Summary: I have been married for two months and am no expert on dating or marriage. However, through the dating process leading up to my marriage into my time as a married man, I have learned a few things for myself that I wish I would have better understood when I was single. The principles are shared here in hopes that “ye may learn to be more wise than [I] have been.” (Mormon 9:31)
If I told you that the war Satan waged in heaven is actively going on in your single adult life, would you believe me? We read in Moses 4:3 that Satan rebelled against God, and “sought to destroy the agency of man.” I believe that is what he is still trying to do now. However, because he does not have the ability to take our agency away, he convinces us to give it to him. He does so through deception and distortion. When we accept that external forces and circumstances control our choices, and believe that we are objects to be acted upon rather than agents who act, we in essence are asking God, “Is this gift of agency returnable?” The renowned author Stephen R. Covey has warned, “If you start to think the problem is “out there,” stop yourself. That thought is the problem” (Covey, 1989). Stating that the problem is “out there” suggests that someone or something else is in control, it relieves accountability. As an agent who acts, you are in control of your own life and how you react to your problems.
If you are anything like me before I got married, you are fed up with dating. You are sick of the consistent games, insincerity, and unwillingness to commit that you find in the dating arena. You may have even concluded that something is wrong with the current Mormon dating culture. Well, according to studies done by Dr. Jason S. Carroll of BYU, you are right.
Dr. Carroll has found that
- “More than half of young adults today rank having ‘fully experienced the single life’ as an important criterion to achieve before getting married”
- “Hanging-out patterns have increased among Latter-day Saint young people”
- “Some Latter-day Saint young people are “hooking up” by engaging in NCMOs (non-committal make-outs) or other forms of non-committed physical intimacy prior to marriage”(Carroll, 2012).
“Current societal trends reveal that there are a number of pitfalls in today’s dating and courtship culture that require young adults to approach marriage with an even greater degree of faith and steadfastness than was required in previous generations. In fact, for some Latter-day Saint young adults today, following prophetic counsel to form an enduring marriage may feel like a daunting task” (Carroll, 2012).
Dr. Carroll narrows these pitfalls down to four key issues: (a) a growing pessimism about marriage and a focus on personal independence before and after marriage, (b) a primary focus on personal financial independence for both men and women, (c) widespread sexual permissiveness, and (d) high rates of couples living together before marriage (Carroll, 2012).
There is a common theme among each of these—they are all selfish. Much like the temptations the adversary placed before Jesus in Matthew chapter 4, they are all essentially the same temptation, “do this for yourself now.” They also constitute a solid foundation for what Elder Bruce C. Hafen has called a contractual marriage.
While serving as a member of the Seventy, he clarified the nature of a covenant relationship by contrasting it with a contractual relationship:
When troubles come, the parties to a contractual marriage seek happiness by walking away. They marry to obtain benefits and will stay only as long as they’re receiving what they bargained for. But when troubles come to a covenant marriage, the husband and wife work them through. They marry to give and to grow, bound by covenants to each other, to the community, and to God. Contract companions each give 50 percent. But covenant companions each give 100 percent. Enough and to spare. Each gives enough to cover any shortfall by the other (Hafen, 2005).
Those trapped in a contractual view of marriage selfishly focus inward, and condition their continued effort in a relationship on them getting what they expect. On the other hand, those who embrace the covenant view of marriage focus outward on their partner, and are more concerned with meeting their needs than their own.
Now, while research findings may be disheartening, accurate, and even validating, you must keep in mind the declaration of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Outward commotions cannot excuse any failure of inward resolve” (Maxwell, 2003). Remember, the thought that the problem is “out there” is the problem. You cannot control that others are preparing themselves for a contractual marriage by experiencing the single life, hanging out, hooking up, focusing on personal independence and financial success, and being immoral. But, as an agent, you can choose not to be affected by these behaviors. They cannot influence or discourage you unless you let them, you are not an object.
You can choose to retain your agency and act by taking a proactive approach and preparing for a covenant marriage right now. As Thomas B. Holman and Frank Poulsen put it, “we must look ahead to the type of marriage we want, set a course toward that goal, and then “prepare every needful thing” so when the opportunity for establishing a relationship that could lead to an eternal marriage arises, we are ready to move forward with faith” (Holman & Poulsen, 2012).
I offer four suggestions on how to do this: first, by becoming a right person for marriage; second, practicing effective communication; third, handling differences and solve problems respectfully; and fourth, choosing mature love.
Becoming a Right Person for Marriage
Many young single adults choose to employ what Dr. Carroll calls the “finding Mr./Ms. Right” approach to dating. Speaking of the dangers of this course, he says: “In sum, the focus in this style of dating is on finding or matching with the person you are meant to marry. This approach creates feelings of anxiety about dating, as young people feel overwhelmed by the prospect of finding their ‘perfect match’” (Carroll, 2012).
By contrast, Elder David A. Bednar (2009) warns about embracing a finding-focused view to dating and counsels to practice a different approach. He said:
As we visit with young adults all over the Church, often they will ask, “Well, what are the characteristics I should look for in a future spouse?” As though they have some checklist of, “I need to find someone who has these three, or four, or five things.” And I rather forcefully say to them, “You are so arrogant to think that you are some catch and that you want someone else who has these five things for you! If you found somebody who had these three or four or five characteristics that you’re looking for, what makes you think they’d want to marry you?” The “list” is not for evaluating someone else—the list is for you and what you need to become. And so if there are three primary characteristics that [you] hope to find in an eternal companion, then those are the three things [you] ought to be working to become. Then [you] will be attractive to someone who has those things. . . . You are not on a shopping spree looking for the greatest value with a series of characteristics. You become what you hope your spouse will be and you’ll have a greater likelihood of finding that person (Bednar, 2009).
The “becoming” approach described by Elder Bednar emphasizes personal qualification, maturity, and improvement. The young adult engaged in this approach recognizes that the problem is not “out there,” it is in his or her self. Dr. Carroll notes, “Within a “becoming” approach to dating, the primary question is, “How can I be prepared to form and nurture an enduring marriage?” While a becoming-based approach to dating still recognizes the importance of finding a good person to marry, finding is not the primary focus. Rather, the main emphasis is on becoming ready for marriage and then committing to that relationship when you have made the decision to marry” (Carroll, 2012).
Practicing Effective Communication
I have found that communication is highly influential in building and maintaining a successful relationship, and eventually marriage. While modern technology provides many avenues for vagueness and avoidance of confrontation, you can still choose to listen intently and be upfront and clear. You may not be married, but you can practice communicating in your family, friend, and dating relationships in the meantime.
Dr. Carroll provides this explanation on effective communication skills:
“Effective communication involves two primary skills—empathetic listening and clear-sending communication. As young adults develop these skills, they are better prepared to establish healthy and productive couple interactions in dating and marriage relationships. The goal of empathetic listening is to help another person feel understood and valued. It is a vital and necessary skill needed in dating, courtship, and marriage.
In order to be effective communicators, we have to be authentic in our conversations with others. Simply put, we have to say what we mean and mean what we say while still respecting the feelings and perspectives of others. In dating relationships, when young adults do not state their true feelings or perspectives or when they lie about them, trust and intimacy cannot develop or be maintained. When the purpose of communication is to cover up, mislead, deceive, intimidate, threaten, disapprove, hurt, fault-find, or make someone feel guilty, relationships are damaged. Furthermore, if young adults allow their emotions or personal insecurities to overwhelm them, they tend to communicate in less authentic ways—thus sending less clear messages” (Carroll, 2012).
Respectfully Handle Differences and Solve Problems
In their work Foundational Processes for an Enduring, Healthy Marriage, Stephen F. Duncan and Sara S. McCarty Zasukha outline 7 skills they believe are necessary to work through the challenges brought on by differences and conflict in relationships. These are skills that can help you resolve differences with anyone, especially your future spouse. Here are a few snippets from their suggestions:
Some issues may not need to be raised. Having charity, the pure love of Christ, may prevent some things from ever becoming an issue.
Eliminating destructive interaction patterns
They identify four of these destructive interaction patterns that progressively lead to the downfall of a relationship: criticism (attack on one’s personality), contempt (criticism mixed with sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling), defensiveness (not taking responsibility for change), and stonewalling (unwillingness to discuss or withdrawal from an issue).
Contention results in anger escalation, hostility, and hurt feelings that can seriously harm relationships. If you cannot approach an issue without contending about it, it is better to deal with it later, after you have calmed yourself. Do whatever calms you: pray, listen to peaceful music, walk around the block, take a shower.
Discussing issues softly, gently, and privately
Avoid negative, accusatory remarks, sarcasm, and critical or contemptuous statements. Complaining is okay, but don’t blame. Speak for yourself. Use “I” statements to communicate your feelings (“I felt hurt when you left me alone at the party”), not “you” statements (“You are so inconsiderate”). Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Don’t store things up—remember D&C 121:43: “Reproving betimes [without delay] with sharpness [clarity, openness], when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” Bring up the issue privately with the person concerned “and not before the world” (see D&C 42:88–89).
Making and accepting repair attempts
When a discussion on an issue gets off on the wrong foot, put the brakes on before disaster strikes and things get contentious. Ultimately, a repair attempt is anything in a discussion that de-escalates tension so discussion and problem solving can proceed. It might include apologies (“I’m sorry, please forgive me, I didn’t mean that”), acknowledgment of actions (“Yes, you do help with the laundry on occasion”), or taking breaks (“Whoa! This is getting out of hand. Let’s take ten minutes and cool off”).
Soothing one’s self and each other
Taking breaks may be essential if repair attempts are unsuccessful or if you begin to feel out of control (“flooded”) physically and emotionally.
Reaching a consensus.
Most issues need only to be discussed and not solved; in fact, many issues are not solvable but perpetual. However, after a full discussion of an issue has occurred and it is classified as a “solvable” problem, it is time to counsel together to find a solution that you both feel good about.
Developing these skills will prevent you from being acted upon by differences and problems because they each focus on what you can do rather than what is happening to you.
Choose Mature Love
Elder Marvin J. Ashton stated:
“True love is a process. True love requires personal action. Love must be continuing to be real. Love takes time. Too often expediency, infatuation, stimulation, persuasion, or lust are mistaken for love. How hollow, how empty if our love is no deeper than the arousal of momentary feeling or the expression in words of what is no more lasting than the time it takes to speak them” (Ashton, 1975, November).
Elder Ashton’s descriptions of love line up closely with Pat Noller’s explanation of mature love. Take a look at the chart below and see how you fare. You will notice the listings under mature love emphasize personal accountability for choices, and meeting the needs of your partner, while the listings under immature love accentuate selfishness, and the idea that the problem is “out there.” Agents who act choose mature love, objects that are acted upon lean toward immature love.
Characteristics of Immature and Mature Love (based on Noller, 1996)
|Aspects of Love||Immature Love||Mature Love|
|Emotional Part of Love||Possessiveness
Desire for Companionship
Warm Feeling of Contentment
|Belief Part of Love||“Love is Blind”
Love is External to Us
Love is Beyond Our Control
|Love is Something You Have to “Decide”
Love Means: Commitment, Trust, Sharing, Sacrifice
|Behavior Part of Love||Selfish
Concern Only for Satisfying Own Needs
|Creates an Environment of Growth and Development
Allows Partner Space for Growth
(Holman & Poulsen, 2012)
This is all important because all these solutions—becoming a right person for marriage, practicing effective communication, handling differences and solve problems respectfully, choosing mature love, not only maintain your agency in the dating arena, they also develop personal security. As Dr. Jason S. Carroll notes, the ability to love is dependent upon personal security:
“The term personal security refers to a person’s sense of self-importance, which involves perceptions of self-worth, the ability to regulate negative affect (for example, depression, anxiety, or anger), and feelings of secure attachment (Carroll, Badger, & Yang, 2006). Personally secure people rely on sources of internal validation (such as the love of God, a sense of personal worth, and personal optimism) rather than seeking external validation of their worth (for example, through accomplishment, physical appearance, material possessions, or unhealthy relationships). Personal security is the foundation for several key attributes that are needed in dating and marriage relationships. These include courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to trust other people. Without personal security, vulnerability in close relationships becomes threatening and the fear of rejection will often dictate how people behave in dating situations” (Carroll, 2012)
My conclusion is that successful covenant marriages require recognitions from both parties that agency must be preserved, and the attitude of the problem being “out there” must be abandoned. This is no easy task but as Elizabeth VanDenBerghe and Alan J. Hawkins have asserted, “Both the soft stories and the hard evidence attest to the fact that good marriages are undeniably worth the work, sacrifice, and dedication they require” (VanDenBerghe & Hawkins, 2012).
It is worth it to change from a “finding Mr./Mrs. Right” to a “becoming” approach. It is worth it to practice effective communication skills now and make adjustments. It is worth it to develop respectful difference and problem solving skills. It is worth it to select mature love over immature love. Ultimately, it is worth it to be selfless and realize that the problem is never “out there.”
Ashton, M. J. (1975, November). Love takes time. Ensign, 108-110.
Bednar, D. A. (2009). Conversations, Episode 001. Mormon Channel, pp. Retrieved from http://radio.lds.org/eng/programs/conversations-episode-1.
Carroll, J. S. (2012). Young Adulthood and Pathways to Eternal Marriage. Successful Marriages and Families: Proclamation Principles and Research Perspectives, Chapter 1.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Fireside.
Hafen, B. C. (2005). Covenant hearts: Marriage and the joy of human love. Salt Lake CIty: Deseret Book.
Holman, T. B., & Poulsen, F. (2012). The ABCs of Successful Romantic Relationship Development: Meeting, Dating, and Choosing an Eternal Companion. Successful Marriages and Families: Proclamation Principles and Research Perspectives, Chapter 2.
Maxwell, N. A. (2003, April). Care for the life of the soul. Ensign.
VanDenBerghe, E., & Hawkins, A. J. (2012). The Warm, Happy Marriage: Cold, Hard Facts to Consider. Successful Marriages and Families: Proclamation Principles and Research Perspectives, Chapter 7.