STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes junior in the baby carriage.
Not in Scandinavia, though. At least, not in that order.
The pragmatists who ushered premarital sex and living together into the Western mainstream have all but given up on marriage as a framework for family living, preferring cohabitation even after their children are born.
For decades, couples in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland have put their relationships to the test of sharing bathrooms and closet space before heading for the altar, usually marrying only when a baby was on the way.
Ebba Witt-Brattstroem, a Stockholm University professor of comparative literature and mother of four sons, married the father of her three youngest children when she was pregnant with the second. She was single when she had her first child by a different father as a graduate student in 1979.
"For the children, it makes no difference whatsoever whether their parents are married or not," she says.
"The most important family value is whether you are a good parent," she says, adding that most people are mature enough to keep their children's needs foremost in the event of divorce or separation. "Traditional family values are not important to us anymore. They are something we do research on, like a fossil."
In the 1990s , there was a resolute rejection of marriage, even among couples having children. By the end of the decade, more than half of the babies in Scandinavia were born to unwed mothers, twice the proportion for continental Europe and nearly 60 percent more than in the United States.
Unmarried parents being the norm for Scandinavian children doesn't much bother sociologists or therapists here as long as the families stay together.
What does worry many is the markedly higher likelihood that unmarried couples will eventually separate and subject their children to emotional pain and feelings of guilt. The concurrent trends toward fewer marriages and more breakups mean increasing numbers of children are growing up in one-parent households, with the potential for emotional hardship -- though in wealthy, welfare-cushioned Scandinavia, it is seldom an economic hardship.
The region's success in fostering gender equality and a sturdy social safety net have created the atmosphere of independence that has encouraged many mothers to go it alone.
That outgrowth of the women's movement and decades of social democratic government given rise to national movements for fathers' rights.
"Because of the social welfare systems in Scandinavia, a woman has to be stupid not to realize that she has a better situation if she is not married," says Erik Kofod, a founder of the Danish group Fathers in Support of Parents and Children. "It's an appalling system that motivates people to do things that are unhealthy for society and for children."
For most couples in the region, marriage has changed from the point of embarkation in a relationship to a destination the majority never reach. Marriage rates throughout Scandinavia have dropped from a 1950s high of about nine per 1,000 people per year to four per 1,000 in the 1990s. (The U.S. rate for 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available, was 8.3 per 1,000.) Of those Scandinavians who do marry, half divorce before their children reach age 18.
The most telling statistics are the ever-rising figures for births out of wedlock: 54 percent in Sweden, 49 percent in Norway, 46 percent in Denmark and 65 percent in Iceland. But most newborns are still going home with two parents.
"Nearly 80 percent of small children live with both biological parents," says Barbro Hedvall, who covers family issues for Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. And she says those couples who stay together for four or five years after having a child tend eventually to get married, if only to tidy up the legal loose ends for inheritance and pension purposes.
"If you look at wedding pictures nowadays, they're more likely to show a bride and groom and three small children," Hedvall notes. "This was once cause for an uproar, but today it is common middle-class behavior."
Some social scientists see the broad reluctance to marry as reflecting a more sober view of the institution than the one held by Americans, who often cling to romantic notions of love. "Rushing away on an impulse to get married -- eloping -- this is not a Scandinavian trait," Agneta Stark, a sociologist at Sweden's Linkoeping University, says. "You won't find any 24-hour wedding chapels here."
Others say the failure of marriage as a model for contemporary family life is a consequence of excessive individualism fostered during the 1980s "Me Generation."
"Our ultimate definition of freedom is to do your own thing, to be independent and not rely on anyone, even on spouses," says Berger J. Hareide, director of the Lutheran Church-supported Marriage and Family Research Center near Oslo, Norway. "People have taken on a consumerist attitude toward relationships. 'If you're not happy with the one you're in, get a new one.' It's very destructive."
Liss Hammerborg and Jan Tommy Kasin, who live near Oslo, take a different view. Both 38, they have been together for 16 years and have an 8-year-old daughter, Ida, and a 4-year-old son, Sondre. They rejected marriage because they felt it was an institution that encouraged partners to take each other for granted.
"Neither of us has ever had any romantic views on marriage," says Hammerborg, who has had a lawyer work out property issues in the event of either partner's death.
Norway's divorce rate has stabilized over the past few years, but sociologists note that many fewer couples are getting married in the first place. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of women ages 20 to 24 who marry has dropped from 23 percent a year to 3 percent. Valgerd Svarstad Haugland, Norway's minister for children and family affairs, lauds the Scandinavian countries for their leading role in fostering equality and creating a reliable social safety net. But those advances also have contributed to the demise of the traditional family, she concedes.
"We are becoming too selfish. I don't think we work hard enough on the relationships between men and women," she says. "It's too easy nowadays to meet and go off with a new partner."
Other women see the obsolescence of marriage as a natural evolution of society.
"We can make it by ourselves. We don't need men to chop wood these days. We have our own money, so now men have to change if they want to feel needed," says Ulla Hoffmann, a member of the Swedish parliament.