Mormon guys delay marriage in paralyzing hunt for perfect wife

Salt Lake Tribune/April 21, 2011

Salt Lake City - John Evans is in no hurry to get married.

The 25-year-old returned Latter Day Saints (Mormon) missionary lives with his parents, works full time, takes night classes toward an English degree and, with law school looming, is building up his savings.

Evans goes on dates, but they tend to be expensive so he prefers developing friendships first. Sometimes he finds it easier just to hang out with the guys at his Mormon fraternity.

"My dating pace is right for me," Evans says. "I don't feel stressed."

That kind of modern nonchalance is what may be worrying LDS President Thomas S. Monson and other Mormon leaders, who addressed the issue at the church's recent General Conference.

"Brethren, there is a point at which it's time to think seriously about marriage and to seek a companion with whom you want to spend eternity," Monson said at an all-male priesthood meeting.

"If you choose wisely and if you are committed to the success of your marriage, there is nothing in this life which will bring you greater happiness."

Apostle Richard G. Scott spoke even more emphatically the next day.

"If you are a young man of appropriate age and are not married, don't waste time in idle pursuits," Scott urged. "Get on with life and focus on getting married. Don't just coast through this period of life."

Their concern is natural. After all, marriage is a core Mormon teaching and temple marriage is a prerequisite for the highest Mormon heaven.

But LDS leaders may be fighting a cultural shift. Traditional dating is almost a quaint custom on college campuses, where hanging out in groups and casual sex "hook ups" are increasingly common. Students also are worried about their financial stability.

"People in the country are pairing up," says Brigham Young University sociologist Marie Cornwall, who teaches a class in family and social change. "They're just not getting married."

Past church presidents also counseled young Mormon men not to delay marriage, but there is a new urgency.

The median age for a first marriage in the U.S. has climbed to 25.8 for women and 27.4 for men. In heavily Mormon Utah, the median age for first-time brides has jumped from 20 in 1970 to 22 in 2008, and from 22 to 24 for men.

So what's slowing down Mormons?

The picture is complicated, especially in individual cases, social scientists and LDS teachers say, but a clear trend is evident: Today's young Mormons are not nearly as confident in the future, in their economic well-being or in their choices as their parents were.

"I really do plan on finding someone," Evans says, "and getting married."

Just not yet.

Monson placed the blame for Mormon men's marital foot-dragging on financial anxiety, insistence on finding a "soul mate" and having too much fun being single. Yet there is no shame in a couple having to "scrimp and save," Monson assured the young men. "You will grow closer together as you learn to sacrifice," he said.

He told them not to insist on finding the perfect mate, but rather a young woman "with whom you can be compatible." A previous LDS prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, once called the idea of a "soul mate" a "fiction and an illusion."

The issue of finding the perfect match seems especially prevalent on LDS-dominated campuses, said David Dollahite, who teaches marriage and family relations at BYU. It produces a kind of "market mentality," Dollahite said.

"The young men think, 'I am dating a 9.7, but if I wait, maybe I could get a 9.9.'"

Financial instability is also real, given the country's economic downturn. And societal attitudes are pressing in around them, said Larry Tippetts, who teaches classes on courtship and marriage at the University of Utah's LDS institute.

"In my generation, when you met someone, you just got married, confident it would work out," Tippetts says. "But 50 years ago it was easier to eke out a living than it is now."

At the same time, he says, fear of a bad choice may be paralyzing young men in their search for a spouse. "These kids are terrified of making a mistake," he said. "They think too much and overanalyze everything."

One problem is pretty stark, Tippetts said. Many young Mormon men, even 21-year-olds who have served missions in foreign lands, have no idea how to set up one-on-one dates - because they may never have been on one.

For at least two decades, LDS leaders have counseled high-schoolers not to be romantically involved or "go steady," but rather to engage mostly in "group dates."

That has been a boon to lots of Mormon boys who were too shy or awkward to ask out a girl, but it hasn't prepared young men for real dating and courtship.

"It's hard if you've gone only on group dates before your mission, then you come back with the same mind-set. But now they say, 'Go, go, go.' For a lot of guys it's too much," says Richard Spratt, a 21-year-old returned missionary from Bountiful, Utah. "It takes effort to go on an actual date, which discourages a lot of guys."

Facebook and texting were meant to enhance dialogue but may have "crippled" the dating scene, says Robin Walton, a Mormon from Las Vegas.

"They've altered our ability to interact face to face," says Walton, 22 and a University of Utah graduate student. "After we've learned everything about each other on Facebook, what do we talk about on the first date?"

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