Marriage: The Gateway to Adulthood

I’ve been married just over a month, but have noticed in that short time span a fascinating shift in the way I and my wife have been treated. We were both firmly adults when we got married (27 and 26), but there has been a granting of adulthood to us in the short time since we got married that we didn’t have access to before. I think this is part of Western culture broadly, but is definitely exacerbated in Mormonism. Some thoughts on that and what strike me as being at the root, the implications, and maybe even some gestures towards solutions.

This shift in social status is at least partially structural. You move to a different ward once you are married (assuming that you have been attending the YSA or mid-singles ward (if you’re older than that things play out differently)). This is referred to commonly as “graduating” from the singles ward. And it feels like that. There’s this sense in which you move up to the married or the family ward. This feeling may be intentional. It encourages a striving for marriage that seems wanted from the Church (and rooted in doctrinal principles).

I have written elsewhere about the deficient theology of singleness within Mormonism (which you can read here) and think that’s still true. There were a couple of posts on BCC this week that sparked anew some of these conversations (here and then a response here). It strikes me that any discussion of the cultural problems with praising marriage is largely misguided. Yes, we have a likely unhealthy and unhelpful focus on marriage in YSA culture. However, that stems almost entirely from a doctrinal position that marriage is an essential covenant for exaltation and something that we should all absolutely be striving for.

Honestly, I now benefit from this valuing of marriage and I’m not mad about it (though it is remarkable and amusing and frustrating to me that I was a functioning adult for years, but that it was marriage that finally elevated me). Our married ward is strange. It feels like we’re on some frighteningly homogenous Noah’s Ark—all paired off two-by-two, except that this Noah only wanted 80 pairs/couples of white rabbits. The striving for marriage that marks many singles wards is gone. Replaced with a strange spouse-upping contest. There’s a competition to see who has the best spouse? I don’t know. It’s like a weird mix of self-deprecation and secondhand pride.

Essentially, it seems to me that our elevation of marital status as a marker of adulthood is due to general cultural factors, structural elements—specifically different wards, and all rooted in doctrine about the importance of marriage.

This seems to privilege and elevate marital status and marriage to almost idolatrous levels. Doing so is dangerous. It causes us to miss what we are striving for. Now, I’m remarkably happy being married and highly recommend marriage. But I am less convinced that treating marriage as not only an important covenant to be made with God and your partner, but also as the key to adulthood is a cultural good. I believe in marriage. I hope all my friends, family, and others that want to be married can be.

Yet, I want and need single members to be valued. To be treated as adults. This idolatrous treatment of marriage infantilizes singles and cripples them as they enter marriages. If you believe and are treated in such a way that marriage is the gate you must enter through to become an adult, then it may be interpreted that there’s no reason or need or possibility of reaching such maturity without marriage. This is terrible. There’s an element of exaggeration here, but I think the idea at the root of what I’m identifying is true.

So what should we do? It’s ridiculous and impossible (and probably misguided) to ask the Church to downplay marriage. Sure, that’d probably help in some ways, but that’s not going to happen without radical revisions of Church doctrine. Some structural shifts may help. I propose abolishing YSA wards and fully integrating single students, married students, and whoever else is around. Have some social or other activities for YSAs if you want, but let’s integrate fully.

I also think we should get rid of marriage requirements for leadership positions and that we should more fully utilize singles in family wards. They can be a Relief Society president or Elder’s Quorum second counselor just as easily as a married person can (I’m aware that neither of these callings has an explicit prohibition on singles serving, but you get the drift). Yes, they will be dealing with some problems that they don’t have personal life experience with, but missionaries do that and they’re teenagers, with minimal life experience. Also, no ecclesiastical leader regardless of marital status should be offering advice or counsel or therapy for couples. They should provide some spiritual insight (which any person regardless of marital position is entitled to) before directing the couple or individual to trained professionals.

I’ve heard it said that YSA wards provide many leadership and other service opportunities for their members and this has been true from my experience. Yet, I don’t see a reason that we cannot provide similar opportunities under a different ward structure. It’d be difficult, but is definitely possible.

I don’t really feel that different after being married. I mean, I adore Cece and am thrilled that we chose to get married and choose every day to be married to each other, but I’m no more adult than I was December 26. Though I feel granted an added sense of status and privilege that I once lacked. My family respects me slightly more, I have this change in Church status (though our ward seems to use length of time married as the replacement for age that YSA wards had to determine the hierarchy, so we have dropped to the bottom).

I did nothing to deserve this. I didn’t change or magically become more worthy of love. I didn’t alter my personality and lose all these terrible habits I have. I did not earn marriage. Marriage was, and is, NOT a prize that can be earned by checking the right boxes. I happened to connect with someone deeply in a way that I never have before and we decided we’d rather spend our future together than apart, but neither of us earned this. Marriage is beyond your control. Sure, you can do stuff to make it more likely, but since we believe in agency (and have a society that grants women and men autonomy in relation to their marital choices), it seems misguided to place someone’s adulthood on hold until they achieve something that is and always will be out of their control.

Marriage is great, but it does not an adult make.

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8 thoughts on “Marriage: The Gateway to Adulthood

  1. I have a feeling we could discuss this topic for a few hours. 🙂 Oh, and I was the RSP in my Boston ward for nearly 5 years and I’m single.

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    1. Probably Ellen, probably. 🙂 Ah yes! I had a vague memory of that, which I think motivated my reluctance to claim absolutely that singles can’t hold leadership positions. Thank you for pointing that out definitively!

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  2. Hi Conor, I am a never-mo from New England. I just got married in September and my husband and I were the same ages as you and your wife (27 and 26) when we got married. I laugh because I do not really feel like we are treated more like adults at all here on the East Coast (other than my husband graduated from grad school so his parents stopped helping him financially, which was more due to the school thing). Sometimes I wish we were almost treated a little more like adults or our decision treated with a little more respect and we’re often getting asked, “you’re married!?” when we meet new people. 26 felt on the young side in our community to get married and I often find myself jumping to defend our decision with “well we were dating for almost 8 years when we got married!”

    It is interesting to read about this cultural phenomenon you’ve noticed in your community. Do you wonder if it has anything to do with the lack of cohabitation before marriage? Perhaps the switch from living with friends/in dorms/with family to living with a spouse seems like a big jump to “adulthood”? We lived together for one year, then were long distance for three, then lived together for the last few months before our wedding. We obviously love being married, but to the outside observer, our relationship is not different other than our wedding bands! I really enjoyed this article about the judgement from both the secular, academia and religious aisles this young girl faced -> https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/well/family/for-a-young-bride-joy-and-judgment.html

    It seems to have captured both experiences really well. Great post and I agree with you – marriage is not what marks adulthood (or anything else for that matter)!

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts Natalie. That’s a fascinating question. I’m sure cohabitation has something to do with it (along with other Mormon pressures for marriage that sort of elevate it beyond the way it’s viewed in other communities). I’ll need to think more about this, but I think you’re definitely onto something.

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