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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Unmarried and On Edge in Sweden

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Lionized by progressives around the world, the architects of Sweden’s generous welfare state have done all they can to erase the distinctive life advantages conferred by wedlock. They still have work to do. A new Swedish study finds that during a national surge of anxiety in recent years, wedlock has apparently protected married men and women from the mental distress experienced by their unmarried peers.  

Rising rates of mental distress in Sweden recently caught the attention of an international team of researchers affiliated with Skåne University and Lund University in Sweden and Stanford University in the United States. Recognizing “mental illness . . . [as] one of the leading causes of disability worldwide,” the researchers decided to focus their inquiry on anxiety, a mental problem especially likely to trouble “adolescents and young adults, for whom the prevalence rates . . . have increased during the last decades, in Sweden as well as in other developed countries.”   

To gauge the prevalence of anxiety in various age groups in Sweden and then to identify the predictors of this mental ailment, the researchers examine data collected from 2,728 males and 2,770 females ages 16 to 71, surveyed in 1980-81, 1988-89, 1996-97, and 2004-05. These data provided evidence of an alarming rise in anxiety during the period examined: the researchers limn “increasing prevalence of self-reported anxiety over time, in all age groups except the oldest age groups.” The researchers discern “a dramatic increase of anxiety” during the 25-year period among Swedes ages 16 to 23.  

Using a statistical model that accounts for differences in urbanization, education, smoking, and other background variables, the researchers calculate that males ages 16 to 23 experienced a 2.5-fold increase in anxiety during the period in question. Among females in the same age group, the researchers detect “more than a three-fold increase.”  

Such results may prompt informed observers to question the beneficence of the progressive political and cultural forces dominating Sweden in recent decades, forces that were especially supposed to favor young women. These informed observers may particularly question the way progressive zealots have waged war against traditional wedlock in transforming Sweden into a utopian model for the world. This new study reveals that Swedes—especially young women—very much need the psychological protection marriage offers.

“In both males and females,” the researchers conclude, “increased anxiety was associated with non-married status.” Indeed, using their sophisticated statistical model, the researchers calculate that the nonmarried were almost twice as likely as married/cohabiting peers to report symptoms of anxiety (Odds Ratio of 1.81). 

In returning a finding of a two-fold risk of anxiety among non-married Swedes, the authors of the new study almost surely understate the psychological gap separating unmarried Swedes from married Swedes.  Though a number of studies have shown that cohabitation yields poorer outcomes than does wedlock, the researchers for this study follow the now-common practice of lumping married couples together with cohabiting couples—so simplifying the task of collecting data (and shielding academia from embarrassment over its role in fostering cohabitation).  

In their conclusion, the authors of the new study worry that their findings identify a problem entailing “a large impact on public health and healthcare demands.” The researchers hope that in coping with this impact, professionals will “focus particularly on young females (16–23 years), where the increase [in anxiety during the study period] was particularly large; almost one third experienced anxiety at the end of the 25-year follow-up.”

Could this mean Sweden’s cultural elite will begin again to steer young women toward the altar? Their future mental health clearly depends on a recovery of such social sanity.

(Susanna Calling et al., “Longitudinal Trends in Self-Reported Anxiety.  Effects of Age and Birth Cohort during 25 Years,” BMC Psychiatry 17 [2017]: 119, Web.)