When I was a YW, I had a nightmare about my imaginary future marriage.  I dreamed that my parents had arranged a marriage for me with a “worthy” young man.  He came to my parents’ house to live, and when it was time to go to bed, he came out of the bathroom wearing 1950s style flannel pajamas with horse heads on them.  He was very awkward and bland, and he wasn’t attractive to me at all.  I didn’t like either his looks or his personality, but I knew that I had to be OK being married to anyone who was worthy because otherwise, I wasn’t being a good Christian or a good Mormon.

I had been taught by my leaders something that Spencer W. Kimball said:

“Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.”  Spencer W. Kimball

My teenage interpretation of that statement was that I should be willing and able to make a happy marriage with anybody who was worthy, or at least that if I was being a good person I would be able to do that.  It sounds logical, but it’s not without its flaws.

A Fungible Commodity

This definition of marriage assumes that spouses are a fungible commodity and makes personality traits an afterthought or less:

Fungibility is the property of a good or a commodity whose individual units are capable of mutual substitution. That is, it is the property of essences or goods which are “capable of being substituted in place of one another.”. . .  The word comes from Latin fungibilis from fungī, meaning “to perform”, related to “function” and “defunct”.

A commodity is a product, a good or service that is useful or valuable that can be exchanged.  The worldly definition of marriage usually implies a physical attraction, a meeting of minds, and an enjoyment of personality.  Hollywood takes this a step further by requiring chemistry and fireworks, passion, and finishing each others’ sentences in an adorable manner.  But marriage as a fungible commodity is far more traditional and is the definition most commonly used at church.  It’s a utilitarian approach reminiscent of the Edwardians more than the post-sexual revolution generation.

In fact, many economists have noted that marriage nowadays has become a luxury, not a commodity.  It is certainly not a right or entitlement, neither is it a duty.  Those who have little means often don’t marry due to financial concerns.  Only those who are middle class or better can afford the luxury of marriage.  When marriage is a luxury, the struggle is to “earn” marriage through shared trials, saving money or convincing parents.  The wedding is a culmination of all that has gone before, a celebration of the achievement of getting to the altar with hand-written vows unique to these special individuals and their unique love.  When marriage is a duty, the trials come after the wedding and are what bring the couple closer together (or drive them further apart) after the ceremony.

BYU Dating

My first semester at BYU I lived in an apartment with 5 other women.  One of my roommates was very popular, and she had received two marriage proposals within a week.  She would walk around the apartment trying to decide which one to marry.  I’m not even sure I could tell them apart based on her descriptions.  She did eventually choose and left the apartment to start her married life.

Her replacement was a young woman from another state where there weren’t many church members.  She only had enough tuition money for one semester, and her sole objective was to get a husband before she had to go home.  She told us all that this was her plan, and she had a system to lure dates into marriage by cooking them a home cooked Southern meal, followed by a lengthy relaxing back rub on our living room floor.  She bullied us all into vacating the apartment when her gentleman callers were scheduled to be there.  I once accidentally overslept and came out in the middle of one of her dates.  I looked over the couch, catching her mid back rub on the floor.  She laughed tensely and asked what I was doing.  I said I just wanted to see who she had on the floor that night.

While these examples are not necessarily typical of all Mormon dating, nor are they far-fetched in Mormon dating.  YSA bishops often give their wards goals for dating a variety of people of the opposite sex.  Mission presidents sometimes give similar advice.  Many young women receive a patriarchal blessing that talks about their future married life.  Girls are told that they are entitled to a worthy priesthood holder who will take them to the temple if they also live worthily.

As a result, I found many dating relationships at BYU to be very shallow and superficial, as if anyone who met the outward markers of worthiness was interchangeable and would do, so from that starting point it all boils down to who is best looking and/or has the most earning potential. There was also a strong sense of entitlement, a belief that each of them had earned a “worthy” priesthood holder by being a good girl.  Most had never served a mission or done anything noteworthy to that point in life other than to stay out of trouble.  It’s not to say that these marriage never succeed, but they don’t seem to have a higher success rate than other marriages, and the lack of preparation, self-awareness and life experience going into some of these marriages seems ill advised.

Consumers, Not Partners

When we commodify marriage, it’s all about what you, the consumer, wants from your spouse. You deserve someone worthy.  Some missionaries are told that if they are obedient they will get a hot wife.  The focus is on the getting, the consuming, not building a relationship with someone, but being obedient as a way to earn a good spouse, as if you can build a good marriage as an individual, without any actual personality or relationship skills.  With this mindset, it’s no wonder that many spouses want out of the marriage as soon as one has a faith crisis or otherwise fails to meet expectations.  Once a spouse is no longer “worthy” in the eyes of a consumer, they are free to seek another spouse elsewhere.  They aren’t getting what they paid for with their obedience.  They want their money back. Is that really behaving like a Christian?  Is that really how God wants us to treat our marriage partners?

The Gay Problem

But what about homosexuals in this view of marriage?  E. Nelson’s wife Wendy L. Watson, who was formerly a marriage and family therapist invoked YSAs in a BYU-H address this weekend to individually “pray for the spiritual gift of your sexual preferences to align with eternal laws.”  In other words, she claims that being heterosexual is a spiritual gift, not only a choice, but something that you will receive if you ask for it in faith.  Last time I checked, I didn’t have to request the gift of heterosexuality.  It just happened.  But apparently if you are gay, it’s just because you lack the faith to be heterosexual.

Of course, this view of homosexuals is a very traditional view of marriage.  For most of recorded history, homosexuals made heterosexual marriages and either hid their sexual orientation or carried on extramarital affairs to find personal fulfillment.  Even kings and queens who were homosexual were required to enter heterosexual unions to beget an heir.[1]  These matches were usually unhappy, sometimes miserable.  Personal happiness was sometimes a happy accident.  It wasn’t the goal.

A Well Worn Path, Going Nowhere

We’ve been down this road before, and it seems that we are destined to get stuck driving in circles on it.  When marriage is viewed as a fungible commodity in which the only price of entry is worthiness, and sexual orientation is a spiritual gift that the worthy can access, we end up right back where we started, encouraging homosexuals to pray the gay away and enter heterosexual marriages.  And we know these marriages end in divorce at much higher rates and have many negative consequences to children and spouses alike.

If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

[1] e.g. King James of the KJV Bible.