Any Two Good Mormons Can Happily Marry

In the early 1980s, Mormon prophet, Spencer W. Kimball spoke several times to the BYU student audience on the topic of marriage. He encouraged them to marry young, despite what he sees as secular influences to delay marriage and to delay childbearing until they were older and more financially viable. He told them simply to economize or to “scratch” and assured them that the Lord will provide. He also insisted that the statistics for temple marriage indicate far lower levels of divorce (this does not appear to hold true anymore, if it ever did). Clearly, Mormon ideals of marriage and family were superior to anyone else’s.

I think this advice is largely still be given in one form or another by church leaders who were behind “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” and who are still talking about 1960s style marriages today. I think about how many of my friends who are in various “not ideal” marriage and family situations are hurt by the insistence that there is only one model of the “true and eternal family” that God will allow in the celestial kingdom, women who are divorced through no fault of their own, women whose husbands have died and have created second families with second husbands, women who never married, and those in the LGBTQ+ community who aren’t included in our ideas of marriage in the first place.

One of the problems is our ideas that what worked for us would naturally work for other people. Advice itself seems to be predicated on this concept, and it’s something that I’ve become more and more wary of offering, since I’ve made some bad mistakes. One of them was my strident advice to parents not to help pay for their children’s college education, but instead to let those children get jobs and pay for their own education, so that their college children were “invested” in their education and would care about their grades more. Needless to say, I took this back as my own kids went to college and I saw clearly how different things were for them than they had been for me.

And so I circle back to questions of marriage and the judgments that I hear older people make about younger people and their decisions not to make the same decisions about marriage that worked out so well in previous generations. Maybe this is actually a good thing. Statistics suggest that divorce rates are going down as marriage age and financial security go up, and number of children goes down. Also, young people who have more information about sexuality (and about consent) are actually having sex less.

“’Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion,” Kimball said. On the one hand, I agree with this. I’m a staunch critic of many of our ideals of romance, in books and movies. I think people end up conflating “hot sex” with compatibility or trading a good relationship for the idea of “meant to be together” and the hope that lust is the highest priority. However, I also think that making a relationship with someone with whom you share little is a huge mistake. In order to make a marriage last, you need to marry someone to whom you are deeply connected, whose interests and ideas resonate with your soul.

Kimball continued, “it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.” The “price” or the “guarantee” for a happy marriage is being “unselfish and righteous.” Kimball then encouraged avoiding spouses who seek for “self-comforts, conveniences, freedoms, luxuries, or ease.”

Of course, it’s important to pay attention to the needs of your spouse and your children. But the longer I’ve been married, the more important I acknowledge self-care is. I think it’s healthy for my husband to have friends he can go camping with, or can play computer games with on-line. I think it’s healthy for me to do triathlon races on my own sometimes, and to have a writing career that fulfills me. I suspect that to President Kimball and to the current leaders of the church, they might call this selfishness. I call it self-care, and I think it’s important to good mental health, though I know that wasn’t something that generation talked about or cared about much.

I don’t know if life is harder now than it was then, if that’s why we need more self-care. I suspect it’s partly that and partly just being more aware of how to live a better life. More money doesn’t really make you happier, at least once you’re past a certain level of necessities. Sacrifice can contribute to healthy family relationships. But marriage has changed, and not for the worse. Overall, children have better outcomes and are safer now than they were in the 1960s. For all our hand wringing over kids not having more freedom and being inside more, this is a good adaptation to modern parenting.

I’m going to admit here also that I’m not at all convinced that “broken homes” are the worst outcome for children possible. Divorce in the modern age, once you take away the stigma, can be healthy for children. Their parents are happier and better at parenting, and remarriages in these situations can be positive for children, adding more adults who are interested in their futures. Modeling misery in marriage isn’t good for anyone in the long-term — or the short-term, either, really. I’m not saying everyone should get a divorce, but it’s not the worst thing in the world, and I guess I’m waiting for the Mormon church to catch up to reality, and to do a better job of imagining a heaven where divorce is normal. Because it was certainly happening plenty during Brigham Young’s time with polygamy, in case you don’t know your history.

Being unselfish in marriage is good. And also bad. Marriage is complicated. Finding the right partner is not as simple as finding someone who believes in Mormonism in the way you do. And reaching middle age, as I have, with the same partner, deserves praise. Even if you’re in the midst of figuring out all over again what it means to be married and what you really believe in now, and dealing with the reality that you’ve ended your child-bearing years and still have half of a life to live — now as a completely different person than you were at nineteen or twenty.

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Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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