Ever since various general authorities started drawing attention to the dating scene among Young Adults, I’ve taken an interest in the current status of dating, especially among LDS people, but also in general. I’ve polled my students about it occasionally and also my friends, single and not. As a borderline narcissistic introvert, you might be surprised to learn that I have friends, even friends from many different lands (states) and persuasions. But it’s true. Of course the rest of you won’t be surprised at all.
But to the point. Here, in no particular sequence of topics, are some observations from students, friends, and neighbors on dating culture among Mormons, and sometimes, others.
One friend observed that the experience of two relatives suggests that serious relationships among singles are drying up. Two siblings, practically in elderly status (~30) are single and neither has had a serious boyfriend/girlfriend. A close friend from his youth married a short time ago, his new wife was his first serious relationship in over a decade. He wonders if the lack of a serious significant other outside of an engagement is now relatively common. I quote him: “I’ve watched my siblings go through this and it’s really awful. If it’s broad enough to be a cultural phenomenon, there needs to be lots of somethings that need changing, starting at the top and extending downward. We’ve become expert in needless suffering.”
I’ve wondered the same thing as I’ve watched kids in my mostly LDS neighborhood and my own children. One friend observed that in her experience, such dry spells aren’t “uncommon in LDS circles, but *very* uncommon in secular/regular life [but see below]. The understood subtext to all dates adds an extra-weird pressure to LDS dating. All un-coupled people are constantly being assessed and assessing—it creates a strange highly-charged atmosphere where men and women can’t just organically get to know each other, which is the norm in non-LDS dating. It also increases the isolation of single people, and can exacerbate and further cripple the ability to relate to the opposite sex as anything other than a potential partner. I believe this dynamic is also carried over and amplified by our segregation of the sexes even after marriage, and our odd institutional fear of men and women being incapable of real, non-sexual friendship.”
This conversation took place between two married Mormon women friends: “I never dated anyone before ****** and only went on one or two dates before then. I think this has more to do with me than being Mormon, but I do think that being Mormon made me uncomfortable with dating non-Mormons. Honestly, I don’t really feel like I missed out–I tend to view casual dating as a waste of time and never met anyone before ****** who I wanted a serious relationship with.”
“Right, but that’s part of the problem, I think. In non-LDS worlds, dating isn’t serious business, and it’s not about only going out with people you want a serious relationship with. it’s about social skills, learning how to communicate with different people, and figuring out what you want and what you like. If you find someone with whom you click, you can then gradually (or rapidly) move towards exclusiveness, depending on your/their desire. We just don’t allow room for that in Mormon life. It’s ALL about marriage. Basically, a date in the regular world isn’t a job interview. It’s just a date. I ended up with some great male friends from my dating days. I can’t say that about the LDS world, and if it weren’t for my rather exceptional experience in other contexts, I doubt I would *have* any male LDS friends. There’s just nowhere for it to happen.”
I think some Church authorities have been fairly liberal in their concept of dating. Elder Ballard has promoted the idea of one on one dating, but not necessarily with the sole goal of marriage. I think his subtext was simply putting flint and steel in the same drawer. But some of those in the dating scene, especially those progressing into the fifth decade (and that fraction seems to be growing) may feel neglected to the point that dropping out feels inevitable.
A woman friend related this experience from her time in YW: “One of my old advisers gave the entire YW the following advice: Just remember when you start dating someone that you’re either going to get married or break up. Those are the only two options at the beginning of a new relationship. So if it’s not someone you want to marry, break up and move on as soon as possible.”
Here is a sequence of comments from a recent conversation on the subject of dating with a group of friends:
I have several non-LDS friends who are my age and have either never had a boyfriend or have gone through decade-long dry spells. I think dating is more trouble than it’s worth for a lot of people, and it just gets to be more trouble as you get older. It seems to me that even just making friends is a challenge for people these days . . . There is definitely a generational shift on this, although I can’t say what the real norms are. It seems my son’s friends aren’t that into dating for the most part. At his age, I was pretty much making out whenever I got the chance. Now they play FIFA and study . . . I know lots of non-members who are non-daters as well. Agreed that lots of people think it’s not worth the effort. Take away the possibility of getting laid, and most introverts don’t want to bother. For myself, I was in relationships for a lot of my 20s and early 30s, not very seriously and usually breaking up amicably. And Mormons are by no means the only ones to date-to-marry. As with so much, Mormonism exaggerates things already there in the culture rather than making them from scratch.
A male colleague, in discussing dating culture among Mormons and the general scene in the U.S. told me that what he has seen among students at BYU and other universities leads him to believe that BYU and Mormonism in general put a particular spin on what has, by this point, developed into new cultural and generational (and class specific) norms. Those norms seem to be 1) social exclusivity (dating) is a big deal because it seems to imply a willingness to move in together and/or perhaps eventually marry, and is not to be embarked upon lightly. 2) sexual activity is not dependent upon social exclusivity.
Another man, back in the dating game after many years, kindly responded to questions about the current climate: “LDS people are more likely to avoid opposite sex friendships which won’t lead to marriage, and I think that hurts us. Doug Brinley (a BYU religion teacher) taught that you should evaluate any potential date with the question ‘Would she make a good mother of my children?’ If the answer is no, don’t date her. People who do that miss out on many meaningful friendships. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many women I want to make babies with, but lots of women are interesting, outstanding people, and I’m glad they’re my friends. I wish I had figured this out a long time ago.”
A woman friend deftly summarized that “dating would be a lot less painful if we thought of it as getting to know human beings instead of evaluating gametes.”
I asked another woman (a single established professional) her impressions about the Mormon singles scene outside the Mormon corridor. Here is her rather painful and somewhat disturbing reply. Beware.
I think there is something unique about the Mormon singles scene in regards to being consistently evaluated and found wanting. The type of rejection is consistent and demoralizing. It leads women, who are otherwise leading productive lives, to act like adolescents at church. I went to a friend’s singles “munch and mingle” thing a couple years ago before she moved. I was treated abominably by the men there–they were literally unresponsive to small talk, and almost physically trying to ace me out of a conversation with an attractive friend. It wasn’t until I was used to work functions/cocktail parties, that I was able to see the consistent cutting behavior. Innapropriate and unkind behavior. And my experience with friends is not introverts uninterested in dating. It is women who are active in singles wards, looking for men, competing on a ratio of 8 women to every man, and being overlooked every single time. Women who are 40 and have never kissed before. Women who have been attending a singles ward for 10 years and have never been asked out. They ask men out and are treated badly. It is systematically ruining their lives. They feel utterly worthless and see no way out. Many of them are seeking professional mental help. They are utterly committed to the church and the idea of eternal families and have had to categorize themselves as not good enough in an eternal and spiritual sense. The fact that many of them are hitting the age of infertility exacerbates it. There are few things in life that I find more hopeless and depressing and enraging, because I love these women. It is simply a horrible, horrible situation.
I think Tracy’s classic post, “Date Me, Not my Uterus” adds depth here.
Most of my students are males. I often ask them about dating, marriage and their futures. While I don’t have hard university-wide data to back up the reports I get, the trends I’ve observed seem pretty uniform. Twenty years ago, my male students were frequently engaged or already married by Junior year. Now it seems there are far fewer in that category. Their own reports suggest the reasons are more often economic than not, but I sense other processes at work. One man, a recently released BYU stake president, told me of the dilemma he observed. The women in his stake often entered school with a different set of goals than their predecessors. Career, and knowledge gain were goals, marriage belonged to a dim future.
He said the men in his stake caught on pretty quickly to those freshmen and sophomore women who were not interested in one on one dating, partly out of fear of being waylaid (his words), and those women acquired a label which they carried with them to some extent (I’m not really sure how that worked, but that’s what he said). When graduation loomed, a significant fraction of those women wanted into the dating pool, but the social tide now worked against them. He told me of the lines of women outside his office, wanting into the marriage matchup game, hoping he had some key bit of advice. On the other side of the gender divide, he observed that many men were, even over his relatively short tenure, more reluctant to take on marriage when graduate or professional schools were ahead, or a job market involved foreign assignments, travel, or was simply more challenging. The social puzzle pieces were really impossible for him to rearrange. In his words, it was painful to watch.
I haven’t really scratched the surface here. What are your thoughts on the subject? Is dating culture changing? Is there a better way? Feel free to share experiences and thoughts, anonymously as you wish. I’m particularly interested in hearing from men in the dating game, since I think the post needs a bit more male point of view.