Barber: Utah Marriage Culture Poses Problems for Young Adults

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Justin Adams

I have dreamed of getting married since I was a young kid. I used to imagine what it would be like to finally meet the love of my life and start my very own happily ever after. I played games about getting married and held ceremonies for my Barbie dolls. At one point I even forced my family to come watch my wedding to an imaginary friend of mine named Arthur. I have this vivid memory of planning what age exactly I would get married. I don’t recall exactly how old I was at the time, but I decided that 21 seemed right and began to count down.

I’m just a few days away from being 21 now and marriage is the last thing on my mind. I’m currently single and have been for two years, minus the occasional short fling. In Utah that means I’m practically an old maid.

I’ve lived in Utah my entire life. I grew up in Bountiful, an area with a very strong LDS presence. I had a lot of friends who were part of the LDS church, so despite the fact that I was raised Episcopalian, it was something I was surrounded by.

This bizarre culture of marriage isn’t without cause. LDS beliefs encourage people to begin families to grow their church. The creation of families is a huge core teaching of the LDS religion. This can be great, and I have seen that it often encourages families to spend more time together. However, this can also be problematic when it pressures young couples to start early, possibly before they’re really ready for something as big as marriage.

LDS youth are not allowed to start dating until they’re 16. There’s huge pride in being VL (virgin lips) even after that, where someone will brag about how they have never kissed anyone. Acts like making out, groping or intercourse are extremely frowned upon. Members of the LDS church aren’t supposed to have sex until they get married and if they do they’re shamed and seen as less. Of course, if waiting is what you want to do as a matter of personal choice, that’s great. But many people don’t want to do that. Sexuality is a natural thing and when people are shamed to such great extent over it, it builds up to become yet another reason for these early marriage ages.

For people who live in Utah, LDS or otherwise, the idea of marriage and especially young marriage is very present. However, it does pose some problems. Those who are LDS haven’t had a lot of time to explore what they want in a relationship in the few short years between when they begin dating and when they are expected to get married. People my age (and younger) may not have developed enough mental and emotional maturity to make a serious marital commitment.

I honestly couldn’t imagine getting married right now, let alone after knowing someone for just a few months. I have too much to do before I can settle down. I need to graduate, travel the world and find a career for myself. I feel like it’s important for me to establish my own individuality and gain the confidence that I can take care of myself before I can become part of a partnership.

Despite this, I still feel the pressure of Utah dating culture. This comes with a specific sort of loneliness as I watch my peers fall in love. Sometimes I even feel ashamed. I can’t help but ask myself what is so wrong with me that I am still single. Logically, of course, I find that ridiculous. Emotionally, I can’t help but be entrenched in the ideals that I’ve grown up surrounded by.

letters@dailyutahchronicle.com

Shaelyn is a fourth year at the University of Utah studying Political Science and Journalism in the hopes that someday she can be a travel writer. She is especially passionate about social justice, LGBTQ+ rights, women's rights, and mental health awareness. In her (very rare) free time she loves to hike, paint, and read.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Well done, Shaelyn! I appreciate your perspective on contextual influences on marriage expectations for young people in Utah.

    • How can it be ridiculous? If you think so, and that’s fine, counter it with an equally thought-out reply. (Hint: more than one sentence long.)

  2. This statement is not correct: “LDS beliefs encourage people to begin families to grow their church.” The purpose in beginning families has little to do with the number of church members. Instead, it is rooted in a belief that the family is ordained of God and will be a blessing to not only the children, but also to the parents. This is because of the happiness that family life can bring. I understand that the culture around the LDS faith can have negative impacts, especially on those who are not members. In the future, please do not make false assumptions as to what LDS beliefs encourage people to do without doing thorough research on the matter. Thank you.

    • I’m not sure I agree with you. I grew up in the LDS church and have lived in Utah for most of my life. My experience in the church as a woman was the implication that my family (/when/ I had one, and not /if/ I had one) would follow the same format that all other LDS families did. I was raised by a single father, and was excruciatingly aware of the fact that the format of my family didn’t align with the assumed one in my Sunday school classes. I think it was implicit that the children I might have as a woman would not deviate from my faith; Mormonism begets Mormonism is the mentality that I was familiar with as a member. The presence of polygamy in the beginning of the church (even if it is not an aspect of doctrine now) existed purely to “multiply and replenish the earth” within the construct of the church. Notice that LDS folk were not advocating that non-LDS folk engage in polygamy too. Ideas like those subsist in the culture of the church even without the doctrine supporting it anymore. (At least, that was my experience.)

      It’s worth mentioning, further, that as an outsider to the church, Barber offers a unique perspective on LDS faith that those of us, like you and I, might take for granted. I’m not advocating to stop fact-checking, but the fact that this original statement was written by someone who is not a member of the church speaks to the ways in which our faith is perceived. Actively fighting those biases can be an enlightening experience for all involved. Ask yourself /why/ she might feel this way, and there’s a chance you might learn something that allows us to view our culture from distinct parallaxes.

  3. Just a sidenote, the part where you say “LDS beliefs encourage people to begin families to grow their church” is actually incorrect. LDS beliefs encourage people to begin families because we believe that’s part of our purpose on earth and what will ultimately lead to true happiness. However, as someone who is LDS I agree that the pressure here in Utah to get married is a little overwhelming and can lead to the feelings that you described in the last paragraph. Good article!

  4. Hi Shaelyn,

    Thank you for sharing this article. I wanted to make mention that I was married when I was 23. Yes, a ripe-old age. It’s pretty average for Utah standards and odd for anywhere else in the US. Marriage in Utah does happen at a younger age than the national average, but I don’t believe this should be an issue. The church teaches young adults to find others who share their same values, date and marry.

    In response to your point about relationships and the shaming that could come from members who break commandments, e.g. sex before marriage. I do believe there is a bit of shaming that goes on in the church because unfortunately people are human. But, the teachings/gospel are pure. Abstinence before marriage is wonderful. God glories in the purity of his children. However, he lets us make the decisions for who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives.

    I hope the dating culture won’t bring you down. Some are ready for relationships when they are young and some older. Everyone has a different path of growing and understanding the person they want to be. I chose/found my spouse at a young age. We are both in developmental years of schooling and career. The decisions we make now will effect who we will become. And oftentimes, decision-making is very challenging. However, we are thrilled to be together and life has never been better.

  5. I feel like this author said a lot of things that misrepresent people. As for pride in being VL, I, having grown up in an 80% LDS community, never really experienced the “pride” of being VL, although there were a few playful jokes made, not always in the affirmation of VL being a good thing (and I was one of them who was not VL).
    The claim that Mormons are prideful of being VL is therefore a hasty generalization.
    The claim that members who have sex before marriage are shamed and seen as less is simply false. If there is any dispute, see this speech given by a church leader in General Conference: “Let me point out the need to differentiate between two critical words: worth and worthiness. They are not the same. Spiritual worth means to value ourselves the way Heavenly Father values us, not as the world values us. Our worth was determined before we ever came to this earth. “God’s love is infinite and it will endure forever.”3
    On the other hand, worthiness is achieved through obedience. If we sin, we are less worthy, but we are never worth less! We continue to repent and strive to be like Jesus with our worth intact. As President Brigham Young taught: “The least, the most inferior spirit now upon the earth … is worth worlds.”4 No matter what, we always have worth in the eyes of our Heavenly Father.” – Joy D. Jones. For the entire speech, see https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2017/10/value-beyond-measure?lang=eng.
    And in response to the pressure you feel from the Utah dating culture, I’m sorry you feel that way, but you can’t fault people for that. Imagine how the Danish members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints feel when all of their friends are getting drunk on the weekends, making them look like the odd ones. These kinds of feelings just follow those who are different than the social norm. But you are indeed free to complain if you want.
    Also, if the author is wondering “what is so wrong with [them] that [they are] still single,” I suggest that the reason they aren’t married is because they don’t feel like they’re ready for marriage (unless they are seeking a boyfriend or girlfriend, in which case, sorry, I can’t help you there).
    Furthermore, I’d like to add my perspective to the discussion. While some people view marriage as a huge, binding, restrictive commitment that happens when one stops having fun and “settle[s] down”, I view it as a promise that unites two people so that they can face the trials and joys of life together. It is not the end or settling down, but rather it is getting started on a meaningful adventure with someone on your team. I do agree with the author that many people get married too quickly and get into bad relationships, but this is not the case with all, or even most of Utah’s relatively young marriages.
    I recall an experience when I was waiting in the airport in New York so that I could return from my mission for the LDS church. A certain young couple broached a conversation and told me how awful it was that Mormons get married so young. They felt it was their duty to advise that I wait until I am 30 to get married, because you have to know the person you’re with for many years before you get married to them. I told them, “well, I’ve already been with this girl back home for five years… I shouldn’t have to wait ten more to get married.” And he told me “No no! Even if you’ve known them for years, you’re too young, and you’re not ready!” Well, random people at the airport, you don’t know whether or not I’m ready.
    So when we see our friends get married around us, don’t think or say “You’re destined to fail,” but wish them the best of luck and hope for their success. And if you don’t want to get married right away or you haven’t found the right person, that’s okay! Take heart, it will come in its own time, whether that is early, late, or right when the average marriage age is at the point in time.

  6. Many of your comments are very biased, and almost everything that you present as fact is based only on your experience. You should label this as your opinion.

    • Hi, Harry.

      Shaelyn is a writer for the opinion desk, which the Chronicle indicates by including her name in the headline. The inclusion of the writer’s last name is our way of labeling stories as opinion, and therefore letting our readers know that the story will have a bias by nature.

      Hopefully that clarification will help avoid confusion and concern in the future.

      Thank you for reading!

      Megan Hulse
      Executive Editor
      The Daily Utah Chronicle

  7. Shaelyn,
    I agree with the main point of your article. However, I would like to contradict some of your comments.
    First, the LDS church does NOT encourage people to begin families simply to growth their church. The doctrine concerning the family is based on the eternal concept of family, and members are encouraged to start families because a family is the best place to learn love, devotion, sacrifice, and ultimately become more like Christ.
    Second, it is, unfortunately, somewhat cultural to shame those who have sexual intercourse before marriage. However, that is completely contrary to LDS doctrine. While it is viewed as a serious sin, the LDS Church teaches that personal worth is NEVER diminished by mistakes or choices made, regardless of what they are.
    Third, I have also felt the pressures of the dating culture in Utah. I’m 27 and single. Many of my friends are having their 3rd or 4th child. I am content and happy with the choices I have made and the things I am doing in life, and I’m not in any rush to get married. BUT the older I get, the harder it is to date, because I become more and more independent and expect more and more of the guys that I date. This narrows the dating pool significantly. So, even though I agree that those who get married at 19, 20, 21, are maybe not mature enough to make such a serious commitment, I think it is really cool that they can find someone to grow with. They learn how to be adults together, which I think could actually lay the foundation for a really great partnership.

  8. This article is almost comical to me. These decisions come down to priority and values. If you put career, travel and graduation above marriage that’s your decision. If a religious group (such as LDS) puts a higher priority or value on marriage then so be it. Personal choice is fundamentally available to you and if the “pressure of Utah dating culture” is something you aren’t comfortable with … move? There are a lot of real world pressures that people face around the world today and your lack of emotional maturity or mental development is hardly worth writing an article about.

    For the record, I am not LDS. I am however, married with four children. My wife is also a full time U student. With 15 credit hours in the engineering department I would have to say I know something about very rarely having free time. (Refer to the description of the author.) The highest priority in my life is family and that’s personal choice. Nobody (least of all the LDS church) pressured me into having such an enjoyable life. Instead of being lonely by focusing on my own individuality, I put my family first and I’m not ashamed of that.

  9. Great article Shea – much of the observations you have made are what I have observed over many decades and my interactions with LDS friends.

  10. Hopefully people would not feel shame just because someone else questions their values or the possible reasons they have those values. I didn’t perceive the author to be suggesting that.

  11. I think it is valuable for people in the LDS community to understand how we or our practices/beliefs are perceived by others, and while there are some statements in this article that are either a little extreme or untrue, as others have said it is something to be aware of so that we can work to change that. Thanks for sharing how you feel, and just know that those who fall on the extreme side of things are not representative in the least regard of all members of the LDS church.

  12. So I understand there are some implications that say this article is supposed to be biased and that’s fine. I would just like to clarify to the writer and any other readers of this article a few things. First, I have grown up LDS and no one has ever said or even suggested that, “Acts like making out… are extremely frowned upon.” Making out is completely normal for church members, it is simply viewed as kissing like for everyone else in the world. You are correct when you mention that getting into more sexual activity is against the beliefs but this next comment is very misleading. “Members of the LDS church aren’t supposed to have sex until they get married and if they do they’re shamed and seen as less.” The first part about sex before marriage, yes is very true. Although being shamed and seen as less is something that is unacceptable in the eyes of God and the LDS church. I understand that there are circumstances where members participate in that negative behavior but, shaming others and looking down on people is not taught nor practiced by LDS members. It would have been a good idea to go over your article with a few members of the church to help you clarify some of these points. To conclude, I 100% agree with the main point of your article however, clearing up some of the misconceptions would have made this article much more clean and very powerful.

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