A Lone Man in the Garden
Delmont R. Oswald
[p.231]I am a divorced father with two beautiful children. Married for eleven years, I have been divorced for ten. I continue to experience the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood; I consider myself a member in good standing; and I remain sealed to my children. But because I have not remarried and because I have received a cancellation of sealing to my ex-wife, I am technically in the same category as the never-married. I am not eligible to obtain “a fullness of glory and exaltation in the celestial kingdom” unless and until I remarry. I am devoted to my religion, however, and I want to see the Mormon church lovingly include and encourage all members to become active participants.
In the 1988 April general conference priesthood session, President Ezra Taft Benson addressed the single adult brethren of the church concerning the need to take on the responsibilities of marriage. Although his speech focused on the never-married male, the implications apply equally to all unmarried adult male members, including the divorced and perhaps the widowed. (I qualify the category “widowed,” because although widowed men are often encouraged to remarry and provide the means for another sister to enter “the fullness of celestial glory,” they are viewed as having fulfilled their covenants honorably.)
When I heard President Benson’s speech, I must admit my emotions were mixed. On one hand I was very pleased to hear President Benson address the issue of the single male in the church. For too long the singles issue has been seen only as a woman’s [p.232]problem. Also, the fact that the highest rate of inactivity in the church lies among divorced males and the second highest among never-married males marks this issue as urgent.
On the other hand, the speech was painful to me, not just because it was reminding me of obligations and calling me to change, but because of its tone and approach. This was disconcerting because I have been raised to accept unquestioningly the authority of church leaders.
I do not take issue with the doctrine expressed in the speech or with the right of the prophet to call members to change their ways. This is, after all, his right and calling. As for marriage, I believe that two people in a good relationship, loving and supporting one another equally through the trials of life and, if possible, creating children, is wonderful and good. And I believe that happily married couples can experience a higher level of joy than a single person. I believe this because the times I feel the most like “a lone man in the Garden of Eden” are those times when something especially positive or pleasurable happens and I have no one to share it with. Sharing happiness is truly a higher experience than feeling happy by yourself. We singles often repeat the adage, “There are a lot worse things than being single.” And we are right, but we must likewise admit that there are also better things.
It was the tone of President Benson’s speech that troubled me. I heard his words as those of an adult lecturing a child. Singles are perhaps overly sensitive to this approach because they often find themselves treated as eternal teenagers both in their congregations and in their immediate families. Too often adulthood comes to be defined by marital status rather than by age and maturity.
To be fair, I realize the limitations of any speech given in a conference setting. It must be directed at an audience with a wide and diverse spectrum of emotional, intellectual, and cultural backgrounds; it is restricted by time; it must quickly develop an ideal goal based on doctrine; it must be translated into teaching examples; and it must end with a call for behavioral change. This is not an easy achievement for any speaker. I also recognize that the prophet is viewed as a father figure representing our Father in Heaven and that he frequently speaks to the membership in that capacity. However, in a speech that called me at age forty-eight to radically change my [p.233]lifestyle, I would have felt more comfortable being addressed as a brother and fellow adult.
But this father-to-errant-child approach by itself would not have evoked such a strong reaction to the speech. It was President Benson’s concluding quote from 2 Nephi 1:21 that troubled me most: “Arise from the dust, my sons, and be men.” Not only did I feel that this placed me in company with Laman and Lemuel, but that my very masculinity and adulthood were being questioned–simply because I was not married. My first highly emotional response to this quote preempted the logical and intellectual responses upon which I usually pride myself. I also felt that an issue I find complex was being treated simplistically. The message this quote sends to an often already sensitive audience is, “O.K. children, quit playing childish games and grow up. It’s time to change your ways.” To an adult male who has never married and who has spent a lifetime developing his particular personality and life patterns, this implies that profound change is simply a matter of saying, “I will.” Yet very seldom is willpower alone successful. And to divorced males it implies that there are no complexities involved in their situations. It is the inevitable complexities involved in any divorce, however, that so frequently lead these men to inactivity.
One of the major complications that single males in the church must deal with is guilt. The assumption is often made that single males are sinning by choosing to remain in that state. According to this reasoning, they are not only keeping themselves from obtaining the celestial kingdom, but they are responsible for not helping some worthy sister to achieve her exaltation as well. In effect, then, they are not living up to their priesthood obligations. They often feel this guilt toward their parents and their church leaders, because they sense they have disappointed the very authority figures whose approval they most desire. It is also frequently difficult for them to seek counsel and aid from bishops or other church authorities, who are generally neither single, divorced, nor professional counselors, and who frequently have a difficult time relating to the pain and problems of their single brethren. We can assume, perhaps, that as the number of divorces in the church continues to increase, so will the number of divorced authorities; but if the sensitivity of our leaders is left to [p.234]evolve through slow experience unaided by education, many good members will meanwhile be lost.
Guilt is further inculcated by priesthood lessons that define the husband/father as the steward responsible for the happiness and success of the family unit. These lessons facilely reassure the Mormon husband that as long as he is living the commandments and doing everything the Lord would have him do, his family will be blessed and problems alleviated. When divorce occurs, then, the implication is that it is primarily the husband’s fault. The ensuing sense of guilt is often reinforced during interviews; not many men can look their bishop in the eye and say, “But, Bishop, I was living the gospel perfectly.”
During a divorce the agency of all parties must be considered. One person cannot be held totally responsible for every idea and action of other family members. Traditional stories and generalized statistics aside, each divorce is a unique situation. Why should we not strive to salvage all the souls involved with the least amount of damage to self-esteem?
Frequently a man will seek a second marriage for all the wrong reasons: to repent, to grasp at a second chance, to avoid being alone, etc. Another divorce often follows, and his sense of guilt is multiplied; this second failure convinces him that he must be at fault. This guilt, if not relieved by wise counseling, can become so unbearable that the only solution he sees is to remove himself from the sources. So he separates himself from God, parents, family, and church–all the authority he respects but feels he has disappointed.
Even in the best of circumstances the obligations and commitments of marriage are difficult. But in a good marriage partners provide each other encouragement, support, security, and stability. For unmarried people the church itself is the partner from which we expect strength and support, even though it occasionally can unwittingly send negative messages to its single partners. I mentioned earlier that single women in the church are usually seen as victims of their situation and single men as perpetrators. We must recognize, though, that there are some women who, for whatever reason, do not intend to marry. Men are as threatened by fears of rejection as their female counterparts and can also be equally misled and treated [p.235]poorly. Neither sex holds an exclusive claim to victimization or exploitation.
The message frequently received by single males is that they are second-class church members. The only single general authorities are widowers. Occasionally a single male is placed on a general board or in a bishopric, but certainly not to serve as a role model. Yet single women frequently serve on general boards and in Relief Society presidencies for that purpose. For years policy at Brigham Young University restricted the hiring of single males but not single females. I recognize the church’s need to stress the ideal of the united family, but what about individual worth? Single males are not respected in the same way as married males.
It is not a surprise that the “marry at any cost” philosophy is so rampant in the church. People marry because their biological clocks, their worthiness clocks, and their guilt clocks are all sounding alarms. The attitude that life begins at temple marriage is constantly taught in fairy tale marriage stories related to young Latter-day Saints as they grow and develop into adults. Adult single members find themselves behind church-ordained fences. In an attempt to meet their “special” needs, they are shuttled into single ward ghettos or single ward activities that separate them from “regular” members. Friends try to introduce them to other singles rather than people with common interests, and more and more they find themselves pushed away from the mainstream membership of the church.
Even within the priesthood, where all men share the same calling, married men are insensitive to their single brethren. Priesthood holders are taught to revere women and motherhood, but little is done to create a bonded brotherhood or a support system.
Sex roles established by tradition reemphasize the marginalization of single males. Men are seen basically as bread-winning stewards, women as nurturers and comforters. If these traditions become locked into individual psyches, the believers becomes doomed to live even more incomplete lives. For females this can entail the lack and rewards of self-sufficiency and self-assurance; for males the lack and rewards of sensitivity and compassion.
The single male must also face the constant specter of homophobia. Male friends from the age of twenty-five on view their unmarried associates with a jaundiced eye. Now that homosexuality is more [p.236]open, church members are even more suspicious and judgmental. It is probably for this reason that single men in the church do not form support groups, do not show physical recognition or acceptance by hugging or placing an arm on the shoulder. They don’t touch. This fragile public image affects fellowshipping and social activity. It also causes economic problems for the single heterosexual male because he is reticent about finding a roommate to share living costs.
There are additional problems specific to divorced males that put added stress on their church membership. In most divorce situations it is the husband who is cast out of the home, the family, the quorum, the ward, and the neighborhood. All immediate support systems are stripped away and new ones must be established at a time of great emotional upheaval. Moving to a new apartment and ward, adjusting to a new lifestyle, separation from loved ones, and building new relationships are difficult activities in the best of circumstances; added to the disruptions of divorce, the difficulty is multiplied a hundredfold. And on top of all this, the divorced father must now support two households. Sometimes he may find himself struggling to pay both tithing and child support. To renege on either, he forgoes a temple recommend, which curtails his activity and respectability in the church when he needs it the most.
Those who have divorced know there is no way of receiving absolute fairness under the law. Children cannot be equally shared, household goods and material property can never be divided to the complete satisfaction of both parties involved. Almost inevitably each divorced person sees his or her circumstances under divorce law as unfair. When the church stands behind the law, it is frequently seen as equally unfair. Of course the church upholds the law to maintain order in society; but it must carefully explain this position to divorced members, or it may be perceived as an adversary.
Another common problem among singles is health. Usually singles—especially men—have poorer health than their married counterparts because they don’t have partners encouraging visits to doctors or good eating habits. They are often overtired and overworked. Busy married people sometimes joke that they wish they had the freedom and leisure of a single male, but generally the image of the free and easy lifestyle is a false one. Most singles have to do everything for and by themselves–work, care for children, shop, cook, clean, [p.237]juggle church assignments, etc. There is no one with whom to share the work load. All these demands tax their stamina and their mental as well as physical health. Usually these people are too tired for dating and social engagements. The process of daily living becomes one of drudgery rather than one that is acceptable or even pleasurable as when shared with another adult partner. Further, to stay active in the church they also must suppress their natural sexuality. The resulting loss of self-esteem is often demonstrated by a lack of interest in personal appearance.
Church attendance is not easy for a divorced male. Every time he enters the ward he is reminded of everything he has been taught his whole life to strive for and doesn’t have–the family unit, loving children, participation in scouting programs for his sons, daddy-daughter dates. If his former wife remarries or moves the family, the reminder of what he doesn’t have becomes almost unbearable.
There is also a growing fear throughout society of child molesters, and singles are always more suspect than married men. Thus they are overlooked as potential scoutmasters or youth leaders, which further separates them from children. They themselves are sensitive to these images and often become afraid to even hold a friend’s child.
Singles are also seen as threats to friends’ marriages, which means that long-time friendships frequently are dissolved after a divorce. Many married couples become uncomfortable with single friends because the common ground has changed between them. To fill the gap they usually try to line the single up with another single acquaintance. They mean well, but this often places great pressures on a friendship just when friendship is needed most. Marrieds often do not recognize the single’s fear of another failed marriage, nor do they understand that dating expectations are much different as people get older. Usually the single has learned from his experiences to see more clearly what characteristics he should look for in a mate. Not wanting to date just to date, he becomes much more selective. But he also recognizes he might get caught in the trap of defining an ideal that is impossible to find.
What then would I recommend to help alleviate the growing alienation and inactivity of the single male in the church? I would ask first that the church address the question: “Should all people be married?” What about those members who feel, for whatever reasons, [p.238]that it would be unwise for them to marry? Some people do have personality abnormalities, low sex drives, are homosexual, or prefer a solitary life. Some simply suffer from an acute fear of marriage. Should these members be encouraged to marry and make two people unhappy? If they are wise enough to recognize characteristics that would be a problem in marriage, we should encourage them to seek help. But we should not encourage them to marry unless and until they are ready.
Church leaders at all levels should also be taught more sensitivity to singles issues and problems. Singles could be shown that they are loved equally in the eyes of God. Church-authorized support groups could be organized. There might be less judging by peers and more equal treatment in callings. Singles should not be segregated from other members, and most church activities should include both marrieds and singles. These things would best be accomplished if priesthood lessons were developed that made members aware of these issues.
To the single male in the church not anticipating marriage, I can only say, “Endure to the end.” Make the commitment to take the difficult path of activity rather than the easy path of inactivity. You and your families and associates will all be better for such a decision. Pray for strength and the Holy Spirit to help you understand the insensitivity you meet and to get you through the difficult times. Remember that for all the difficulties you face as a single in this life, should you die in that state, all is forgiven. Your eulogies will undoubtedly mention your opportunities in the second life; and perhaps there we will have the wisdom of more perfected beings, and none of us will make the same mistakes we make here.