During pre-Christian times the process of becoming husband and wife was a five-step process following the courtship period. The first step was the betrothal, when what was already known was announced: the couple was going to marry. The second step was the marriage ceremony, when the father of the bride gave the bride to the groom and the bride's parents gave a party. The third step was the trip from the bride's home to the groom's home, which was dangerous because of the risk of bandits. The fourth step was the wedding party to which all important persons—friends and relatives of the bride's parents—were invited. The final step was the bedding, when the guests at the wedding party followed the newly married couple home and watched them go to bed (Carlsson 1965). The two were now a married couple.
These pre-Christian rules remained intact for several centuries after Christianity became the official religion. The pope sent papal bulls to the bishops demanding them to keep order, get rid of pre-Christian habits, and introduce the Christian ceremonies, but the changes took a long time.
For centuries, the mortality rate was high—especially for men—and therefore the marriage rate was much lower for women than for men; far more women than men never married. That contrasts with the twentieth century: By 1960 the marriage rate was higher than ever before.
However, the marriage rate suddenly decreased in Sweden the mid-1960s (see Figure 1). The decrease in the marriage rate was much more gradual in other Scandinavian countries, and did not appear until the early 1970s.
During the 1960s, many changes followed the relatively calm (for Scandinavia) postwar period. For example, the Vietnam War became a major political issue, neo-Marxists criticized the model nuclear family as well as marriage, and new contraceptives became available and socially acceptable. In Sweden, there was no need to import labor because many housewives could enter the labor market.
Criticism against traditional family and marriage resulted in the then-radical idea of cohabiting without marrying (Trost 1980). Not until the mid-1970s was it clear that nonmarital cohabitation had arrived as a social institution. Initially, cohabitation was a deviant phenomenon, but it rapidly became so common that eventually almost no couple married without having cohabited for some time (see Figure 2). Some couples moved in together early in the courtship period, some later, but virtually no one waited until they married to live together. For some couples, nonmarital cohabitation is premarital cohabitation, whereas others have no intention to ever marry.
Another way of showing the impact upon cohabitation is to look at the number of children born to unmarried women. Before the changes, about 10 percent of all children born were born by unmarried women. In 1975, this had increased to 32 percent, 46 percent in 1985, 53 percent in 1995, and 55 percent in 2000. The other Scandinavian countries have followed the same trend, although at a slower pace (Befolkningsförändringar).
Thus, nonmarital cohabitation became a social institution alongside marriage in Scandinavian society. Viewing that society longitudinally, however, shows a slightly different picture. A young couple will start by living together for a few years—if they do not separate, they may marry. If they separate, both will find another partner with whom they will cohabit relatively soon. Thus, in this respect, the marriage and cohabitation are not parallel institutions.
What is different? Is the only difference the absence of the marriage ceremony? Superficially, it is tempting to say that nothing has changed except the rituals. However, previously there were four elements tightly connected and related to marriage: (1) the wedding ceremony and party; (2) the moving in together in a home of their own; (3) the initiation of a sex life together; and (4) a new born child, expected after about a year (Trost 1993).
There were normative connections between these four elements and couples were not supposed to violate them. The prohibition against premarital sex was what sociologists call an ideal norm and not a real behavioral norm—at least not in Denmark and Sweden. Everyone knew that almost all couples engaged in premarital sex, but it should be hidden—proper people should not share rooms in hotels, for example. Moreover, there should be no visible result of the common sexual behavior. If a woman became pregnant, she should either have an abortion (even though abortions were illegal until the 1930s) or the couple should marry as soon as possible. In Sweden in the 1950s, at least one bride out of three was pregnant at the time of her wedding (Historisk statistik 1967).
Most couples feel that if they cohabit they should get married eventually. It is important to note that these are two different statements. The first statement is a comment concerning a long-term situation and the other is about an occurrence—a wedding ceremony and party. The latter is particularly interesting because it demonstrates a remarkable change.
Before the meaning of marriage changed—namely, breaking the normative connections of the four elements mentioned above—the traditional wedding party was an occasion when the bride's parents celebrated—with friends and relatives—the occasion of their daughter leaving the parental home. Now the wedding party is primarily organized for the friends of the bride and the groom. (Typically, the couple has been invited to many wedding parties to the effect that they have to marry in order to "pay back" for all the wedding parties to which they have been invited.) Relatives come next and then, if space allows, the parents' friends are invited. Furthermore, couples marrying are often around thirty years of age and well established in their lives. Thus, the parents play a subservient role.
Thus, the marital system changed—but what happened in 1989? (See Figure 1.) One can see the marriage rate increased and then almost immediately decreased again. What cannot be seen in the diagram is that there were no changes in the marriage rate during the months January through October. However, in November the number of marriages doubled—as compared to marriages in previous years—from 2,000 to 4,000 marriages. One would expect to see another 2,000 marriages in December—but there were 64,000 marriages during that month. In January 1990, the marriage rate was back again to the historically low level.
Why this totally unexpected rush to the altar (or the civil marriage official)? During the summer of 1989 the Swedish Parliament decided to eliminate the widow's pension (ordinarily provided by the government) after January 1, 1990. However, the old rules (somewhat modified) would remain in force for those women who were married at that time, and had a child when the husband died. One of the more important modifications was that the size of the pension would be dependent not only upon income of the deceased husband but also of the new widow. Thus, few widows would receive any pension and those who did would receive a minimal one. The result was that by the end of 1989 there were almost no housewives in Sweden. Thus, one answer to the question of the marriage boom is: the law changed.
Revising the widow's pension had been discussed for decades, and the issue was not considered a particularly interesting topic. Moreover, because the decision was made in the summer, few noticed what happened. However, a journalist wrote about it, and noted that quite a few couples would marry before the end of the year. Other stories followed in the print media, radio, and television discussing the rush to find appointments in the churches. This was actually not the case when the stories appeared, but it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, another answer is that mass media changed the marriage rate.
A third way of looking at the marriage boom of 1989 to consider unmarried couples. As mentioned above, many couples believe they should eventually get married. When a cue came—stories in the popular press—they took the opportunity to marry. As so often happens in decision making, there is a need for a cue if a decision is to be made.
For example, a woman and a man had been living together for almost twenty years, and they had two teenage children. One day in the middle of December 1989 the woman came home to their town house and met a neighbor. They began talking, and the neighbor asked what they would be doing for Christmas. The woman replied that her mother would be visiting (from far away in Northern Sweden) and this would probably be the last time she could take such a long journey because she was old and not doing well. Thus, this was a special occasion and they had to do something special for the mother. One of the two mentioned something about the possibility getting married and having a party—being traditional, the mother would be happy to see her daughter married. The neighbor, who was a minister, immediately said that even if there were problems with time slots in his church he could make some arrangements. Thus, the cohabiting couple married. (Later the mother recovered, and some years later the couple divorced.)
Sociological analysis suggests that the 1989 marriage boom was related to the large pool of cohabiting couples that grew during all the years since nonmarital cohabitation became common—and the couples' idea that one should eventually get married. Thus, a boom could occur again with a strong enough cue: not only in Sweden, but in any part of the world where cohabitation is common.