Temple marriage has been seen by LDS couples as the corner stone in forging a successful marriage. In general conference and in popular discourse people often bring up the statistic that only 6% of temple marriages end up in divorce, but what does this actually tell us about why temple marriages are so successful? Many reasons are given for this in terms of shared faith, community, and commitment to the relationship, but are there other reasons for this low statistic?

For most my life I have accepted statements such as the following from the 1984 Ensign without too much thinking about their accuracy or broader significance, in it it states that:

“Among Latter-day Saints, marriage in the temple has a significant effect on the divorce rate, Brother Heaton and Sister Goodman reported. “Nontemple marriages are about five times more likely to end in divorce than temple marriages.” About 5.4 percent of LDS males who married in the temple were later divorced, and about 6.5 percent of the females. By comparison, some 27.8 percent of nontemple LDS marriages ended in divorce for men, and about 32.7 percent for women.”

Likewise the Salt Lake Tribune ran an article about a 1993 study published in Demography showed that:

“Mormons marrying within their church are least likely of all Americans to become divorced. Only 13 percent of LDS couples have divorced after five years of marriage, compared with 20 percent for religiously homogamist unions among Catholics and Protestants and 27 percent among Jews. However, when a Mormon marries outside his or her denomination, the divorce rate soars to 40 percent — second only to mixed-faith marriages involving a Jewish spouse (42 percent).”

The LA times also ran an article about why  Mormon Temple Weddings Are Built to Last, in which it outlines some of the reasons why they think mormon temple weddings are successful. Now something that has been pointed out is that these statistics may not be fully accurate and representative, due to the fact that getting a temple divorce is notoriously difficult to do and the 6% represent only those who have had their marriage both legally and ecclesiastically divorced. The consensus seems to be that even if it is not as dramatically low as is portrayed, it is clear that mormon marriages divorce rates are lower then the national average rate.

I have always accepted these statistics without thinking too much about them. However, recently I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink which caused me to think about these statistics and wonder why is it that mormons get divorced less. In this book it contains a section on the marriage specialist John Gottman who has devised a marriage prediction algarithm. John Gottman in his study would analyse a couple for 15 minutes and break down every 10 seconds into a series of positive and negative emotions and responses. The result of such in depth analysis is that he is able to predict from that fragment of conversation on if the couple will still be together in 15 years. So good in fact that he is 95% accurate at predicting if they will remain together. In talking about if a marriage will work or end in failure he says that there is one single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble. Most people would think that criticism of each other would be the sign it was in trouble, as it is attack on a persons character or views. With criticism people would say ‘you never listen, you are really selfish and insensitive’ which provokes a defensive response, and is not beneficial for problem solving and interaction. Gottman argues that the biggest sign of future marriage failure is contempt. That contempt is quantitatively different to criticism. This is because contempt is speaking from a superior plane, it is a disregard of the views of the other as they are making them from a lower level. Contempt puts the other on a lower plane. It should be remembered that contempt means esteeming someone or their views as below consideration, to disregard or disrespect their views or opinions. Contempt is more dangerous as it often lurks underneath what we say consciously in our unconscious thought patterns and world-view.

It is important to remember that what we say does not reflect what we really think, and it is often the case that we don’t fully understand our own minds or reflect what we really think. What we conciously profess such as phrases such as marriages are ‘an equal partnership’ sometimes don’t actually map out into what we unconciously think and do. An interesting test done by psychologists at Harvard demonstrates this, which I reccommend that we all try to see what our implicit association bias is. In it we are asked to express our beliefs, and then it does a series of questions that aim to expose our biases and implicit associations regarding race. Often the results of the test don’t reflect what we conciously claim that we adhere to. For instance, most people wouldn’t consider themselves racist yet when they take the ICT test to test racial bias towards black people, overwhelmingly it appears that we have a preference towards white people from the tests despite saying that we don’t. Significantly, not only does it appear in white people, but black people as well. When black people take the test they also have an implicit association of white with good and black with bad this is due to the fact that they are influenced by the culture that surrounds them that still underlying has a bias towards white people, despite the conscious effort to alter this attitude in society.  How does this relate to temple marriages? Well, it shows that even if we claim equality when it is actually tested our subconcious biases may not match up with what we claim we adhere to. If this is true about racial equality, then this is likely to also be the case in regards to gender issues. This is significant for the issue of mormon marriages, for they are claimed to be ‘equal partnerships’ but is this equality actually what manifests itself in our actions and discourses?

Returning to Gottman’s suggestion that it is contempt that is the biggest indicator of if a marriage will end up in divorce, if he is right then it would be expected that in mormon marriages for there to be an absence of contempt or disregard within them. This would explain why they have a lower divorce rate as it is due to the fact that they have less contempt for each other, that they are truly an equal partership with no hierarchy. However, in order for this to be true it would mean that mormon marriages would have no hierarchy or different levels within their relationships and that men took seriously the opinions of their partners and did not hold them in disregard, but this doesn’t seem to be the case all of the time in marriages within mormonism. This is because mormon marriages are inherently hierarchal and most mormons see their marriage as a patriarchy where the male is the head of the household who presides, this dismisses any notion of both being on the same level, and sets up the marriage for one being above the other, which leads to an unconcious disregard for the lower person. This follows the structure of the church, which is two-leveled between the male priesthood and females. Indeed, the wording of a temple marriage like the family proclaimation to the world intrinsically puts men on a higher pedastal then women. We are told that women follow their husbands, as their husbands follow God. With such a clear hieracrchy it is going to be very difficult for their not to follow on some level contempt or a disregard for the other when one of them is intrinsically placed above the other. It should be noted that this contempt is not always obvious Gottman noticed that this contempt most often was not overtly expressed but appeared unconciously in subtle signs expressed in the couples interactions. He found that most men did not realise that their responses showed a veiled and concealed contempt for their partner; often it was in phrases such as ‘yes, but…’. In offering a verbal agreement but then completely dismissing it, it showed contempt for what the other said. I don’t think that any mormon would ever say that they treated or disregarded their wife, but I am sure that they would feature many ‘yes, but’ statements. We can see this veiled contempt in phrases such as ‘yes men and women are equal but men should be leaders and preside over women.’ It appears to agree but then fundementally contradicts and dismisses the proposed view of equality. This is a subtle form of contempt that lurks under public agreement and proclamations of equality. Which as it is part of our culture impacts upon our attitudes towards women. An example of the manifestation of this came to me whilst watching general conference it has always been remarkable to me to see how when a women speaks many men start to lose interest and doodle, look away, or go to the toilet, whilst she speaks, I even at times have had to catch myself from doing the same. This seems to indicate to me to some degree a failure to take them seriously and is a form of contempt that is a part of our social universe as mormons. It is a passive form of contempt rather then an active form, by failing to engage with women’s talks and the apathy in which they treat them with less respect then they deserve is a less obvious form of contempt then someone shouting out ‘she’s wrong because she’s a women’ but still a form of contempt.

If contempt is the greatest sign of divorce why is it that mormons don’t have a higher divorce rate when a patriachal model of marriage seems to promote a degree of disregard and contempt?   I would suggest that a reason not often considered is that women are taught to live with and enjoy contempt. They have been indoctrinated into a culture where women are expected to occupy a lower role, where men via the priesthood automatically are placed higher then women. Men lead, and women follow. If they are brought up with this cultural idea, when they experience it within a marriage environment it is no different to what they thought it would be like, in fact it is what they are taught to expect and want. Throughout young women’s the idea that a temple marriage is seen to be the ideal and they are taught that obedience to their husband is a sign of a good wife.  This cultural construction means that the contempt that under normal circumstances would be detrimental to a marriage is in fact seen as what a successful marriage should be, the ideal wife is one who bears and submits to her husbands will and as part of that is disregarded, and to some extent treated with contempt as a result of a unequal status of those in the marriage. It seems then that the reason mormon marriages succeed is not because of superior shared faith, or being married in the temple, but, that it is because mormon women are used to having their opinions treated with contempt. They are used to being treated lower then men in church, so in a marriage it is not the problem that it would be for in other cultures. In other cultures if someone held the other in contempt it would cause major problems, in a mormon marriage it is expected and so does not cause so many problems. Just as coloured people accept the negative bias unknowingly, do women in the church unconsciously accept the bias of inferiority? I must clarify that I do not think that this is the only reason for the low divorce rates among Mormon marriages, or that all marriages are built around contempt, but it does seem (at least to me) to be an important factor to it, and that mormonism is a culture that is conducive to its encouragement. With such a culture it requires then an active awareness of the danger of contempt for it to be resisted as without this awareness it can unthinkingly be incorporated within a marriage. The fact that it appears to me that the church fosters and encourages a tolerance of disregard of women by men that can permeate into a marriage returns us to the opening question which asked: if temple marriages helped prevent divorce, or caused contempt? Perhaps the answer is it does both: that temple marriages in breeding an acceptance and tolerance of disregard helps to make a marriage impervious to divorce by ameliorating the effects of contempt.

Further thoughts:

If the secret to a long lasting marriage in mormonism is an acceptance of contempt of women, is this a bad thing if it results in long lasting marriages?

Do males in the church subconsciously hold women inferior and as a result disregard them, despite conscious statements to equality?

To what extent do women accept that this is the case and learn to live with, and even like, this dynamic?