Dallin Oaks says to hurry up and get married and have kids. Yeah, but … it ain’t always that easy.
Let’s back up for a minute here and get a running start at his directive and its ramifications.
The question was an earnest one, thrown many years ago by me at my future father-in-law, an intimidating man of great acumen, great learning, great wisdom. It went like this: “What’s the specific key to a happy marriage?”
On the eve of marrying his daughter, one of the treasures of his life, I waited for his advice, eager like a chick in the nest anticipating sustenance from a parent bird, dropping food into a hungry open beak.
His answer came with a scrunched expression, a shrug and three words slurred into one, landing somewhere between bewilderment and befuddlement. You would’ve thought I asked him to solve the unsolvable Riemann hypothesis.
“Iduuuunnnnnnooo,” he said.
“Say what?” I asked.
“Beats me,” he said.
His clear-but-cluttered message: God only knows.
While my mother-in-law-to-be, sitting within earshot, wasn’t thrilled with that response, it leaned up snug to the truth in a way I had not yet experienced. A happy marriage is an inexact science, a sometimes-puzzling mix of what comes naturally, what comes with effort, what comes with the application of sound principles, what comes with good fortune.
That much I now know, after more than 40 years of wedded bliss. And by bliss, I mean an open food fight.
No, I kid.
My wife, Lisa, is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. All of my family and friends agree. They all like her more than they like me — and for good reason. She’s better than I am.
(I made the mistake once of asking my five daughters who the luckier partner was in our marriage. Fathers and husbands out there — do not do this. Four of them said I was the lucky one and one felt sorry enough for me to say Lisa was luckier. It was an attempt for advantageous positioning in the will. Everyone knew she was lying.)
Now, Oaks, a member of the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, comes along and says during a worldwide devotional with his wife, Kristen, encouraging Latter-day Saint young single adults (as they are labeled in the faith) not to delay marriage. He gave a stat that the average age of Latter-day Saint men getting hitched for the first time sits at a whopping 28.5 years (for women, it’s 26.8 years), much later than it used to be. That’s pretty amazing considering members’ reputation for wedding while they are … young.
As Inspector Clouseau used to say it, “Noot anymooore.”
According to Latter-day Saint marriage therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, reasons for the delay are wide-ranging. Take your pick, from financial concerns to cultural changes to a tendency toward what she terms “prolonged adolescence.”
“They’re married to their computers,” she says.
That arrangement can be less than ideal at the one end, harmful at the other. The constraints of life — read: responsibilities — that come through marriage and having children, she says, can lead to further human development and fulfillment.
Life, like tennis, can lead to greater rewards and, in some cases, more fun if a net — marriage — is hoisted and lines on the court are drawn — children — that require increased effort and practice, more touch and mastery, attributes that go beyond simply selfishly hitting a ball back and forth.
Not that self-development and individualism aren’t useful. A young person getting to know who she or he is before committing to a relationship and all the challenges that come with it are significant in finding a good match and overcoming those challenges that inevitably will show up.
Establishing a “sense of oneself” is important, Finlayson-Fife says. “Women who get married real early sometimes don’t get a sense of their capacity outside of marriage. That’s not a basis for a good marriage.”
In other words, young people getting to know who they are before tying themselves to a partner with another set of characteristics and dimensions that are best discovered before marriage is fundamental to a successful pairing.
Another motivator among Latter-day Saints is the sex factor.
Sex — going from no-no to yes-yes
Sexual relations before marriage in the faith are verboten. Red light. Sex after marriage is encouraged. Green light. That phenomenon can lead to a Christmas tree effect, as in the start of a drag car race, when the light turns and burns, the race begins.
A lot of young people are eager to hit the throttle.
Marriage therapists warn that an abundance of dopamine fogs over discernment, and that can lead to bad decisions in picking a mate.
It used to be that young Latter-day Saints who knew they did not have ironclad hormones rushed the process to avoid temptation. That’s a personal decision for each couple to make. Everybody’s guessing here.
“My advice,” says Finlayson-Fife, “is don’t rush into marriage for sex. On the other hand, don’t marry someone you’re not attracted to.”
Furthermore, she says, the more mature couples are before their partners make a marital commitment, the better they understand themselves and their mates, the better their odds of weathering the vicissitudes of day-to-day, year-to-year married life and all the smooth sailing and rough riding that go with it.
Along comes Oaks, then, and nudges young Latter-day Saints not just toward marriage and the rewarding/challenging adventures that it brings but also to get on with childbearing, too.
The eager believer might say, “Right on, Bro.” The cynic might wonder whether the 90-year-old apostle is concerned that church members aren’t pumping out kids — future followers and future tithe payers — at the same prodigious rate they once were. There are souls in heaven, the church teaches, who are backed up, just waiting for their turn on earth.
One of the problems in this mashup is the disproportionate number of unmarried active churchgoing women in the faith versus the number of unmarried active churchgoing men. Kristen Oaks mentioned in her remarks her elongated path to marriage. She was 53 years old before finding Dallin, whose first wife had died of cancer. An alternative is to marry outside the faith.
There are circumstances that surround some single individuals, both women and men, that make it difficult for them to find any suitable spouse in this earthly existence. The unbalanced equation becomes a question: Should single Latter-day Saints “settle” for a partner who is five notches below what they are hoping and looking for just to shoehorn themselves into an expected church comfort zone?
Marjorie Hinckley, wife of former church President Gordon Hinckley, was once asked by a single woman the same question I hurled at my father-in-law. Her answer: “Lower your expectations.”
How low should they go? This isn’t limbo.
Single members face ‘arrested development’
Some Latter-day Saints never marry. In a church that stresses the importance of the family, this is like spitting into the wind every day of their lives and certainly every week when they attend worship services that hammer home that emphasis.
Singles can be made to feel as though they’re in a state of “arrested development,” Finlayson-Fife says. But church membership numbers indicate that there are faithful women and men who won’t find a mate. Many of them are left to experience not just loneliness but also a feeling that they have failed or stalled spiritually, especially when leaders encourage them to get on with it.
And while the church apostle mentioned and mentioned again the church’s family proclamation, the one that underscores that marriage is between a man and a woman, there are LGBTQ Latter-day Saints who are not wired that way and do not want to fake that kind of arrangement.
On this topic, Finlayson-Fife hits it out of the park: “Who we are is who God created us to be. As painful as it can be to be LGBTQ in the church, these brothers and sisters are a gift to the community. They teach us about God and teach us about love.”
Marriage, whatever it looks like, at whatever age it is found, can be a sweet, rewarding deal for those fortunate enough to have found that partnership. I count myself as exactly that. Lucky in every way.
But I know better people than myself — inside and outside the faith — who haven’t found the right fit or who haven’t wanted that kind of relationship because they were born with a different attraction. Where they find comfort, where they find their good fortune in a church that preaches and insists upon what they don’t or can’t have or don’t want is a mystery for the ages, a mystery for the heavens to help them discover.
What’s the solution?
Finlayson-Fife says find a partner you choose to be with — if that’s your desire — a partner who recognizes the beauty in both partners and in the joint partnership, despite individual liabilities.
So, find someone, somewhere, if at all possible — if not, carry on with a fulfilling individual existence.
Still, the universal specific key that swings open the door to happiness for everyone in every circumstance and in every marriage is tough to find. Where is it?
As my wise father-in-law said it in three words slurred into one, “Iduuuunnnnnnooo.”
Even the apostle telling folks to hurry up doesn’t know, not with any exactness.
God only knows.
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