Viewpoints and Facts about Mormon Divorce


Here in So Cal, several of my LDS grad student friends (who run the gamut in church activity) gather weekly to discuss various Mormon themed topics. We each pick a week, a subject, some articles and then sit down for an hour and a half to have an invigorating discussion.

Today was my day, and I chose divorce. I was inspired by Oaks’ GC talk which I felt made some great points:

  • “In ancient times and even under tribal laws in some countries where we now have members, men have power to divorce their wives for any trivial thing. Such unrighteous oppression of women was rejected by the Savior”
  • “To avoid so-called “incompatibility,” they should be best friends, kind and considerate, sensitive to each other’s needs, always seeking to make each other happy. They should be partners in family finances, working together to regulate their desires for temporal things.”

And also some points that troubled me, of which the following was the most striking

  • “A woman who persisted in an intolerable marriage for many years until the children were raised explained: “There were three parties to our marriage—my husband and I and the Lord. I told myself that if two of us could hang in there, we could hold it together.” (italics mine)

The above illustration of a woman who chose to stay in a horrific marriage made me very concerned for women and men who endure marriages – intolerable marriages – filled with perpetual unkindness, humiliation, and more, because one spouse and the Lord are hanging in there.

What was your reaction to Oaks’ talk as a whole? Any other portions that particularly struck you?

Structural Weaknesses in Mormon Marriage

During our discussion I brought up Harold T. Christensen’s 1970’s article, “Stress Points in Mormon Family Culture,” which details a few reasons as to why Mormons were particularly prone to divorce at that time:

1. premature marriages brought about by raging hormones, sexual guilt, pre-marital preganacies, and glamorized visions of marriage and love

2. underplanned parenthood in which Mormons become disillusioned with the reality of raising large families

3. the authoritarian family structure in which females have been socialized into roles of dependency and in which men are taught to be the ultimate authority in the home, which often leads to women feeling unfairly dictated to.

Several members of the group agreed that some of these structural weaknesses in Mormon marriages have improved over the last 30 years, and Amelia added another weakness – sexual incompatibility regarding expectations- that has decimated a few of her friends’ marriages.

Can you think of any other structural weaknesses in contemporary Mormon marriages that can often lead to divorce or difficulty? How pertinent are the ones listed above?

Some facts about Mormon divorce (most gleaned from the Encylclopedia of Mormonism from the early 90’s)

  • Brigham Young was divorced a number of times, usually quite amicably
  • There was a high rate of divorce among polygamists from 1847-1877
  • In 1920, there were 3 times as many divorces outside the church as inside the church
  • Mormons today are as likely as other Americans to get divorced, though there divorce rates are slightly higher in the first three years and slightly lower afterwards. About 26% of Mo and non-Mo have been divorced
  • There are higher rates of divorce for Mo’s who marry before 20 and after 30, have less than a college education, or marry outside the faith.
  • There are higher incidents of divorce among Mo’s who marry within the faith, but not in the temple. Perhaps 5x more likely.
  • 1/3 of female headed Mormon households (usually because of divorce) are living in poverty despite a high rate of employment among these single mothers.
  • Divorced members have lower religious participation than married ones

Do any of these facts surprise you in any way? (I was struck by the 1/3 of female headed LDS households that are living in poverty. This is a testament to me personally of the importance of women getting an education.)

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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  1. Julie P says:

    About Oaks’ talk: The whole time we were listening, I kept telling my husband that if the church had more talks on waiting to find the right spouse, and preparing oneself for marriage (instead of BYU talks pushing the hurry-up-and-get-married line), and encouraging pre-marital counseling, the need for the talk would exist, but I don’t think close to the extent that it does.

  2. J says:

    “‘A woman who persisted in an intolerable marriage …’ The above illustration of a woman who chose to stay in a horrific marriage …”

    I took Elder Oaks’ comment quite differently. I thought he meant that she viewed the mariage as intolerable, not that he agreed. And he did not say – or even imply – that the marriage was “horrific.”

  3. AmyB says:

    Interesting. I think that specifics of the “stress points” have most likely improved. Active family planning is much more common, and it seems to me that perceptions of birth control have dramatically changed since the ’70s. I also think that authoritarian structures with strict roles for women and men are becoming less prevalent. Premature marriages, on the other hand, still seem to be quite prevalent.

    Another structural weakness I can think of would be something I’ll call spiritual incompatibility. If one spouse is particularly orthodox, and one is not, or particularly if one stops believing, there can be a lot of tension. For those who believe that their spouse is their ticket to the celestial kingdom, when they percieve their spouse as unlikely to get them there, they may not feel like sticking it out. I learned in a sociology class that the higher the level of orthodoxy (in any religion) of a spouse in a mixed-faith marriage, the less likely it is to last. I’m guessing that principle carries over even within same-faith marriages.

    I am also struck that 1/3 of female heads of households live in poverty- or did 15 years ago(?) I wonder if that has changed or not since that was last studied.

  4. Caroline says:

    J.
    I suppose you could read it like that. But the adjective ‘intolerable’ was definitely his. (It was not within the quotation marks where the woman was quoted.) And perhaps intolerable isn’t synonomous with “horrific” but it does, according to dictionary.com mean: “impossible to endure, unbearable.” That sounds pretty, well, horrific to me.

    Julie p,
    Excellent point. In Oaks’ last paragraph he does mention choosing a spouse carefully. IMO we need a lot more time and attention paid to that theme, like you said. And I love the idea of requiring couples to get pre-marriage counseling.

    Amy B,
    I think you’re right that a lot of those stress points have improved, with perhaps the exception of premature marriages. And I like your point about spiritual incompatibility. I think it hits some couples incredibly hard when one spouse takes a different spiritual path than was expected at the time of marriage. This is no doubt true of all religions, but like you said, Mormons may be particularly susceptible due to the idea that one can only be exalted in tandem with a spouse.

    As for the 1/3 of single moms in poverty, I don’t know if it would be much improved now. I imagine much of that 1/3 is living outside the U.S…

  5. Janna says:

    I can believe that 1/3 of Mormon single mothers live in poverty. While poverty rate (in the U.S.) is variable based on a formula used to calculate family need (and includes child support), most families considered at poverty level make roughly less than $25,000/year. For women who did not finish an undergraduate degree, the possibilities to make more than that amount are slim. And, yes, I am making the presumption that many Mormon single mothers have not received an undergraduate degree. I also know some Mormon single mothers with a bachelors degree who are hovering around the poverty level.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Or married mormon women with a college degree and a husband who will not get a job hovering around the poverty level who can’t get any government assistance because they have a healthy man in the house who doesn’t have a job…

    Not that I’d *know* anything about that…

  7. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I think a key point is being overlooked.

    “A woman who persisted in an intolerable marriage for many years until the children were raised…”

    I don’t what the nature of the marriage was. Clearly, it wasn’t the kind where she felt the children would be better off without their father’s influence. Whatever it was though, she wasn’t clinging to the marriage just to cling to the marriage. She did so because she felt her children needed that environment.

    I’m 30; my parents are divorcing and it’s no picnic. I can only imagine how devastating it would be to a child still dependent.

  8. Dora says:

    I was amazed, and glad, that Elder Oaks spoke on this timely topic in GC.

    Like I said the other night, I think that Oaks put the most important part last … being careful about who one is getting married to in the first place. I would hope that couples are taking the time to really get to know each other before sealing the deal. How sad to rush into marriage, and then find out that one’s spouse is awful with money, unkind, abusive, or prone to cheating.

    As some people pointed out last night, getting a temple divorce is extremely difficult. Maybe it’s worth it to make getting marriage a little more difficult … some type of formal pre-marriage counselling?

  9. Deborah says:

    The lovely Presbyterian minister who conducted our interfaith wedding required us to have three pre-marital counseling sessions with him — it’s not something we would have done otherwise, but turned out to be a really lovely experience. He was warm and wise, had good materials (we had to fill out a really long “inventory” about our thoughts on everything from finances to gender roles to leisure time). And it was great to have a personal relationship with the man who made our relationship legally and spiritually binding.

    Is it common practice for couples going to the temple to meet with their sealers in advance? Would it be a major change to have sealers serve in this role?

  10. AmyB says:

    Is it common practice for couples going to the temple to meet with their sealers in advance? Would it be a major change to have sealers serve in this role?

    People generally don’t meet the sealer in advance, unless somebody in the family knows a sealer and specifically requests them (which is rare in my personal experience). It’s usually whoever happens to be the temple worker that day.

    I don’t know that I’d want an untrained person trying to give me premarital counseling. The idea of even getting advice from the bishop really grated on me when I was engaged, but then again, I didn’t have great experiences with that particular bishop. That said, I do think premarital (and postmarital) counseling is a great idea when done by someone who knows what they are doing.

  11. Julie P says:

    “Is it common practice for couples going to the temple to meet with their sealers in advance? Would it be a major change to have sealers serve in this role?”

    Most people just get whatever sealer is working that day. You can request, too, but I’m guessing not many do. I think it would be part of a Bishop’s job (I know, I know – they do enough already) to offer pre-marital counseling, as he would already know at least one of the two receiving counseling.

  12. jana says:

    Dora:
    You said:
    “I think that Oaks put the most important part last … being careful about who one is getting married to in the first place. I would hope that couples are taking the time to really get to know each other before sealing the deal. How sad to rush into marriage, and then find out that one’s spouse is awful with money, unkind, abusive, or prone to cheating.”
    Last night at our discussion I was going to add that it’s one thing to do this before you marry, but we all will change quite a bit in the span of 40 years (or more) that we’re married, so even if we choose a particular spouse there’s no guarantee that s/he won’t change–even dramatically–at some point in the marriage. So while I am quite supportive of pre-marital counseling, it’s not enough. There needs to be onging support (from qualified counselors) to help some couples navigate their marriages and social support for those who choose divorce.

  13. Deborah says:

    What about LDS social service providing this as a free (and highly recommended by bishops) service to engaged couples. Then at least you’d have trained family counselors (and an option for a female counselor). Hire additional therapists to fill this purpose . . .? I know this agency is not without problems, but . . .

    I’d wager that if people went for counseling before marriage, they’d be more likely to go back to the couch later into the union when things got tough (it wouldn’t be such an unknown).

  14. Dora says:

    Of course people change. And I think that more couples would take advantage of professional counselling (see below). But what I think that we were focusing on the other night was divorce as a result of hasty marriage … due to hormones or pressure, etc. Hopefully, pre-marital counselling would give couples an opportunity to focus on the realities of one’s self and future spouse, instead of sexual chemistry.

    Deborah ~ I didn’t know that LDS social services were offered free of charge. While this sounds like a large expenditure of money, I think it is worthwhile. It makes sense for the church to offer vital services to preserve the most important unit of the gospel … the family. That’s pretty much putting your money where your mouth is.

  15. Anonymous says:

    “As some people pointed out last night, getting a temple divorce is extremely difficult.”

    I’m not sure where you got this from, but I would definately not say that. In the first place, it is not a temple divorce, it is a cancellation of sealing. Subtle, yet very different.

  16. maria says:

    According to DH, LDS Family Services isn’t free–a one hour session costs $70 (and that is a highly subsidized rate–the actual costs to the church far exceed that). However, depending upon your financial situation, the Ward may pick up the bulk of that fee (he didn’t say, but I think it may come out of the fast offerings fund–if anyone really wants to know I’ll ask).

    DH generally recommends that each person receiving counselling makes some sort of contribution towards the cost. This principle makes sense, it that we tend to value services more if we have to pay something for them (even if it’s a small amount). He said he usually recommends that low-income members contribute $10, like a co-pay, for each session.

  17. Deborah says:

    “Deborah ~ I didn’t know that LDS social services were offered free of charge. While this sounds like a large expenditure of money, I think it is worthwhile.”

    They don’t — I was just dreaming that free pre-marital counseling would be an EXCELLENT investment of tithing funds . . .

  18. Dora says:

    I admit I was a bit skeptical, but I was trying to suspend disbelief. I would hope that the church would put as much money into investing in families as it does in investing in real estate. It’s probably not economically feasible, but with all the rhetoric on the importance of families, both temporal and eternal, I would think that this would be a priority.

  19. Naismith says:

    To some extent, this becomes a matter of general conference as inkblot test, as we all bring our experience to what we hear from the pulpit. But for what it’s worth, I also heard/understood the same thing as PdoE, about the woman in the “intolerable” marriage just hanging in there for a lmited number of additional years “until the children were raised.” I didn’t think he was pointing to this as an ideal or anything, just an example of people doing the best they can in a less-than-ideal situation.

    I’m old enough that many of our friends from the early days have divorced. Some of them have done so after staying together until the children were raised. I know that option gets criticized a lot, but I admired the families I have known who did it.

    In every case, they’d been married 15-20 years before problems occured, In every case, the children were better off financially because they stayed together. And I think the children had a more stable environment because of it.

    The couple also seemed to have worked out any anger by the time they finally split, so that subsequent weddings/family reunions, etc. were later handled much more civilly than in many families with a divorce.

    Of course it would never be appropriate if violence were the reason for the divorce, but I’ve seen it work very well for some families, given the situation.

    For a younger person, it may seem like a waste of years and opportunity to rebuild one’s life, but a temple-married 45-year-old mother is unlikely to remarry, anyway, so I can understand the decision to invest in the thing that matters most to one.

  20. amelia says:

    on the question of sealing cancellation:

    it actually is a very long process and sometimes does not result in cancellation, even when both partners agree to–and request–said cancellation. and it’s onerous in what it demands an individual reveal about herself (or himself) in ways that i personally think go contrary to the teachings and principles of the atonement of jesus christ–namely it requires that the requesting party write out all sins/indiscretions she or he committed since the divorce, even if said sins/indiscretions have been resolved through appropriate priesthood authority.

    on the quote about the “intolerable marriage”: i responded in much the same way caroline did. i see no reason someone should remain in a marriage that qualifies for the descriptor “intolerable”–not even the children. if it’s truly “intolerable” then remaining in the marriage will, in my opinion, be as emotionally and spiritually harmful to the children as divorcing. the question of finances may be different, but i don’t think finances should be the deciding factor (though i acknowledge that they sometimes are).

    now, if the spouses are able to forge some kind of amicable resolve to rub along together as well as possible for the sake of their children, more power to them. i respect them for finding the maturity and honesty and commitment necessary to do so. and i think that would be a good decision. but i would not describe that marriage as “intolerable.”

  21. Mary Ellen says:

    I’m married to a divorced man, so maybe I’m one of the “beneficiaries of divorce” Oaks mentioned. (What did he mean by that phrase, anyway?)

    For me, the useful bits in Oaks’ talk were jostled aside by other points that I felt had the potential to do more harm than good.

    Because so many people in the church are touched personally by divorce, it’s an important subject to discuss–along with healing, remarriage, blended families, step parenting, etc.

    That said, I thought Oaks’ example of the woman who stayed in an intolerable marriage for the kids’ sake could put the pressure on other people in intolerable marriages to stay there–whether or not that’s appropriate for their circumstances.

    From what I understand, bishops and church leaders are never supposed to encourage divorce or bring it up as an option. But what if divorce might be a hair better than enduring an intolerable marriage? If this option is off the table for bishops to explore with troubled couples, there may be unintended and possibly costly consequences for individuals, families and children.

    I thought it was irresponsible to applaud the bishop with the 100% success rate of talking troubled couples out of divorcing. With lay leadership, there’s no formal training and counseling abilities vary considerably. Are troubled couples who decide to divorce going to be further stigmatized if their bishop couldn’t talk them out of it?

    Plus, it bothers me that someone who has little/no personal experience with divorce is giving advice on how to deal with it. (Of course, I’m also bothered by male church leaders prescribing women’s roles to them, too).

    Since divorced men aren’t in the running for certain leadership positions in the church, it’s unlikely we’d ever hear a conference talk from anyone who’d been through a divorce personally. And that’s regrettable. Unless you’ve been through that wringer, there’s a lot you can assume and a lot you can miss about the situation.

  22. AmyB says:

    I have to agree with Amelia that remaining in an “intolerable” marriage can be emotionally and spiritually damaging for the children.

    My parents divorced when I was a teenager. I remember in the couple of years leading up to the separation and then divorce, I dreaded the times my father was home. He was unhappy and I felt miserable when he was around. I began to hate weekends because I new dad would be home all day. If one or both parents are unhappy in the marriage, the children will feel it. Even if it’s unspoken, children pick up on the emotions.

    I also think Mary Ellen makes a good point that it would be nice to hear about more aspects of divorce, such as blended families, and from people with more varied perspectives.

  23. Bree says:

    I thought this was a wonderful talk, but was shocked at the absence of any direct reference or discussion of abuse. Thoughts?

  24. MAC says:

    Considering the readership of this blog, how many of you are interested in having (had) the Church manage your engagement?

  25. AmyB says:

    MAC, what do you mean by “having the church manage your engagement?” Are you referring to the process of temple recommend interviews? Something more?

  26. ME says:

    I think most folks would agree that if someone in a marriage is being abused–sexually, physically, emotionally, other–divorcing the abusive spouse is a pretty compelling option.

    However, bringing up abuse in a talk that was clearly anti-divorce would have derailed the whole focus.

    Oaks isn’t going to discuss abuse when it would undermine his arguments that troubled couples should try harder to stay married.

    Mary Ellen

  27. Anonymous says:

    I am currently going through a divorce because I married a guy I THOUGHT was great. He was an AP on the mission for 6 months, dad was on the high council, mom was ideal, etc, etc, everyone loved him, he was sweet, and I fell in love. So, two and a half years later, his cousin leaves the church over historical issues, and so does his wife. They are now missionaries for the other side. My husband has left the church in mind and spirit, he hates Joseph Smith.

    This is happening ALOT. Alot more than it needs to happen, because the church teaches a pure history full of love and conversions and visions, and leave out SOO many things that when you happen upon them, are shocking and upsetting so much so that the testimony can be completely destroyed. This has happened to my husaband. I think the church needs to teach a less white-washed history, and there needs to be a greater focus on testimony in the church.

    Don’t get me wrong, the church is the last thing I blame, I wholly blame my husband, but I think things need to change.

    There are stats on divorce due to historical issues, and about 80% of RMs that come home and find out about this end up getting divorced.

    Sad.

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