How will lower mission ages change Mormon marriage?
Relationships • Dating dynamics are sure to shift, but will Mormon couples wed even younger or wait longer?
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Zeke Richards and Sarah Sturt, like many high-school couples, aren't sure where their relationship will lead.

But the chance it will last improved with the recent decision by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to lower the ages that young Mormons may leave for missions.

Before the historic announcement, it was possible Richards, 17, would have returned from his mission just as his girlfriend, now 18, left for hers. Under this courting calculus, the two Cottonwood High seniors might not have seen each other for more than three years.

Now, with women able to leave at 19 and men at 18, the two likely will serve missions around the same time. Before the change, women couldn't go until 21 and men 19.

"We can date when we get back again," Sturt said.

Added Richards: "She's a really sweet girl. I was thinking there's a good chance she'll get married while I'm on my mission. Now, I don't have to worry as much about that."

During the next few years, countless young Mormons will feel the romantic ripple effects of the new mission ages — though no one yet knows exactly how. Now that men and women can go on missions around the same ages, perhaps more young couples, such as Richards and Sturt, will stay together. Or knowing their missions are just around the corner, teens may avoid serious relationships.

Maybe Mormons, returning from their missions at younger ages, will marry younger as well. Or, being younger, perhaps they'll feel less pressure to wed soon after their missions.

"We just have to kind of wait," said Jim Brown, associate director at the Salt Lake University Institute of Religion, "and see how it plays out."

At this point, it's anyone's guess. But this much is certain: The LDS dating dynamic — and marriage math — will change.

A dry spell? • Brown hopes the change increases the number of marriages.

"They'll both be in the mission field and come home at about the same time," said Brown, speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the LDS Church. "Hopefully, it will lend itself to increased dating and more marriages."

That could be good news for Mormon leaders who have been emphasizing the importance of getting married. At General Conference in April 2011, apostle Richard G. Scott urged young men "of appropriate age" not to "waste time in idle pursuits." He urged young men to "get on with life and focus on getting married."

Scott was echoing church President Thomas S. Monson, who the day before had scolded young Mormon men for needlessly delaying marriage.

"Brethren, there is a point at which it's time to think seriously about marriage," he counseled the all-male priesthood, "and to seek a companion with whom you want to spend eternity."

Marriage is a core LDS teaching; temple marriages, which Mormons believe can last forever, are necessary to reach the highest level of Mormon heaven.

But the mission change likely will also affect dating that leads to marriage.

Brian Willoughby, an assistant professor in the School of Family Life at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, sees a couple of possibilities when it comes to that arena.

Before the shift, Willoughby said, a growing number of LDS women were putting off dating, not wanting to get romantically entangled before jetting off on missions at age 21. Now that might not be as much of an issue.

Willoughby, who teaches a marriage-preparation class at BYU and studies young-adult relationships, also wonders whether young men will gravitate more toward women who've been on missions, similar to the way many young women now aim for returned-missionary husbands. Or, he asks, will men pursue women who choose to stay home, thinking them more marriage-minded?

No doubt more women are headed for the Mormon mission field now that they can leave at 19. Within two weeks of the change, women constituted more than half the ballooning number of mission applicants, though traditionally they've made up less than 20 percent of the total LDS missionary force.

Women's missions last for 18 months and men's for two years.

"There are some guys who are worried that all of their prospects are going to be gone and the dating pool is going to shrink dramatically," said Andrew Pace, a single, LDS senior at the University of Utah.

But Pace isn't panicking. He foresees a surge of young women going on missions in the next couple of years before the numbers level out.

"I don't think dating is going to go away."

Getting serious • Many believe the new ages might mean less time frittered away when it comes to dating in college.

Some Mormon men avoid serious relationships their freshman year of college, knowing they're about to embark on a chaste, two-year spiritual journey.

"A lot of people feel like that year is almost lost socially," Pace said, noting that, during his freshman year before his mission, he dated, but not seriously.

Plus, he said, many guys feel that they don't have Mormon prospects their freshman year.

"Some returned missionary would come along," Pace said, "and then you'd have no chance."

It's common, Willoughby said, for Mormon men and women to date only casually before missions.

Ian Robertson, an LDS junior at the U., said it can be tough dating before and after a mission. Robertson was younger than many in his class, so by the time he returned from his mission in Paraguay, many of his friends were already married.

"It changes your whole social life, having friends [who are] married and you aren't," Robertson said. "You're now trying to find people to go on dates with. You're going to singles wards."

Robertson said he would have jumped at the opportunity to go on his mission at 18. His wife of about a year also would have left at 19 if she had had the chance. She's now 20.

"She even told me that if she had the opportunity to go at 19, she would have gone on a mission," Robertson said, "and I never would have met her."

Meanwhile, some dating relationships are being cut short in light of the new mission ages. In some cases, high-schoolers are now the ones growing skittish about long-term involvements.

Haylie Eldredge, a senior at Cottonwood High, recently got out of an eight-month relationship. Her boyfriend wasn't Mormon, and the thought of going on a mission at 19 instead of 21 inspired her to get more serious about her future.

"It hit you like a ton of bricks. It came out of nowhere," Eldredge, 17, said of the church's announcement. "It kind of woke me up, and I was like, 'I need to start planning for it.' "

Younger brides and grooms? • The new, lower mission age for LDS women also has changed how BYU sophomore Alexis Benjamin views dating.

Before the announcement, Benjamin, 19, spent a lot of time going out, trying to meet new people. Now that she's leaving for her mission in March, she has pulled back socially.

"I'm just kind of more shut off to it, I guess, because I don't want to date before I leave," Benjamin said.

One thing hasn't changed: her view of when to marry. Before and after the mission announcement, 21 seemed to her the ideal age for LDS men and women to wed.

"You're getting close to finishing college, and you've got a lot of life experience behind you," she said. "I think a lot of people would like to get married when they get back."

It's not uncommon for Mormons to get engaged shortly after returning from their missions. Nationally, Americans marry on average around age 27, Willoughby said. Mormons tend to do so about two or three years earlier than that, around 24 or 25, he said. Mormons typically get engaged after about three to six months of dating.

Rosie Mills, a U. sophomore, believes Mormons will marry even younger now because of the mission shift.

"[Women] don't have to wait to go on a mission anymore," said Mills, 20. "They can go on a mission and still get married when they're 20 years old."

Through the years, some women have felt they had to choose between marriage and missions. Out of her core group of four friends, Mills said, three yearned to serve missions but ended up getting married instead.

Other Mormons, such as Robertson, maintain the change might prompt young Mormons to wait longer before getting hitched.

"People are going to come home," he said, "and realize, 'I can wait a year, two years, even three years, and it's OK because I'm still the same age as I would have been if I had gone out when I was 19."

Willoughby isn't sure the change will make much difference in marriage ages among young Mormons. He said a general delay of marriage, nationwide and, to an extent, among Latter-day Saints, may play a bigger role over time.

He said young Americans, in general, are pushing back marriage to finish college, to become financially stable or to travel. Though Mormons still marry younger than most Americans, they're hardly immune to that trend.

Parents often are the ones saying "please, don't" to their kids saying "I do" too soon. At BYU, Willoughby said, he finds about a third of the women in his classes say their parents have not only urged them to delay marriage but also incentivized them to do so, offering them cars and trips if they can stay single through graduation.

Now, about a quarter of BYU's students are married. Time will tell what will happen to that number and dating among young Mormons in general.

But many, including BYU junior Annalise Tanner, have faith that it will all work out.

Tanner, 20, plans to go on her mission in March, a bit earlier than she had envisioned. She'll head to Australia despite being in a relationship now.

"I realize I'm basically just putting this relationship into God's hands," Tanner said. "The right thing is going to happen because I feel I'm doing what God wants."

That hopeful sentiment has been the creed of thousands of Mormon missionaries for generations and, unlike their ages, isn't about to change.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —

Mormon missions by the numbers

281,312 » Number of LDS converts in 2011

58,000 » Number of full-time Mormon missionaries

24,000 » Number of missionaries at Provo Missionary Training Center in a year

2,700 » Average number of missionaries at Provo's MTC at any one time

347 » Number of LDS missions worldwide

15 » Number of MTCs worldwide

Source: lds.org