So you're single. An active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Age twenty-something, a college graduate with a successful career.

Sounds normal, right? After all, many singles don't even consider marriage until their late 20s, according to national studies about marriage and dating.

But not in Utah, where the legend is if you're 27, LDS and not married, you're a menace to society. Members of the LDS Church believe marriage is "ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children," according to "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," issued by the church's top leaders in 1995.

Single Latter-day Saints know marriage is an expectation, and some as young as 18 admit they feel pressure to tie the knot as soon as possible despite national trends to delay marriage.

"It's a commandment in the LDS culture, and if you're going to be obedient you're going to get married," said Jaime Rogers, an 18-year-old student at church-owned Brigham Young University.

But navigating the dating pool and finding your "eternal companion" isn't as easy as it sounds. You can't just flip through the ward directory — also known as the "ward menu" in many a singles ward — and pick out the perfect mate.

No known comprehensive studies have been published to date on LDS marriage age, but ask any LDS young adult or their bishop and they'll tell you that the median age for first marriages is rising.

Some blame selfishness, laziness and societal pressure to "get ahead before getting wed" as possible culprits.

"All of them have the objective of meeting someone," said Keith Wallace, former bishop of a singles ward at the University of Utah. "I think they have stronger expectations of what and where they need to be when that time arrives, both on an educational and material basis."

Bradford Fishback, 23, wants to travel and "hang out with his bros" for a while before he gets married. But at the same time, he wants a wife who will be unselfish and a good mother.

Just not yet.

"For me, and I know this sounds bad, but I'd like to travel," said Fishback, a BYU accounting student. "If I had three kids, that opportunity wouldn't be there. I value my independence more."

His buddy, Jared Frehner, said that being single allows him greater freedoms and opportunities.

"I can see the world and spend that money on me instead of girls that will break my heart — another man's wife," he said.

Local church leaders are trying to combat that attitude.

In most LDS singles wards, bishops encourage young men to date many women. That way, they're gaining needed experience and communication skills, as well as determining what they want in a future spouse, said Walt Plumb, bishop of the University of Utah 16th Ward.

Plumb is famous within his stake at the U. for encouraging the unwed to date at least once a month. On occasion, he'll even go as far as giving the men $25 to take a girl out or sponsor a "date auction" as a church activity.

"A goal of mine is to get them married," said Plumb, who has served in several leadership positions with single young adults. "Other than preaching Christ and increasing testimony, I want to get people married."

Plumb believes marriage and family are key to individual happiness.

"I don't believe anyone is really happy without being married," he said. "I know some people aren't going to have the option of marriage for some reason or another, but it sure seems to me that people are a lot happier being married."

At BYU, some bishops ask ward members to serve as "dating specialists" to assist singles in their quest to get married. Other wards have classes dedicated solely to the topic of dating. Leaders in one BYU stake were so concerned about dating that they devoted an entire meeting to the theme of "every member a matchmaker," a parody on the LDS tag line, "every member a missionary."

"You don't always have control over being asked out or whether the person you ask will go on a date," the president of that stake said in an e-mail. "But you can set up other members of your ward and look out for them."

Eric Bybee, 24, is a member of the "matchmaker" stake. He said that sometimes local church leaders go too far in pushing marriage. "Some of these things have stopped surprising me."

David Hursey, a 29-year-old North Carolina transplant living in Taylorsville, said he believes church leaders should focus on teaching the "principle of marriage," instead of using the pulpit to pressure LDS singles to wed.

"Church leaders speak on that subject here more than any other place," Hursey said. "Here you've got bishops, high councilors — everyone seems to speak about it. They put a little too much pressure on it."

But pressure isn't the issue for many singles, who are actively following the counsel yet have still not found "the one."

Alice Faulkner is 45 and has never been married, but it's not for a lack of trying. She's had three serious relationships that all had potential for marriage.

In her 20s, Faulkner discovered that her boyfriend, a recently returned missionary, was also seriously dating two other women at the same time. She found out about the deception by chance at church, when one of the other girlfriends showed up.

"I laugh about it now, but at the time I was so upset and hurt," Faulkner said.

She didn't give up after that, dating two other men, the last of whom broke her heart. He was an inactive member of the church. Despite their differences, the pair dated off and on for five years.

But a failed marriage left him leery of trying again. They broke up, and Faulkner hasn't been on a date since.

"He was the one I felt I wanted to be with forever," she said. "I compare every man that I meet to him because he was everything that I wanted."

Hursey says he knows he should be married, but something is holding him back. "If I had it figured out I would probably solve the problem and be married soon."

He said the longer he waits, the more comfortable he gets as a bachelor. However, Hursey is determined to wed and said he'll propose to the next girl he falls in love with.

"When the timing is right and I've met the right person, I have no doubts it will happen," he said.

But the process of finding the right person just isn't what it used to be, according to several bishops, singles and marital experts. Dating is now an "endangered species," according to Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Church's Council of the Twelve. Typical courtship in the past has been replaced by "hanging out" and online dating. Both new dating trends are worrisome, according to Oaks and other top LDS leaders in several recent talks to young single adults. Church officials declined comment for this article.

Instead of pairing off and going on an official date, most singles these days instead hang out in groups.

Elisse Newey, a 20-year-old BYU student, prefers hanging out as opposed to traditional dating. By hanging out, she says you really get to know people.

"That leads to better dates," Newey said. "First dates you put up a front to have people see you the way you want."

In a May 2005 speech, Elder Oaks counseled LDS singles to avoid hanging out and follow traditional dating patterns.

"Dating is pairing off to experience the kind of one-on-one association and temporary commitment that can lead to marriage in some rare and treasured cases. ... Dating involves commitments, if only for a few hours. Hanging out requires no commitments," Elder Oaks said. With three major LDS dating sites, the Internet dating scene is now more popular than ever, despite a warning from Elder Oaks in 2005 that such sites "can be very dangerous or at least unnecessary or ineffective." Ginger Riggs, 42, tried online dating for about a year, and said not all of it was bad. She did meet one nice man, but they didn't hit it off and ended up being friends.

Her beef with online dating, however, is how people can hide behind the Internet and easily deceive the other person. Riggs said she has been burned several times by going out on dates with men who said they were one thing but ended up being the complete opposite.

"It was a nightmare, a total misrepresentation," Riggs said. "Once we got going on the date I'm like, 'You're not anything like you said you would be.'"

Online dating works for some. Spark Networks, which owns LDSSingles.com and LDSMingle.com, boasts at least 250 "success stories" a year on the dating sites, according to Gail Laguna, vice president for communications. The company defines a success as a couple who is dating, engaged or married.

Even still, Caprene Thompson, 31, prefers meeting people in her day-to-day activities, rather than chatting online.

"It's worked for friends, but I am not comfortable," Thompson said. "I like to meet people." And she says the best place to meet available men is through friends or at an LDS singles ward.

Last year, the University of Utah 2nd Stake boasted about 450 marriages. In about 80 percent of those marriages, both people were members of the stake, said Bishop Michael Smith, who used to serve as the executive secretary of the stake and is now a singles ward bishop.

Smith said courting was simpler when he was young. "I'm lucky that I'm older because society in general is now so complex. There are a lot more decisions to be made."

1 comment on this story

Smith encourages singles in his ward to do service projects as a way to meet each other. He also counsels them to relax and not worry if they are 24 or 25 and not married.

"I think there is a real danger in getting married too young," Smith said. "But there is just as great a danger in not getting married."


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com, nwarburton@desnews.com