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April 22, 2004

Scandinavian Marriage by the Numbers

The legalization of same-sex marriage does not of itself cause some cosmic shift in people's attitudes about marriage. The day after the ink dries on legislation or a judicial ruling, divorce lawyers' phones won't ring off the hook and unmarried couples won't give birth to vast broods. However, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a definitive marker — the bottom line of how a society defines marriage and its purposes.

Therefore, it necessarily arrives as part of a progression, not as a bolt from the cultural blue. This is not to say that the "yes" vote doesn't bring a significant shift; accepting marriages between two men or two women establishes a manifest illustration that, whatever the essence of marriage is, it doesn't follow from the unique complement of man and woman.

Beyond the intangibles of gender difference, couples of opposite sex can uniquely be the biological parents of shared children. Tying those parents to those children is a crucial social objective. And to the degree to which denial of marriage's role in this objective is codified into law — establishing rights and privileges for others — it removes marriage as a mechanism to achieve it.

This biological and psychological reality holds no matter the culture in question. Therefore, it would be a waste of time to argue with Andrew Sullivan's assertion that "the legal and cultural norms around coupling and family are very, very different in Scandinavia than in the U.S." Even letting slide his perennial attempts to use that region as a model and example in his advocacy for SSM in the United States, one can suggest that damage to the institution of marriage would only be more profoundly harmful on our shores, where (Sullivan admits) "civil marriage remains... the privileged organizing unit for coupling and rearing children."

However, Sullivan cannot be ignored in his attempts to argue that one area of difference is that Scandinavian citizens can achieve the familial benefits of marriage without entering into the institution per se. He quotes from correspondence with researcher Darren Spedale:

Couples in Scandinavia who have chosen to spend their lives together without a marriage certificate often plan for an otherwise traditional family structure, including children. Thus, the 'out-of-wedlock births' that Kurtz refers to in Scandinavia are children who are wanted by their parents... Probably the most telling proof of this is the incredibly low number of Scandinavian children available for adoption each year. In Denmark, for example, only about 25 Danish children are available for adoption each year in the entire country. ... Kurtz's claim that 'rising rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births stand as proxy for rising rates of family dissolution' is therefore misleading.

Perhaps I'm not alone in finding it suspicious that Spedale seeks to replace cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births with adoption as a bellwether of family dissolution. Low numbers of children put up for adoption are to be expected in societies in which parents who would be willing to remove their children from their lives can kill them before they're born. As I highlighted in a post with extensive graphs on these matters, between approximately 11% (Netherlands) and 26% (Sweden) of all children conceived in the region were aborted in 2000. This was up from rates in the same bookend countries of approximately 2% and 16% in 1970.

More to the point, however, Spedale presumes too much in implying that "family dissolution" requires that all parties, including the children, go their separate ways:

The only thing that such statistics demonstrate is a continuing shift in the Scandinavian countries to permanent relationships of families in a traditional family structure (i.e., with children), who don't hold a marriage license. Kurtz fails to prove any connection whatsoever between unmarried couples and family dissolution.

Certainly, a problem faces Mr. Kurtz in that cohabiting families are a bit more difficult to track. For one thing, without the expectation that parents will be married, divorce rates and statistics about whether children live with their own parents cannot easily be combined. Examining statistics of Danish childrens' households, it is heartening that 74.8% of children still lived with their own mothers and fathers in 2001, even if that was down from 75.9% in 1991. The picture begins to tint, however, when one notes that the number of children living with a single mother was up 11% over that period.

Raw numbers of children are tricky for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they can go up in every category, leaving one to compare rates of increase for small and large numbers alike. The number of children living with their own parents, for example, was up 5%, or 41,569 kids, while the number of children living with their recoupled mothers was up 18%, or 13,203 kids. All in all, those 41,569 additional children living with their own parents compares with 28,763 additional children whose original families dissolved.

Secondly, raw numbers of children are skewed by the tendency of traditional families to be larger. To understand this dynamic, consider the data by household type, which is a bit more worrying. In 2001, for homes with one child, unmarried parents (combining all registered partnerships, "consensual unions," and cohabiting couples) amounted to 40.6% the number of married households, while single parent households (either mother or father) amounted to 49.2% of the number of married households. So the total one-child households that didn't involve marriage was 89.8% the size of the total households that did. For homes with two children, the unmarried total was 23.7% the size of married, and the single parent total was 19.2% — meaning that marriage-less households were 42.9% the total for married. For homes with three or more children, the numbers are 16.4% and 13.9%, generating a total no-marriage to marriage ratio of 30.3%.

For a visual sense of what this means, consider the following graphic. The solid bars are the actual numbers in each category for 2001.

Note not only that there are more married two-child households than one-child, but also that the distance increases as described above. The outlined boxes give some historical perspective, as the relevant numbers for 1991. It isn't clear that the trend is of families with children remaining the same, only dispensing with the marital formality, as Spedale suggests. If that were the case, losses in the married category would be made up more directly in the unmarried couple category.

Although there may have been some degree of this in the '90s, comparing the percentage change of the total numbers suggests that the arrangement could be culturally and individually fleeting. Larger families are likely to be older, with a cultural view formed during an earlier period, meaning that the parents absorbed the meaning of marriage, even if they don't have a license. Moreover, larger unmarried families would seem likely to include more reshuffled children, because (for one thing) large nuclear families began earlier in the trend away from marriage.

In the following figure, the solid bars represent the difference that you see in the first figure — the change from 1991 to 2001.

Looking just at the solid columns, you can see that marriage is decreasing among one-child households, but leveling off then increasing for additional children. However, the other family types are increasing at a faster rate. Most disturbing of all are the outlined boxes, which show the percentage change in total households from 1991 to 2004. Single-parent households are by far the most rapidly expanding group for families with multiple children.

What it looks like to me is that there's a reason that it's widely accepted among sociologists that cohabitation isn't stable. Those who are serious will get married; those who are not will separate. And unfortunately, the rate of the latter is increasing more than the rate of the former. Combined with the fact that individual children are ever-more-likely to live without both of their biological parents, and Sullivan would seem to be ill advised to count on the "social conservatism" of Scandinavians. This is especially true when it is considered that, as I showed in the context of births and abortions, Denmark is the most-improving nation in the region.

Sullivan shifts his discussion to Norway (link in original):

It's also true that in the period Kurtz is concerned about the number of marriages in Norway increased by almost 25 percent from 20,161 in 1993 to 26,425 in 1999. How does that square with the "death of marriage"?

Let's get fairness out of the way first: for some reason, Sullivan added the data for marriages abroad to a total that already included them, so the actual numbers are 18,741 and 23,456, which represents an increase of just over 25%. I've no reason to quibble with that, as I believe there's a very real chance that the public battle over same-sex marriage gives the whole institution a temporary boost, because people are considering what marriage means, overall and for themselves. What's peculiar is that Sullivan (or somebody) had to dig to get the table that ends at 1999, and I'm not sure why he believes that Kurtz is only "concerned about" that period.

The latest table goes all the way to 2002, when there were 24,069 marriages. I'm not sufficiently familiar with what's going on in that country to know why it's so, but the marriage numbers have been volatile this decade, up to 25,356 in 2000 and down to 22,967 in 2001. That blip was in large part due to fluctuations in the number of church weddings, which might be consistent with my boost hypothesis. However, the 2002 increase was more evenly divided between religious and civil. Whatever the case, one can discern how susceptible the relatively tiny totals are to distortion of trends by the fact that one could pick five-year gaps during which marriages increased by 25% or by 0%.

One more bit of numerical flimflammery that's worth noting involves this from Spedale:

This solemn approach towards, and respect for, entering into the institution of marriage also explains why divorce rates among gay and lesbian couples is so much lower than rates of divorce among their heterosexual counterparts.

Sullivan emphasizes the point, writing, "Yes, you read that right." But who knows what we're reading; Spedale offers no numbers, let alone a source for numbers. So let's use the numbers that Sullivan's Norway source provides. Although there's no corresponding table, the main report about divorces and separation notes that there were 44 same-sex divorces and 77 same-sex separations in 2002. Since I wasn't able to find any historical data, let's be generous and assume that 2002 was the first year during which Norwegian same-sex couples divorced. Thus, we'll compare the 44 divorces to the 1,412 same-sex partnerships that had been contracted in the previous decade.

This source calculates the heterosexual "divorce rate" per 1,000 married women. In Norway for 2002, it was 11.9. Calculating the per-1,000 number for same-sex divorces, we get 31.2, which is two-and-a-half times the divorce rate of heterosexual marriages. And, remember, this assumes that there had never been a same-sex divorce in Norway before that year. If 44 same-sex couples had divorced every year for the past ten, there would only have been 972 of them by that point, and their divorce rate would be 45.3.

But more than all of the number games, what bothers me about Sullivan's latest spin is this:

Between 1994 and 1999, there were a total of five registered same-sex partnerships in the county Kurtz cites. Kurtz wants to explain the shift in that county's heterosexual conduct by citing a mere ten people?

Variations of this statement have been made — and rebutted — so many times over the past year that I'm beginning to think those who make it don't really listen for an answer. It isn't the actual number of same-sex marriages that creates an issue; those who say it hurts my marriage not at all if two homosexuals marry are correct. At the same time, those 10 folks in that county, even the 1,412 folks in all of Norway, didn't change the law all on their own. What preceded their marriages was a final push of the socially understood meaning and purpose of marriage to the point at which gender became irrelevant. The effects will take decades to play out, and none yet can claim definitive conclusions. But frankly, the numbers don't give much reason for optimism — certainly not enough to emulate the policy here across the pond.

Apparently, I wasn't alone in thinking Spedale's appeal to low adoption rates to be suspicious. Here's Eve Tushnet:

Low rates of babies placed for adoption = strong family culture??? Has Spedale ever spent any time in an American inner city? Many, many American communities have exceptionally low marriage rates and a strong stigma against placing your baby for adoption. Those are the families of "fatherless America," not models of marriageless bliss.

Sullivan has linked to Spedale's full response to Kurtz. To cut to the chase, I'm not impressed. The great bulk of its content is advocacy fluff (e.g., about "respect" and "tolerance"), a strange belief that SSM must be working because the politicians would have modified or removed it otherwise, and snide remarks about how Spedale actually conducted dozens of interviews, whereas Kurtz mostly studied numbers covering entire populations.

In fact, numbers are sparse and selectively applied in Spedale's lengthy essay. We learn that, in 1996, "before the registered partnership law was introduced, approximately 50% of heterosexual couples in Iceland with children were already living together as permanent partners without a marriage certificate." We get the adoption number cited above. And then we get this:

In 1990, at the outset of the partnership law's existence, there were 6.1 heterosexual marriages per 1,000 persons in Denmark. By the mid-1990's (1996), that number had climbed to 6.8 marriages per 1,000 population, or an increase of just over 10% from 1990.

Furthermore, the number of heterosexual divorces in 1990 stood at 2.7 per 1,000 population. By the mid-1990's, it was at 2.4 per 1,000, or an approximate 12% decrease in the number of divorces.

What's peculiar, here, is that Spedale opens his essay proclaiming that "15 years after the first of these countries (Denmark) legalized gay marriage in the form of registered partnerships, the results are in." He ends suggesting that this "15-year history with gay marriage" allows us to "close the door on Stanley Kurtz's supposed argument that gay marriage in Scandinavia has had a negative impact on the institution of marriage." If that's the case, why offer only data from the first six of those fifteen years?

See for yourself why. Since 1996, this marriage rate per 1,000 has fluctuated back down to 6.5 (1997), up to 7.2 (2000), and in 2002 rested at 6.9. (Incidentally, between 1996 and 2002, Denmark's population increased only 2.2%, or 117,327 people, 79,572 of whom were immigrants not canceled out by emigrants. That leaves native population growth of only 37,755, if I'm not missing anything.)

More importantly, and less mixed up with other factors, is the trend in divorce. It's true that the number of divorces decreased from 13,731 in 1990 to 12,776 in 1996. However, they've since increased steadily each year, and in 2002, there were 15,304. That's 2.85 per 1,000 of the total population — up 5.6% from 1990's 2.7, and up 18.8% from 1996's 2.4.

Sorry Darren, I don't think the door can be close just yet. What's the hurry?

Spedale has added some statistical meat to his essay. I've addressed it here.

Posted by Justin Katz at April 22, 2004 11:57 PM
Marriage & Family

It looks like Spedale has updated his statistics since your article to reflect more current trends in Scandinavia. It seems to me that the updated numbers don't seem to be in your favor, but rather favor the points Spedale has made.

You raise some interesting points, and I am impressed at the length and depth of your argument, but I feel that you have done a disservice to your readers by dismissing many of Spedale's well-reasoned arguments as "fluff". He makes some very good points about the cultural differences between the U.S. and Scandinavia, in particular in relation to family structure. I myself learned a great deal about the difference between Scandinavian and U.S. family laws by reading his article.

Finally, its most important to note that Kurtz's arguments fail to show any proof that gay marriage CAUSES increased rates in domestic partnership, which is the crux of his argument. It's obvious that there may be a CORRELATION - i.e., that the same forces of "tolerance" (a word you apparently don't care for as suggested by the quotation marks) have led to a similar respect for unmarried couples as for gay marriages.

Yet to say that one is caused by the other simply doesn't hold water. Not only do I see no evidence for that in Kurtz's article, but Kurtz himself admitted in last week's congressional hearing that he himself has no proof that one causes the other.

And his remark in the hearings that two heterosexuals would be less likely to marry because two homosexuals could marry, is simply absurd. I myself am married, and I don't think my wife and I would have held off on sending out the invitations just because the gay couple down the street got hitched themselves.

Posted by: Stefan at April 26, 2004 6:58 PM


Thanks for the comment. As I noted in another addendum to the post, I've addressed Spedale's update elsewhere. Unless I missed something, he cites equivalent information to mine, with a different spin and, in the case of homosexual divorce, offers analysis that is (at best) based on erroneous comparisons of data.

I used the word "fluff" (and offered examples of the relevant language) because it was clear to me that anything Spedale argued anecdotally or as pure assertion would be suspect. Of course, as a general rule, I believe people should read a rebutted text in its entirety, and I did provide the link. Still, I persist in believing that the piece was exactly what one would expect.

As for matters of cause and correlation, that's been one of the central strawmen of this debate. Even Kurtz doesn't assert a direct, specific cause and effect. That doesn't mean that there is no relationship between the issues that can be manipulated for public policy goals; really, I don't know what those who make your argument would even accept as evidence.

In essence, Kurtz is arguing that the "forces of tolerance" can be critically dangerous to society if taken to extremes, and that each new instance of erasing long-standing principles requires thorough consideration of the trade-offs. He's said again and again, including in his testimony, that the debate over same-sex marriage is the debate over what marriage is. If society decides that it is such that no distinction need be made regarding gender composition, that will harm the institution and those areas and members of society that it is meant to assist.

Yes, it would be absurd to suggest that an individual married couple is going to eschew marriage if the institution includes homosexuals. But it is equally (or more) absurd to pretend that's the only effect that matters, let alone that it's the decisive question of the debate. You found reinforcement for the claim, I'm sure, in the fact that a congressman felt free to laugh at Mr. Kurtz for an answer to which the congressman had no other rebuttal. That doesn't mean the reaction is valid. The increasing evidence currently suggests that marriage does decline as it is expanded beyond recognition.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 28, 2004 2:22 PM

From the research I have done Mr. Spedale's argument is weak at best. As stated, Kurtz doesn't draw a direct link between the advent of homosexual "marriage" and the decay of marriage and family stability. However, from the arguments that I have heard made by Mr. Spedale and Sullivan they make it sound as if it actually strengthens marriage or has no effect.

According to UN statistics on Denmark, while the number of couples married has increased, there has been about a 7% decrease in the number of those couples with children from 1990 -2004. Also, there has been a 6% increase in children living away from home in the same period.

Could one claim this is a result of homosexual "marriage?" Is there a link? Who knows? The fact is they are negative markers when considering family stability and the desire to procreate.

Trying to take everything into account (and if I am understanding you correctly) I would say your theory for the blips up and down in the marriage rates of Denmark are actually more sound than Spedale's assertions.

For or against it, the fact is it would be hard to draw 100% error free conclusions, with absolute clarity, and in a scientific manner. The only way to bring about greater clarity is to look at as many of the statistical variables rather than having a myopic view of things and from that drawing conclusions.

I've looked at other statistics and those of Sweden and Norway are less flattering for some reason. Sweden and Norway have higher divorce rates than Denmark. Sweden has a divorce to marriage percentage of 64% - higher than even the U.S! Sweden’s out of wedlock birthrate has also climbed from 47 to 55% in this period.

Since these countries also allow homosexual marriage, and the focus for the most part has been just on Denmark, I think it undermines the credibilty in their final conclusion.

Statisically Denmark is the best example they can offer out of the three. And from what I have read, even with Denmark, things are about the same or worse than they were before.

The other thing that should be considered, but was not taken into account by those promoting homosexual "marriage" is that it is only one of the many components of the sexual revolution which gained momentum in the 1960's.

When we compare Denmark's marriage and divorce rates of today to before this international trend began, we realize that marriage as a whole has been on a decline since then. Even with the few blips upwards and then back down in the 1990's, it hasn't come close to what it used to be 40-50 years ago. So, the end result is marriage in Denmark is still much weaker than it was before sexual/social experimentation came into the mix.

What I have found interesting is that the countries that still have a stronger Catholic or Orthodox background have the lowest divorce rates, out of wed-lock birth rates, and family dissolution.

So even, in a black and white, scientific, secular format it still indicates that religious and moral values play a significant role in the welfare of society. And when those elements are discounted or minimized it has physical, tangible consequences.

Many adovocates for the sexual/homosexual movement try to argue their cases with simply statistics and facts and not only dismiss these elements but tend to attack them with a vengence.

So, in a way it only tells half the story because there are many spiritual and emotional elements that can not be quantified in black and white.

The other thing homosexual "marriage" brings into question are other types of alternative relationships that will spawn from this. I haven't heard many people address this topic probably because many today are still coming to grips with the idea of homosexual "marriage" itself.

If we legalize homosexual unions, what is to say it is any better than polygamy or beastiality. If homosexuals can get married, shouldn't I be able to marry 10 women. Or if my dog is my 'best friend' why can't I marry him?

Further still, why don't we legalize pedophilia? Why would that be any less acceptable?

If nothing is sinful, if morals have no significance in law, if all behavior patterns and lifestyles are equal, what is our basis for discernment?

Posted by: Geoff at June 2, 2004 2:28 AM