On Mormon Marriage Anxiety

I was 27 when I got married. That was well after most of my friends, whose wedding functions I attended. It was also after two younger sisters had preceded me into marital bliss. When my marriage did occur, it happened to the relief of some distant relations and other parties who had started to worry that I was malingering in bachelorhood. And it was also something of a relief to me, who had started to believe them. For this reason I’m sympathetic about what I and many I’ve talked with perceive as a growing anxiety among young LDS people about the prospects and process of marriage.

To say nothing of the debates about same-sex marriage, the social terrain surrounding traditional, heterosexual marriage in the United States continues to shift dramatically. The proportion of Americans that are married is at an all time low (51% as of 2011, down from 72% in 1960), and so is the marriage rate. And age patterns for marriage are changing also. According to a large-scale study in 2013, (appropriately titled Knot Yet) the average age at first marriage continues marching steadily upward, with both positive and worrisome consequences. The average age of marriage among Americans is now 27 for women; for men, 29. As the study summarized: “Marriage has shifted from being the cornerstone to the capstone of adult life.”

According to nonpublic statistical data collected by the LDS Church, which I happen to have seen, the marriage age among Mormons is tracking upward alongside the national trend. Mormons are still significantly younger than the average American at the time of first marriage, but the ages are rising. This creates a remarkable situation in a Church where marriage not only a religious sacrament, but the centerpiece of religious and social life. On my reading, demographic shifts (and perhaps other things, like fear of divorce) have caused an increasing cultural stress within the Church and among its members.

Or at least that is one way to account for the collective anxiety that seems to be descending on many young adult Latter-day Saints. Surely entering marriage has always been a challenge for some, and impossible or unlikely for others, but my sense from my own observations and experience is that marriage for Mormons is increasingly stressful. Cultural paradigms of marriage—and singleness—which once were fitting now don’t fit so well, and the result is, I think, a significant number of Mormons who feel out of place or inadequate. Add to this the theological weight of Mormon marriage, which makes the marriage process one of eternal consequence, and you have a recipe for neurosis.

There are reasons to welcome a rise in marriage age. On the national level, according to Knot Yet, this seems to have helped drop the incidence of divorce. Waiting to marry can, it seems, help build more lasting marriages. And for what its worth, it also has positive economic effects, particularly among college-educated women. Less tangibly, waiting until the mid or late twenties to marry and the life experience in the interim seems to broaden the horizons of those who follow that course. They may bring more maturity and more stability to the affairs of adult life. These benefits, of course, are clearest in hindsight.

That said, I suspect that most Mormons would beg to differ from the proposition that marriage is the capstone, rather than the cornerstone, of adult life. Hence, Church leaders have tried to encourage young Mormons not to let marriage be disestablished as the heart of adulthood. Young men, in particular, have come under fire for what seems an irresponsible putting off of the conventional (and for Mormons, religious) duties of adult life: family life and child-rearing. This has always been a sociological danger, one which marriage historically helped to combat.

There is clearly much to be discussed on this subject—and it needs a thorough discussion—but my point here is to draw attention to the simmering emotional tensions experienced by many young, single Mormons. There are some who may fall into the category of irresponsible self-indulgence, but many—probably the majority—are caught in the crosswinds of a challenging personal journey and structural change, and this exacts some emotional cost from both men and women. What is needed is neither pity, nor even an increased sensitivity to the plight of single Mormons, but a better understanding of why the domain of marriage is becoming the way it is.


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