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Following Europe's lead? In Sweden, marriage slowly fades

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After 30 years in the crucible of social change, marriage in America is being recast in new and different molds. What shape will it take? A clue to its future may lie in trends in other industrialized countries.

On one end of the scale, Sweden's long history of cohabitation is rapidly overtaking marriage, causing some commentators to ask whether American marriage is headed toward a Swedish model.

In sharp contrast, Britain preserves a more traditional sense of marriage which resembles, in some ways, the American experience of prior decades.

And between these poles, France is struggling to increase its birthrate -- in the face of increasing levels of cohabitation that militates against marriage and childbearing.

Monitor staff writer Rushworth M. Kidder recently visited Stockholm, Paris, and London. His reports follow. HERE in this bustling city of bright, clean stores, you can't find a bridal shop anywhere -- except in the immigrant areas.

Swedes in vast numbers have turned away from the institution of marriage. Nowadays, says Prof. Lars Jalmert of the University of Stockholm, ``the concept of marriage is not very important.'' But, he adds, ``the relationships are.''

The ``relationship'' that is replacing marriage in Sweden is long-term cohabitation. Already, some 60 percent of young people aged 20 to 24 are living with a partner outside marriage.

Until recently, Professor Jalmert was among them. Jalmert, a slender man dressed in jeans and an open-necked shirt, explained in his book-lined office here that he and his wife finally married when their two children approached school age.

The reason for the marriage: fear that if they ever separated, the children would not be as well cared for under Swedish law as they would be if the parents were married.

Cohabitation has been growing in this country famous for its liberal attitudes on sexual relations. For example:

From 1950 to 1982, while the overall population grew more than 15 percent, the number of marriages fell by about 30 percent. Sweden's 1982 marriage rate of 4.5 marriages per 1,000 people was less than half that of the United States, at 10.6 per 1,000.

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