I was going to do my law of chastity post next, but my reflections on that topic haven’t quite coalesced, so I’m going to go off in a slightly different direction and come back to that topic at a later date.
I have never been married, so this post is not about being married. Instead, it’s about the fun and excitement you experience when most everyone around you (including younger siblings) gets married and you don’t. I want to start with a couple of personal stories which are difficult for me to tell, but I’m hoping they’ll prompt others to share their own stories. And I’m hoping they’ll help illustrate how difficult it can be to be single in the Mormon church.
Both of my younger sisters are married, and both of their marriages prompted or corresponded to an emotional crisis in my life–it was pretty much all I could do to make it through their weddings and receptions without bursting into tears (not tears of joy). My next youngest sister (Vada) got married when she was 22 and I was 24. Her marriage was generally difficult for me because she was the sister who was my “competition” when we were growing up–we had similar interests and talents, and we often found ourselves (mostly subconsciously) trying to see who could do things first or better. Clearly, she was “better” at dating and marriage than I was.
But her wedding was even more difficult because when she started dating her husband, her husband’s brother and I went on some double-dates with them. To make a long story short, she and her husband got engaged, and his brother and I went on a few dates, and then he started dating someone else. At the time, this whole series of events had huge symbolic significance for me. It represented how my sister (and everyone else I seemed to know) was “good” at dating/marriage/relationships and how I was a “failure.” I worried that there was something fundamentally flawed with me since I couldn’t manage to find any Mormon guys who were seriously interested in dating me.
In hindsight, I realize this perspective wasn’t accurate. Dating and marriage is complicated for most everyone, and while I may find some things harder than other people, I am not a “failure,” nor is there anything inherently wrong with me. But at the time, watching my younger sister get married when I felt like such a failure was not easy.
My next youngest sister’s marriage was probably even more emotionally difficult for me. She got engaged to her husband right about the same time that I got engaged to my ex-fiance. Initially, we even talked about how we might get married the same day/week to make things easier on family members who had to travel. But as her marriage plans went forward, my ex started having second thoughts, and in the end, she got married and I didn’t.
In hindsight, I am glad that what happened did happen. You should not get married if you are feeling conflicted and uncertain, and I am glad my ex did not just marry me because it was what he was expected to do under the circumstances. But it was an enormously painful experience. Not only was I trying to process being engaged to someone who was highly ambivalent about marrying me, which was difficult in and of itself, I was watching my sister marry someone who was certain he wanted to marry her. Again, it was hard not to make comparisons and wonder what was wrong with me. Moreover, my ex and I both went to the wedding/reception, and I spent the entire day fielding questions from friends and family members like “When are you two going to get married?” I finally had to run and hide in my aunt and uncle’s house because I couldn’t calmly say one more time something like, “We’re taking our time with things to make sure we are ready to take such a large step.” This experience was especially painful because not only did it reinforce my own “failure,” it came at a point in my life where one of the things I wanted most in my life was for things to work out between me and my ex.
All this being said, I am extremely happy for my sisters. They have married wonderful men, and despite how difficult their weddings were for me, I see the blessings that have come into their lives from being married (and I have some pretty fantastic nephews). I am also happy with the path my life has taken, and as much as I want to get married and have a family, I love my job, and I love that I was able to go to graduate school. I’ve been able to do things as a single person that would have been much more difficult if I had gotten married at a younger age.
However, even though I know that marriage is a huge step, that I could have been married but it wouldn’t have been the right thing, that I have made the correct decisions in my life and am happy with where I’m at, it’s not always easy. Part of this has to do with the fact that I do want to get married and have a family. Part of this also has to do with the difficulty of negotiating church as a single woman. It’s difficult to see women you babysat (or could have babysat) being treated as more fully adult than you are because they are married and you are not.
To be honest, in the world outside church it’s not as difficult. For example, at work, I am first and foremost a teacher. My world is consumed with figuring out how to connect with my students, grading papers, conversing with other teachers about classroom pedagogy, etc. My interactions with other people in this environment revolve around my identity as a teacher, which is an identity that I embrace and value. I experienced something similar in graduate school–my interactions with other people in that environment revolved around my identity as an academic, which was an identity I embraced and valued. At church, my primary identity should be “daughter of God” or “sister in the gospel,” but it’s typically “unmarried 30-something single woman.” My primary identity is often defined by what I am not rather than what I am.
You might get lucky (like me) and end up in wards like the ones I’ve primarily been in: people embrace the positive aspects of your identity, ask you about your schooling or teaching (rather than your non-existent dating life), and give you callings that help you feel like you have an important contribution to make. However, it’s hard not to feel like there’s something wrong with you because you can’t seem to do what everyone else around you is apparently managing. Even though you know many of the marriages around you likely have serious problems, and you much prefer your single state to an unhappy marriage, when the church teaches that your sole purpose in life (especially when you’re a woman) is to get married and have a family, church is not an easy place to be sometimes.
While I have personally decided that the blessings the church brings into my life outweighs these struggles, I am not surprised that the church is losing a lot of its single members. When you don’t fit the ideal, and you’re reminded of this on a regular basis, it’s difficult to not end up wondering what is wrong with you (as evidenced more directly through my experiences with my sisters’ weddings) and go elsewhere to find peace and fulfillment.