS take it for granted that, despite its recent troubles, marriage will always exist. This is a mistake. Marriage is disappearing in Scandinavia, and the forces undermining it there are active throughout the West. Perhaps the most disturbing sign for the future is the collapse of the Scandinavian tendency to marry after the second child. At the start of the nineties, 60 percent of unmarried Norwegian parents who lived together had only one child. By 2001, 56 percent of unmarried, cohabiting parents in Norway had two or more children. This suggests that someday, Scandinavian parents might simply stop getting married altogether, no matter how many children they have.
The death of marriage is not inevitable. In a given country, public policy decisions and cultural values could slow, and perhaps halt, the process of marital decline. Nor are we faced with an all-or-nothing choice between the marital system of, say, the 1950s and marriage's disappearance. Kiernan's model posits stopping points. So repealing no-fault divorce, or even eliminating premarital cohabitation, are not what's at issue. With no-fault divorce, Americans traded away some of the marital stability that protects children to gain more freedom for adults. Yet we can accept that trade-off, while still drawing a line against descent into a Nordic-style system. And cohabitation as a premarital testing phase is not the same as unmarried parenting. Potentially, a line between the two can hold.
Developments in the last half-century have surely weakened the links between American marriage and parenthood. Yet to a remarkable degree, Americans still take it for granted that parents should marry. Scandinavia shocks us. Still, who can deny that gay marriage will accustom us to a more Scandinavian-style separation of marriage and parenthood? And with our underclass, the social pathologies this produces in America are bound to be more severe than they already are in wealthy and socially homogeneous Scandinavia.
All of these considerations suggest that the gay marriage debate in America is too important to duck. Kiernan maintains that as societies progressively detach marriage from parenthood, stage reversal is impossible. That makes sense. The association between marriage and parenthood is partly a mystique. Disenchanted mystiques cannot be restored on demand.
What about a patchwork in which some American states have gay marriage while others do not? A state-by-state patchwork would practically guarantee a shift toward the Nordic family system. Movies and television, which do not respect state borders, would embrace gay marriage. The cultural effects would be national.
What about Vermont-style civil unions? Would that be a workable compromise? Clearly not. Scandinavian registered partnerships are Vermont-style civil unions. They are not called marriage, yet resemble marriage in almost every other respect. The key differences are that registered partnerships do not permit adoption or artificial insemination, and cannot be celebrated in state-affiliated churches. These limitations are gradually being repealed. The lesson of the Scandinavian experience is that even de facto same-sex marriage undermines marriage.
The Scandinavian example also proves that gay marriage is not interracial marriage in a new guise. The miscegenation analogy was never convincing. There are plenty of reasons to think that, in contrast to race, sexual orientation will have profound effects on marriage. But with Scandinavia, we are well beyond the realm of even educated speculation. The post-gay marriage changes in the Scandinavian family are significant. This is not like the fantasy about interracial birth defects. There is a serious scholarly debate about the spread of the Nordic family pattern. Since gay marriage is a part of that pattern, it needs to be part of that debate.
Conservative advocates of gay marriage want to test it in a few states. The implication is that, should the experiment go bad, we can call it off. Yet the effects, even in a few American states, will be neither containable nor revocable. It took about 15 years after the change hit Sweden and Denmark for Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate to begin to move from "European" to "Nordic" levels. It took another 15 years (and the advent of gay marriage) for Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate to shoot past even Denmark's. By the time we see the effects of gay marriage in America, it will be too late to do anything about it. Yet we needn't wait that long. In effect, Scandinavia has run our experiment for us. The results are in.
Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His "Beyond Gay Marriage" appeared in our August 4, 2003, issue.