“The Waiting Syndrome,” Ensign, June 1986, 50
The great reward of my teaching at Brigham Young University was the opportunity to get to know many remarkable LDS young people. Over the years, I must have met hundreds of them in my classes, and every day a few of my students, or sometimes my former students, would drop by my office to talk. I valued these chances for individual conversation. Sometimes students would visit me to talk about their grades or assignments; sometimes they just wanted to say hello. But often, bigger questions were on their minds. These were earnest and high-minded young people, eager to pursue the best possible path in their schooling and their lives.
I soon began to realize, though, that a sizable group of these young people were making serious and puzzling miscalculations. Again and again, with only slight variations, the same scene would unfold. I would be talking with a student—almost always, in these cases, a young single woman nearing graduation. “What are your plans after you’ve finished your degree?” I’d ask.
She would hesitate, searching for words. “Well … I guess I should start thinking about a job. Or maybe I’ll stay in school. I really don’t know what I’ll do. I haven’t really planned anything.” And the more honest ones would add, “I always thought I’d be married by now. But I’m not, and there’s nothing else I really want to do.”
Of course, not all responses were uncertain. Sometimes, the student’s face would shine with enthusiasm. She had wonderful plans! Maybe a marvelous job offer had come her way, and she could hardly wait to meet the challenge. Maybe a fine graduate school had accepted her, and she was eagerly looking forward to new friends and new growth. But enthusiasm was the exception. If the young woman was neither engaged nor married, her description of her own future usually betrayed indecision, faintheartedness, and embarrassment.
On the one hand, I could sympathize with these feelings. Virtually every young woman hopes for marriage, and this hope includes a vision of herself as a lovely young bride, for whom the blessings of temple marriage have come while she is in the traditional early-twenties age bracket.
But the years may pass, and she may find herself still single. I have seen large numbers of these young women make the same tragic mistake: though a multitude of choices and opportunities for growth are open to them, they nevertheless put their lives on hold, waiting for someone else to make them happy and to give their lives direction and purpose, rather than accepting that task themselves.
My first impulse upon being confronted with this type of response was to explode in disbelief and frustration: “You’re so talented! You have so many opportunities open to you! How can it be that there is nothing you want to do?”
I wasn’t really angry; I was just baffled. With all my powers of persuasion, I would point out that both the Church and the world needed her contribution in the field of health services, fine arts, business, law, education, or wherever her greatest gifts happened to be. The self-esteem and happiness she would gain from such a contribution would be more than anything she could imagine. The greatest mistake she could make—the error that was bound to bring a sense of waste and disappointment—was to fail to make her own plans and choices according to her individual talents and aspirations.
I don’t believe my words carried the day very often. Though the student would listen courteously, one faculty conference could not counterbalance a lifetime of envisioning herself solely as a wife and mother all her adult life. It was as if all my suggestions and encouragement were drowned out by a recording inside her that kept repeating, “I’m old enough to be married! Why am I not married? Then I would know what I am supposed to do with my life.”
She would feel puzzled and distressed; I would feel frustrated. If only I could have pushed an ENTER key to program some data into her thinking! I longed for her to understand, once and for all, some points that were so important that they would cause her to look at her life in an entirely different way:
1. Although statistical averages indicate that most people marry within a certain age bracket, many people, for various reasons, marry later in life. What your friends are doing is according to their timetable; you must have the faith and courage to follow your own.
2. No embarrassment attaches to being unmarried. But if your only response to being single is to mark time, that’s cause for embarrassment.
3. If you truly value your future role as a wife and mother, you will give yourself every opportunity for personal growth now. Achievement in your schooling and employment will enrich your future home. By contrast, “just waiting” never prepared anyone to be a better wife and mother.
4. It is natural and right for all young people to desire a wonderful marriage. But remember that preparing for this goal and looking forward to it doesn’t mean you have to be overly preoccupied by it. Go ahead with your plans and your work! Don’t gear everything toward “finding him.” Without exception, the finest engagements I have seen among my students have been by-products of significant commitment to school and work. That’s how the couples met; that’s how they came to appreciate and love each other.
5. Marriage, in and of itself, has never changed an unhappy person into a happy one. Really happy married people are those who could also be happy single people. Single and married people have an equal claim on happiness. Your job is to prepare for a happy future, whatever it brings, by being a successful single woman now.
I think my students always understood that I believe with all my heart in the blessings and desirability of marriage. I think they also understood that I believed each of them is a daughter of her Father in Heaven, with talents and opportunities and limitless potential, and that it is wrong to deny blessings to herself and those around her by just letting herself drift.
Quite often my student would say, “But suppose I set forth on these plans and then the right man does come along. It could happen anytime, after all. Marriage might mean a change in those plans.” Sometimes I would respond by asking her what she would think of a man who said, “One day I may be called as a mission president. If that happens, my profession would be interrupted. So I might as well just live from month to month, without any real professional commitment.” This is strange reasoning, of course. First of all, the man would be wrong to let a future possibility drain all the vitality from his present dedication and achievement. Second, years of thumb-twiddling would be the poorest possible preparation to be a fine mission president. By waiting passively for the call, he would probably disqualify himself for it.
It is certainly true that marriage may well mean a change in plans. But, if so, what is lost? When the Lord points to another path, a man leaves his profession to become a mission president, and he is a better president for having been a better professional. When that choice marriage opportunity does come along, a woman who has been pursuing other worthy goals will be a better wife and mother because of the personal growth she has achieved.
How does a wise young woman plan her adult life? Though she may hope to marry early in her adult life, she may want to assume she will be among those who marry later. If she prepares herself in this way, she has everything to gain and nothing to lose. Whenever the right marriage opportunity might come, she will be better off. By contrast, if she sets aside the responsibility for her own planning and choices, she loses either way—in terms of happiness and self-esteem as a single woman, and in terms of her contributions in her home as a wife and mother.
The right opportunity for marriage may come into a woman’s life when she is fairly young; it may come later; or she may be among the worthy, attractive, and productive Latter-day Saints who live out their lives as single women. Whatever the case, the decision to marry should be a happy, productive one—not one made by default in an attempt to escape a discontented, undirected life. A single woman can best make a valid, healthy choice to accept a marriage proposal when she is living a rewarding, giving, productive life. If her morale is high and her individual spiritual growth is satisfying, she can look forward to rich new dimensions in her married life.