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In the Scandinavian countries, like the rest of the Western world, divorces were rare a century ago. Legislation prohibited divorces almost everywhere. Moreover, shorter lifespans left many women and men widows and widowers, respectively. As the mortality rate dropped, and lifespans became longer, fewer marriages were ended by death, and there was a need for more liberal divorce laws.

In 1916, Sweden became the first Scandinavian country with a liberal—for that time—divorce law (modified somewhat in 1920). The other Scandinavian countries followed with similar laws within few years. These laws allowed essentially two grounds for divorce: irretrievable breakdown, with a minimum of one year's separation, or a fault on the part of a spouse, such as adultery or alcoholism, in which case the divorce could be granted immediately. These laws remained on the books without any significant changes until the mid-1970s.

Figure 3 shows that the divorce rate in Sweden increased slowly at first and then more rapidly until about 1950, after which it remained stable for about fifteen years. This trend is the same for other Scandinavian countries, although the number of divorces is fewer, especially in Finland and Norway, less so in Denmark. The divorce rates increased again—simultaneously with appearance of non-marital cohabitation. However, research has not shown a direct connection. The sudden jump in divorces in the early 1970s is mostly due to technical changes of the legal system.

The late 1960s saw Scandinavian governments overhauling matrimonial laws, particularly divorce laws. In the early 1970s, new laws allowed for quick, no-fault divorces. However, if there is a child in the home the couple must wait six months and reflect upon the reasonability of a divorce. The same rule applies when only one of the spouses wants to divorce.

As nonmarital cohabitation became common, one might think that divorce statistics would no longer be of interest, and the simple divorce rates shown in Figure 3 support this view. However, examining marriage cohorts (Figure 4), one can see that of those who married in 1956, 25 percent were divorced after thirty-five years (the rest are either still married or one of the spouses has died). For those who married in 1991 it took only about eight years to reach to the same percentage. Thus, one can conclude that the divorce rates have continued to increase.

It would be interesting to compare divorce rates with those of cohabiting couples who have chosen to separate. Unfortunately, such comparisons are hard to make. Even if nonmarital cohabitation is a social institution like marriage, the two forms are not parallel. Nonmarital cohabitation can become marital cohabitation but marital cohabitation cannot become nonmarital cohabitation—almost no married couple divorces in order to live as nonmarital cohabitants, at least not in the Scandinavian countries. It is conceivable that in other countries there could be cases due to taxation or economic considerations.

Furthermore, many cohabiting couples may be compared with couples going steady (see Figure 2) and such couples also face the possibility of dissolution of the relationship. Thus, there is no reason to compare divorce rates with separations of non-marital cohabitation.

When cohabitation was a new and relatively unknown phenomenon many believed that divorces among marriages preceded by cohabitation would be less common than those in which the couples did not cohabit before marriage. Such an assumption does not hold for Scandinavian countries, because almost no one marries without premarital cohabitation.

See also: GERMANY


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsScandinavia - Marriage, Living Apart Together, Divorce