Good relationships, bad relationships, no relationships

A friend clued me into this inspiring video about being alone:

It’s a beautiful poem about how to be alone, to live in solitude and with one’s thoughts. I won’t attempt to paraphrase it anymore than that, because it would do a disservice to the poetry of the author, so we’ll move on from here. My friend who had this video in her YouTube favorites is, for all intents and purposes, defined “alone” by her community — she’s a single Mormon in her twenty-somethings. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. She’s not actively looking for one. Yet, despite all of these “hurdles” (at least, as seen by the orthodox Mormon community), she has an incredibly enriching life. She’s surrounded by friends, goes to dance classes twice a week, is constantly starting some new project, and when she’s not doing that, she’s baking tarts or tending to her patio garden. She has turned a word that society often deems ugly — “alone” — and turned it into a flourishing art.

When I watched this video, I immediately thought, I know so many single Mormon friends who could benefit from this inspiring message. For whatever reasons, there will be times in our lives when we will find ourselves alone for a period of time, despite the best of our intentions, actions, and abilities. In such a time, we must learn to flourish. This video is a testament to that.

But then my next immediate thought was, No. This would never be spoken over the pulpit at a singles ward.

It is no secret that there is severe pressure in the Church to get married. We have organized hundreds of congregations dedicated to getting you married. We teach very explicitly that in order to live in God’s presence, you must be married. [1] If you don’t have a “chance” to get married in this life, you will in the next life, but there’s a caveat — you must have done your absolute very best, and, most members I would venture to guess would initially think that if you’re not married, you must not be trying your very best, because, if you were, you’d be married already.

My wife and I discussed this one night over dinner, about how the Church culture tends to promote the idea that, when faced with the absence of a good relationship, a bad (Mormon) relationship is better than no relationship. My wife’s childhood friends are all married — and getting divorced. Not one, not two, not even three, but quite a few of her friends have already divorced their first spouses (some twice now), and my wife is only 24. My childhood friends, on the other hand, are mostly single. Of my close childhood friends, I can count on my hand maybe four or five that have tied the knot, and many of them are not Mormon. Raised in secular liberal Western Washington, I had always been under the impression from my friends that we all agreed that no relationship is better than a bad relationship.

Now, this is no real, reliable data point by any means [2] — there’s a lot of different factors in play here. Socioeconomic factors, for example, definitely come into play. But culturally speaking, one cannot spend any significant amount of time down in the Utah singles wards’ trenches and not come to the conclusion that people want to get married (some desperately). [3]

I feel there are two factors that might drive this idea that a bad relationship is better than no relationship at all. One, of course, is the immense pressure (already mentioned) that our Church pushes on marriage. There is no equivocation in this matter. And this lack of flexibility, when it comes to this position, contributes to the second factor that really brings the situation to it’s flash point (so to speak) — the lack of an alternative, equally noble lifestyle that involves being single.

Let me explain with a comparison. The Catholic Church also stresses the importance of marriage. It is a doctrine that is also a sacrament. It must be officiated by the official priesthood in order for it to be a valid, “Catholic” marriage. They teach that under no circumstances should you have sex before you’re married, nor is cohabitation okay, and that children are incredibly important to the purpose of family.

However, there is one point of deviation in the Catholic culture from us, and that is the monastic life.

Now, I’m not saying that every single Catholic is a nun or a monk, but it does provide them with great role models to look up to. The Catholic history is replete with faithful men and women who were single, but went about doing tremendous good, living a Christ-centered, fulfilling, service-oriented life. These heroes and examples are often saints, and so fully endorsed and promoted by the Church. They live lives of solitude and contemplation, of study and prayer, and of service and action. If a Catholic, for whatever reason in life, finds his or herself single, the Church still can provide the blueprint of an exemplar life to live.

We have no such relief valve. We quarantine singles into specific wards like zombies, and the only way you can get out is get married or just graduate and head back to the family ward at the age of 30, still single. We have even taken single men to task in our General Conferences, saying that if they are not married, it must be their fault. And, of course, there is the famous psuedo-quote by Brigham Young that after a certain age, a single man is a “menace to society.” Meanwhile, single women are “sweet spirits,” people who are, insultingly enough, really good, nice, sweet, demure girls, but (let’s face it) not cute enough to attract the attention of a young man. On top of that, unlike the Catholic Church, we have no alternative single life track that we can point to, saying, this is an equally valid and spiritually accepted life path, a path that says, “You can be single and still center your life around Christ, serve the community around you, and contribute in a meaningful way that matches and can even at times surpass the value of a married couple or family.”

These two factors, (1) the conflation of single status with outright sin or rebellion, [4] and (2) no alternative, healthy examples to point for single people to emulate, not only lead to people making rash relationship decisions, but also lead to alienation of an entire, needful, and necessary demographic, and we are losing them in droves. This isn’t to say that you cannot be productive and single and Mormon at the same time — I have plenty of friends who are. However, the Church does not provide much support or blueprinting outside of vague maxims and platitudes, and can sometimes send incredibly mixed signals regarding our attitudes towards being single. We could do better in providing support for these cherished children of our God, and I would suspect that if we did, people who have drifted away from the Church would have more reason to come back. For all intents and purposes, one could argue that from a sociological standpoint, single people are regarded as a minority group and have second-class status in our Church.

The Brethren recognize this and so widespread structural and administrative changes are coming for the singles program. But as far as their initial efforts show (such as shuffling student wards into singles wards in Utah stakes), I don’t think we’re going to see any alleviation for some of these deep-rooted cultural problems that are pushing our single people away in an incredibly un-Christlike manner.

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[1] The general teachings of marriage as a way to understand God are relatively recent and modern. We often teach that because God is married and is a parent (and we are His kids), then we need to get married and have kids in order to understand who God truly is. However, even this argument runs into serious complications. There are married couples who cannot have biological children. And, yes, some people just do not find the right match in order to undertake such a serious commitment as marriage and child-rearing. We are told that this is no problem because they can have all of those opportunities in the next life (like baptisms for the dead), and we even acknowledge the lack of ability for some people in this life, but stress that (like baptism), you should accept it in this life. However, marriage and baptism is not a very good comparison. In a recent sealing I attended, the sealer made mention that the sealing is the only priesthood ordinance that requires two willing souls — all others require only one. This complicates the issue even further, because you’re not just dealing with one person’s agency, but two. And if you’re not allowed to compromise any person’s agency, it will be twice as difficult to coax people to the altar than even to the baptismal font!

[2] There is a dearth of Mormon sociological data, and that dearth is now being addressed, but such volumes are outside of my price range at this point in time. If any can produce concrete numbers that add to the discussion, I would be glad to receive them.

[3] This phenomenon tends to only happen in areas where Mormon communities are sufficient enough in population to warrant a type of majority status. In areas where Mormon communities are small and not many single people live there, the idea that “no relationship is better than a bad relationship” is more prevalent. Whether the idea that “no relationship is better than a bad Mormon relationship” idea still exists from ward to ward or stake to stake would most likely depend on “outside” forces, such as socioeconomic status, etc.

[4] The single status truly has been relegated to a “sin,” or at the very least, an outright rebellious, even apostate, attitude in life, especially after some of the scathing remarks by the prophet for young men to get their acts into order and get married already. No doubt that when I bring this up, some people may accuse me of trying to justify the single lifestyle, to which I would retort that I am indeed. Since when did being single, a circumstance in life often times out of our control even if only partially, become a sin? We believe in the Word of Wisdom and the unction to be as healthy as possible. Should we start regarding Adult Onset Type II Diabetes as sin? And even in this comparison, I am referring to single status life as a disease or condition. Yeesh, this socialization is difficult to escape.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Good relationships, bad relationships, no relationships

  1. Christina Phillips

    I agree almost wholeheartedly with this. The one thing I would dispute is the lack of single role models for the singles in the church. For the men, this is certainly true. But for women, we have ladies such as Barbara Thompson that we can look up to. Another example might be Sheri Dew, although I don’t necessarily agree with everything she says. We certainly don’t hear much from them though. And they themselves don’t offer much in the way of diversity.

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