(RNS) — Once upon a time when I had missionaries over for dinner, one young guy made a remark I found irritating. He noted in passing how excited he was to be going home soon, and how he was confident that, since he’d been faithful in his missionary service, the Lord would reward him with a beautiful wife.
If you’re a regular reader of this column you will probably be shocked to learn I didn’t protest this remark at the time. The guy was a guest in my house, so I politely let it pass. The problematic comment also wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t saying anything many Latter-day Saint leaders and members of the church hadn’t already taught him was true.
But inside I was fuming at what we’re teaching the youth of the Church.
After I closed the door, I let myself fantasize about how I could have responded while dinner was still in progress. I could have, for example, gone upstairs and retrieved a childhood trophy from some forgotten dusty shelf and presented it to him with considerable fanfare.
“Here!” I pictured myself saying. “You seem to feel your hard work deserves some recognition. Enjoy this trophy. Note that it is NOT a human being. A spouse and a trophy are not the same thing.”
There are a number of reasons people rightly object to the hot-wife-as-reward fallacy. It’s sexist; it’s overly focused on appearance; it’s a version of the Vending Machine God taught by prosperity gospel adherents. In short, it’s shallow and theologically bankrupt.
But here’s another objection I haven’t heard raised: This is a surefire way to torpedo a marriage before it even begins.
Mormons pride ourselves on strong marriages and happy families. I think Church leaders are completely sincere when they tell members they believe the gospel offers tools to make those strong marriages and happy families a reality. I don’t think they realize how often some of their other messages undermine the tools.
In particular, leaders have taught youth for years that it’s not just particular human qualities they should be looking for in a future spouse. They also teach that there’s a checklist of gender-based achievements. On the Church’s website there is a page called “Mate Selection” — no, I swear I am not making this up — in which wonderful quotations about the human and spiritual qualities people ought to look for in a spouse are interwoven with some damaging gender messages.
Young men should only look for a woman who wants to be a mother, according to Elder Richard Scott. That must be infinitely more important to her than “seeking professional pursuits.” And young men, for their part, need to accept that their role is to be financial providers and priesthood holders.
President David O. McKay adds chastity to the checklist of essential traits in a young woman. Ezra Taft Benson cautions that a young woman shouldn’t consider marrying a young man who “cannot take (her) worthily to the temple.” (She apparently can’t find the way there on her own? Just FYI, it’s that super-tall building in the center of town, the one with the spires … you’re welcome.)
As I said, these checklist items are interspersed with truly helpful counsel about what to look for in a marriage partner. And I should add that the Church’s website does not feature the kind of crap theology I heard from that missionary and many others in Mormon culture: that 1) the Lord uses human beings to reward people, particularly men, for Church service; and that 2) these “rewards” should be hawt hawt hawt. In fact, I think the site goes out of its way to include teachings that caution against focusing overly much on appearance.
But it’s still primarily role-based, not human-based, advice about marriage. And when we teach our young people that what they’re looking for is someone to complement them and help them achieve their goals, they’re objectifying the hypothetical spouse in question. We teach them to look for checklists, which leads us to objectifying people — treating them as an object, a thing. A spouse is valuable to us insofar as he or she can take us to the temple, give us children, raise those children or bring home the bacon, not merely for being a unique and beloved child of God.
So when that missionary objectified his hypothetical future wife by viewing her as a reward for his own good behavior, he was dooming not just her but also himself for an unhappy marriage. What’s fair to other people is allowing them to be the subjects of their own stories, not mere objects in our own. They are not means to ends, even righteous ends.
I want to point out that while the “hot wife” trope among male missionaries is one particularly egregious way we do this in Mormon culture, we also encourage teenage girls to think this way.
Recently I became aware of a rather horrible candy bar exercise that’s making the rounds of Young Women organizations in wards across the country. On a superficial level, it sounds kind of fun (and any activity that involves chocolate is of course better than an activity that does not involve chocolate). But it’s problematic, too. Upon entering the room, each girl is given a different kind of candy bar, and each candy bar is supposed to represent a potential future husband and his qualities. For example, the “Snickers” guy is to be avoided because his sense of humor tends toward the snarky and he makes sarcastic comments about the Church.
When I first heard about the story, the “$100,000 bar” young man was presented as a goal for which Young Women should aspire. A man who earned a six-figure salary would enable her to stick to her divinely ordained role of staying home with their children, so what’s not to love? (The online versions of this activity treat him a bit more critically.)
Activities like this encourage checklist thinking and role-based thinking. The problems come when, as inevitably happens in marriage for life (to say nothing of eternal progression), people change. The beautiful trophy wife gets old or fat; the handsome RM (returned missionary) loses his six-figure salary or his testimony of the Church. Maybe one or both of them outgrows the assigned role, reaching in fresh new directions. Will the marriage grow to accommodate these changes, or will it shrivel?
A friend of mine who is a therapist has told me a bit about the LDS couples that she tends to see in her practice. These are sometimes quite unhappy people who have been brought to a crisis because they cannot grow together in a marriage in which both of them conceived of their roles so rigidly in the beginning. They aren’t growing and changing together; when one grows or changes, the other feels attacked. This “growth” was not what the spouse signed up for.
So here’s the marriage lesson: see the person, not the role. Ask not what your future spouse can do for you, or even what the two of you can accomplish together — at least until you’ve gotten to know that fabulous human enough to know whether your goals coincide. If you spend your eternity with someone, it should be because you honor the incomparable uniqueness of that particular child of God, not because that person burnishes your image.