Young Mormon Men and Marriage

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.

3 thoughts on “Young Mormon Men and Marriage

  1. Ron Johnson Reply

    Hi John, I was sorry to read that after you left LDS you tried Christianity and for some reason it appears you left that. I wish that you had found a church with a well trained teaching/pastor and a group of well grounded believers of all ages. I would love to talk to you about churches, what constitutes a Biblical one and what constitutes otherwise.
    There are all kinds of churches, and it saddens me that people like yourself can go to the wrong kind of church and as a result leave what you call Christianity for good having never experienced the joy of a very good church. Churches are not “Christian”, people are Christians, thus the name Christian on the door tells me nothing. What one has to do is to visit and ask what they believe, read a dotcrinal statemen and other things

    • John Larsen Post authorReply

      Hi Ron,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I actually went to the Unitarian Church for 5 years after I left the Mormon Church. I attended wonderful congregations. I believe there are a lot of great Christian communities out there. I reject Christianity based on its theology and its practice by believers over the past 2000 years. I have read extensively on the subject and talked to many.

      People like me aren’t a failure to “get” Christianity. Rather, I am not a Christian because I do in fact understand Christianity.

      Thanks for the dialog!

      John

  2. Brent Glenn Reply

    I have thought about this recently in the context of why Mormon men give up on the faith than Mormon women. I have heard estimates that there are nearly 2 times the number of marriageable age women attending Church than men.

    From what I have seen (although full disclosure, I have not actually attended Church in 10 years), it is the combination of the fetishization of female sexual purity, female expectations of a spouse and the prosperity gospel that causes this problem.

    First, when women are sexual objects and talked about only in terms of their worth as procreators, it makes them less of full humans and focuses their drive to attract a top mate, instead of bettering themselves. I think this is exemplified by young women at Church making a list of everything their future spouse needs to be: returned missionary and provider for family always being on that list. Returned missionary on track to be the Stake President and outstanding provider for a family are often the real goal. Women therefore need to care excessively about their appearance and sexual desirability. Paradoxically, women have been taught to tightly control their own sexuality and only engage in sex when they have legally secured the foregoing man. Many women, at least more than men, have the ability to control their sexual urges leading them to hold out.

    This is all somewhat fantastical thinking that every woman can have the life they are taught they can have as young women. Unfortunately, it is the life achieved by maybe 5% of women, so it is common enough that it appears all women could have it if they simply tried harder.

    Second, as you point out, men are also taught that they need to fulfill many roles. They need to be spiritual, be leaders and have at least the chance of becoming wealthy. It doesn’t take long for most men to figure out that they are not good at one or more role. They might want to be a high school history teacher instead of a businessman or doctor. Everyone knows that few bishops are humble school teachers. This greatly lowers his status in the Mormon market for mates. He therefore needs to make money in the paradigm of the prosperity gospel to secure the best sexual partner (spouse). However, the men who are actually good at making money are often fairly worldly, which is what actually allows them to make money. They realize that they then have access to sexual partners or spouses that do not carry the unreal expectations that Mormon women are taught to have for their spouse. These men fall away from the Church in fairly high numbers from what I have seen, leaving fewer great providers and even fewer great providers who are on a leadership track. Again, there are the men out there who do make money, do become Stake President, have 6 kids and a gorgeous wife who is a great cook, which makes it seem attainable. However, it is clearly unachievable for most members.

    In short, the Church and Church culture has strictly defined the pool of potential sexual partners (as you describe), put fantastical ideas in women’s heads about what a “good” man to marry is and created roles for men that many simply cannot fulfill. It’s no wonder so many men give up. Maybe more Mormon women should give up. The men and women could then actually get to know each other as humans, make love if they want and feel loved for who they are instead of what box they check off for each other.

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