The Transatlantic Divide on Marriage:  Dutch Data and the U.S.Debate on Same-Sex Unions

Report Marriage and Family

The Transatlantic Divide on Marriage:  Dutch Data and the U.S.Debate on Same-Sex Unions

September 29, 2004 11 min read

Authors: Patrick Fagan and Grace Smith

In the debate over the redefinition of marriage, advocates of same-sex marriage have made a variety of arguments. Many have argued that same-sex marriage would be good for homosexuals. Some have gone so far as to propose that the change would strengthen the institutions of marriage and family by reaffirming commitment and fidelity.[1] Early data from abroad, however, do not support the claim that same-sex marriage would benefit marriage in general. In the Netherlands, where homosexual relationships gained legal recognition in 1998, same-sex marriage has not strengthened the family but may have accelerated its decline.


As the Netherlands' experiment in legalizing same-sex unions has illustrated, same-sex marriage in that country constituted one more step in a steady legal and social breakdown of the family. This is not to say that the data imply a causal relationship between the initiation of same-sex marriage and the breakdown of the family in the Netherlands. Rather, the redefinition of marriage furthered a general pattern of cultural and legal erosion of the institution. According to several Dutch social scientists, their fellow citizens "increasingly regard marriage as no longer relevant" because they have been persuaded that "marriage is not connected to parenthood and that marriage and cohabitation are equally valid 'lifestyle choices…'"[2] Marriage may be losing its place as the fundamental building block of social infrastructure in the Netherlands. As the United States considers how to respond to the judicial dictates redefining marriage,[3] policymakers should be aware of data emerging from the European precedent, and they should choose the most beneficial course for the family in America by preserving the institution of marriage.  


The legislative consideration of a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution takes place within a much larger debate on the American family and the policies that strengthen or weaken it. In this debate, the United States has been gradually turning in a very different direction from Europe, where recent public policy has facilitated the erosion of the family. Under both the Clinton and Bush administrations the federal policy approach has generally been one of strengthening marriage for the benefit of children. The European strategy presents a stark contrast of granting increased political license to reduce traditional family ties, facilitating greater individualism among adults. The sociological data indicate that the American approach is better for children and for the future strength of nations. 


One troubling consequence of these changes in the Netherlands is the growing disconnect between marriage and parenting in the mainstream Dutch consciousness, according to some observers. In the decade leading up to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the Netherlands its proponents made arguments that separated the institution of marriage from parenting.[4] Now, alternative forms of cohabitation and childrearing are increasingly accepted in the reputedly tolerant Netherlands, and marriage has been devalued such that it has become an "endangered institution."[5] All of these developments have done nothing to improve the state of family life in the Netherlands.


A key barometer of the health of the family for any nation is the proportion of children who reach early adulthood in an intact family, and by this measure the Netherlands continues to deteriorate. Not only is an intact family foundational for a child's individual happiness and well-being but also for the social and economic health of the nation's next generation. When parents reject each other in divorce or separation, it dismantles social infrastructure.[6] A steady increase in the percentage of children in the Netherlands living in single-parent families (see Chart 1) was followed by a marked increase in this percentage during the 1990s, when the Dutch population debated and introduced registered partnerships and same-sex marriage. The proportion of the population that is married (see Chart 2) has been steadily decreasing while the proportion of the population that is divorced (see Chart 3) has been steadily rising. In addition, there have been noteworthy increases in

  • The percentage of out-of-wedlock births (see Chart 4);
  • The number of induced abortions (increases of 31 percent among teenagers, 40 percent among 20- to 24-year-olds, and 36 percent among 25- to 29-year-olds; see Chart 5); and
  • The number of couples across all educational levels who choose to remain childless (see Chart 6).

The campaign for same-sex marriage has also detracted from the significance of marriage by effectively equating other types of relationships with marriage. The Netherlands' creation of "registered partnerships" in 1998-in many ways similar to Vermont's civil unions or California's domestic partnerships-touched off a string of significant social changes. A registered partnership, available to heterosexual and homosexual couples alike, is a contractual agreement between two people that provides many of the same benefits as marriage. Following the legalization of same-sex "marriages" in 2001, most same-sex registered partners chose to change their relationship status to "married." Simultaneously, the Netherlands witnessed a sizable increase in marriage dissolution among heterosexual couples.


As a result of the Act of Opening Marriage to Same-Sex Couples (2001), a simple legal procedure now allows couples to transform a registered partnership into a marriage, or, vice versa, to change the status of their marriage to a registered partnership. This led further to the phenomenon of "flash annulments" or "lightning divorces" (flitsscheidingen). In a flash annulment, a couple mutually decides to downgrade their marriage to a registered partnership, which is then quickly followed by the termination of their registered partnership. This effectively circumvents the divorce procedure, which is, by definition, more lengthy and complex. Commentary on flash annulments describes the procedure as an unintended consequence of the legislation.[7]


The number of heterosexual couples who availed themselves of this unforeseen measure was substantial. In 2002-the first full year of its availability-about four thousand married couples terminated their relationships this way.[8] The fact that married couples used this as "an escape route" from marriage explains why the majority of registered partnerships (see Chart 7) are between heterosexual couples and why the number of partnerships increased from about four thousand in 1998 to more than eight thousand in 2002.[9] As a result of these legal and social changes marriage is now barely distinguishable in law from registered cohabitation, marriage dissolution through divorce and flash annulments has risen to an historic high (see Chart 8), and the institution of marriage has been further dismantled.


These developments in the Netherlands are undoubtedly part of a larger trend that has been emerging in Europe for years. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Hungary, and Iceland have all granted some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples. The Nordic countries continue to pursue policies that erode the intact married family, and much of the continent appears to be following suit toward dismantling traditional marriage. Across the Atlantic, the United States has been struggling towards different goals in the last decade, in the form of the Clinton and Bush administrations' family policies, which include

  • An increase in funding for programs promoting sexual abstinence among teens and success in reducing teenage sexual activity;[10]
  • A reduction in the number and rate of teenage abortions;[11]
  • A drive to stabilize marriage built around a newly forged consensus that married parents remain the ideal for raising children;[12] and
  • A renewed commitment to include faith-based services in the country's social welfare strategy.

In contrast with Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular, the United States is engaged in robust debate about the erosion of the family because of a widespread consensus that the absence of marriage is a threat to children and thus a threat to the future of the nation.[13] The outcome of the national debate on same-sex marriage will either contribute to or detract from the national consensus on the need to strengthen marriage. Congress should play its part by rejecting the Netherlands policy template for the family and the proposition on the part of some advocates that same-sex marriage will strengthen the family in America. It clearly has not in the Netherlands.


Patrick Fagan is William H. G. FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues, and Grace Smith is a research assistant in domestic policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1]Andrew Sullivan, "Here Comes The Groom: A conservative case for gay marriage,"The New Republic, August 28, 1989 at (Sept 20, 2004).

[2]Statement by Professors M. van Mourik, A. Nuytinck, R. Kuiper, J. Van Loon, and H. Wels, in Reformatorisch Dagblad, July 8, 2004.

[3] Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., "A Defining Moment: Marriage, the Courts, and the Constitution," Heritage Backgrounder No. 1759, May 17, 2004 at

[4]Statement by Professors M. van Mourik, A. Nuytinck, R. Kuiper, J. Van Loon, and H. Wels, in Reformatorisch Dagblad, July 8, 2004.


[6]Patrick F. Fagan and Robert E. Rector, "The Effects of Divorce on America," Heritage Backgrounder No. 1373, June 5, 2000; Patrick F. Fagan, "Rising Illegitimacy: America's Social Catastrophe," Heritage FYI No. 19, June 29, 1994.

[7]Masha Antokolskaia and Katharina Boele-Woelki, "Dutch Family Law in the 21st Century: Trend-Setting and Straggling Behind at the Same Time," Netherlands Comparative Law Association at (June 28, 2004) [See sections 1.2 and 2.2] and D. Manting and J.A. Loeve, "Economic circumstances and union dissolution of couples in the 1990s in the Netherlands," Statistics Netherlands, March 16, 2004, p. 4.

[8]Manting and Loeve, p. 4


[10]For example, see the Republican Study Committee's brief on federal abstinence programs at

[11]See National Center for Health Statistics at and

[12]Isabel Sawhill, "Is Lack of Marriage the Real Problem?," The American Prospect, April 8, 2002, at (September 27, 2004); Robert Rector, Patrick Fagan, and Kirk Johnson, "Marriage: Still the Safest Place for Women and Children," Heritage Backgrounder No. 1732, March 9, 2004, at; and Institute for American Values, "Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-One Conclusions from the Social Sciences," February 14, 2002, at (September 27, 2004).

[13]For example, see Institute for American Values, "Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-One Conclusions from the Social Sciences," February 14, 2002, at (September 27, 2004).


Patrick Fagan

Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow

Grace Smith

Counselor to the President