Faith Over Family: A Dating Dilemma for Mormon Singles

After living for eight years in Provo, Utah – first as a student at Brigham Young University and later as faculty – I am moving to Georgia. As with most moves, this decision is at once exciting and heart-breaking, as I will meet new people and encounter wonderful experiences, while also leaving behind friends whom I have come to cherish. But this move has also made me aware of my place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a new way. Perhaps most notably, as I prepare to move, I find myself reflecting on what it means to leave the land of Mormon singles, while still single.

In the area of Georgia where I’m moving, there are actually a lot more members than I would have guessed. The area includes two family wards, as well as two branches, and I’ll be about an hour and a half away from the Atlanta temple – as well as a more plentiful pool of LDS singles in Atlanta. But all the single female grad students I spoke to when I visited Athens, Georgia expressed little hope of dating. With limited dating options, they wondered if they had chosen a career over a family. As a 26-year-old woman, I still consider myself young, but the prospect of facing such limited dating opportunities for four to five years has me approaching the question of my romantic future in an entirely different way.

As I discussed this issue with a friend, she said something surprising. She said, “This may sound blasphemous, but I wonder if you would have better luck finding someone if you dated outside the Church.” She’s not the first person who’s suggested as much, but she is the first fellow Mormon. And that’s not the only surprising part of the idea – the very way my friend framed this suggestion reflects a hesitancy in how we, as a group, view interfaith marriages. Her suggestion was so bold and potentially  offensive that she framed it with the disclaimer of “this may sound blasphemous.”

On a doctrinal level, marrying outside the faith is not a sin, but members sometimes discuss interfaith marriage as if it were, at the very least because it can be seen as a deviation from prophetic counsel. Because Mormons view marriage as something that should ideally be for eternity, and only active, worthy members are eligible to enter into the covenant that makes marriage eternal, many leaders have counseled against interfaith marriage. For instance, in a 1981 talk addressed to young men, Gordon B. Hinckley encouraged Mormon boys to be respectful of people who are not Mormon, but he added this caution:

Now, in saying this I am not suggesting that LDS boys date non-LDS girls, or vice versa. Your chances for a happy and lasting marriage will be far greater if you will date those who are active and faithful in the Church. Such dating is most likely to lead to marriage in the House of the Lord.

Hinckley’s statement illustrates the concern with which interfaith marriages are approached by most active Mormons: such decisions are likely to leave a person with a marriage that is till death do us part, instead of for time and eternity. At the same time, his statement does not actually condemn interfaith marriage. In fact, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a document which the First Presidency of the Church released in 1995, says nothing that directly opposes interfaith marriage. The concept of eternal marriage is only discussed briefly, and it is discussed in terms of potential:

The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.

Given that interfaith marriage is not a sin and that the number of worthy, active women in the church exceeds the number of worthy, active men, it is hard for most single Mormon women to ignore the question of marrying a man who is not Mormon. On the one hand, family is an essential doctrine and focus of the Church, and dating men who are not Mormon but who share a good number of one’s values can increase the likelihood for a Mormon woman to be married in this life (rather than in the next life, as single Mormons who have done their best to obtain a family in this life are promised). But marrying a man who is not Mormon carries its own set of challenges.

One aspect that complicates the question of interfaith marriage for Mormon women even more than for Mormon men is the importance that most members place on having access to The Priesthood in their home. Because all worthy men are eligible to hold the priesthood, fathers tend to bless and baptize their own children. When a father is unable to perform these ordinances (rites), it is looked at as a very sad thing. When I was growing up, I recall hearing stories of the horror women felt when they married outside the Church and then realized that their husband would not be able to baptize their children. The situation was treated with fear.

And for any Mormon in an interfaith marriage, there will be a question as to whether their marriage will extend past mortality. When Mormons are married and sealed (or sealed after being married) in the temple, they are united in a bond that we believe lasts forever, provided they live up to their covenants. That if can be a big if, as evidenced by the number of couples I know who have been sealed in the temple only to later divorce. But the uncertainty is much higher for a couple that is not sealed, which can lead to the Mormon spouse hoping and praying for the other spouse to convert. It’s not just a matter of wanting to be sealed to a spouse – there’s also the question of children, who can only be sealed to parents who are sealed to each other.

This worry about children comes up in an article from 2004, in which two LDS women in interfaith marriages discuss some of the resulting challenges they face and offer encouragement to others who may feel alone. One woman describes a moment when she had to record on paper the fact that her child had not been “born in the covenant,” meaning that her child was not sealed to her:

The first time I felt totally alone—isolated by the fact that my husband is not a member of the Church—was the day our first baby was blessed. Shortly before the meeting began, the ward clerk handed me a small card to fill out. Most of the questions were routine, but one made my heart leap to my throat: Had my baby been ‘born in [the] covenant’?

Suddenly all my faith, activity, and service in the Church seemed painfully inadequate. I had failed, it seemed—failed myself and my innocent child. I have never felt so empty as when I checked the small box that said ‘no.’

Understanding that feeling of inadequacy – that feeling that everything she was doing as a member of the church was eclipsed by the fact of her interfaith marriage – is key to understanding why so many Mormons flat out refuse to date outside the faith and why articles that give advice on “Loving the Unbelieving Relative” are necessary. Despite the fact that such feelings of inadequacy reflect an inaccurate understanding of the Gospel, those feelings can still feel overwhelming and can leave many cautious. When I was a teenager, I had a youth leader who was adamant in opposing dating outside the faith – as a result I kept my relationship with a Catholic boy from school a secret.

That one interfaith relationship helped me see that an interfaith marriage would likely never be right for me. He was a sweet and innocent boy who was, in all honesty, already living a Mormon-compatible lifestyle, but my knowledge that temple marriage was no option down the road kept me from becoming emotionally invested in him the way he became emotionally invested in me. And ultimately, when most Mormon women compare the prospect of a marriage in the faith with a marriage outside the faith, if all else is equal the marriage in the faith will win any day.

But that still doesn’t resolve the dilemma of women who belong to a family-oriented church and who choose the long-term hope of marriage in the faith, with the knowledge that such a decision may leave them unmarried until the day they die.  It’s a choice of an eternal family over a temporal family, but with all the uncertainties this life brings, it’s still a difficult decision to make.

 

 

 

 

  • http://forcause.wordpress.com Sandy

    This is a thought-provoking and well-written essay. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on dating and interfaith marriage in the LDS world. Your discussions of fear and inadequacy speak to me, a Mormon woman married to a non-Mormon man. I was warned away from dating outside the faith growing up, because that would lessen the chances that I would go to the temple. During the five years I dated my husband, I was tormented by thoughts of our possible future: would he join the church? how would we raise our kids? would I be stuck attending church, alone, for the rest of my life? would our religious differences divide so much that we would be incapable of having a happy marriage? I worried about the answers to all of these questions, but I also knew that marrying him would make me happier here on earth than marrying anyone else, so I did it.

    I want to give you my perspective from the other side of marriage, so you don’t only have your previous interfaith relationship to draw on. Everything changed when we got married. I felt peace, both in my relationship, and in the church, for the first time in my adult life. My relationship with God is exactly that — MY relationship with God — and it is not dependent on my being sealed to my husband or future children. And my relationship with my husband is also blessedly free from my ever-shifting attitudes toward the church I love. Do I still hope we can be sealed someday? Yes. Am I glad I picked happiness in this life over . . . whatever would have happened if I didn’t get married to my husband? Yes. Interfaith marriage is not all shadows, anxieties, and doubt; it can be safe, beautiful, and maybe even what God wants.

    • Emily Belanger

      Sandy, thank you for this wonderful comment. I realize now that my post probably made it sound like I shared the belief that interfaith marriage would be all doom and gloom, so I’d like to clarify – I actually think interfaith marriage can be great. I know interfaith families who make it work in ways that are wonderful for them. There are still some costs they pay, but every marriage involves costs, so it’s a question of which costs you’re willing to pay.

      I have reasons beyond my first boyfriend to suspect that interfaith marriage is not for me, but that’s a personal decision. For a lot of other people, I can see how it could be a great decision.

  • Ashley

    Thanks for this post. After many horrible dating experiences within the Mormon Church, I’m marrying a non-Mormon (which I never really thought I’d do), and there is no doubt in my mind that I’m making the right decision. I’ve never had such a healthy and fulfilling relationship before. He’s literally the best person I’ve ever met, Mormon or not. But it’s very difficult for Mormons to understand my decision, and frankly, I feel judged when I tell people (which I realize may be my own sensitivity more than their actual feelings). But when I tell Mormons about my impending marriage, instead of feeling happy for me, they seem to feel sorry for me. There’s always an awkwardness. It’s very difficult. I understand people’s love and concern, but I wish Mormons were more accepting of inter-faith marriage.

    • Emily Belanger

      Ashley, I didn’t realize your fiance wasn’t Mormon – maybe part of the problem is that people like me simply assume their friends are getting married in the temple? The mere fact of surprise can make people feel awkward over news that should be nothing but happy.

      For what it’s worth, I think we need to do more to break apart the cultural attitude that treats interfaith marriage like a sin at worst and a tragedy at best. Because it’s neither.

  • Rachael

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Emily! This is a topic I have given more thought to in the last couple years. My own mum planted the idea in my head recently that being a wife and a mother is a right, or an opportunity, that women deserve, if they can find it– be it with a Mormon or non-Mormon. The idea of “deserving” to be a wife and a mother was novel to me, and while I feel a faithful temple marriage is ideal, for theological and practical reasons, I can understand why women would choose to have a real family with a good nonMormon man now over an abstract one in the future realm, complications of sealings notwithstanding. I wonder if it would be a wake-up call for some of the LDS men who find themselves paralyzed by the “paradox of choice” in a female-abundant Church, or for some LDS women who see waiting passively as their only option.

  • Carole

    I am an active, single LDS woman, and I’m currently dating a non-Mormon man. I love Sandy’s comment that her relationship with her husband is “blessedly free from [her] ever-shifting attitudes towards the church.”

    On a related note, one of my favorite things about my current relationship is that I never feel like I’m being judged or compared to an unattainable ideal of what a Mormon woman should be like. The fact that I have often felt that way in my relationships with Mormon men might stem more from my own tendency to feel judged than from their actual tendency to judge me, but either way, it has been a source of stress that is beautifully absent from the relationship I’m in now.

    Speaking generally, I would be comfortable marrying a non-Mormon if he was supportive of me living my faith and teaching our children enough about the Church for them to be able to make their own decisions when the time comes. As far as the eternal implications go, I would be placing my faith in my descendants or other extended family members to perform necessary ordinances for us after we’ve died.

  • http://every-word.org Aaron L. M. Goodwin

    This, like many other questions regarding sacrificing proximate desires for eternal ideals, is matter of faith. These things test one’s trust in God and are far more than a matter of preference. These are often soul-wrenching choices, and to glibly provide a response like “duh, the answer is easy” would be inappropriate.

    All that I can speak to is my own experience. I’m 29 and in a singles ward with a disproportionately male population. Additionally, most girls in our ward are 18-19. There are not many prospects for me. Still, I have never thought about compromising my desire for temple blessings in this life and the next for another version. To me, I cannot imagine facing the trials of life in a family *without* those covenant blessings, because marriages are hard enough as is. I’d rather not set myself up in such a bleak prospect. I’ll wait.

  • Emily Norton

    Does anyone know of a depression chatroom for lds people? I find a lot of the beliefs of the LDS faith to really wear on my mental illness. I used to find a lot of these beliefs to be very comforting. However, as I get older, I find that I have frequent nervous breakdowns at church as I perceive people soliciting tasteless advice for my “problem” of being single. That is something that is very painful for me and people just talk about it in front of me so insensitively all the time

  • http://www.chelsandmike.blogspot.com Chelsea

    I like this post because I have seen countless of my older, single LDS friends struggle with finding a good marriage partner within the faith. It’s true! There are more active LDS women than men in the church so clearly not everyone is going to find and marry a LDS man. It’s a tough situation but I think that people need to pray and seek personal revelation. Clearly, the ideal situation is to marry someone who is strong in the church. I personally would prefer to remain single rather than marry someone who isn’t of my faith because I wanted to be sealed in the temple and understood the importance of it. I would encourage you not to give up in looking for a good LDS man! They are out there! Don’t give up. I would encourage you to attend single conferences, look online and use alternative methods to finding the perfect guy. We don’t all meet him in our singles’ wards.

    • Matthew Bringhurst

      I personally don’t believe the comments of, “I want a guy who is strong in the church, temple worthy, priesthood holder and honors it.” To me these comments are complete BS. If these qualities are really what women want in a marriage partner in the church there is not shortage of guys who could provide this especially in the singles wards. Except most LDS girls I know of don’t accept dating overweight guys who pass the sacrament, or the short guys who are on the temple committee, and the list goes on and on.

      Both women and men have these checklists of their ” perfect ” partner. But from my experience girls I see date the wrong type of guys both in the church and out like the ” A type personalities” and don’t give the Beta’s the time of day and just friend zone them.

      Free advice girls. You want to get married in the church? Start getting to know the guys who pass the sacrament, go the temple, and have a calling, and attend church. Those are the guys you should be getting to know and start hanging around them.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X