In praise of single Mormons

Dallin Oaks wants young adult Mormons to hurry up and get married. But I think many single Millennials are delaying marriage for excellent reasons.

In last weekend’s General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, First Presidency member Dallin Oaks sounded an alarm about single Mormons delaying marriage and childbearing:

Children are our most precious gift from God—our eternal increase. Yet we live in a time when many women wish to have no part in the bearing and nurturing of children. Many young adults delay marriage until temporal needs are satisfied. The average age of our Church members’ marriages has increased by more than two years, and the number of births to Church members is falling.

Some of the 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS) results confirmed what President Oaks observed, particularly on Mormons’ declining birth rate. (As one social scientist put it upon seeing the stats on Mormons’ shrinking family size, “four is the new six, and two is the new four.”)

Most Mormons who marry do so early, at least by today’s standards—in their early 20s. But the NMS showed a clear drop in the percentage of Mormons who get married while still in their teens, as Oaks himself did. He and his first wife June were both just nineteen when they wed in 1952. They were not cultural outliers in getting married so young, since the median age at first marriage nationally for American men in the early 1950s was about 22, and for women about 20. The young Oakses were largely in step with what non-Mormon Americans were doing all around them back in the day.

Adolescent marriage is more rare in America now. Only 18 out of 1,000 young adults in the United States ages 18 and 19 are married, according to the Census Bureau. That’s less than 2%.

In the LDS community it’s higher, but falling. In the NMS, a quarter of Mormon respondents over age 52 were married by age 19, compared to just 13 percent of Millennials. That means that adolescent marriage has been cut nearly in half among Mormons.

We might think that is cause for celebration, particularly because early marriage is correlated with higher divorce rates and future poverty. The combination of social immaturity and being uneducated and on the edge financially can take a toll.

In fact, divorce is down in America as a whole. To the long list of institutions and products that Baby Boomers and their elders accuse Millennials of destroying—the automobile industry! the diamond business! chain restaurants!—we might add divorce, which dropped by 18% from 2008 to 2016. The trend is largely driven by young adults who are waiting longer to get married, when they have finished their educations and are more financially secure.

But President Oaks was not exactly focusing on the positive in Saturday’s talk. In it, he suggested that young adults who delay marriage do so not because they are intentional about making the right choice and avoiding outcomes like divorce, but because they are selfishly waiting “until temporal needs are satisfied.”

But selfishness is not what I heard when I interviewed people for the “single Mormons in a married church” chapter of The Next Mormons.

Instead, I heard over and over that they want to be responsible about this. All during their young lives, Millennials’ Mormon parents and teachers told them that choosing an eternal companion was the most important decision they would ever make, and Millennials believed them. Now those elders seem surprised and a bit betrayed that Millennials want to get it exactly right.

No backsies, people: temple marriage is supposed to be forever. Millennials want forever. So it’s not a decision they are taking lightly, with whirlwind BYU courtships that result in an engagement three weeks after first meeting. The “hanging out” that President Oaks has decried in the past as a poor substitute for one-on-one dating is not a mutually exclusive alternative to dating, as Oaks seems to portray it, but in the minds of many single Millennials a necessary prelude. People get to know each other in groups without the immediate pressure of a romantic relationship that may last forever, with each person sizing up the other and wondering: “Are you the one?”

In this context it’s not particularly helpful when Mormon leaders accuse young adults of delaying marriage because they are foolish or selfish. What would be more constructive is for us to recognize three things:

  • The broader culture is changing. As we’ve seen, when President Oaks got married at 19, his choice was entirely within the mainstream for an American young man. Is it fair to expect that today’s Mormon young adults, coming of age in a vastly different environment where women get married at 27 and men at nearly 30, should also marry so young? Particularly when we know what we now know about the dangers of early marriage in terms of future divorce and poverty?
  • We were the ones that taught Millennials that marriage was the most important decision of all. And our doing so was good and right; whom to marry is a decision that affects every other aspect of life (and for Mormons, of eternity). It is thus oddly whiplash-inducing for us to then turn around and chide young adults for taking longer to make this choice than we did.
  • Hammering the “get married!” message again and again may actually be driving singles out of the Church. How many people come to church to hear, over and over, that they are doing life wrong? That they are inadequate and possibly sinful? That’s how many single Mormons, particularly ones in their 30s, feel when they hear repeatedly from the pulpit that they should just get married already. As if it were that easy. Should it surprise us that single Mormons as a whole have a significantly lower church activity rate than married members of the same age? That some drop out in frustration or even in shame because the Church keeps making it clear they are deeply flawed?

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