There are many reasons why members of the Church are single. Some people are willing to marry and yearn for an opportunity to love, be loved, and begin a family. Some have been so badly wounded by such things as abuse in childhood or marital troubles ending in divorce that marriage or remarriage terrifies them. Others may lack the physical or mental health required to enter into marriage. But some quite simply are reluctant to do what is necessary to marry and establish a family. It is those members, struggling with normal fears and apprehensions, that I would like to address.
Since Joseph Smith, the Lord’s prophets have encouraged loving and supportive marriage relationships. Our living prophet, President Ezra Taft Benson, has continued that admonition. To the single men in the Church, he counseled, “Do not be caught up in materialism, one of the real plagues of our generation—that is, acquiring things, fast paced living, and securing career success in the single state. … Honorable marriage is more important than wealth, position, and status.” (Ensign, May, 1988, p. 53.)
To the single sisters President Benson said, “I would also caution you … not to become so independent and self-reliant that you decide marriage isn’t worth it and you can do just as well on your own. Some of our sisters indicate that they do not want to consider marriage until after they have completed their degrees or pursed a career. This is not right. … Our priorities are right when we realize there is no higher calling than to be an honorable wife and mother.” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, p. 97.)
What perplexes me as a stake president is that many of those who are reluctant to marry are active members of the Church and are decent, honorable men and women. They strive to live the gospel and follow the counsel of the prophet and other leaders. I believe their reluctance to marry often can be attributed to factors or attitudes that immobilize them. Among these factors are fear of marriage, other priorities, and lack of relationship skills. Consider them briefly.
Overcoming Fear of Marriage
We must face the fact that an entire generation has been raised on a diet of unhappy stories about marriage. The devastation of this cannot be overestimated. Most people who read the newspapers or watch television news are aware that a large percent of marriages fail. They are ever more aware of the ugliness of abuse and its innumerable victims. By the media-portrayed standards of the world, infidelity appears to be normal and fidelity rare.
However, not much attention has been paid to the other side of the issue; there are happy marriages and happy homes. In these marriages, devastating problems within marriage are the exception, not the rule. There have always been more husbands and wives who remain true to their marriage vows than those who stray. We would be prudent to remember that Satan is the father of lies. He has no scruples. There is no lie he will not foster, no harm he will not do. It is his method to use the media to spread the illusion that marriage is an obsolete, even undesirable institution.
Due to this influence, normal fears and apprehensions about marriage may be hard to overcome, but they can be. Individuals who recognize this as a problem can seek help—from friends, examples, Church leaders, and the Lord. Without exception, all individuals can pray, seek priesthood blessings, and study and live the gospel of Christ in dealing with obstacles.
Again, I recognize that a person may be suffering from wounds that create severe, abnormal fears. He or she can also seek help; sometimes professional help is needed. These individuals can also find help and comfort from friends, Church leaders, and the Lord as they strive to find healing peace.
Setting Correct Priorities
It may be a fine line that divides prudent preparation for marriage from worldly priorities that improperly delay marriage. Nevertheless, there is a line.
Priorities of money, education, career, and even “freedom to enjoy life” come perilously close to selfishness and pride. If a person’s first goals are self-serving, he or she inevitably will be cautious about marrying, because to marry is to become other-serving.
This is what is so detrimental about misunderstanding what is meant by self-reliance. It is unwise to always delay marrying so one can reach a vocational or financial or emotional status of independence.
There are no such mortal conditions as perfect self-reliance, independence, and freedom from need. Even the richest, most educated, most emotionally secure person must, in the gospel plan, invest himself in the well-being of others, the ultimate investment being in the family. This helps bring about a sense of personal security and self-worth through personal contribution to the welfare of others.
Our Exemplar is Jesus Christ. He is perfectly educated, absolutely emotionally secure, and is the owner of all creation. His highest priority, his work, his glory, is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) How does a follower of Christ justify priorities that are only self-focused when his Savior has the salvation of all mankind as his highest priority?
From self-focus grows an insidious priority. It is the priority of seeking the flawless mate. This is not the silly process of looking for a pretty face or muscular physique. It is the process of seeking or waiting for a complete, mature, fully formed potential mate to appear in one’s life. Few things bode more ill for the future than these attitudes that prevent a man and woman who are in love from investing eternally in each other. Along with rearing children, the great adventure of marriage is to grow together. Among a person’s highest priorities ought to be the exhilaration of investing in the growth of his or her beloved partner in eternal marriage.
Obviously, this is quite a different thing from entering into marriage with someone who will not revere the covenants and ordinances of the gospel and who has no love for the Savior. That type of union brings only the promise of sorrow and heartbreak.
Developing Relationship Skills
It is sometimes difficult to develop meaningful, sincere relationships, especially when we are often surrounded with negative examples or carry wounds from our own relationships. One formula I have found practical and useful is to divide all relationships into three types or phases: civil, affectionate, and intimate. Understanding and identifying these phases enables a person to overcome paralyzing caution about marrying and also to establish and grow after marriage, as well as in other relationships.
Civil relationships are brief, formal, and purposeful. To be socially competent, each of us must know how to speak to, listen to, greet, and treat others with civility. In proper social conversation, a civil person does not look down at the floor or wander away while someone is speaking to him. Civility in the fellowship of the Saints means greeting strangers and making them welcome. It means listening to the sacrament meeting speaker instead of whispering to the person next to you. It includes inviting someone to sit with you in church or offering to pick them up for the fireside rather than merely notifying them of their opportunity to attend.
Affectionate relationships last longer, are more relaxed; their purpose is enjoyment. We linger with people for whom we feel affection. We are warmed by their interest in us and in our efforts. We exchange more detailed reports about each other. We telephone, write a note, or visit. Affectionate relationships may suggest an appropriate hug or an arm around the shoulder.
To overcome caution about marriage and move beyond civilities, a person needs to learn how to be appropriately affectionate. There are good things to read about affection in scripture, biographies of honorable people, and carefully selected “how-to” books. The Ensign is a practical resource for finding written guidance regarding gospel-based affectionate relationships between children of our Heavenly Father.
Observing people who live gospel standards is useful. But this is no passive exercise. Each of us needs practice. We need to bake cookies and drop them by; pick up the person not just for one fireside but for other activities; listen with interest, sometimes at length, as he or she tells you of a vacation, of the latest car repair disaster, or of deep feelings of the heart and soul. When we learn how to appropriately express affection by showing thoughtfulness of this kind, we gain the skills necessary for nurturing affectionate relationships.
We must understand that there is risk in moving beyond civil relationships. Some people will disappoint or even reject us. Yet we are protected when the motive of our affection was not to manipulate someone into liking us but rather to be their friend. As followers of Christ, we may brighten another’s life, which makes us less susceptible to wounds. And if perchance we are wounded, we heal rapidly.
Out of experiencing many civil and some affectionate relationships, we may develop a few intimate relationships. These are more enduring, more intense, and bring more joy. They are also potentially heartbreaking because we risk and invest much more. Seeing intimate relationships break up evokes caution in us. And well it should, for such breakups cause severe pain.
Yet there is truth to be learned from such heartache. Destruction of intimate relationships in our lives can usually be traced back through specific events and attitudes. Lessons can be learned, behavior can be modified, and changes can be made.
Intimacy may include hand holding, even embracing, praying earnestly for the other person’s welfare, shedding tears of joy and sorrow. Intimacy is no toy to be played with. It can exalt or crush. What makes this more powerful type of relationship manageable for us is Jesus Christ, his gospel, and its ordinances and covenants.
Knowing him and living by his example, we learn to trust and become trustworthy. Thereby we become not a threat to someone’s tender heart but a protector. And should our heart be broken by betrayal, we have the Comforter, the Holy Ghost, who embraces us in the arms of godly love.
Within certain relationships we may experience all three phases. At first we are civil, speaking carefully, staying within constraints of time, controlling emotion. As we move into the affectionate phase, we become more emotionally open and we have a desire to be together more. When a relationship grows beyond affection, we yearn to be together, for to be apart is lonely. We think, speak, and act in ways that build and solidify the relationship, thus ensuring that we can continue to be together. When a person does not know how to nurture a relationship through all three phases, he or she can learn how by observing and doing.
There is no more intimidating decision in life than whether to marry. It is not abnormal to feel cautious about it. In fact, to be oblivious to its significance can lead to some amazing surprises. But the command and counsel of the Lord to “multiply and replenish the earth” and that man is not without the woman nor woman without the man in the Lord (see 1 Cor. 11:11) should lead us all to do all we can to be worthy to fulfill the Lord’s directions.
While there are usually reasons why a person is reluctant to marry, generally speaking, the solution is not to avoid marriage. That only denies a man or woman life’s deepest enjoyments and casts aside God’s greatest gifts. Making the decision to marry may take courage. It usually takes faith. It always takes prayer. But it’s a wonderful opportunity, when approved by the Spirit, to step forward and receive more of a loving Father’s blessings.