The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

“Guys, you should go on two dates per week.”

Imagine hearing that said by a church leader over the pulpit to your congregation during a sacrament meeting when you're just trying to become a better person.

This was not well received by me or most of the guys who attended that meeting. Honestly, who has the time and money to take out two different girls every week? I know I don’t. 

I wish I could say that things like this are a rarity, but, in my experience as a church member, they are not. 

Marriage is one of the most important (and often talked about) teachings in the Mormon Church (officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Unmarried young adult members of this faith are often taught entire sermons on the subject of dating. While most of these members consider marriage a high priority, they also feel this emphasis leads to a culture that is not helpful and quite often very toxic. They also feel there needs to be more attention given to the how-to of marriage and dating, instead of why single members aren’t doing these things.

 The Mormon church teaches that a marriage between a man and a woman performed in one of its temples can last past “til death do you part,” and that couples are married together for eternity. The section on marriage on my church's website says, “Life’s greatest joys are found in the family.”

It is also important to note that although Mormons have entered polygamous marriages in the past, this has not been an official church practice since the year 1890.

Although I want to be married and have a family someday, I question whether going on an insane amount of dates is the right way to achieve this. 

Brian Willoughby, professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah says a church leader setting a dating quota is highly irregular.

“I think, like anything else in the church and with any other religious organization, you get all sorts of interesting applications of religious priorities at the local level,” says Willoughby.

“We'll have bishops and stake presidents setting all sorts of interesting quotas and programs, whether it’s dating, or missionary work, or temple attendance. I have not heard of that…  and [it’s] not something I think would be very common,” he explains.

I actually thought that a dating quota would be common in areas with a high population of church members, like Utah. However, Willoughby explains this isn’t true.

Temple Sign Edit

Marriage in a temple, such as this one in northwest Calgary, is an important teaching in the Mormon Church. Photo by Bill Atwood

“I have not heard or had a student say that they've had a dating quota set in a ward.”

Dave Higham, who is currently a Bishop of a young single adult (ages 18-30) ward in Calgary agrees, and says he would never set a quota like this. 

“I think that would put a lot of anxiety on a lot of guys. I think that would put a lot of pressure on them. I think that if they try and a girl says no, they'd feel like ‘I'm letting my bishop down,’” says Higham. 

“I would maybe get up and say, ‘guys you should try to go out on a date soon’, but I wouldn’t say it has to be this number or this night or this whatever myself, because that's just not my way,” he says.

I  agree with Bishop Higham that it puts an unfair amount of pressure on the guys. A few weeks after this I was speaking to the bishop of my congregation who shamed me and made me feel pretty bad about myself for not having filled this dating quota. 

“I think that would put a lot of anxiety on a lot of guys. I think that would put a lot of pressure on them. I think that if they try and a girl says no, they'd feel like ‘I'm letting my bishop down,’” says Higham. 

Women leaders of the church also put pressure on guys to go on dates. That same Sunday the quota was set, the pressure got even worse. The stake leader for the women’s organization in the church came into our men’s class later that day and what she did still confuses me more than five years later. 

There is a scripture in the Book of Mormon which talks about what those that desire to follow God should do to fulfill that desire. One of the things it says to do is “Mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” Basically, help others when they need it. 

However, this particular church leader read us this scripture and said that in order to follow this, we needed to reach the quota that had been set for us. 

To me, that is like saying I am not a good Mormon if I am not spending a good chunk of my time and money on dates. 

“Let me tell you how Satan works on girls,” she said. “He tells them they’re not pretty enough, that they’re not good enough compared to other girls, you can help change this by taking them on dates.”

Although I can’t speak for them, I hope that no single women in my church base their self-esteem on how many dates they get asked on. I also want the girls I go on dates with to know that I ask them out because I am genuinely interested in getting to know them better, and not because I am trying to reach some arbitrary quota. 

Young Single Adult Wards

A study conducted at Utah State University surveyed 24 single Mormon college students about their experiences of being single in the church. This study found two viewpoints of those surveyed. The first group felt that the influence of the church, in general, contributed to their negative feelings about being single. 

One participant who felt this way stated, “If you are a male and have returned from a mission and aren’t married you are almost worthless.”

The second group in this study felt that while the church and its teachings were a positive influence, the members and church culture were not.

As one person in the study explained, “The L.D.S. Religion has validated my feelings that everything will be alright. I know that I am an okay person even if I am not married…. The L.D.S. culture (or people) has made me feel like I am worthless because I am not married.”

While I firmly believe in what my church teaches, I’d say I fall somewhere in between those two groups. To me, the negative culture comes partly out of the fact that the church has separate congregations for unmarried members. The first is called “young single adult” or “YSA” for ages 18-30, and is more commonly found. The second, called “mid-singles,” is for ages 31-45.

Even though I am a few years away from turning 31, I currently attend mid-singles because I have explained to others “I was just done with YSA.”  

Temple Edit

The Cardston Alberta Temple was the first temple built in Canada, and the first built outside of the United States. It was named a Canadian Historic Site in 1995. Photo by Bill Atwood. 

Higham says there are both positives and negatives to YSA wards. 

“I believe the reason we have the young single adult ward is so that people of the group can draw closer to Christ amongst people who are going through something similar in life,” he says.

Higham also says there is more of a purpose to YSA wards than just finding a spouse. 

“One Sunday I stood up and I kind of dropped everyone's jaw. I said, ‘I don't believe that the young single adult ward is to get people married.’ I know there are those who feel that way. I have argued it with people who feel that way, but I have never been told that’s the purpose.”

Willoughby agrees. “I wouldn’t make that distinction that it's to get married or draw closer to God. But I do think it's fair to say that there's an emphasis on the church from our leaders and organizationally that as a young single adult, the primary focus at that stage in your life should be to get married,” he says.

“I don't think they would say put “your spirituality” aside, I think that in many ways they would view those two things side by side,” Willoughby says. 

However, Higham does agree that these wards can contribute to a negative culture. “When you get a lot of LDS people together, you develop some culture and habits and everything else, which aren't necessarily church doctrine, but they become something that that group or whatever may hold fast to,” he says.

“The natural tendency is to compare yourself to somebody else. Whether it's based on an income or a sense of humour or grades or looks or whatever it may be. We kind of look around to go, well, how [are] the other people doing around me?”

One example that fits here is when the leaders of the men’s group (who were also unmarried members) in my ward a few years ago decided to have a “dating moment” at the beginning of class every Sunday. This meant that whoever went on a date during the previous week would tell everyone who they went out with and what they did. Maybe others didn’t feel this way, but how can that accomplish anything but make the ones that went on dates feel superior to those that didn’t?

“You need to get married”

Unfortunately, this pressure and negative culture doesn’t stop once people are actually dating. The story of Sarah (whose last name has been kept out of this story due to privacy and safety concerns), and how she was treated while she was dating her husband, Taylor, is a great example of the toxic culture. 

This couple dated for five years before they were married, but, as Sarah explains, the poor treatment started shortly after they got together. 

“Three months into us dating our bishop at the time pulled us into his office and said ‘I’m concerned about how physical you guys are, you need to get married,’” she explains.

This was really shocking, Sarah says. “We were doing everything that every other couple in the ward was doing. Back rubs in sacrament meeting, side hugs in the hall at church, but he singled us out. I was angry, and I cried,” Sarah says.

While the church teaches members to remain abstinent before marriage, this does not mean all physical contact is forbidden. 

Sarah says this was especially frustrating because three months is not enough time to know whether someone is the right person to spend eternity with.

WeddingRingsUnsplash

Marriage is one of the most important, and often talked about, teachings in the Mormon Church. Unmarried young adult members of this faith are often taught entire sermons on the subject of dating. Photo courtesy of Sandy Millar on Unsplash. 

Higham agrees. “I’m okay with people taking a long time to date, in the sense that they get to know each other. Once you get married, yes you love the person, but it will happen that you have differences of opinions on things.” 

“You can however have a pretty good idea of their maturity level and how you work through differences if you’ve run into those differences while you were still dating.”

Higham explains that in his previous experience as a bishop in a regular family ward he worked with couples that got married too fast. 

“They perhaps didn’t fully understand what they were getting into, or they didn’t fully understand the other person in the marriage. But they did it for whatever reason, maybe it was their parents pushing them, maybe it was whatever the culture may be.”

Willoughby explains that while rushing into marriage is not a common issue in the church, it does happen.

“I don't think we've seen much evidence broadly that there are a lot of church members that are kind of speeding into the process and transitioning into marriage before they're ready. Certainly, you can find those examples, but I don't think that's a broad thing,” he says.

Despite this, Sarah says the lengthy courtship allowed her and Taylor to go through many ups and downs together. However, she says the pressure and toxic culture around them got worse as time went on. 

“I think like maybe six months to a year of dating, people would constantly ask us [about engagement]. And I kind of equate it to never ask a married couple when they’re going to have kids,” she says.

“You don't know what they're going through emotionally. Maybe they're working through things.”

Higham agrees, saying that these are personal things that are really nobody else's business. 

“It's absolutely wrong for us to look at and judge other people for ‘why have you not met this standard that I think you should have met by now?’”

Sarah says that about three years into their courtship the worst of the toxicity happened. 

There used to be a Facebook page called Young Single Albertan Confessions where single Mormons in Alberta could post pretty much anything they wanted with complete anonymity.

There was a post on this page that said that Sarah and Taylor were an ideal couple. However, someone posted a very nasty response: “If dating for three years and not getting married is couple goals...yikes. If you liked it you should have put a ring on it.”

Sarah explains this was the breaking point for her.

“It was someone that was anonymous and someone that had to hide behind the internet.”

It was also frustrating that people they knew “liked” the post. 

“These were people in the ward that probably never said anything to me or Taylor. It kind of cemented the worry that people thought we were wrong for not getting married early in our relationship. And that people talked. It just confirmed it for me.”

Don’t tell us we need to date, tell us how to date

A Master’s thesis by Jordan Johnson at Virginia Polytechnic Institute examined the experience of being an older single male Mormon. It specifically looked at the 25-31 age group. As someone who is part of this demographic this study really spoke to me. The study found that members of this group feel they are not offered a blueprint for success.  

One person was quoted in this study as saying: “I love the gospel and I feel that the leaders of the church are inspired. However, I would be grateful if they would spend more time teaching us single men HOW to date and be married than that we need to. I think the problem is addressed as being one of desire and not one of knowledge.”

Willoughby agrees with the results of the study. 

“Anecdotally, I think that's common. I think for single adults in the church that are in their late 20s and early 30s, both men and women can certainly feel a level of frustration around their dating market because we have the church culture that does emphasize marriage as much as ours does,” he says.

I certainly agree that there is a lack of a blueprint. Another thing that is really frustrating for me is when local church leaders tell the story of how they met their spouses and expect it to apply to single members today. Maybe they just share these stories to give us hope, but what worked thirty or forty years ago will not work in 2020. 

“Anecdotally, I think that's common. I think for single adults in the church that are in their late 20s and early 30s, both men and women can certainly feel a level of frustration around their dating market because we have the church culture that does emphasize marriage as much as ours does,” says Willoughby.

A story that stands out is one that if I tried it today would probably get me a restraining order. 

The person who shared this story explained that he met his wife at a church activity, where he found out she was a lifeguard. A few days later he went to the pool where she worked, waited until her shift was over and then asked her if she wanted to get a milkshake. I would never wait at a girl’s work unless we were in a relationship, and we had already agreed to meet there.

“That sounds like stalking today. Back in the day, it was romantic,” says Higham.

“I have heard young people say ‘I hate it when old people get up and tell their dating stories because it just doesn't apply’, and I get that, and so I try to be sensitive to that, [but] I think what we need to train the young people today to realize is that that's their story. And maybe there's something in there to give you hope. Maybe there's not,” he explains.

Going Forward

If there’s one thing I want the local leaders of the church to get out of this is that (for the most part) unmarried members of the church do want to drop the “unmarried” part. It really isn’t from a lack of trying that we remain single. However, the pressure put on us is not helping. Neither is making us feel guilty about being single or for “not dating enough”. 

We know we should be trying to get married. But in fact, for me, the more dating is talked about the less I want to do it. Dating is not easy, so why do they try to make it harder than it needs to be?

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 Editor: Kaeliegh Allan | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.