I’ve been meaning to make a series of posts on being a 30-something single woman in the church, especially as regards the topics of dating, relationships, and sexuality. This past week I read Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, and it (along with the conversation prompted by Kevin Barney’s response to the book) has finally jumpstarted me into making my first post (in what will be a series) on these subjects. This post isn’t going to be a review of the book–if you want, e-mail me, and I can send you my review–but instead, reflections about my own experience prompted by the book.
Let me also preface my comments by saying my experiences are not representative of the essence of Mormon female singledom–most 30-something singles in the church have complicated stories about dating and relationships, and while they share themes in common, there are a lot of differences from person to person. So, please read my posts as what they are: one single Mormon woman’s thoughts that have been shaped by her own personal difficulties. I encourage other singles to share their own stories, which I’m sure are different from my own.
The primary aspect of the book that resonated with me was Elna Baker’s depiction of living in two worlds simultaneously and her struggles to negotiate dating and relationships in these worlds. My experiences have been different in a lot of respects from Baker’s (one difference is that my second world is that of academia/feminism rather than being an actress/comedienne in NYC), but we share a central dilemma: it’s difficult to find Mormon guys to date when you’re outside of the norm of Mormon womanhood, and it’s difficult to find non-Mormon guys to date when you’re trying to remain a committed Mormon.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t had an abundance of experiences with dating and relationships in my life, and to a certain extent it’s been my fault/choice. I’ve struggled to find Mormon guys to date. While currently the struggle is partly age-based (there are more active single women in their 30s than men), it’s never been easy for me to find guys to date in the church. I do not fit the stereotypical image of Mormon femininity. I’ve always been better at having intellectual conversations than flirting. I’m not “cute” or “feminine,” I’m a bit socially awkward, and I’m emotionally reserved when I’m getting to know people. Additionally, I’m not good at sending signals to guys that I’m interested in them.
There have been a lot more opportunities for me to date non-Mormon guys. In fact, when I got to the end of college and beginning of grad school and I was getting attention from guys outside of the church, I realized there wasn’t something inherently wrong with me. I realized that perhaps one of the reasons I struggled to date in the church was because I just wasn’t compatible with the majority of Mormon men I knew. However, I shut down most of my dating opportunities with guys outside of the church before they began because I didn’t want to deal with the complications of trying to date non-Mormons.
One of these complications (the primary one that Elna Baker explores in her book) is the whole chastity-sex issue (and I’m going to post more about my thoughts on chastity and sex in my later posts). But, for me, just as difficult was trying to date people who couldn’t comprehend why my religious identity is so important to me. I didn’t necessarily need to find someone who shared my spiritual identity (this can be a struggle even when you share a religious background with someone), but I wanted to find someone who wasn’t utterly baffled that I had a meaningful relationship with a higher power, and that this relationship was one of the most significant aspects of my identity. Most of the guys in my social circle were fellow graduate students, and graduate school, especially in English/cultural studies, tends not to attract people who have strong ties to faith and religion. While there were guys I could have dated, I tended to purposefully keep things in the realm of friendship because I didn’t want to deal with the messiness that would ensue from trying to negotiate religious differences in romantic relationships.
Reading Elna Baker’s book has prompted me to reconsider my approach to dating. While her say-yes-to-almost-anything approach would most definitely not work for me, I think that I’ve been too cautious. I’ve spent the last year pondering questions like “who do I want to date?” and “what do I want to do in order to put myself out there dating-wise?” I had already determined that I was going to try dating non-Mormon guys again, but I wasn’t sure how avidly I wanted to pursue this option. My past approach has been one of extreme caution, but I’m at a point where I’m kinda ready to throw caution out the window. Yes, my religious identity is still central to my life and I have to find someone who accepts this. No, I haven’t decided it’s time for me to go start having sex. However, my most recent relationship experience has taught me that Mormon guys aren’t necessarily going to be the people who give me the most space to be myself, and that a shared religious background doesn’t necessarily make for compatibility. And perhaps most pertinently, there just aren’t a lot of Mormon guys my age to date (at least, not where I live).
I will conclude my post with the final sentences of my review of Baker’s book because not only do they sum up my review, they sum up my thoughts about my dating struggles: “In this book, Baker reveals that thus far in her life, committing to a man has meant committing to one of her two worlds (and abandoning the other), and in the end, she decides she’s not ready to make this decision because she’s not sure who she wants to be yet. While she may make that choice someday, for her sake (and mine), I hope that she finds a way to live her life in as complicated a manner as she desires and that she finds someone who doesn’t ask her to make any choices that would limit her definitively to one world or another.” In fact, thinking about it now, I think I would make that final sentence a bit stronger; for her sake (and mine), I hope that she finds someone who values her attempts to embrace the opportunities and negotiate the difficulties of her multiple worlds.