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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Crowds enjoy the nice weather during the afternoon session of the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson misses his late, beloved wife, Frances, who died in May. She was, he said, "the love of my life, my trusted confidant and my closest friend."

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The Quorum of the Twelve feels a particular affinity and care for those who struggle with emotional disorders or mental illness, in part because he has battled depression himself.

As a physician, Elder Russell M. Nelson of The Quorum of the Twelve developed a profound respect for the human body by watching it heal. His profession also allowed him to study the human spirit as he watched families cope with the challenges they'd been given. "Stellar spirits are often housed in imperfect bodies," is how he described it.

The pressures that families face formed a thread that ran through talks Saturday and Sunday during the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The issues, from addictions to absent fathers, premarital births to depression, are also well-known to those who study family challenges. While the conference addressed an international audience, it's easy to find specific application in research on American family life that is relevant around the world.

Happening everywhere

The sharply declining numbers of births and marriages in historically Christian and Jewish cultures is cause for grief, said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of The Quorum of the Twelve. He noted America's lowest-ever birth rate and the fact that many other developed nations, including in Europe, no longer have babies in numbers sufficient to maintain their population. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau has said that marriage among young adults has fallen, the median age has risen and birth often occurs before or without marriage.

"Elder Oaks hit a lot of statistics and really highlighted many of the primary issues that are causing particular difficulties in family life," Dean Busby, director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, told the Deseret News.

The average age at first marriage is close to 30 now. At first, the creep upward seemed like it might be a good thing because it indicated fewer teenage marriages, which can be problematic. But whatever benefit that conferred has now passed into a liability as the age continued upward, Busby said. After age 30, researchers now see the same patterns in terms of longevity — marriages don't last as long — and diminished marital satisfaction that was common when teenagers wed. Marriage, it appears, is not as good when begun "at an early age and again at later ages," Busby pointed out. Somewhere between, in the early to mid-20s, "is more ideal."

Busby said researchers have found when working with young people from not only LDS but other faith backgrounds, "the challenge to stay morally clean for all those years while dating is just exacerbated if they marry later. We are seeing across the country many more births to unwed parents. For the first time in the history of the country, the average age of (the parent at) the birth of the first child is lower than the average age of marriage."

Those trends have profound impact on families, documented a few months ago in a report produced jointly by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the national Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the RELATE Institute. The report is called “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America.”

Other distinct journeys are buried in the story of delayed marriage, said Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, at the time of the report. “It is working out very well indeed for college-educated men and women, particularly women,” because they tend to graduate and then start families. They typically have higher household income and most likely marry higher-achieving men.

Families where marriage comes after birth, if it comes at all, are more likely to be unstable, impoverished and include absentee fathers, she said.

"The father issue is pretty huge," said Busby, adding that when couple relationships break apart, "the first thing to go is contact with the father." The men, he said, "have a hard time staying engaged when they are not in the home. … Many, many children — close to half — are raised for a significant amount of time without a father at home." Some men disengage themselves, while others are "sort of blockaded" by women who don't want to continue to deal with the men after the relationship has broken up. Regardless of why men become absent in children's lives, there are many implications, especially for a next generation that will become fathers themselves without having a father role model.

Money pressures

The No. 1 thing that youths tell family researchers, said Busby, is the importance to them of pursuing economic stability, even above family relationships. "Somewhere between my generation and now," he said, "finances became the central issue. That's one of the most alarming trends, that people who are poor feel shut out of marriage. … So instead of marrying, they live together and have children, which is what they felt they needed the money for in the first place. In some ways, traditional marriage when you're a little younger, before the children come, is now more an upper-class phenomenon."

Financial pressures have changed the pattern of family life in America. Over several decades, women have increasingly entered the workforce to shore up family finances. America has also experienced a well-studied shift that has low-income families eschewing marriage until they're economically stable. That stability becomes less of a sure thing, though, because marriage itself is a foundation from which couples can work together to build economic security, say such experts as W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project.

The benefits of marriage for those with lower incomes was also seen recently by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles. Their study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, said "efforts to save low-income marriages should directly confront the economic and social realities these couples face," such as money problems or substance abuse.

In his talk on Saturday, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve said couples would be better off financially if they followed "two basic and fixed principles" the church uses in its operations: "First, the church lives within its means and does not spend more than it receives. Second, a portion of the annual income is set aside as a reserve for contingencies and unanticipated needs."

The church also had taught its members for decades to set "aside additional food, fuel and money to take care of emergencies that may arise," he said.

Common ground

The UCLA study found those whose household income is up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline, based on income and family size, place as high a value on marriage as those with higher incomes and have nearly identical romantic standards. They do not have unrealistically high standards.

So marriage remains important to most Americans. The differences between those who are marrying and experiencing more stability and those who aren't are external stressors like finances and problem behaviors like substance abuse or infidelity.

Elder Nelson addressed some of the challenges to secure families as he spoke of self-mastery as a "pivotal spiritual attribute" that builds conscience, which determines how one handles difficulties, temptations and trying situations. Mastering appetites has profound impact on addictions, from substance abuse to pornography. Infidelity is directly related to how one handles one's appetites. Those are all issues that hurt families.

President Monson spoke of many other issues facing families during his address to the Relief Society, the largest women's organization in the world: "There are those of you who are single — perhaps in school, perhaps working — yet forging a full and rich life. Some of you are busy mothers with growing children. Still others of you have lost your husbands because of divorce or death and are struggling to raise your children without the help of a husband and father. Some of you have raised your children but have realized that their need for your help is ongoing. There are many of you who have aging parents who require the loving care only you can give.

"Wherever we are in life, there are times when all of us have challenges and struggles. Although they are different for each, they are common to all."

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