Last month I had the pleasure of visiting Stockholm over a long weekend, and the city was positively abuzz with marriage. Sure, there was the royal wedding featuring Prince Carl Philip, Duke of Värmland, and Sofia Hellqvist that weekend, which drew much interest and caused parts of the city to be shut down for the festivities. But the ado about weddings wasn’t limited to the hustle and bustle of rubbernecking tourists and television crews in the inner city—that same day Stockholm’s famous Skansen outdoor museum hosted a drop-in wedding. A drop-in what, you say? Well, follow me like a leopard and find out:
Every year, in the month of June, Skansen celebrates the year’s most love-filled day. You are welcome to marry outdoors at the lovely Tingsvallen site on 13 June 2015 – and you don’t even need to book! The special ‘Wedding Entrance’ for couples wanting to marry is open from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon (10.00 – 15.00), but the ceremonies continue until everyone who has turned up before 15.00 has been married. The marriage ceremony can be held in English if desired.
Officiants are available for celebrating both civil and church weddings. Ceremonies take about ten minutes. There is a fee of 800 SEK for each couple.
In the wedding area you will find photographers, florists, make-up artist, nail stylist, and many other services. There is also a Champagne bar where you can buy drinks and couples can choose music in the song tent. Skansen’s fiddlers perform on the dance floor at Bollnästorget. Skansen’s restaurants have special wedding menus and people who want to enjoy the fresh air can order a picnic basket. Coffee and strawberries are also available. And there are special activities for children.
I don’t know how many couples participated that day, but there were long lines of them. While I am sure that some feel that such festivities violate notions of wedding decorum—e.g., it ought to focus on a single couple, be months in the planning, and cost the bride’s family a fortune—the drop-in wedding was a festive occasion, the backdrop unmatched, the weather unusually good, and it was a great bargain to boot: 800 SEK (about $90) for the ceremony, plus whatever other services were used—try getting a better deal anywhere in Scandinavia!
Fast forward a month, and (the absence of) Scandinavian marriages have arrived on US shores with a 2004 USA Today article titled “Nordic family ties don’t mean tying the knot” making the rounds in Utah-based media, pressed into service as a talking point in Mormon efforts to defend marriage. I first noticed the reference in the August 2015 “defense of marriage” issue of the Ensign as the source of a statistic cited by Elder Bruce C. Hafen in his article “The Proclamation on the Family: Transcending the Cultural Confusion”:
In parts of Scandinavia, 82 percent of firstborn children are born outside marriage.
Then the same statistic from the same article cropped up on Tuesday in a Desert News column pointing out “What defenders of traditional marriage may be forgetting”:
In Scandinavia, 82 percent of firstborn children are born outside marriage.
That this well-seasoned article would surface twice in quick succession in the sea of information at our fingertips is quite remarkable. Why are prominent authors in the Ensign and Deseret News hanging their hats on an eleven-year-old article from USA Today? Let me venture a guess. First, the authors of the DN column are likely Ensign readers, and Elder Hafen simply put the the statistic and its source back in circulation. Second, the cited statistic appears to neatly justify concerns expressed in both publications about the direction of society:
Ensign: “the children of divorced or unwed parents have about three times as many serious behavioral, emotional, and developmental problems as children in two-parent families. By every measure of child well-being, these children are far worse off. And when children are dysfunctional, society becomes dysfunctional.”
DN: “The largest threat to our society and to our economy is not the way people define marriage, but how enthusiastically and committedly they participate in it. Sadly, and particularly among the millennial generation, fewer and fewer get married while more and more choose the lower-commitment option of cohabitation.”
With this statistic carrying so much water, I decided to go ahead and read the article from whence it came. As I suspected, a little context goes a long way. Here are some excerpts:
In the USA, the percentage of children born to unwed mothers has more than tripled since 1970. But there’s still a stigma in the USA for women who have a child out of wedlock. Not so in the Nordic countries.
Traditional households headed by male wage earners have waned, giving way to everything from single-parent households to families that combine the children that parents have had together and with other partners.
In turning away from marriage, Scandinavians have done little to harm their quality of life. Norway ranked first and Sweden second in the United Nations’ quality-of-life survey for 2004, which rates per capital income, education levels, health care and life expectancy in measuring a nation’s well-being. The USA came in eighth.
Scandinavian people tend to see American views on marriage and children as conservative at best and hypocritical at worst, pointing out the high divorce rates in the USA.
Social welfare policies in Scandinavia treat all parents the same, married or not.
In Scandinavia, there is no “family values” debate, no soul-searching for ways to reverse the upward trend in divorces and separations. Instead, “the discussion has been more focused on how can we help people who want to split up? How can we make it easier for single parents?” she says. “It’s not that the government encourages it. They adapt to make it easier for single parents, single mothers.”
Of course, there is some concern among Christian groups about the shrinking number of married couples in Scandinavia. Some critics have raised questions about the impact on children of these relationships.
There is little religious pressure to get married. Even though there are state churches in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, few people go. Church attendance in Sweden, for example, is just 7% for men and 11% for women. (In the USA, 59% of people say they go to church or synagogue at least once a month.)
Unless society is defined narrowly in terms of Sabbath observance and wedding vows, that doesn’t sound dysfunctional to me. But you don’t have to go with my assessment or rely on a decade-old newspaper article for an argument; you—as well as the authors of well-researched articles appearing in the magazines and newspapers of record—can go right to the source of data on Swedish families and society (in English even!): Statistics Sweden.
Under “Population Statistics” you could find information on, for example, the “Number of persons by type of household, household status and sex” and discover that Swedes tend to live together in consensual unions, marriages or a registered partnerships. You could try to estimate the impact of unmarried parents on their offspring by looking at the living conditions of children and their families or viewing the results of surveys of children including their relationships with parents and friends and their health.
I believe you will find that the apocalypse is being ushered in elsewhere. As a former BCC perma and long-time resident of Scandinavia observes, “most of these children are born into legally-recognized households, not short-term hookups.” Just as the headline of 2004 article claims–Nordic family ties don’t mean tying the knot. Regardless of the marital status of their parents, children overwhelmingly report getting along well with their mothers and fathers, who have time for their children and allow them to take part in decisions that affect them. Swedish children overwhelmingly report being in good mental and physical health and believe they will live a comfortable life. In the absence of the blessing of the church and state, families still form ties and society still functions pretty well, in some respects likely even better than in the United States.
Now, it could very well be that the United States with its unique constellation of circumstances would be dysfunctional without its still relatively strong religious traditions and stigmatization of unwed mothers and children born out of wedlock. And maybe Sweden would be even better off if marriages played a greater role in establishing family relationships. But the Scandinavian experience suggests that family gate keeping–whether performed by civil or religious authorities–is not a universal glue necessary for holding society together. In fact, defending families in the sense of facilitating healthy relationships among relatives could be a function of practical public policies more so than principled positions on proper procedures.
Still, even if things appear to be muddling OK without widespread participation in the institution, the Scandinavian marriage is not yet facing extinction. Royal and drop in weddings may not be representative of the state of matrimony in Mother Svea, any more than the orphan statistic cited in the Deseret News and the Ensign is indicative of the big picture, but lawful unions in Sweden are actually on the rise:
So that ought to give those of us who find value in marriage encouragement, and I hope that the fruits of Scandinavian family-related practices will prompt us to think harder about what factors allow the family to flourish as we move forward to defend it.