When you can’t lock your heart: Elder Peterson’s Mission Memories, by Jeff Laver
Always in sight of each other — 24/7 — except while showering or on the toilet: It’s hard to imagine a more intimate relationship than that of Mormon missionary companions.
In some ways a mission is training for a Mormon-style marriage: The two companions are expected to love each other with a pure, spiritual love, they have a clear command hierarchy within their partnership, and they cooperate and work together for the gospel. Practically the only bit that’s missing is the sex — missionary companions are required to share a bedroom, but not share a bed. So when a missionary feels romantic love towards his companion, the emotional bond they are encouraged to share can be a beautiful thing, even though it presents special challenges when it comes to keeping one’s thoughts and actions chaste.
In Elder Peterson’s case, his first missionary companion when he arrives in Colombia is a guy he’d had a crush on back in High School in Salt Lake City. Their companionship gets off to a bit of a rocky start since Elder Peterson was among the first batch of new missionaries to get some of the more intensive training that missionaries started getting in the early 70’s. Elder Peterson’s companion was his trainer — the assigned leader of the pair — and Elder Peterson wanted to be able to look up to him as a role model who would lead them to be the most faithful and diligent missionaries they could possibly be. His companion wasn’t really up to the pressure and kind of preferred the earlier-style, more laid-back rules. I’ll let you read for yourself where the relationship went from there.
Elder Peterson’s Mission Memories is a work of fiction, but reads very convincingly like real memoirs. I found myself really caring about the characters and looking forward to finding out how their relationship would progress and what would happen to them. It is a heart-warming love story (I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that 😉 ) and an enjoyable read.
I know this is something people say a lot in the church, but it’s not really true. Or at least it’s true only in really trite, shallow ways that fail to recognize the complexity of either missions or marriages.
Mission companions are stuck together without any say in the matter. They spend every possible minute of every day in each other’s company, even if they hate each other; no married couple does that. At some point, even if they like each other a lot, they’re separated and stuck with someone else.
I’d say it’s more like a roommate situation, but even that’s not really true: you can get away at least part of the time from a roommate you hate, and if you really like your roommate, you can choose to room together in the future.
As for the “clear command hierarchy within their partnership”–god, I lost count of how many times I heard on my mission that “marriage is like a companionship: there’s a junior and a senior companion.” But one of the ways people are motivated to do things like memorize discussions and stuff is by knowing that they can’t go senior companion until they do so. Everyone knows that the junior companion status is inferior. You can tolerate it because it’s temporary. And the fact that people use it to justify women’s inferior status in marriages, which is eternal, while insisting that women aren’t actually inferior–the cognitive dissonance is mind-blowing.
Yet, perversely, it’s still like the ideal that the church would like to promote: that any two people chosen at random can make the partnership work if they’re both faithful and devoted to the gospel.
You’re right, chanson, that’s kind of perverse. 🙂
I do think that you learn a lot of transferrable skills in a missionary companionship, and I do think that people–in all kinds of relationships–are more able to decide to be compatible than popular culture and modern “common sense” notions would have us believe, but that said, no, a missionary companionship is not really like a marriage.
I can’t really say I learned a single transferrable skill via a missionary companionship. Instead, I transferred the skills I’d learned already to help me deal with companionships. I realize it’s perhaps different for elders, who are generally so much more immature, a problem that’s likely to be worse now that they can all go at age 18. For people so lacking in experience and life skills, just about anything else they figure out about the world is liable to help them in their other relationships. That might be one reason companionships are held up as comparable to marriage: they’re at least different from relationships between parents and children or between siblings, which are often the only relationships that involve living with someone that elders have ever had before their missions.
Does the Church actually do this? Compare companionships with marriages? Odd for an institution so stridently against same-sex marriage.
I don’t know if there’s a correlated statement on the matter, but it’s something I remember hearing members do my entire life. Here’s something from 2010 about how “A Mission Prepares You for Temple Marriage“:
That’s not as explicit as many of the statements I remember hearing, but still, that “learn to get along with others” is held up as something having an inescapable companion teaches you.
The church does many homosocial things that are weird in light of its homophobia. When my dad started his mission, it was a rule that companions share a bed as a way to foster intimacy. By the time he finished, it was a rule that they couldn’t, because hey! It fostered intimacy! Since then, it’s been an inviolable rule that missionaries are NEVER allowed to share a bed with ANYONE.
I think that’s true, but with a caveat.
In societies that don’t have widespread access to convenient and effective contraception, any sexual relationship (including ones where the sex part started with what is technically rape) has a good chance of leading to kids. And once baby is on the way, you have a very strong incentive to make it work no matter what. People are adaptable creatures, and they can be very adaptable when they need to be.
If you’re in a society that has a high rate of shotgun and/or arranged marriages, plenty of people in your circle of friends will be in difficult marriages — so if your marriage is strained, you will probably perceive it as just “that’s life.” Having incompatible personalities/values/interests with your spouse is just something you expect to deal with.
In modern western society, people have a high expectation of being able to reflect seriously on their choice of partner after having gained real relationship experience.
So it’s not that modern people are flighty or selfish or don’t care about marriage or anything like that. Having a higher standard for what constitutes a good marriage is a natural and rational consequence of having a high expectation of increased opportunity to choose wisely.
Regarding a mission being like marriage: I’ve heard it before in Mormon circles. Perhaps it’s true that it’s not very much like a marriage, but the connection really struck me while reading this novel because of the type of emotional connection that Elder Peterson had with his trainer.
@4 & @8: I agree with Chanson’s assessment. I would also point out that for a very long time, it was the job of the wife to to make whatever changes were necessary for her to be more compatible with her husband. Read something like Fascinating Womanhood–it’s all about how wives must not ever ask their husbands to change–and so must change themselves if they are unhappy. This approach is true of marriage manuals broadly speaking:
For a long time, there was no recourse (legal or otherwise) for rape in a marriage. Many women responded to marital aggression by taming their husbands, and this dynamic helped fuel a belief that men are naturally aggressive and women naturally soothing (when the roles were actually formed by a distorted power relation). In the LDS context, it followed that men need the priesthood to become better animals, and women don’t need it because they’re already service-oriented.
It all comes down to sex, I tell you.