One of the happiest countries in the world does marriage differently from most everywhere else

First comes baby; then comes marriage.

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First comes baby; then comes marriage.
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Flickr / OakleyOriginals

  • In Norway, couples are more likely to have kids when they’re living together than when they’re married.
  • This is a trend in industrialized nations across the globe, but it’s especially pronounced in Scandinavia.
  • Scandinavian couples typically marry later in life, as a symbolic display of love.

The Atlantic recently published a fascinating article on the ever-evolving function and meaning of marriage.

The author, sociologist Andrew Cherlin, explains that marriage has become a “trophy,” in that many couples wed only after they’ve had kids together and/or achieved other markers of maturity – not before. As some researchers would put it, marriage is now more of a “capstone” than a “cornerstone” of adult life.

One statistic Cherlin cites jumped out at me: “The median age at first marriage in Norway is an astounding 39 for men and 38 for women, according to a recent estimate-six to eight years higher than the median age at first childbirth.”

As I delved deeper into the research, I learned that Norway is hardly the only place where marriage often follows the birth of kids. In industrialized nations across the globe (including the United States), more couples are choosing to have kids while living together, even though they haven’t formally exchanged vows.

But the trend is most visible in Scandinavian countries (which, by the way, are consistently ranked as some of the happiest in the world).

One paper Cherlin cites, published 2015 in the journal Demographic Research, reports that in 2013, firstborn Norwegian kids were more likely to have cohabiting parents (50%) than they were to have married parents (32%) or parents who didn’t live together (18%).

Scandinavians are marrying – just later in life

Importantly, that’s not to say that Norwegians are eschewing marriage entirely.

The same paper asserts: “Most children born into a union [in Norway] will have parents who are married or will marry later.” Another paper Cherlin cites, published 2013 in the journal Demographic Research, reports that 17% of all marriages in Sweden happened after the couple already had two kids.

This trend might not have emerged if not for the unique benefits conferred upon cohabiting Norwegian couples. As the 2015 paper puts it, it’s “less risky” for parents to live together without being married than it might be in other industrialized nations.

According to the Children Act in Norway, when a child is born to cohabiting parents, the couple is granted joint parental responsibility, just like a married couple would be.

Marriage in Scandinavia is more of a personal choice, as opposed to a legal or financial obligation if you want to start a “legitimate” family.

The researchers behind the paper spoke to couples in Oslo, Norway’s capital, who told them that marriage often serves a symbolic function, a way to “celebrate love,” as one respondent put it.

Meanwhile, the researcher behind the 2013 paper analyzed marital trends in Sweden and noticed that relatively few couples are marrying within a year of having a kid. That suggests people don’t feel pressed to marry in order to confirm – in the eyes of the law or society at large – that they’re a family.

As one highly educated, Oslo-based woman told the researchers behind the 2015 paper: “It becomes more serious when you have children – then you are in a relationship for life, even if you break up. It is a bigger commitment to have children. It should be.”