Sunday, August 11, 2013

Anxious Mormon Singles

Graduating Single: A Support Group

I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University when I saw the sign, advertising a support group for students who were worried about graduating single. Inwardly I chuckled and thought about the non-LDS friends I’d attended high school with on the liberal New Hampshire Seacoast, who had grown tense and silent when someone mentioned that a fellow class-mate had recently gotten engaged. Only when someone added, “Don’t worry – they’re waiting till after they both finish college,” did the car full of friends relax. “Good girl,” someone added. “The last thing a college student needs is marriage.”
            Meanwhile, by the start of my sophomore year of college, two of my former roommates were already married. At the religious BYU, marriage was considered a top priority for students. To a few, marriage was the most urgent goal in a student’s life, more urgent even than academics or finances. This goal was so urgent that the church split the student body into congregations based on our marital status. Instead of attending congregations with adults from all walks of life, we singles attended church only with each other. Our leaders and lay clergy were middle-aged marrieds from local “normal” congregations (also called wards), but the congregations themselves were filled with nothing but singles between the ages of 18 and 29.
            At church, local clergy warned us of the evils of postponing marriage and family. If we waited, we were warned, we’d grow complacent with a single lifestyle. We’d grow selfish and self-centered and find it even more difficult to get married down the road, locked into our own idiosyncrasies and unwilling to adjust to a spouse or welcome children into our lives. And when all the pressure brought us to tears, we were encouraged: don’t lose hope, you’ll find someone, 21 is still young, so you have plenty of time.
            In this marriage-hungry culture, I watched many friends find the love of their life and settle in together to build a life together. I also watched friends go on a first date in March and get married in July, with no idea how their new spouse would behave in the middle of winter. I watched roommates get engaged before discussing something as basic as how their new fiancĂ© budgeted money. And in a few cases I watched friends get divorced within the year.
            So when the above TED Talk that discourages 20-somethings from postponing adulthood showed up in my facebook newsfeed, I wanted to throw my hands in the air and shout, “That’s not the problem.” In the video, Meg Jay, a therapist, describes the nonchalance that she’s witnessed many 20-somethings bring to the early part of their adulthood. “20 is the new 30,” one former client would say, to justify stalling her career and dating men she had no intention of partnering with in the long term. So in this TED Talk, Meg Jay calls on 20-somethings to stop passing time and start building the stable, long-term lifestyle they’ll find satisfying in their 30’s.
            At first the video didn’t seem applicable to Mormon single culture in the way it was perhaps applicable to mainstream single culture. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Meg Jay’s observations apply to Mormon 20-somethings as much as they apply to other 20-somethings – just in very different ways:

  1. Isolation
One of the greatest concerns Jay expresses in the video is that by clumping together with other single 20-somethings, millenials will miss out on opportunities to network and further their career. According to her, major life changes are facilitated by friends-of-friends and diverse networks, so single 20-somethings will lose opportunities to grow and change by only spending time with each other.

And yet, for LDS 20-somethings, congregations are arranged with the express purpose of clumping singles in that age-range together, in the hopes they’ll pair off, marry, and then enter the local “family ward” in couples. Sure, LDS singles have the right and option to attend a local ward, but the family congregations are often unsure how to fit singles into their family-centric framework. When I moved to Georgia and called the family ward I wanted to attend, the clergy encouraged me to attend the student congregation instead.

In other cases, I’ve heard married friends fret about the singles in their family congregation. “I just feel so bad for them,” one friend said. “They don’t have anyone to date in our ward.” It’s not hard for singles to pick up on this discomfort, so many young professionals return to congregations filled with starry-eyed undergrads, while others simply stop attending church meetings. But even for those who contentedly attend singles congregations while waiting to marry, it isn’t helpful to spend so much time away from families and the elderly and small, squealing children.

  1. Postponed Adulthood
For Jay, postponed adulthood is the crux of the problem. She meets with 20-somethings who don’t feel a need to settle down and take on adult responsibilities like marriage, children, and a career. But for LDS singles, adulthood becomes postponed on a psychological level. To our leaders, we’re not really adults because we’re not married. At 27, I have several years of professional experience in my field. I have taught college courses (and even graduate courses) for four different universities and hold an MFA. But LDS adult congregations are much more welcoming of my 20-year-old, newly-wed, former students.

To say that this attitude has damaging psychological repercussions for LDS singles is a drastic understatement. From the surface, it can be hard to see how much this attitude hurts us, because we usually hide our hurt. We know that the people encouraging us to marry mean well. We know that when we meet a young couple and ask, “So how did you meet,” they’re not trying to insult us by offering dating advice as part of their story. We know they’re trying to help. But this attitude that single adults belong in temporary, transitional religious communities suggests that a single’s current life is temporary and transitional, that our lives will only begin when we get married.

It didn't occur to me how many LDS singles were secretly waiting for their lives to begin until this summer when a mid-20’s friend, frustrated by yet another negative dating experience, said that she was sick of failed relationships. “I’m ready for my story to begin,” she said. And it was only then that I realized that on some deep, hidden level, I too was waiting for my story to begin. Not because I was stalling like Jay’s clients, but because I’d learned to view my current life as a transition. And I realized that if I maintained that attitude, then no matter what professional, academic, or creative successes I accrued, somewhere deep down I would still feel that my story had not even begun.

  1. Rushing to Marry and Missed Opportunities
In terms of marriage, Jay’s greatest concern seems to be that single 20-somethings who view this decade as a time to party will panic at 30, when all their friends get married, and settle for an unhappy marriage with whoever is nearby. And it’s this area of her advice where I don’t think she fully understands the problem that leads to these rushed, settle-for-it marriages. For Jay, the solution is to think about marriage earlier. But anyone who’s spent time in marriage-hungry Provo, Utah knows that a person can turn desperate and rush into marriage at any age.

So maybe the problem is more complex. Maybe it comes from thinking that marriage must happen on a deadline, or that any marriage is better than singlehood. I can’t say what that experience is like for my non-LDS contemporaries, but among single LDS women my age, I sometimes hear shocking despair about the future. By 25, 26, 27, many feel like spinsters. We’re often spoken of by married friends and family with pity, or accused of being too picky. When I told a married friend that I was tired of constantly giving chances to men I wasn’t actually into, her response was a worried, “But you still have to say ‘yes’ to a first date.” When this friend married at 23, she was surrounded by single Mormons her age, and a first date was often the way to spend time alone with a man and get to know him a little better.

      3.5.  Missed Opportunities

But for a 27-year-old woman living outside the Mormon singles hub, dating is a different scene altogether. In most parts of the world we outnumber the single Mormon men our age, so for those of us who are determined to marry in our faith the prospects can feel bleak. When I first visited the LDS student congregation at the university where I’m working on a PhD, the single female grad students listened attentively while younger friends described dating dilemmas. “We hear about the dating world,” one told me with a smile, “but we’re not part of it. That’s kind of fun, but also – you know.”

When I returned to the congregation after enrolling in the PhD program, I heard other female grad students in the congregation express worry that by attending grad school they’d chosen a career over a family. But it was only when I read a post by a single doctoral student at BYU who was tired of being berated by dates for attending grad school, that I realized I’d never once heard a Mormon man express the fear that in attending grad school he’d miss out on opportunities to marry. Even then, I couldn't really articulate the problem until I read an article by a female divorcee who was tired of constantly being reminded to “search for her eternal companion.” For Mormons, the person we marry is meant to be someone we spend all of eternity with. So it’s not a decision to be made lightly. And yet, after years of being told to always be on the lookout for that eternal relationship, it can reach a point where on some deep, subconscious level we’re afraid that we’ll miss our one chance at love if we so much as blink.

And for me, that worry manifested itself as a fear that if I enjoyed my life as a single, I’d never find the will to settle down when I eventually did meet the right person. That I’d become the cautionary bogeywoman of singles congregations, a woman who enjoyed traveling and spending her time on hobbies and friends, rather than putting her energy into the lasting family relationships that would bring her satisfaction in old age and joy in the next life. When low Georgia rent allowed me to move into a 3-bed, 3-bath townhouse and split it with just one roommate, I felt a little guilty about having so much space. When I made plans to travel during vacations to visit friends and family, I wondered if I was missing out on dating opportunities by not spending enough time in one place. I felt all this in the back of my mind, but it still impacted me. It still left me holding back, on some level, while outwardly living my life.

  1. Solutions
For Jay, the solution is to stop treating the 20’s like throwaway years. But for most LDS singles, we’ve never seen our 20’s as a responsibility-free time to party. So for LDS singles, maybe the solution is to stop defining ourselves – and allowing others to define us – by our marital status. And to stop letting well-meaning leaders corral us into social isolation. If we want to attend a family ward, we can set our foot down and politely tell the local clergy, “Church policy allows me to choose between a singles ward and a family ward, and I’m choosing the family ward.” And if we do attend a singles ward, we can turn down ward activities that involve Frisbees and Slip-N-Slides if we so desire and plan activities that involve serving the community and learning skills we’re interested in gaining.

We can say, “No, thank you,” when married friends offer unsolicited romantic advice, or we can simply say, “That hasn't been my experience, but I’m glad it worked for you, personally.” We can make friends with other people from all walks of life and simply share our experiences with them and listen to theirs. If they have kids and a spouse and we don’t, that’s just one area of difference to learn about. And we can unapologetically live and enjoy the life we’re living. Not because we’re partying or shirking responsibility, but because we’re each growing in our unique way.

Note: when it comes to romance, I'm not currently accepting any unsolicited advice. But feel free to comment with your own thoughts and experiences.


  1. I had similar thoughts when I read Dr. Jay's book (which I highly recommend), but I had trouble putting my ideas into words. Thanks for articulating what I struggled with!

  2. Emily, you're amazing. I love this article so much! I've seen the Jay TedTalk before and I have to say, I didn't like it really and I still don't (seemed too much like one woman's advice to young people with very little background in science or outside of her limited practice of speaking with twenty-something women in one area and phase of life).

    But, I love the reading that you did hear and your application of some of the basic (and really common sense) ideas that she presents is very relevant.

    Excellent article!

  3. Ugh,why does the church treat its congregation so unwisely, and so poorly. There are so many reasons why I detest this massive cultural push to marry, though certainly for many there are significant advantages to marrying young.

    These leaders who put so much pressure on students without thought of the consequences ought to realize and pass on this one, simple truth: That these teachings, as with most LDS teachings, are best practiced when recipients of the doctrine learn to reconcile it with the reality of their own lives.

    Case in point:
    Having been to BYU I remember that constant pressure to date, as well as several other things. Get involved in your community! Magnify your calling! Be everything to everyone! Look at all these sisters! Why aren't you dating them!? (because I don't date people I'm not attracted to bishop...:-) Being the silly person that I was, I quite naturally decided I could do it all. Because if the Lord wants it to happen He won't let you fail right?

    Wrong. Because the Lord doesn't run BYU. Men do who pretend God does.

    And while some people can do all these things and make time to spare, I cannot. I didn't realize at the time was that I have a serious condition that, without naming names, falls on the autistic spectrum, and makes social interactions of most kinds impossibly difficult for me on multiple levels. Recognizing social cues perhaps being the worst issue...

    And if I had gotten married to any one of the girls I had gotten to know before taking the months and years I spent finally sorting everything out I think I can safely say that disaster would've been the crux of that relationship. No matter what our intentions.

    I guess the point I'm trying to get at is that this one-size-fits-all concept ought to be replaced with a more temperate word of advice- that singles ought to know themselves, and the best time for them to make this all-important decision. And when they know as best they can that the decision they're making is the best one, and are in a position to, they shouldn't hold back. Although hesitation is justified every step of the way. If I met the best person in the world and we hit it off and dated for a year without a single problem I would still be antsy about marriage.

    *sigh*. The truth is, this Restoration needs a restoration. This religion that has remained dormant for more than a century needs life breathed into it again. I don't believe anything will truly change for the better in the mormon religion until this church experiences a second awakening and its movement begins again.

  4. Mark, while I don't share your perspective on the church, I can certainly empathize. While I've never believed that the church is perfect, I do believe that the Gospel is perfect and that the church generally helps members come closer to the Gospel.

    What I found in all the time I spent at BYU is that each department, ward, group of friends, etc. can sometimes feel like its own little world. There were certainly some wards where I felt pressured to do everything (such as the ward we were both in at one point), and in those wards I felt incapable of ever measuring up to what others seemed to expect of me. But I also attended wards where others were thoughtful and contemplative and real, and not afraid to be honest and truly consider discussion.

    I don't object to singles wards, and I really did enjoy them for the most part at BYU. In areas like BYU they make complete sense. What bothers me is not singles wards, or even church policy - church policy offers singles the choice between a family ward and a singles ward. What I object to is the way local leaders who are unfamiliar with church policy sometimes discourage members from attending family wards.

    While I've come to love the student congregation I'm attending in Georgia, it was incredibly difficult to essentially have people in the new family ward I was planning to attend tell me not to come back. They were trying to be helpful, they really were. But I was 100% planning to attend that ward, and at 26 I really was looking forward to attending church with people from different walks of life. And when everyone I met kept saying "you should go to the student branch instead," I felt rejected. And that's what I don't think should happen to anyone.

    So, bottom line: I understand why you feel the way about the church that you do, but I also want to make sure I didn't accidentally send a similar message to readers, since that's not what I intended.

  5. I absolutely love this Emily, thanks for posting. As a male who has attended BYUI and is heading back there this winter, I have seen and experienced these things myself in some degree. I especially enjoyed the post from the sister who was being berated by those ignorant brothers. I don't know about them but I would desire more than anything for the mother of my future children to be educated and driven. Such a sad byproduct of the culture. I've never heard the General Authorities encourage the sisters to do absolutely nothing and wait till they get married to start their lives. Far from it. I will surely resist that sort of thinking wherever I see it when I go back to school. This helped me take a lot of pressure off too, so thank you for that.

  6. Hi, Emily! We don't know each other, but I came to this blog after reading a post of yours on Patheos. I love what you have to say here because I, too, read Meg Jay's book earlier this year and felt a bit dissatisfied. You have perfectly outlined what I was thinking as I read! I could tell that her conclusions would be eagerly consumed and proudly shared by LDS folk who want to show the world that we really do have it right when it comes to the young marriages... and that annoyed me. It seemed as though Jay's advice needed a new framework if it were to apply to LDS twentysomethings. I have been too frustrated about all this to write about it (and too reticent to even dream of joining the bloggernacle yet), so it was a huge sigh of relief for me to read your thoughts on the matter. I think you are spot-on. And if I work up the nerve to deal with whatever comment thread may ensue, I will probably re-post this to Facebook sometime if that's okay.

    With love from a 25-year-old single woman living in the middle-of-nowhere in northern Sweden with "no dating prospects" and who loves attending the local family branch,