The text below was adapted from a presentation given by Dr. Finlayson-Fife at the "Of One Body" Singles Conference in New York City on May 16, 2015
When I told a friend recently that I would be presenting in NYC on Singles and Sexuality, she smiled and asked “Is there any overlap between those two topics? What on earth are you going to talk about?” Of course, what is comical about her question is that it exposes the deep-seated desire among us, especially among those of us who are married, to pretend that the sexuality of Single Mormons does not exist, or shouldn’t exist, if one is good.
We are a faith that values marriage and family and sexual chastity very highly. Unequivocally, the way that we talk to youth, singles, and marrieds about sexuality exposes how much we want all sexual thought and behavior to be contained to the presumably safe context of marriage. And given our religious ideals and desires, it makes having this conversation about singles and sexuality, in any meaningful or substantive way, quite challenging.
Let me begin by saying that I would like to help single members of our faith community forge a strong relationship to themselves (inclusive of their God-given sexuality), solid relationships with others, as well as a strong relationship to the highest principles in our faith. In other words, as Christians, I hope for all of us (marrieds and singles alike) to approach our sexuality in line with our moral commitments and ideals, in a way that fosters a strong sense of self and a capacity for intimacy with others. To love self, to love others, and to love God : This is the point of all of the commandments, remember.
To some it seems our sexuality undermines our attempts to be good, particularly if you are single. However, I believe in asserting choices in the sexual realm in line with our integrity--with what we really believe is right specific to our particular situation--is the avenue for being at peace and whole. And I will talk to you today about what I think this requires of us as a church community and as individuals within it (whether single or as friends of singles).
In thinking about this topic, and talking with single friends and clients, let me first lay out some of the problems or hurdles that I believe singles and church leaders face around the topic of singledom and sex:
Church-leadership and members are facing a relatively new challenge, or at least a more punctuated challenge relative to our history. While single adults have always been a part of our faith community, the demographic of the church is changing with individuals remaining single longer.
In 1960, the median age of marriage for American men was 22.8, and American women 20. 3. In 2010, the median age of marriage for American men and women is a full 6 years older: 28.7 for men, and 26.5 for women.
Additionally, a larger percentage of Americans are not getting married at all (or divorcing).
Mormon scholars estimate that, in the United States, up to a third of adult membership in the church is single. Like other Americans, Mormons are marrying later or remaining single altogether, and the population of 30 – 40 year old singles is on the rise. In a 2012 article on the increase in Singles Wards in the church, the Huffington Post called it “a crisis of singles”.
Additionally, a couple of generations ago, the larger society valued marriage and sexual restraint resembling LDS values. This, of course, is no longer the case. And whether or not we like it, and for better or for worse, we are immersed in and shaped by a much more sexually focused society, which places high value on sexual fulfillment as a part of living life well. This creates an entirely different context in which to understand and address the experience of single LDS adults. The labeling of 30+ singles in the 1970s as “special interests" would be even more offensive to our sensibilities now than it may have been then.
It also makes it much more difficult for faithful individuals to sort out how to be whole and happy in a context of sexual chastity and singleness. It may also be difficult to tolerate that fellow church-goers may not respect them as full adults in a way that the larger culture does.
Single clients and friends have talked to me about at least three challenging realities that they experience in the church:
First, condescension and misunderstanding from church-leaders and other married folks, given their lower-status, unmarried state.
Second, the experience and reality of stunted adult development (or social and sexual immaturity) both within themselves and when interacting with other LDS singles.
Third, the denial of and anxiety about single adult sexuality, and by extension the lack of relevant guidance around the navigation of their sexual selves.
Given these realities, it is perhaps not surprising that we are encountering difficulty in retaining our single adults in the church--single adults that are needed and wanted, single adults that add to our strength as a collective.
Let me say more about the three challenging realities that Single Adults experience: I’m drawing on my experience as a therapist working with LDS singles as well as written responses I collected from about 20 Mid-Singles when asked about their experiences and concerns around the subject of singledom and sexuality.
When marriage is an essential achievement of earth-life, single adults represent an aberration from our theological ideal. If one doesn’t get married (whether by choice or lack of opportunity) and marriage is the desired state, it is very easy to treat singles as though they are in a prolonged adolescence---in a holding pattern, waiting patiently to arrive at true adulthood and for their lives to begin.
As such, it is no surprise that spiritual guidance and instruction is primarily designed to reinforce the standard of marriage, rather than offering an alternative model of sainthood, different from the married version, but valuable and purposeful in the church community, nonetheless. As a marriage therapist, I very much believe and teach that marriage is a divine institution because coupling our lives with another pressures us and shapes us into more grounded and loving individuals if we will let it. That said, treating single adults as though they are not whole people if not married, even if unwittingly, is a troubling conceptualization not only for the inherent condescension in it, but also for how it creates a problematic frame for understanding personhood, sainthood, and even the essential ingredient of a happy marriage.
One of the by-products of our default framing is that singles are often treated with pity (particularly the women) or suspicion (particularly the men), given the way that we gender sexuality, rather than regarded as a tremendous resource to the larger group. We unnecessarily diminish singles and under-serve their needs; We also receive too few of their gifts and resources in ministering to the body of Christ. Singles need a purpose in our faith community beyond enduring to the altar.
Consistently, singles wrote to me about parents condescending to them, or taking married siblings more seriously. As a client said to me, “When I go home for family reunions, I get the couch, while my married siblings who are younger than me get the private bedrooms with their spouses. Sometimes I even share bedrooms with my young nieces and nephews, and my parents don’t understand why it upsets me”.
Singles also report experiencing condescension not just in the pitied nature of their lot, but also that married church leaders and members are often insensitive to or detached from the very real challenges associated with managing adult sexuality and sexual abstinence in adulthood:
As a single adult male wrote to me: “Bishops tend to marry young so they don’t get what it’s like to be an older single. One of my prior bishops said, `It’s just as hard for me to keep the law of chastity as it is for you'—except that my bishop gets to go home and sleep with his wife.”
Another single adult female wrote that her bishop counseled, “Well just get married!”, as if it were simply a matter of laziness or lack of will that she was not.
Second, singles talk about the experience of stunted development (or social and sexual immaturity) both within themselves and in their LDS single friends. The focus on marriage, coupled with the anxiety that sexuality will undermine one’s basic goodness, single adults report feeling immature relative to their married or partnered friends.
As one mid-single wrote:
“Under the justified guise of ‘righteous desire’, one can easily remain in an adolescent state. Since taking on adult responsibilities is hard, it’s easier for many of us to ride out our lives using the excuse of being single as a way to avoid the adult choices of career, education, social intimacy, financial responsibility, home ownership, etc. I can’t tell you how many mid-single women I see who are still living with mom and dad, working an underemployed job, not taking care of themselves physically and waiting for that day when Mr. Prince comes along to sweep them away and they can start their adult lives.”
Another single adult wrote,
“We still get together and play board games and eat ice cream for social activities. It seems immature, like we’re in a state of arrested development.” She went onto say, “Maybe part of our immaturity is that we aren’t having sex”.
A single adult male wrote:
“We are sexually stunted due to the chastity rhetoric we hear growing up in the church. Chastity itself is not clearly defined and ... the only guidance for us older singles on chastity is the Strength of Youth (pamphlet). We are not youth. And because we are sexually and socially stunted, it makes it even harder for us older singles to date and find mates.”
Collective denial and lack of guidance
Because the idea of un-channeled adult sexuality makes us nervous, we easily collude in the idea that sexual desires equivalent to a married adult are not really there, shouldn’t be there, or don’t need to be addressed in any meaningful way beyond DON’T. If we don’t address the subject (other than the importance of suppression), maybe it will go away!
As one single LDS woman wrote to me,
“The problem as I see it is that we as Mormons are unwilling to acknowledge that we (singles) are not only spiritual, but sexual as well.”
Another Single explains:
“I personally don’t believe that the human body is wired to continue into our 30s and 40s in a state of complete sexual repression. However, the active mid-single often believes, due to how the church teaches chastity, that we are supposed to be asexual until we marry.”
Of course LDS singles are sexual beings—as we all are. Like our Parents in Heaven, we are embodied and sexual from birth. And single adults are no different. Singles are just attempting to forge adult development, inclusive of adult sexual desires and needs, in a context of non-marriage and a belief in chastity. It’s not easy, and single adults, at a bare minimum, deserve our acknowledgment and respect for their courageous choices.
If we won’t openly acknowledge singles’ challenging choices in the sexual realm, we co-construct unnecessary shame and anxiety around the existence and experience of sexual desire. And shame and anxiety interfere with self-acceptance, spirituality by extension, and the integration of one’s sexual being—essential developmental tasks in becoming capable of relational and sexual intimacy. One doesn’t have to act on his or her sexual desires non-maritally, but one must not shame the presence of them, nor see their presence as a function of sin. They are, after all, an expression of God-given longing in all of us that isn’t made better by pretending it’s not there. In fact, the lack of acknowledgment and integration of one’s sexual desires can cause immature behavior, expressed either as sexual compulsivity or total self-abnegation (either of which interferes with the ability to forge meaningful adult relationships).
For example, a divorced friend of mine complained to me about the experience of dating LDS mid-single men and having to regularly fend off sexual voraciousness that was possessive and exposing of sexual immaturity. Ironically, her experiences with non-LDS men are far more comfortable for her, because her non-LDS dates are usually more at ease with sexuality and therefore wiser or less anxious, in their sexual decision making.
On the other extreme, I had a 30-year-old client who had obeyed the For The Strength of Youth pamphlet with 99.9% perfection. He took to heart the passage that says “Do not do anything that arouses sexual feelings”. For him this meant not only refraining from masturbation, it meant not touching his genitals at all while cleaning or urinating. It also meant avoiding going to movies as well as interactions with the opposite sex. Because he recognized his inability to control the emergence of sexual feelings and arousal, he avoided grown up behaviors and relationships at all costs, and in his case, the cost was his psychosocial maturation.
While this client clearly had some OCD or anxiety-based decision-making patterns, he was in fact doing what the manual said with near perfection. The only problem was he was developmentally stunted, completely afraid of his own sexuality, afraid of women, afraid of intimacy, and unable to engage in any meaningful relationship with others.
Is this what we are shooting for? Is this how we hope to relate to our God-given sexuality? I’m sure most of us would unequivocally say, “No, of course not. He has way over-interpreted this guideline”. But when I suggested the same to him—that he allow a more nuanced interpretation, he rightly countered that the pamphlet does not say to manage sexual behaviors and feelings “within reason and using your own best judgment”. It says not to do anything that arouses sexual interest, period. He also pointed out to me that obedience is supposed to be a protection for us. But his obedience had not protected him, nor had it offered him maturity or even spirituality in my opinion, only fear.
Many LDS Singles express that the guidelines given by church leaders are an extension of this cultural denial of single adult sexuality and therefore are inadequate and misplaced: Treating single adults as an aberration to the marry-early model, we unthinkingly apply standards written for adolescents to full adults, some even previously married, yet trying to work out a relationship with their sexual desires within an unforgiving expectation of sexual suppression as a function of goodness.
Quoting the FSOY Manual, a single adult writes,
“‘Do not do anything that arouses sexual feelings.’ Hello!?!?!?!?!?!... These words pretty much preclude dating entirely (at least dating anyone I’m interested in). I realize we aren’t ‘youth,’ but I often hear commentary in the church that indicates a general universality of the concepts contained in said pamphlet... especially in the singles communities. So really are you kidding me? Part of dating is exactly that: arousing and exploring sexual feelings (within appropriate bounds).”
“I feel like as a single person I am constantly working on squelching my desire and managing church expectations. It’s exhausting. I feel I have no guidance on healthy ways to approach desire when you don’t have legitimate avenues available for fulfillment.”
“We spend so much time focused on what we’re trying to avoid, and so little time focused on what we’re trying to create. Essentially, sexuality is discussed among the single adult members in pretty much the same way it is discussed among the teenagers. In this area, our culture hasn’t yet left adolescence.”
One of the huge institutional vulnerabilities of giving inadequate acknowledgment of and guidance around sexuality to our single adults is that many begin to distrust their leadership, and either leave the fold entirely, or quietly break the rules and explore sexuality on their own terms, often never disclosing their choices to a church-leader:
“I had a sexually assertive boyfriend in my late 30s who helped me break open the door of my sexuality and desire. While I didn’t end up having outright sex with him, the experience helped me start down a road of sexual awareness that has helped me come to a much better understanding and acceptance of my inherent sexuality. But the road was shadowed with a lot of shame and confusion, which in retrospect was unnecessary. I chose not to speak to my church leadership about it and never will, which I also believe has helped me come to a more healthy place with all of this. Had I gone running to the bishop, I think the result would have been more layers of shame, rather than actually helping me come to a healthy space of working out my sexual choices as a late 30s / early 40 s single Mormon woman. “
“I know of an East Coast bishop who completely shamed my 36-year-old friend about her involvement with her fiancé, a guy she had dated for three years, when she went in for her marriage interview. He reduced her to tears. Fortunately, her fiancé stood up to him and put the bishop in his place when he tried to shame both of them. This happens WAY too often. The only way a mid-single population can change this culture and practice is to be bluntly honest with leadership, and ask them to treat us as adults and be understanding about what it means to be celibate into your 30s and 40s.”
So I would like to try and speak to two questions that we face: How do we as a faith community need to evolve to better serve our single members with respect to sexuality? And how might single members navigate these same questions and choices with integrity and clarity?
A clearer articulation of sexuality and chastity
First, I believe we need to more clearly articulate a vision of sexuality that is integrated with our highest ideals---that being a vision of sexuality that fosters our ability to love God, love and accept ourselves and love and care for others. We need to go beyond the DON’Ts and the collusive avoidance of the topic, and forge a framework for creating goodness through our sexual intentions and choices.
We need this articulation for the church as a whole. As a marriage therapist, who works primarily with LDS couples around sexual issues, I regularly see the fall-out from our collective sexual anxiety—anxiety about sensuality, sexual thought and behavior and the questions about whether or not sexuality and goodness can co-exist within people.
My dissertation research (on LDS women’s relationship to their sexuality) showed that most LDS women had internalized the notion that sexuality and goodness are incompatible, for women at least. Most had not integrated any sense of sexual legitimacy prior to marriage, and then had great difficulty engaging and enjoying sexuality within marriage. Simply removing the restrictions wasn’t enough for most women to foster a sense of sexual legitimacy, and as such most struggled to create good sexual relationships.
Now, I understand why there is cultural anxiety. Sexuality is a tough subject. And it is a powerful way to be in connection with another human being, so being wary and wise in our relationship to sexuality is extremely important. But fearing it and/or avoiding the subject altogether undermines all of us. Well-defined lines may be valuable when dealing with teenagers who often function best within a frame of dos and don’ts (well, mostly don’ts). However, at a minimum, we need a framework for adults, whether married or single, that helps us think about how to integrate our God-given sexuality with our desire to forge and offer goodness: For example is passion and sensuality a problem? When is it too much? When is it not enough? Is passion and sensuality only okay when you’re married? What’s the problem with it when you’re not? What’s the problem with it if it’s with yourself? We need a better articulation of what makes sexuality good and what makes sexuality evil or harmful. And we need an articulation beyond marriage making sexuality good, because it doesn’t. It is not a sufficient condition.
In my opinion, the intention and context of sexual behavior is very important in defining it. “Natural man” is not in reference to our sexuality or sensuality, as we often infer. I believe “natural man” is in reference to our selfishness, our immaturity—our impulse to serve our immediate interests at others’ or our own expense. This is what comes to us most naturally. And spiritual development comes through overcoming our self-serving impulses, and reaching for higher desires and objectives that serve humanity, including ourselves.
In my perspective, sexuality is neither inherently good or bad. Instead, sexuality is a powerful form of engagement with others because it taps into the most vulnerable part of human beings. What makes it good or bad is the context and our intentions.
For example there is no greater way to damage the soul and psyche of another person than through sexual exploitation or assault. I also believe sexuality between committed loving partners has the ability to be a sacrament, a highly sacred, transcendent, form of communion with another. We can use our sexuality for either—depending on the intentions of our hearts and the context of our choices. Are we engaged in what theologian Martin Buber referred to as an "I-It" relationship, seeing the other as a self-object, a person there to validate and serve your desires? Or are we engaged in an "I-Thou" relationship, a relationship of profound respect for another human being, a person fully separate from you and fully equal to you.
This is one of the reasons, I believe, we are commanded to engage the deepest forms of sexual expression in a context of commitment. Because in so doing, we lower the psychological and biological risks to a spouse and to ourselves, as well as any child that might be a product of that union.
Consistently, our teaching of sexual conservatism communicated through the law of chastity, is wise:
A study surveying 2000 people, polling across religions and SES, found that those who delayed sexual activity reported greater relationship stability and satisfaction, including greater sexual satisfaction. Further, a society that divorces sex from commitment, as our post sexual revolution society does, can be problematic, especially for women because women bear the greater risks biologically for pregnancy and disease. A communal expectation of committed sexuality arguably works in women’s favor. Women consistently choose fewer sexual partners and have sex later than men do in society as a whole---more sexually conservative choices. The law of chastity, as my dissertation argues communicates to men a communal expectation of committed sexuality, an expectation that works in women’s favor because it supports the context that many women desire sexually.
But legal commitment isn’t enough to make sexuality good,
Lots of unloving, indecent sexual engagement happens in marriage One can take the entitled position that you owe me sex because you’re my spouse, you now belong to me. Or the entitled position that I don’t have to have sex because sex makes me uncomfortable and so even though my marriage commitment includes a sexual relationship with you, it is not as important as my comfort. Both are very common positions in marriage, and both are ways of taking advantage of another in the sexual realm.
Fostering adults capable of intimacy
So, in helping to foster adults capable of loving committed sexuality, I think the goals of our sexual guidelines should center around fostering one’s ability to be in meaningful relationships—including the relationship to oneself, one’s sexuality and desires, and the ability to be in relationships with others, including relationships that are inherently sexual (e.g. dating relationships), even if differing in degree.
For example, attraction and desire are elements of our sexuality that need space to be experienced and integrated. This includes the space to develop and understand sexual desire within oneself as well as in relationship to a desired other. It does not have to include full sexual expression, and may not include any sexual expression, but there needs to be room to grapple with desire and engagement with others in line with the degree of love and the degree of commitment in that relationship.
I believe Adam Miller, the author of “Letters to a Young Mormon” captures the essence of a healthy relationship to sexual desire: The following is excerpted from his book (emphasis added):
“…Remember that your hunger for intimacy like all hungers, is a grace not a punishment. … This hunger is different because it is not just a hunger for food or air but for another person… The hunger for intimacy is like an ocean. It will come like a flood and you will feel lost at sea. When you were a child, you walked on dry ground. In order to become an adult, you’ll have to learn how to swim. You are no more responsible for being at sea than you are for needing to breathe. And, though some may say different, you are not guilty because the ocean is wet. You did not choose this hunger. … However the particulars may vary, the task remains basically the same: learn how to care for this hunger. Caring for this hunger will take practice and patience. Be kind to yourself as you stumble through."
“In Church, we say, learn to be chaste. That is right but we have to be clear. Chastity, as a way of practicing care, doesn’t purge or deny this hunger. You are chaste when you are full of life, and you are full of life when you are true to the hungers that root it."
“To care for this hunger, you must do just as you did with the others. You cannot get rid of your hunger either by pandering to it or by purging it. Both strategies deny hunger ... Church-talk about sexual purity is meant to keep you close to life and warn you against trying to end your hunger by carelessly indulging it. But while talk of purity may help constrain your hunger, it can also conspire with the impulse to purge it. And trying to get rid of your hunger by purging it, even for the sake of purity, will just as surely leave you spiritually dead as indulging it. The measure of chastity is life and life, by divine design, is messy. If used without care, aiming for purity is as likely to maim you as save you. Don’t become a slave to your hunger and don’t try to make a slave of your hunger. Slavery is sin, and sin is death.”
In line with Adam Miller’s notion of learning to care for this hunger, the hunger for sexual connection, I believe our instruction and guidelines for single adults and all adults ought to facilitate the goals of
Self-acceptance and self-knowledge around sexuality and desire., and
The capacity to commit to and care for another human being, in part by being able to share one’s sexuality.
As one “learns how to swim” in the ocean of desire, questions that might guide our judgment include:
Does the way I relate to my sexuality bring me into deeper connection with myself and others or does it disconnect me?
Does the way I relate to my sexuality bring me into deeper connection with God and with my integrity?
Does my sexuality bless my life and the life of my beloved, even if that blessing is through restraint?
In either example above (examples of sexual excessiveness or self-abnegation), both choices fostered relational and spiritual alienation. Similar to our relationship with food (or any passion), is the question of whether or not the passion blesses our life or takes it over. Does your relationship to your sexuality (or food, or money) bring you pleasure in ways that deepen connection with yourself and others or does it alienate you from both? Does it make you stronger and more grounded or fractured and more vulnerable?
A Single Adult writes:
”I believe that sexuality is really important to human development and I feel somewhat stunted/juvenile as a 31-year-old virgin. I also believe strongly in the benefits/virtues of the law of chastity in the spiritual sense and in the emotional/relational sense. I feel stuck.”
How do we make choices?
So , how do we think about what is right for our specific situation, whether in a relationship or single?
I believe that adherence to true principles matters, and so does following the spirit in applying true principles to our specific situations. I believe wholeheartedly that the capacity to make choices in line with our integrity, in line with our truest beliefs, in line with the spirit, is essential in achieving spiritual adulthood. Part of achieving Godhood, theologically, must come from our individual achievement of wisdom, our development of greater discernment and increased ability to choose according to our conscience. As Joseph Smith said, we should teach correct principles and let saints self-govern.
What it means to apply the spirit in your situation, in navigating these choices, will look different from others, depending on who you are and the context of your choices.
A Single adult writes:
“I remember when I got a little older and realized that dating was different than it had been in my early 20s at BYU. I found that my clear-cut equations … that had helped me when I was younger didn't always work as well in my relationships. Sometimes they held a relationship back. I had to get better at … asking myself, "Can the Spirit be with me in my relationship when we do ____?" That required more flexibility and also more vigilance on my part. It also felt more like an adult relationship.
Another Single Adult writes:
“In terms of my own decisions about sexuality, … I pay a lot of attention now to how I actually feel in any given interaction/relationship, rather than how I'm told I'm supposed to feel (and what I've learned is that I don't feel much—if any—guilt for expressing my sexuality in various ways in the context of a loving, committed relationship. I figure if God thinks I'm doing something wrong, He is capable of letting me know. Like when I'm mean to people, or when I litter.). Instead of asking myself "Did I cross the line and break the law of chastity?", I ask myself, "Did this interaction increase or decrease the level of intimacy in our relationship? Was this interaction born of mutual respect and love, or of something else? Do I feel like my agency is honored and respected with this person, and do I honor his? When I'm feeling vulnerable, is this a safe person to be with? Does the level of our physical intimacy match our emotional intimacy?" That kind of thing. In many ways, this kind of approach demands a lot more from me in terms of integrity, courage & compassion than simply worrying about whether or not I've crossed the "For the Strength of Youth" line.
Another person writes:
“Bishops are many things but they are not experts on sex and sexuality, though we treat them as though they are. Because of the cultural taboos around sexuality, they may be the only person that individuals ever really talk about their sex life/sexual issues with outside of a spouse or lover. What should leadership do to get a better handle on this, and how can adults cultivate their own autonomy about these issues?”
Part of being wise in our decision-making is to let go of sexual shame and self-rejection and instead to embrace our God-given sexuality as a gift, as a part of us, as a desire that we are stewards over, even if the unmet longing is at times painful.
Self-acceptance means being honest with yourself and God about who you are. It means honoring and serving God and others through your sexuality in whatever context you exist, rather than trying to repress it or deny its presence. For some singles this may mean sacrificing the potential sacrament of sexual union. Many people have found ways to sublimate and translate their sexuality into other forms of service and devotion to goodness in the world.
Sexual restraint, the channeling of desire, can foster creativity and determination. When every urge is satisfied, we don’t have as much space to work and struggle for what we desire. This is one of the challenges of modern society. Recent research demonstrated when subjects were exposed to unacceptable sexual thoughts or unacceptable anger, participants became more creative shortly following the exposure than those not exposed to the forbidden content. There was a more punctuated effect with protestants as compared to catholics or jews because researchers theorized that both Catholics and Jews lost creative energy through excessive guilt. Protestants felt that they should not indulge the feelings but did not lose energy to the same degree, in dispelling psychic energy through shame and anxiety.
I would like to think we Mormons are more like the protestants, but we also get caught in unproductive guilt and shame for our sexuality, rather than thoughtfully channeling our God given passions in productive and pro-social ways. Again, there is power in self-acceptance around sexual thoughts and desires, whether facilitating our capacity for intimacy with another or channeling those passions into other forms of self-expression.
Responsibility for our choices
In order to be at peace, though, we must take responsibility for our choices even if they are difficult.
We cannot depend on simply following what others tell us, taking refuge in martyr-like obedience, if we are to live our lives well. We must lay claim to our beliefs and have the courage to stand by them, even in the face of invalidation from others.
The following is an example of a single adult accepting herself and asserting challenging choices:
“It was a powerful moment for me when I felt l could own my own sexuality. I can still remember (at about age 35) when I realized I was a sexual being whether I was having sex or not. For a long time I saw sexuality as actions—and that was DIFFERENT from the life I was living (meaning, I was a non-sexual person and married people were sexual people.)
She goes on to say,
“I have embraced my choices as I’ve grown. I’ve taken on this attitude: ‘It’s my body, so I say with whom and when I engage physically. And even when that choice is NEVER (while single), that is still a choice I am making for myself. My choice has been abstinence. This felt like a burden for a long time, but since I’ve embraced it as a choice, it’s given me a lot of power and I proclaim it more boldly now. I no longer shrink from the word “virgin”, but state it as a grown adult with a chosen path. This took a LONG time (and I’m still not fully there), because our society makes you feel STUPID and CHILDISH if you are a virgin. The reality is, there are lots of stupid and childish people who are having sex. Anyway, my choice, of course, comes with a major downside! It’s hard to embrace and own sexuality when sex is not a “normal’ part of life. Sharing a bed is not normal for me. Sharing a life is not normal for me. It sort of sucks and there is a terrible dark spot on the soul and a yearning that is never satisfied. (I realize that some married people have this same lonely feeling..) I’m forcing my body into a “non-normal” state and it takes a toll. But, because I choose this, I also appreciate the reasons why I do: I have a community of Mormon saints who love and embrace me, a strong conscience that I am living my own way, and a feeling of safety because I am not manipulated or abused. Being single has many advantages, obviously, so I embrace those. And I do other things for sexuality, like explore my body, develop close emotional relationships, love children, and make out with men when I get the chance. It’s not the same, but it’s what I’ve pieced together and it works. I think people should be aware of what it takes to be healthy and abstinent and view single members with more respect. ”
Purpose makes all the difference
Purposeful pain makes all the difference. When you believe in what you are choosing, you can endure much more—because you believe in the higher good that the choice is creating. Author Clive Barker writes: “Any fool can be happy. It takes a man [or a woman] with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.”
In my opinion, this is the essence of the gospel: To be grounded in our integrity. This is how we create strength within ourselves—wherein we align our behavior with our truest beliefs. Not others’ beliefs. Not what others tell us we should do or think, but to live according to one’s highest conscience, to live according to the spirit. This will vary among us, I’m certain, but this is the work of adulthood, and in many respects single adults are pressured up against this reality in a way that marrieds may not be. Because married folks lives better fit LDS cultural ideals, it is easier to fall into a complacent, compliance model of spirituality, without challenging one's own culturally-validated choices against his or her integrity. As I talk about a lot, spiritual and relational development is to lessen our dependency on validation or agreement from others and to increase our dependency on validation from God—who stands for the best in ourselves. God represents the ideals that will bring us into deepest connection with ourselves, with others and with divinity. I pray for you and for all of us that we will find this strength, and in it maturity and the capacity for intimacy in whatever context our life offers.