Once a group of us ladies were playing the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” and one woman told the following truth: “I got maternity clothes for my nineteenth birthday.” Someone asked, “Why on earth would someone give you maternity clothes for your nineteenth birthday?” Her matter-of-fact response: “Because I was pregnant!” (But she was married at 18, so it was okay.)
Married at 18, wearing maternity clothes at 19…and I’m a Mormon!
It didn’t used to be uncommon in the Western world for people to marry at 18, 20 or 22, but in this day and age, with more people going to college and (quite sensibly) postponing families of their own until after they’ve finished their educations and at least started their careers, marrying so young seems sort of horrifying. Within Mormon culture, of course, marrying young is still expected and encouraged. It is the subject of this recent article in The Universe, “Leaving with a diploma but not a spouse.”
After dating a girl before his mission and getting back together with her following his return, Steve Prince thought he found the girl he would marry. Now Prince is graduating from BYU, and he’ll be leaving without a princess. [Ed. Poor Brother Prince–I’m sure he’s never heard that one before.] …
While there are not specific statistics available, Michael Goodman, a BYU religion professor, said he believes the number of unmarried students leaving BYU is increasing with time. Goodman previously served as a bishop in a BYU singles ward and currently teaches an LDS Marriage & Family class at BYU. In his time serving those two roles, Goodman has fielded many complaints and concerns about the subjects of marriage and dating. …
These complaints are often aimed directly at the young men. Goodman shared the concern about a lack of proactive behavior from men toward dating.
“I would say there are a whole lot of brethren who need to become anxiously engaged in trying to get engaged,” he punned.
Goodman goes on to say that many women are also postponing marriage (often on the recommendation of their parents) until they have achieved other goals first. This trend is frustrating for those men who are anxiously trying to get engaged.
On the face of it, these concerns seem ridiculous, even absurd–I mean, you’re what, 22, 24, for crap’s sake? You’ve still got plenty of time left, kids. Both of my younger sisters got married before I did. A friend of mine (not LDS) joked to me, “You’re behind schedule.” “I’m not behind,” I snapped. “They’re ahead!” I confess that because I couldn’t envision myself getting married at my (then-)tender age, I couldn’t imagine how someone even younger than me could be ready for a lifetime commitment.
There are real risks and down sides to marrying young. Women who marry young often fail to finish their degrees. There’s some psychological maturation that goes on during one’s twenties whether one marries or not. The 21-year-old you married may be a completely different person at 29. Because members of the church are encouraged to marry and cautioned against waiting “too long” (and–let’s face it–because it’s normal for sexually mature people to want to have sex and the church forbids us from having the unmarried variety), young adults often rush into marriage with the wrong people. The result is unhappy marriages and/or divorces. We’ve all seen it, even with the supposedly fireproof temple marriages. It’s very sad.
However, there is another side.
Something I appreciate about Mormon men is that they’re not afraid of commitment or responsibility. I waited until the ripe old age of 26 to get married, but my husband was not quite 22 on our wedding day, and he was a father before he was 23. He was going to school full time and working two jobs to support our family while his peers were getting drunk and barely finishing their homework. Most of those guys eventually grew up to be productive and responsible citizens, but they put it off as long as they reasonably could. Obviously, you can stay single your whole life and still avoid being a reckless slob, but by marrying young, Mormons generally avoid the extended adolescence that’s become so common in contemporary culture because they can’t afford to indulge in it the way single people can. It doesn’t mean they automatically mature, but they force themselves to take on responsibilities that help them mature much faster than they might otherwise.
That’s the silver lining to all the awful and true consequences of marrying young, which I can’t dispute. I worry about my own daughters sacrificing their educations and economic self-sufficiency on the altar of early marriage. And people do get a skewed view of marriage and what it’s all about when we make them paranoid about putting it off “too long.” Temple marriage is seen as the end game rather than the beginning. (Not to mention the light at the end of the long, chaste tunnel. … I don’t recommend examining that metaphor too closely.) Men are encouraged to marry as soon as possible after returning from their missions, but freshly-returned missionaries often don’t realize that the rules for working with a mission companion are different from the rules for working with an intimate partner. (A mission teaches lots of good life skills, including people skills, but it isn’t practice for marriage.)
My marriage is good now, but the first few years were rough (as they are for many people). My husband and I both had growing up to do, and fortunately we managed to do it together. Many young couples do, even when it’s painful. The early years of marriage require more patience and maturity than most 22-year-olds have. (More, even, than most 26-year-olds have.) But when I think about the perils of marrying young, I have to remember that I married a very young but very good man–produced in no small part by a culture that teaches men and women not to postpone the responsibilities of adulthood when the blessings of marriage and family are within reach.
You shouldn’t get married before you’ve found the right partner. When I was a teenager, my family’s home teacher was was a life-long bachelor. We saw him finally get married at age 55. Did he wait “too long”? Well, his wife was a perfect match for him and they were very happy together, so you tell me. The woman I mentioned at the beginning of this post–the one who got maternity clothes for her nineteenth birthday–was a good friend of mine. Once we were talking about how she had married at such a young age (she was seven years younger than I) and she said, “You know, at eighteen I had no idea what I was getting into, but I did know that I was willing.” Meaning that she was willing to give up whatever she had to give up and take on whatever she had to take on because she had met the person she wanted to share her life with. That’s how it should work, whether you’re 55 or 18.
Young marriage has its (well-documented) pitfalls, but I don’t think the solution is necessarily people marrying later (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but rather being more aware of the factors that influence their judgment and their expectations. Things like pre-marital counseling (the real kind, not the five minutes you get from the temple sealer at your Saturday morning wedding) may help. More reflection on the purpose of marriage (as opposed to the necessity of it) may help. People shouldn’t get married if they’re not ready, but the biggest part of marital readiness isn’t age–it’s being willing. And that willingness among young Mormons is a characteristic of our culture that I don’t want to change.