July 18, 2005


Sweden's 'marriage lite' gets closer examination

A story published today in USA Today reports that the rise of cohabitation in the USA has prompted those who track the state of American marriages and families to take a closer look at Sweden, where unmarried, opposite-sex partners routinely live together.

Slightly more than 8% of coupled households in the USA are cohabiting heterosexuals; in Sweden, it's 28%.

Although more Americans marry, they divorce in larger numbers. In Sweden, fewer marry, but the divorce rate is lower, according to a report to be released today by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

Sociologist David Popenoe, the project's co-director, contrasts family life in these two countries as part of The State of Our Unions 2005, an annual report that analyzes new data from the Census Bureau and other sources.

He calls Sweden's version of cohabitation "marriage lite."

"They think of themselves as essentially married, but they haven't gone through the ceremony," Popenoe says.

The USA isn't quite there yet, but increasing numbers of cohabiting couples are affecting marriage and divorce rates, which have both been on the downswing, he says.

The U.S. divorce rate is 17.7 per 1,000 married women. It was 22.6 in 1980 when the decline began. The marriage rate also has dropped - 50% since 1970 - to 39.9 per 1,000 unmarried women.

The report notes that though the U.S. divorce rate has been steadily declining, the Swedish divorce rate has been increasing.

Still, in the USA, the risk of divorce is high; almost half of all couples marrying today face the prospect. Many Americans of marriageable age, especially those in their 20s and 30s, see a caution light when approaching the altar; they view cohabitation as a prerequisite to marriage.

Popenoe says living together is often chosen by a child of divorce and reflects a lower commitment relationship than marriage.

"People get in the habit of expecting relationships to be low-commitment ones that they can easily get out of," Popenoe says.

"Then they get into marriage and, if they have that attitude, it's probably the biggest reason the divorce rate is so high. People lack the commitment to marriage that once existed."

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey shows that of the USA's more than 5 million households of unmarried heterosexual couples, almost 2 million have children under age 18 living there. That's about 40% of such couples.

They're the ones Popenoe worries about, because unmarried partners who live together have higher breakup rates than those who tie the knot. That shaky family structures is placing a growing number of American children in an increasingly unstable family situation, he says.

The Marriage Project, which tracks social trends affecting marriage, was founded in 1997. Its first report was released in 1999.

Though cohabitation has been considered in previous reports, the fact that so many more Americans are living together instead of marrying, and more also remain single, means cohabitation has become a significant factor that must be considered in portraying family stability, Popenoe says.