Family, Nonfiction, Psychology, recent, Social Science

Scandinavia: Can The New “Parental Team” Replace Marriage?

We all know the statistics: Children of divorced or separated parents underperform in school, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and have lower social mobility. A full list of the negative effects would require a lot of space. But the takeaway is that unless your partner is abusive or your home has become seriously dysfunctional, there are good reasons to stick it out for the children.

But what if there were a way around these negative outcomes? Imagine some new, postmodern “parental team” that can take the place of a married couple when it comes to raising children.

That is the new concept emerging from Sweden, where divorce has become common and socially accepted, with children moving frequently between two parental homes. According to the new book Divorcing With Children: Parents in Two Homes (Att skiljas med barn: föräldrar i två hem) by Swedish child psychologist, researcher and university lecturer Malin Bergström, research suggests that kids who move between two homes do almost as well as their peers with parents who live together. Her work suggests that a new, guilt-free kind of divorce seems possible, thanks to a combination of Scandinavian gender equality and classic social engineering. Or so we are invited to believe.   

A 2012 statistical report profiled a cohort of 34,000 Swedish heterosexual couples who had their first baby in 2000, and followed their progress longitudinally until 2010. As the results were summarized by University of Gothenburg researchers in 2015: “The average length of cohabitation before having the first child was three years. About a third of the couples were married before the birth of the first child, and the most common time to marry was after two years of cohabiting. Thirty percent of the sample were separated/divorced in 2010, and the average time for separation/divorce was four years and eight months after the birth of the first child.”

But children to separated parents do not always grow up in what has traditionally been described as “one-parent households,” a category that often is linked to poor socioeconomic outcomes. Among Swedish children between the ages of 6 and 12 who have divorced parents, roughly half move regularly between their parents’ homes. A third spend an equal amount of time living with each parent—usually moving between the two homes every week. Indeed, this equal form of distribution, commonly known as Joint physical custody (JPC), has become the baseline standard in custody proceedings (unless there is suspicion of abuse or neglect, or the divorced parents agree to other arrangements). It makes no difference who initiated the divorce. Thus, a mother who is abandoned by her husband for any reason generally will be required to accept separation from her children as well, one week at the time, every second week. Following Swedish ideals of absolute gender equality, the policy is applied in a sex-symmetrical fashion (though older children have a legal right to weigh in on the decision).

“Sweden provides a unique situation for addressing these questions because Swedish parents are much more likely than parents in other advanced nations to share physical custody of their children after they separate,” reported a trio of researchers in a 2015 article for the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage. “In Sweden, JPC has become as common as living mostly with the mother after parents separate. The proportion of Swedish children in JPC was about 1 percent of children with separated parents in the mid-1980s, but is now between 35 percent and 40 percent. Of all children between 12 and 15 years of age, 1 in 10 are in JPC…Indeed, for 3-year-old children, JPC is nearly twice as common as SPC [Single-Parent Custody], at least among Swedish-born and well-educated parents…When Swedish parents separate, they also tend to live in nearby neighborhoods so that the distance between their homes is relatively short.” (Summarizing the work of others, the same researchers report that the share of children in JPC is about 25 percent in Norway and Denmark, and “under 20 percent” in UK.)

These children often spend much of their life with people who once were called stepparents, and stepsiblings, but who are now sometimes called “bonus” family members (a term that Gwyneth Paltrow helped popularize earlier this year). It is not uncommon for Swedish schools to address their correspondence to “adults” or ”caregivers,” rather than “parents.” One of the country’s most popular TV shows in recent years is The Bonus Family (Bonusfamiljen), which centers around the complications that emerge when two recently divorced Swedish parents form a new household. 

To understand these developments, it helps to revisit the so-called “Swedish theory of love,” described by influential Swedish historians Lars Trädgård and Henrik Berggren as a form of social contract that “is only possible between individuals who are independent and equal.” The contract is about emancipation, but with a twist. In Sweden, individuality springs from the state. Without it, emancipation is not possible. Equality and freedom of choice is in itself made possible by a form of social engineering that the authors describe as “statist individualism,” under which high levels of state support serve to enhance, rather than challenge, citizens’ personal autonomy. More broadly, this typically Swedish approach to policy, informed in equal measure by optimism and paternalism, is animated by an institutionalized sense of national confidence in experts who use scientific methodology to improve society from one generation to the next. The overall effect of these ideas has been a weakening of many of the institutions that once mediated relations between state and citizen—including churches, charities and even families—since they are seen as dispensable in a country where individuals interact directly and regularly with a benign state. 

Central to this “cradle-to-grave” arrangement are such initiatives as universal daycare, a comprehensive program of direct student loans to teenagers and young adults, and the creation of a special ombudsman to protect children’s rights. The very language of public discourse now reflects such expectations: When the current government recently introduced the idea of making it mandatory for parents to send their young children to daycare in order for immigrant children to learn Swedish early on, this was presented as vindication of “the right to compulsory pre-school.” Implicit in these projects is the idea that a reliance on traditional forms of community and upbringing sets one at risk of oppression and inequality, while the welfare state is idealized as a liberating agent that frees citizens from hidebound social norms. 

This was the context for the publication of Bergström’s Divorcing With Children. Addressing the new “parental teams”, Bergström advises parents to give up the idea that they have a basic “right” to care for or control their children. Rather, parenthood is about obligations. 

Bergström notes that when the Swedish divorce rate began to increase decades ago, experts worried that children would become rootless and stressed. This accompanied concerns about the breakdown in traditional marriage: Two years ago, extramarital births began outnumbering births inside marriage in not only Sweden, but also Norway and Denmark. But the data Bergström cites seem to suggest that Swedish children alternating between households are, in general, more content than children living with only one parent. Based on her research at the Centre for Health Equity Studies (CHESS) at the University of Stockholm, in fact, she concludes, as noted above, that children alternating between parents’ homes do almost as well as children living full-time with both parents, and much better than those living with the mother or father alone. There is an undertone of national self-satisfaction to the book: Thanks to the natural adaptability of children, and the great Swedish social safety net, no one splits up quite as well as Mr. and Mrs. Johansson. 

But is the true picture as rosy as the one Bergström shows us? It’s hard to know, because the research data collected by CHESS contain many variables, and it isn’t obvious that all of them are entirely relevant. (One listed indicator of well-being, for instance, is a child’s subjective self-evaluation of sleep quality: There are all sorts of reasons why people who have different living arrangements may judge their sleep quality to be better, or worse, compared to some arbitrary benchmark.) But my larger critique is that while Bergström is concerned with the effects of state-mandated and -enabled JPC arrangements, the positive outcomes we are observing may simply be an artefact of the growing wealth and privilege of divorcing Swedish parents—especially since many poor households can’t afford to split up, one home being cheaper than two. 

As Robert Putnam, David Brooks, Charles Murray and numerous other social scientists have noted in recent decades, the general trend is that wealthier, better educated parents generate better social outcomes for their offspring than other parents. They also operate safer, more functional households than similarly situated poorer parents, even when families split up. As Branko Milanovic notes in his book Capitalism, Alone: The Future Of The System That Rules The World, this inequality is a growing, self-reinforcing phenomenon: Wealthy, well-educated adults increasingly marry other wealthy, well-educated adults, and provide their children with the advantages necessary to become wealthy and well-educated themselves. The rich are not just better off in material comfort and physical safety; they also take part in more extracurricular activities, sports and advanced courses; and have access to more supports when they suffer setbacks, including those setbacks associated with family breakdown and reconstruction. (Often, a rich, stable household will break up into two other rich and stable households.) And so, as Putnam has written, “it is hardly surprising that recent research has suggested that the places in America where single-parent families are most common are the places where upward mobility is sluggish.” 

As the traditional nuclear family becomes less dominant in Scandinavia, it’s worth asking how the normalization of divorce will affect society more generally. Bergström may be correct that conservative social panic over these trends is unwarranted. But first, we need to ensure that measured effects are not simply an artefact of self-selection bias among divorcing couples, or of the growing wealth of Sweden in general. We also need to ensure that enthusiasm for the current trend does not simply represent an ideological extension of Swedish enthusiasm for social engineering. 

Perhaps most importantly, we need to remember that divorce remains a traumatic event in the lives of many people—children especially. And while it is tempting to imagine that this trauma can be mitigated, or even eliminated, by the right set of social policies, this will always be a pipe dream. There are some sorrows and challenges that no government can ever fully prevent or repair. Even in Sweden. 


Mikael Jalving is a Danish historian, blogger and regular columnist at the daily Jyllands-Posten. Follow him on Twitter @MikaelJalving

Photo: Paul Goyette/Wikimedia Commons


  1. The question is more like does joint physical custody lead to better outcomes for divorced kids than the alternative which is default mother primary custody. There are high rates of marriage breakdown and divorce everywhere so it’s necessary to learn what is the best way to manage that situation.

    Based on my experience maybe but it will likely be hard to collect evidence to show what is best one way or the other.

  2. To be fair, while I have a strong distaste for nanny states, I’m not sure if we should regard social engineering as an automatic evil. All societies involve systems, although some systems are wiser than others. Now, you could investigate why divorces are more common, and take steps to hopefully improve the chances of marital success, though that would also be social engineering. If divorces are a reality, there is no sense in ignoring it. Some steps that Sweden are taking might be questionable but, to me, the idea of ensuring that mothers and fathers generally get equal time with their child doesn’t seem particularly awful or ill~advised.

  3. If the reason(s) why divorces are more common is/are itself/themselves merely a product of some prior social intervention; then it would seem reasonable to identify said intervention - to the extent it exist - for the purposes of performing a cost/benefit analysis.

    Maybe I’m viewing this in the wrong light but to my mind the elimination of an intervention enacted at some previously point in time (in hopes of reducing divorce rates) would not qualify as an act of social engineering. But maybe it’s simply a distinction without a difference.

  4. I will use one quote by Kisielewski we often use in Poland:

    Socialism is a system which heroically overcomes difficulties unknown in any other system!"

  5. I feel like I’m stating the obvious by saying kids who have close relationships with both parents will be happier than kids with abandonment issues. State or no state.

  6. Sounds like what we have in most of Canada. I am baffled that anyone would find this surprising or objectionable.

    Certainly arrangements that encourage both parents to maintain strong relationships with their children after divorce, are preferable to those that do not?

  7. All societies involve systems, although some systems are wiser than others.

    Well said. Are not social norms dictated by religious belief/the church also social engineering? The trick is to leave enough flexibility to allow room for varying circumstances and outliers, and to adjust them as necessary.

  8. The rot spreads.

    The Scandanavian state’s desire to snatch children also spreads.

  9. If parents are going to divorce, for the children, the JPC arrangement is far superior to SPC. Been there, done that. 50/50 custody can eliminate problems which occur in sole custody situations.

  10. Yeah my experience is that SCA leads to massive bitterness by the 2nd parent and a huge amount of conflict as a result. Or at least exacerbation of conflict.

  11. I have seen couples divorcing with adult children, and without children at all. If not the children, they fight over the house. If not the house, they fight over someone’s superannuation. They’ll always fight over something.

    You built your life around being with someone and now they don’t want you anymore. There will always be bitterness whatever you do.

  12. If divorce can be initiated by either party, then both parties must continuously consent for the marriage to survive. Inequality in divorce is therefore not only an unfair policy, but a policy that tends to break up marriages: the advantaged party can pull the ripcord and receive a windfall that wouldn’t exist, or would be smaller, in an equal system.

    Many people feel some divorces should happen, but too many are happening now. If we assume everyone has a price at which they can rationalise an evil or selfish act, we should convince people to raise their personal price and reduce the amount on offer. Joint physical custody seems to do the latter. You present an example that’s atypical of the divorces actually happening, a majority of which are no-fault, no-reason “irreconcilable differences” divorces initiated by women. The atypical example hides this factor.

    I understand the difference in world-views is important, especially since progressives seem blitheringly unaware that they have a world-view, which cannot continue. But we should be able to agree on the same policy for different reasons.

    It’s still important to discuss the reasons because leftists will try to work backwards from the policy to project a political consensus that does not exist. This article is welcome.

    But “joint physical custody” sounds like exactly the sort of compromise a functional political system should produce.

  13. “The overall effect of these ideas has been a weakening of many of the institutions that once mediated relations between state and citizen—including churches, charities and even families—since they are seen as dispensable in a country where individuals interact directly and regularly with a benign state.”

    I fully agree with the author that many progressive policies have the effect described (out of ignorance or intention) and that this is a serious problem for our society.

    Nevertheless, I think there are much more appropriate examples of such negative measures. Like several previous commentators, I generally consider “joint physical custody” as something good and helpful.

    Assuming a divorce will happen anyway and there are children involved - giving these children the chance to stay in contact with both parents equally (instead of practically losing one of them) might be the best option available to alleviate the traumatic effects of the divorce situation and at the same time provide the best conditions for the further healthy development of the children.

    As the author rightly points out, such a situation is economically challenging and therefore easier to manage for people who can afford it. But this applies to many desirable things and doesn’t speak against JPC.

    By the way, in several countries, e.g. in Germany, it is the progressives who fight JPC tooth and nail. Their main reason is that they don’t want to treat fathers and mothers equally (which should not surprise anyone by now).

  14. As I noted earlier, there is some evidence that the intentions and implementations of their governments’ policies are not always entirely beneficent. Children have been taken from their families by the state on the advice of someone who turned out to be a paedophile, and the decisions were never reviewed as a result.

    This suggests their judgement about what is best for children and their parents is not something which we should trust implicitly.

    Here’s the actual research:

    The outcomes appear to be slightly better (not hugely better, but slightly, as you discover once you follow the links she gives) for children in joint parenting arrangements than sole parenting, but they are worse for their parents (there’s more conflict with the other parent, and they’re both financially worse off).

    So if you think that only the children matter, you’ll support joint parenting; if you think the parents matter too, it’s much harder to judge. If we are to suppose that the happiness of the parents doesn’t matter, then why allow divorce and separation at all? If we allow divorce then we are saying that the happiness of the parents matters, and so this must be a consideration in assessing the situation, in other words: the happiness of the family as a whole.

    When the parents begin with an intense conflict, this conflict is exacerbated by the regular ongoing contact required by joint parenting, and the research says that this does harm to the children, but it’s balanced by the stronger bonds with each parent, so it’s the same result in the end as if they had a cleaner split. In other words, we are causing a loss (emotional conflict and pain) to the parents with no gain for the children. Overall, worse off in the case of parents splitting nastily.

    As well as considering the children and parents, I would consider the rest of the community. I know of parents with joint custody who have intervention orders against each-other, so that they can’t approach each-other within 100 metres, can’t ring each-other up, and so on. To hand the children over they go to the local police station, sign the children over to a police officer, leave the children in the waiting room, and the other parent picks them up half an hour later. If the parent fails to drop them off within so many hours, the police must visit their home, demand they explain themselves, and get the children. Is this a good use of police resources? What do you think this does to the morale of police?

    I know several schoolteachers. Our schools in Australia have “lockdown drills”, not because of fears of school shooters which we don’t get here, but because of separated parents - sometimes one will show up to get their children on a day they’re not supposed to, the principal checks the schedule and denies them access, and the person gets violent - commonly the father, but often the mother too, or her new boyfriend. Is this the best use of school resources? When someone decides to become a schoolteacher, do you think this is why they became one? This is one of the factors leading to teachers leaving the profession, which means we have the expense of training more of them, and the experienced ones leave, so our children are taught by less experienced teachers than they could be.

    I may have missed it, but I don’t believe the article said that if the couple split only the mother should get custody. Your concern could be addressed by automatically awarding custody to the father, except in cases of abuse.

    In this I believe you are being like the women complaining in Australia about childcare rebates being insufficient and holding them back from work, when in fact the childcare rebates law does not distinguish between men and women, the rebate is based on household income and the work, study or volunteering done by the least active person. (For example, our household gets the rebate, and I’m the stay-at-home parent - the law and rebate don’t care either way.)

    Which is to say, you are reading your own prejudice and assumptions about mothers’ and fathers’ roles into the article.

    Joint parenting may be slightly better for children than sole parenting, but that is not saying very much, since we know that sole parenting tends to be much worse for children. And it is much worse for the parents and the rest of the community.

    What works best is a stable loving household. This makes children happy, but it also makes the parents and the community happy.

    In the past when divorce was hard, many couples stayed together who really should have split. Now when divorce is relatively easy, and indeed often unnecessary since couples aren’t expected to marry to live together and have children, many couples split who with time and effort could have stayed together and been happy.

    I think it would be better if getting married and getting divorced were both harder, and if it were harder to have children when not married. That’s if we consider that the parents and the community also matter, which is apparently a novel idea for many. Historically conservatives have done themselves a disservice with their “think of teh childruns!” cry. But a true conservative, like a true progressive, thinks of everyone.

  15. Fantastic example of the proven tendency for people on the left to not understand the position of people on the right:

    It is the left, not the right, that has devalued the role of fathers in child-rearing. I know no conservative in favour of single parent custody, which represents a systemic bias in favour of women at the expense of fathers, children, and indeed the whole family and community. As @Kiashu mentions, a stable, loving 2 parent household is ideal, and that is what conservatives want.

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