This essay was first written and published in 2011
In the most recent conference the brethren once again rolled out the admonition for young Mormon men to stop delaying marriage. The story has been picked up by the national press, bloggers and and columnists each throwing their opinion in the mix. I thought I might add mine.
The problem is framed this way: there are lots of Mormon women just waiting to marry Mormon men, but the young Mormon men are choosing not to engage. Literally.
There are several things going on here. While Mormons are not racist, at least not any more so than the general populace, Mormons are very strongly encouraged to marry only other Mormons. In fact “strongly encouraged” is not accurate as the encouragement is more like a commanded. The whole center of Mormon doctrine depends upon the marriage and the establishment of the nuclear family. Without a family and a temple marriage both men and women are denied entry into the highest heavens and are excluded from participating in the central purpose of life.
So why would Mormon men belay or ignore something of such gravitas? I think we need to first explore the standard narrative of men who delay marriage. The story goes that wonderful women are waiting quietly to be swept up by righteous, worthy, and qualified Mormon men. Women, this reasoning goes, have taken care of the details and arrived where they need to be. The next step is dependent upon the males. It is the men who are not fulfilling their destiny. Thus they are are the problem.
This narrative is not completely false because the social norms that underscore it are hammered in the weekly services of Mormonism. Sex roles are very concrete and are enforced through social events, sermons, manuals, and social programming. And this social program does indeed prepare women to assume the role of mother and secondary partner in the family.
However, for most of their lives, Mormon men follow a tight script. Starting at the age of 3, there is a steady progression in the youth programs mirroring the grade advancement of the schools. But for the males at age 12 the advancement paradigm kicks into full gear and their is no room for alternative tracks. They “advance” in the priesthood every two years culminating in their mission and the Melchizedek priesthood–which is the gateway into manhood. The mission is also a string of advancements from junior companion to senior companion, from district leader to zone leader. Each stage exactly spelled out with prescribed duties and scripted actions.
Likewise, the adult male looks forward to event followed by the next achievement. Callings are followed by other more advanced callings and priesthood advancement continues to follow one after another. Each giving greater responsibility and less personal freedom. Each position is tightly defined and not, general, with much creative freedom. Those serving in callings are told exactly what to do and when to do it.
Of course, in the Mormon paradigm it is not okay to either decline or seek after a position. Huge amounts of time and responsible can be thrust upon an individual that will set the course of that person’s life for years at a time. Many callings can eat up virtually all of one’s free time and vacation. Positions are give regardless of interest or ability. One with no interest in the outdoors may find themselves in a multi-year stint as the Boy Scoutmaster. A shy man may find himself as a bishop spending every night counseling distraught members.
It is not just the file callings, but everything in life. As an adult male, one is expected to lead the household financially, in leadership and spiritually. One is expected to be the provider for the family. One is expected to be a moral stalwart and fill these defined roles in parenthood, in the career and as an idealized spouse. In short, marriage, callings and family are about filling certain roles and not about finding something that works with an individual personality.
The real issue is that these roles and callings one must fulfill are devoid of self. Not in some sort of Buddhist metaphysical manner, but in the sense that all are interchangeable. One bishop, one Scoutmaster, or one Elder’s quorum president can be interchanged for another. On top of that, bishops can be swapped out for primary teachers at the direction of the leadership. The individual’s own personality, strengths and flaws must be subservient to the role that has been defined.
For the young man, there is one period of respite during one’s life, that is the period following the mission. The tight groove that men must follow is rested for a brief interval until marriage and the whole thing starts again. Marriage is inevitably followed by children and every other responsibility that follows. In the Mormon culture a couple will be barely home from their honeymoon before questions start about when the children will come. Children will inevitably bring questions about the proper care of those children including mortgages, minivans and vacations to Disneyland. Any interests of the young man that don’t fit the standard narrative such as sports or video games, or less benign interests are expected to be discarded for the relationship, the family and the callings.
A health relationship between two adults must account for the personalities and quirks of each individual. We are all a mix of great traits, mediocrity, and flaws. Even the most wonderful people have their own quirks. A good marriage will be comprised of adults who are aware of each other’s eccentricities and work together out of love and caring. When two adults go into a relationship each to fulfill the predefined roles, that works as long as each stays on script.
Young men today can look at the standard narrative and look down the line of what is expected in terms of future callings and responsibilities. He can look and see what the Church has said his potential mate will expect of him. Likewise he can go on dates with women where the conversation stays strictly within the bounds of Church and no real connection is made. He may listen to her laundry list of expectations, likely parroted from a list handed to her by her Church leaders. Without a real connection between him and his potential mate, his future may not be appealing. Without a real way to romantically and emotionally connect with someone because of these role definitions, the young man may have little motivation to proceed.
It should also be noted that these same restrictions and problems effects females in the same way. However, it doesn’t seem to have impacted young women’s desire to follow the Mormon family track the way it has the men.
It is encouraging that many in the Church have successfully built relationships by transcending the standard narrative and developing deep and rich relationship in spit of the roles that were defined by the Church. But kids that grow up without being able to have intimate (not necessarily sexual) relationships with the opposite sex outside of the Church’s control may not have the ability to construct these sort of connections while courting.
In today’s world, marriages do not follow the strict scripts they did in ancient times. There is not guarantee that one party is the hunter and the other is the gatherer. As the Church pushes these sorts of roles, the potential outcomes and benefits may be less and less appealing to this generation. They see other thing of more interest that will take their time. Allow the normal formation of relationships and allow for individuals to find their own paths in life and the marriage problem will be solved. But then again, if we do that, we may not be as concerned that everyone follows the pattern and gets married. And therein lies the rub.