By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Author's note: I have a great respect for the beliefs of others and have learned much from them. Although I am a devout Latter-day Saint, I do not impose my beliefs upon my clients and I support their worldviews in therapy. I include this article here so that all of my writings can be found in one place.
This article originally appeared in Meridian Magazine.
I was raised by parents who were very much in love… and I think it messed me up. Sure, I learned wonderful relationship skills and observed plenty of romance, but that’s just it: I was so enamored with what my parents had that I was actively looking for a spouse at the age of five. I had it all planned out: we’d date through school, I’d serve a mission, she’d be waiting for me when I got home, and voila! Instant family. This fantasy, combined with my excitable personality and frequent exposure to the doctrine of eternal marriage, practically ensured that I would inadvertently frighten away potential marriage partners by trying too hard.
I graduated from BYU without a wife, and believe me it was not for lack of trying. I wanted my money back. A couple of years later I was wrapping up graduate school at Auburn and was well past “menace-to-society” age when I finally met my sweetheart. It had been nearly a decade since the last of my siblings had gotten married. I’d watched friends, relatives, and ex-girlfriends tie the knot and start families. I was happy for them, but had to fight off feelings of jealousy. I had experienced the pangs of loneliness, the self-pity of having my heart broken, and the desperation of ringing in year after year as an unwilling bachelor. What’s more, I had to endure the well-intentioned meddling and prying inquisitions of married people who had forgotten (or never knew in the first place) how complicated the dating scene can be.
I am part of two different step-families. My mother passed away and my father remarried, and my wife was divorced with a son when I met her. I’ve experienced a lot, but what the advice that follows is not just from my own life. Combined with my career as a therapist the monthly singles’ classes that I teach in Saint George, and firesides I’ve been asked to speak at, I’ve interacted with thousands of single adults. Their ages have ranged from 18 to 70. Their stories about the difficulties of being single in a family-focused faith have been eye-opening, to say the least.
I read, with great interest, Erin Ann McBride’s report on a survey of LDS single adults earlier this week. I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned in my practice, from loved ones who’ve been divorced or widowed, from singles I interact with at classes and firesides, and from my own life. Although different people in different circumstances require different counsel, I have found three key principles which, if applied, will help LDS singles to date well and thrive on their own in the meantime:
Build a life worth living without a partner.
Be the type of person you want to attract.
Be open to options you’ve not yet considered.
Allow me to address each of these briefly.
1. Build a life worth living without a partner
Many of us have seen the film Jerry Maguire (edited for television, I’m sure) with its immortal line: “You complete me.” In my single years, I had become so fixated on finding someone to spend eternity with that I felt incomplete without her. My life, I thought, couldn’t truly start until she was in it. This is, of course, a self-defeating interpretation of the doctrine that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) and “neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11).
I realized that we needn’t develop a complex if we don’t have our eternal companion right this second. I’m not suggesting that anyone stop trying. Of course we ought to date and prepare ourselves and otherwise do what church leadership has counseled. What I am saying is that, if we’re doing all we can, then there’s no shame whatsoever in being single, even if we’ve past what is considered “normal marriage age” in our culture.
Remember the counsel of Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “The issue for us is trusting God enough to trust also His timing. If we can truly believe He has our welfare at heart, may we not let His plans unfold as He thinks best?” [Even As I Am (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 93]. I can certainly attest to the truthfulness of this doctrine. With all due respect to the other wonderful women that I’ve dated, I’m so grateful that things worked out the way they did. Although I pled with Heavenly Father to let those relationships blossom into more, it turns out I’m happiest with the person he guided me to years later (and I’m sure my ex-girlfriends are happier with their husbands).
The Lord will not deprive the faithful with any opportunity or blessing. Remember that “all your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection provided you continue faithful” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 296).
Of course, potentially waiting for the hereafter to find a companion is little of comfort to those who want someone to hold and to make memories with in the here and now. It’s fine and natural to want that. But as soon as that want becomes a need, you’re likely to get hurt. Why? As soon as you need to have a man or a woman in your life right now, you’re in love with the idea of being in love.
That’s when you scare people away by coming across as desperate. That’s when shady characters can use your neediness to manipulate and use you. I look at it this way: if you aren’t able to swim on your own, if you’re afraid of drowning in loneliness and despair, you’re going to cling to whatever piece of slimy driftwood that comes floating by in order to keep from sinking. The irony is, they’ll ultimately push you under, and deeper than before.
The best way to combat this is to build a life worth living on your own. Even if you don’t meet your mate in mortality you can still love your life by filling it with service, developing your relationships with friends and family, and magnifying your talents by pursuing worthwhile goals. This will make you less desperate, less needy, and more able to swim on your own until you find a nice lifeboat or swimming partner.
Sister Kristen Oaks, wife of Elder Dallin H. Oaks, did not marry until she was in her 50’s. She spoke at a CES fireside about how to make the most of one’s time as a single adult: “I would also say to you, be balanced. As a single woman, I had to go forward. I got a doctorate and became so involved in my profession that I forgot about being a good person. I would say to everyone in this room, always remember that your first calling is as a mother or as a father. Develop those domestic talents, talents of love and talents of service. As a single, I had to go searching for service projects…I think about the painful times in our lives…I would ask you to consecrate that to Heavenly Father. In Helaman 3:35 we read that if we yield our hearts unto God, all our actions serve to sanctify us, and so any time becomes a blessed time” (Dating vs. Hanging Out, CES Fireside, May 1, 2005).
No mortal man or woman can “complete” you. Jesus Christ alone makes you complete. By keeping his commandments, feasting on his words (2 Nephi 32:3), relying on his grace, and developing a virtuous mind, you’ll gain a confidence and inner peace that are unlike any other (D&C 121:45). This confidence and peace will carry you through the trials of this life and give you the strength to settle for nothing less than a temple marriage with a person who loves the Savior, lives the Gospel, and is 100% committed to you.
Incidentally, it was this confidence and peace of which I speak that allowed me to win the heart of the woman I now call my eternal companion. Serving others, pursuing worthwhile goals, developing my talents, treasuring friends and family, and drawing close to the Lord helped me to realize that, even though I loved her, if it didn’t work out I’d be okay. That calmed me down. It helped me to not be pushy, needy, or suffocating. It was only when I was at peace with being single that I was truly ready to get married.
2. Be the type of person you want to attract
I once had a client in my office for therapy (I share this story with his permission) who told me that he’d probably never marry because his standards were too high. When I asked him what those standards were, he offered to bring me a list he’d prepared, which he did in the next session. The lengthy list of traits required of his “perfect woman” read something like this:
Must be an excellent cook.
Must be great with children.
Must have an advanced degree.
Must have a successful career and be financially independent.
Must have an amazing body, eating well and exercising every day.
Must be neat and tidy.
Must be a home-owner.
Must be patient.
Must be funny.
Must love sports and video games.