A belief distinct to Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is eternal marriage. In Temples, Latter-day Saint couples are married not with the traditional understanding of “till death do us part”, but believing they will stay married for the rest of eternity. One might think the implications of such a marriage would have a paralyzing effect on Latter-day Saint singles worried about their ability to spend literally infinite time with their partner, but surprisingly, Latter-day Saint courtships are notoriously quick.

One fascinates me most about the concept of eternal marriage are the parameters of the choice. You have this incredibly short window of time on Earth to find a partner for eternity. The results of your choice last so much longer than the time you have to make that choice. It would be like having only 5 seconds in the delivery room to pick the name your child will have for the rest of her life, but even more extreme.

And so much of the selection is out of your control. So many potential matches are unavailable to you because of when and where you were born, the physical features you were born with, the circumstances you were born into, and your inability to expand your social circle beyond the few people you have time to meet. You’re picking an eternal spouse based on an infinitesimal fraction of the potential matches you’d ideally like to review before making a final decision. Or to return to the naming example, you’ve got only 5 seconds and the list of potential names comes from the menu of the local Chinese take-out that you happened to find in your pocket.

Think about it this way. If we were capable of meeting every person ever, we could assign each person a score based on how attractive a marriage partner we find them. Each person would vary based on how compatible their personalities are with ours, the proportion of shared interests and values, and every other factor that determines the success of a marriage. In an ideal universe, we’d get to pick the person highest on that list to maximize the success of a marriage that will last through eternity.

The fact that the system does not work that way raises an important implication about marriage. Namely, that perhaps marriage isn’t about finding the perfect fit, but creating the perfect fit.1 I think about cultures that use arranged marriages. I’ve known many happy arranged marriages despite an even diminished set of spousal options compared to conventional marriage. Or think of your siblings. You don’t actively choose them, and yet few people would choose to replace their siblings with ones of their own choice (you wouldn’t, right?). I have been married a relatively short time (8 years) but even in that time I have seen how you grow together with your spouse; you create your own special vocabulary, sets of inside jokes, and shared joys and frustrations. Their problems become your problems, their successes your successes, and their moods your mood. And you change to accommodate life with your spouse. That is why one might be more sanguine about the Earthly selection problem; your initial preferences may match some hypothetical partner better, but your chosen spouse actually changes your preferences. You end up in place where you would choose your spouse even if you had infinite options.

  1. An analogy that comes to mind is the co-evolution of hummingbirds and certain flowers. Two strikingly different organisms which, through eons of interaction, have evolved into a perfectly beneficial relationship. They have grown to fit each other like a hand and glove (or beak and petal); coinciding not only in the shape of the beak and flower, but also in terms of the timing of breeding and blooming. This perfect mutualism only happened through repeated interactions over a very, very long time. ↩︎