The most developed countries point to the future. Where they are going, less developed countries inevitably follow. That is true of urbanization, technology, religion, infrastructure, health, life expectancy, and family size to name a few. It is also true of marriage.
What is happening to marriage in developed countries?
Marriage is in sharp decline in most developed countries according to various objective indices. Fewer young people are marrying before living together. In France, Sweden, and other advanced social democracies, the number of young women aged 25-30 who cohabit exceeds the number who are married (1). Single motherhood is soaring and divorce rates are sky high with two-thirds of marriages dissolving in some countries.
Such statistics can be misleading, however. In Sweden, for example, most children spend their early years under the same roof as both of their parents. This is not really a case of single parenthood. It is more a question of couples who live together and raise children not bothering to get married.
Why do so many Swedish parents avoid marrying? As far as they are concerned, marriage is little more than a piece of paper. It is not worth undertaking because it has so little practical consequences for their lives. This perspective may involves a recognition that so many marriages end in divorce. It may also have aspects of antipathy to religion - and therefore religious weddings – in a society that is predominantly secular.
In Sweden, men do not need to marry to have sex with women they love, as was true several generations ago. For their part, women do not see marriage as providing any protections, or privileges, that are not already available to single women. Sexual relationships can be satisfying without being formalized or forever. No one is trapped in an unhappy marriage.
On the economic side, a generous welfare state ensures that their children are well provided for whatever the fate of the marriage. Likewise, men are on the hook for child support for children they have fathered and the government collects payment aggressively unlike in the U.S. where payment is patchy. On the emotional side, simply being married provides no sense of permanence given that most marriages are dissolved anyway. So European parents see no benefit of marriage for themselves. What of their offspring?
What about the children?
Apologists for marriage, like David Blankenthorn (2) continue to make a moral argument: even if marriage is in decline one ought to promote it because it is good for children. Yet, the benefits of marriage for children are frequently overstated.
One issue is that marriage has virtually died out amongst the poorer segments of the U.S. population thanks to a dismal job market for low-income men. So marriage persists mainly as a middle class phenomenon (1). Comparisons of children raised by single mothers with those of two-parent families are inevitably a contrast between children raised in poverty and those raised in comparative affluence. So of course there are more social and educational problems among children raised by single mothers.
Such problems are not seen elsewhere. Children in Sweden do fine at school and have relatively few problems with drug addiction, crime, or teenage childbearing. This is despite the fact that their parents are often unmarried. Married parents also frequently separate before the children finish high school. The main reason for their good outcomes is because they are raised in comfort in safe neighborhoods and attend good schools. It has nothing to do with the marital status of their parents. They do, of course, benefit from the support of two doting parents rather than one during the early years.
So the picture from Sweden, and Europe in general, is very different from the U.S. Marriage is disappearing because there is no perceived need for it and because its absence does not handicap children in any discernible way, except that they are less likely to marry themselves. Of course, this is not a handicap there although it might be perceived as such in this country.
As the world becomes more affluent, it is likely that the European style of democracy will prevail and child poverty will diminish. If so, we can expect marriage to decline throughout the world in much the same way that religion is doing and for the same reason, namely an improved standard of living for the majority, children included (3).
1. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. http://www.amazon.com/Science-Romance-Secrets-Sexual-Brain/dp/B005ZOHKLI/
2. Blankenthorn, D. (2007). The future of marriage. New York: Encounter Books.
3. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/