Note: this post originates as a final paper for my Persuasive Writing class. The topic given was “marriage” and under that topic we were allowed to write about whatever we wanted. Originally I was going to write about how it’s OK for spouses to have different interests and hobbies from their partner, but as I was working on that I realized that I didn’t care. I therefore changed my topic to something much more close to home and the result is what you see here.
As a single student attending BYU, I have felt a lot of pressure to get married. Every day it seems that some sort of reminder crops up that marriage brings eternal happiness, emotional strength and resolve, and stability; in effect, it provides meaning in life. Classes are offered on how to make a happy and successful marriage. The entire social structure of a singles’ ward is designed to help young men and women meet and court each other, with the end goal of matrimony in mind. Happy couples litter the landscape of the campus like wildflowers, showing the rest of us how wonderful life can be once a person has found his or her special someone. One of the main focuses of the Church is marriage and family life, and the basic unit of the Church is indeed the family.
This environment creates a lot of pressure for people like me to get married so I can share in the wonderful blessings that come with the territory. However, despite my best efforts to win a girl’s heart, I have not been successful in this regard. Recently it has been more difficult to work up the enthusiasm and effort required to date, court, and marry. My situation is not unique: there are large numbers of students at BYU who desire marriage, yet have all but given up hope for themselves. With such a pro-marriage environment such as BYU, how did this happen? Could the constant emphasis on marriage actually drive people away from doing the necessary things needed to get married?
Young people today face an increasingly complex world, one in which it is difficult to find a role. Some psychologists have termed this the “quarter-life period,” an emerging adulthood between approximately 18-29 years of age where a person has grown out of adolescence but has not fully assumed all of the roles and responsibilities of traditional adults. Generations in America before World War Two usually went straight from schooling into the work force at early ages. With the developing affluence of the post-war period, more training was require to compete in the job marketplace, and as a result of spending more time in schooling before entering a career, the teenage culture developed an identity of its own that had been missing before. As time moved on and the job market became even more complex and demanding, young people have had to put off establishing their careers well past adolescence. Identity exploration, instability, possibility, self-focus, and parental conflict – issues normally associated with adolescence, have extended into people’s twenties, creating a sense of limbo for many young Americans.1
The environment at BYU and elsewhere in the Church can be highlighted to define this stage of life for students and members of the Church. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the phenomenon that is the singles’ ward: a place where the members are too old to go to their parents’ ward as a child, yet haven’t moved on to the next stage of life, that of marriage. Although the basic elements of the ward organization exist, the auxiliaries and other organizations have often been modified or done away with altogether in order to fit the needs of this unique unit within the Church. Many of these altered organizations are put in place precisely to encourage the social interactions that will hopefully lead to marriage. A friendship committee may be set up, to organize ward date nights. The activities committee takes a large chunk of the ward’s time and budget. The Sabbath Day committee organizes events such as Break-The-Fast, Sunday ward prayers, or Linger Longers to provide more social opportunities. A lot of lessons taught in singles’ wards tend to focus more on dating and marriage than on more traditional gospel subjects such as faith, prayer, tithing, or temple attendance. In short, nearly every aspect of the singles’ ward is geared toward getting people out of the singles’ ward and into marriage.
So into this pressure cooker of a pro-marriage environment come these new “quarter-life” people: those who are still unsure of their future career, who are trying to become independent of their parents, who haven’t yet discovered their identity. A healthy identity is essential to the well-being and happiness of a person. Those with a strong sense of who they are tend to be more decisive, sure of themselves, and act with confidence. Conversely, those with a negative identity, or those who associate their identity with negative groups or connotations, tend to be more reserved, unsure, and lax in decision making. “Identity diffusion,” or a lack of a strong sense of who oneself is, often leads to a lack of orientation and ambivalence about life. A healthy sense of identity occurs when a person associates him or herself with positive groups, or believes that he or she has something good to contribute. One of many good environments to be in to cultivate a strong sense of identity is, indeed, a marital one.2 This is probably a main reason why the Church and BYU emphasize marriage so much: to help young people overcome their “quarter-life” stage and become functioning adults.
Spurred on by the many pro-marriage messages he receives, along with a desire to establish a positive identity, a young man comes on to the BYU dating scene with optimism. Examples of couples getting together, becoming closer, and getting married are all around him. However, for whatever reason, he is having little success. Dates, while numerous, always seem to end with polite disinterest. Despite his best efforts, he cannot find a girl with whom he “clicks.” Repeatedly hitting his head against a wall, he soon begins to date less and less. Eventually, years have gone by and he is poised to leave BYU, still as single as ever. What happened?
This young man has now an established identity: that of a single person. Since he has lived for years in this state, it is where he feels most comfortable, and therefore, where he defines himself. The problem comes, however, with the connotations associated with being single, especially at BYU. As has previously been mentioned, it seems that every aspect of BYU society, particularly singles’ wards, is geared toward getting people married. Therefore, if a person goes through the system, doing his best to provide opportunities for marriage yet not getting any success, the only alternative is that he has achieved failure.
Often well-meaning bishops and other members exacerbate this problem by reacting to singles with pity or patronizing comments designed to help. Statements such as “What is it going to take to get you married?” or “Quit being so picky,” or “You just need to date more,” while well-intentioned, simply exacerbate the feeling of failure many singles feel.3 When my brother was single he was asked on a consistent basis why he wasn’t married yet. He confided in me once that the response he wanted to give was, “Well, I was dating someone, but she died.” Pause. “Feeling awkward? That’s how I feel when you ask me about marriage.” The example may be somewhat extreme, but the sentiment is clear.
In addition, there exists what Dr. Bella DePaulo calls the “soulmate mythology,” or the idea that marriage to one’s soulmate will solve most of a person’s problems and allow them to live happily ever after. As she puts it, “The soulmate promises an all-in-one solution. Find that one perfect person and you have—for starters—your best friend, your sexual partner, your comforter and caretaker, your cheerleader, your escort to every social function, your consultant on matters large and small, and the one and only teammate you will ever need in home management, money management, and vacation planning. And that list doesn’t even include any of the potential coparenting possibilities. The soulmate mythology is the ultimate seduction: Find that one right person and all of your wishes will come true. Find that one perfect person, your All-Purpose Partner, and your path through the rest of your adult life is set. And it will be a happy path, indeed.”4This myth is alive and well at BYU, perhaps even more so than in the world at large.
Single people are often stigmatized by society as immature, self-centered, and insecure. In a recent study, undergraduates at the University of California were ask to define what the characteristics of married people were, as opposed to single people. Over half responded that married people were caring, kind, and giving, where only 2% described single people using the same terms. This was despite another study in which single people and married people rated their own satisfaction in life at about the same level. In addition, the study showed that most people believed that the older a single person got without marrying, the more self-centered, more envious, less socially mature, and less well-adjusted they were perceived to be.5 This attitude is prevalent within the Church and the BYU society, displaying its colors most prominently in the oft-quoted but apocryphal statement mistakenly attributed to Brigham Young that any single male over the age of twenty-five is a “menace to society.”
So what does this all add up to? In essence, as time goes on, single people at BYU feel like they have failed at getting married. They have missed out on finding their soulmate and all of the wonderful blessings associated with that. Since they’re not married, society tells them that they are selfish, immature, and inferior. And since their identity has now been established as selfish, immature, and inferior, who would want to marry them? With so much pressure, disappointment, and disapproval heaped upon them, many simply give up, resigning themselves to a miserable single life.
By living in such a pro-marriage environment, single people tend to feel a great burden of disapproval and inferiority. In this way, by creating and maintaining this environment, those who are seeking to help the cause of marriage are, in fact, hindering it. Fortunately, the Church has realized this and in recent years has published articles in the Ensign to help single people feel better about not yet being married. This is a good start; however, to truly see improvement, perhaps the emphasis of BYU and singles’ wards need not be happiness through marriage, but simply happiness despite marital status. In this way those who have been unlucky in their relationships may find the self-esteem they need to make something of their life other than being the unhappy single guy or girl.
1 Atwood, J. D., & Scholtz, C. (2008). The quarter-life time period: An age of indulgence, crisis or both? Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 30(4), 233-250.
2 Montgomery, M. J., Hernandez, L., & Ferrer-Wreder, L. (2008). Identity development and intervention studies: The right time for a marriage? Identity, 8(2), 173-182.
3 Chris Brough, “Seeing beyond Single,” Ensign, Jun 2004, 36
4 DePaulo, B. (2006). Singled out: How singles are stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored, and still live happily ever after. New York, NY US: St Martin’s Press. 247.
5 DePaulo, B. M., & Morris, W. L. (2006). The unrecognized stereotyping and discrimination against singles. Current Directions in Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 15(5), 251-254.