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To Marry or Not To Marry? Consensual Union Is Popular In Iceland

To Marry or Not To Marry? Consensual Union Is Popular In Iceland

Jessica Peng
Words by
Photos by
Timothée Lambrecq

Published June 4, 2018

As the wedding season approaches, brides and grooms around the world are getting ready to share their vows in front of families and friends. However, you won’t see a lot of wedding dresses in Iceland, because Icelanders are just not that crazy about marriage.

According to Statistics Iceland, almost 70 percent of children were born out of wedlock in 2016, with only 30 percent born to married couples. Out of those 70 percent, many newborns were welcomed by parents who were in consensual union–registered as living together.

Why do more and more Icelanders prefer consensual unions instead of marriage nowadays? To answer this question, we asked an Icelandic couple, Þorbjörg Snorradóttir and Haraldur Sigurðsson (Halli), about their views on partnership and marriage.

Modern Family

Þorbjörg and Haraldur have been living together for eight years and they are parents to three lovely children. “We met through Lindy Hop, a 1920s era partner dance that we were both into,” Halli laughs. They are registered as living together, and they also own an apartment.

The couple became engaged last year, and they had plans to get married. “We had the date and a space to do it in, but there was the practical thing–the money and all that. I was back in school and it was just too much trouble so we cancelled it,” Þorbjörg explains. “The relationship hasn’t changed and we’re still gonna get married someday when we have the money and time.”

For Þorbjörg and Halli, getting married is a more practical matter rather than romantic. “The only reason I want to get married is because of the law,” Þorbjörg says. “Even though we’re registered as living together, I have no claims to any of his things if he dies.” Owning an apartment together makes inheritance complicated when they are in a consensual union. While in a marriage, both partners’ inheritance rights are protected by law.

“The only reason I want to get married is because of the law. Even though we’re registered as living together, I have no claims to any of his things if he dies.”

Beyond legal protection, marriage does not hold more meaning to the couple. “For me getting married is basically just a good opportunity to celebrate the relationship for one day, and throw a party,” Halli says. “I don’t think our relationship is going to change in any way.”

Þorbjörg and Halli are committed to each other, whether they are married or not. “We’ve done the commitment part by having kids together. That kind of says ‘you’ll be in my life forever,’ Þorbjörg says.

Throughout their relationship, Þorbjörg has had higher salary than Halli most of the time. “I’m not dependent on him for anything, except for him, I want to be with him. But I don’t need his insurance or money,” she says. “There’s nothing that marriage would give me that he has.”

Historical Roots

The way Icelanders form families in fact has historical influences. Guðný Björk Eydal, professor at University of Iceland, has done research in family policy in Iceland. “During the 19th Century, what happened in Iceland was that we were extremely poor, and one part of the legislation was you were not allowed to get married unless you had a land,” she explains.

People in debt did not have access to land, thus they were prohibited to marry by law. “It was a system intended to keep fertility under control and aimed at supplying farmers with a steady flow of relatively cheap labour,” according to Guðný’s research.

During this time, Icelanders started forming families without getting married, even though it was not their preference. “Both consensual unions and births out of wedlock were established as social patterns,” Guðný further explains. The law was abolished later on but the social patterns carried on.

The Icelandic Model

Overtime, Iceland has developed its own model for starting a family. According to Guðný’s research, the “Icelandic Model” has the following steps: meeting, pregnancy, cohabitation, birth of first child and wedding, except that a lot of couples decide to skip the last step. “We don’t consider marriage as something that has to be done before the birth of a child,” Guðný says. Meanwhile, the traditional model in other countries is to get married before the conception of the first child.

“The “Icelandic Model” has the following steps: meeting, pregnancy, cohabitation, birth of first child and wedding, except that a lot of couples decide to skip the last step.”

In Iceland there is less stigma to women who give birth to children outside of wedlock. Women have more freedom and social support to raise their children in whichever form of family they prefer. “We have never really regarded birth of children out of wedlock as a social problem,” Guðný comments.

Legal Differences

Registering as living together gives couples some legal rights in Iceland. “You can file joint tax reports, you can use each other’s tax allowances. If you’re registered as cohabitation and a child is born, then you’re automatically given joint custody,” Guðný explains.

However, there are still major legal differences between a consensual union and a marriage. “Being registered won’t give you the same rights as the family law would give you in a marriage. This legal protection in case of divorce, death of either spouse does not apply,” Guðný says. “If you’ve been cohabiting for 30 years, and your partner dies, then you won’t inherit a single dime. It will go to your joint children if you have any, otherwise it will go to the partner’s relatives.”

There is also more protection in a marriage if the couple decide to split up. “You have legal protection and rules on how to divide your estates. If you are in cohabitation and you want to protect your legal rights, you really have to go through quite a lot of documentation and contracts,” Guðný comments. “And in case of problems like abusive relationships, this can be really hard to go through.”

Patriarchal Institution

Historically, heterosexual marriage has always been a rather patriarchal institution. “All the traditions in wedding ceremonies and women’s roles within the marriage are very patriarchal,” says Dr. Gyða Pétursdóttir, Senior Lecturer at University of Iceland. “The white dress has all sorts of symbolic meanings about women’s purity. The woman is given to her husband by the father, so it’s like another piece of property.”

The wedding industry is also lucrative. “From a feminist perspective, you could see that this patriarchy and capitalism have merged,” Gyða comments. As one of the most progressive and liberal countries, Iceland is known for more equality between women and men. And now, Icelanders are shaping new traditions by not getting married at all.


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