"Even today, almost 50% of all Slovak brides are pregnant at their wedding."
Peter Guráň, head of the family section with the Family Affairs Ministry
Unmarried and childless at 24, Zuzana would have been considered an old maid here little more than a decade ago. But in Slovakia's rapidly changing society - just 11 years removed from the 1989 Velvet Revolution - the nature of the typical Slovak family is undergoing a change as well.
In the late 1980s, newlywed Slovaks averaged 21 years of age, sociologists say. Today, the average age of newlyweds has risen, the divorce rate has increased, fewer marriages are taking place, and younger people are focusing on career development over starting a family.
Psychologists ascribe much of the change to increased stress resulting from society's massive transformation from communism to an open market, a transformation which has created unemployment rates upwards of 20%.
Furthermore, the increased freedom to travel, study, and work abroad - opportunities which have been embraced by the younger generation - has also played a role, said Peter Guráň, head of the family section with the Family Affairs Ministry.
"Young people don't just finish school, get married and have children any more," Guráň said. "Under Communism, the family was an escape from the oppressive society we lived in, it was a circle of people with whom you could say and think whatever you wanted. But this is no longer the case: families are no longer the only place where such things can be found."
Jarmila Filadelfiová, a sociologist with the International Family Research Centre (MSŠR) in Bratislava, agreed: "Twenty years ago, the typical Slovak family would have two children, with the first coming very shortly after the wedding."
Couples would marry young, usually fresh out of secondary school or university, Filadelfiová continued, land safe jobs, have children, get a flat, maybe a car. "Now that A, B, C, D scheme doesn't apply to all Slovak families."
According to the sociologist, the social and financial instability that has become so common since 1989 was the reason many young people opted to begin careers rather than a family.
"In the 1970s, the Communists would encourage young people to get married and have children by offering them flats, jobs, and advantageous loans," she said. "Now there's no such motivation. People have to take care of themselves. It's natural that they strive for financial security before entering marriages."
While the average age of Slovaks getting married for the first time was 21 at the end of Communism, that figure as of the year 2000 was 28.2 for men and 25.2 for women. In the mid-1990s, some 27,500 marriages took place - five years later the number had dropped to 25,900. Many aspects of marriages in Slovakia, however, have remained the same, including betrothals which occur after unplanned pregnancies.
"Even today, almost 50% of all Slovak brides are pregnant at their wedding," Guráň said, a result of the importance Slovaks still place on the traditional family.
"Once the girl is pregnant, she'll most likely get married, even though she and her partner didn't plan to do so," said psychologist Mária Hargašová of the state-run Psychological Advice Centre (CPPS) in eastern Slovakia's Michalovce. "There's a great deal of social pressure on such pairs to 'do things right', meaning to get married."
A change for the worse?
Not only are Slovaks marrying later, and less often than before, but those who do tie the knot stand a greater chance of seeing it unravel. Slovakia has seen a growing number of divorces throughout the 1990s, from 22 per 100 marriages in 1990 to nearly 36 in 2000 (see chart, this page).
Apart from the political freedom the 1989 Velvet Revolution brought, the concomitant social and financial insecurity has caused "damage to the psychological well-being of many Slovak families," explained Hargašová.
At the beginning of the 1990s, she said, many eastern Slovaks living in areas of high unemployment travelled to western Slovakia, or even the Czech Republic, where jobless rates were nearly zero. They often left their families behind. Similar trends were also seen in central and northern Slovakia.
"This caused a lot of problems," Hargašová said. "The families became distant, grandparents would often have to take care of the children while the parents worked far away."
Those who stayed and searched for work in the poorer regions, she continued, had to deal with unemployment and its side-effects, such as alcoholism, gambling addictions and domestic violence, all of which further damaged the family institution.
A 1995 MSŠR survey on the quality of family relationships illustrated the demise: 82% of respondents said that they had felt an increased level of "irritation" with their partners, while 54% said their marital relationships had deteriorated.
For the Family Ministry, however, the Slovak family is simply experiencing growing pains associated with any adjustment. As Slovakia becomes more stable, Guráň said, family life would steady.
"Our divorce rates are increasing, but they are still far lower than those of some developed European countries," he said. "There's no reason to panic over the fate of the Slovak family."