Dear Mentor: Advice for the Single Life
I see a lot of writing at The Well about balancing life with family and children, but I am single. This isn’t my choice, but it is where I am. As I’ve worked on my Ph.D. and pursued an academic career, I haven’t had the time or energy to dedicate to searching for a spouse — not that I haven’t kept my eyes open! Sometimes I wonder (and have been asked) whether I have given up on having a family, or have missed my chance to find a husband in my pursuit of an education, but I don’t see how I could have done anything differently.
Although I have been blessed with good friends, I still long for the support and intimacy that only seems possible in marriage. For myself and my single friends, the marriage question revolves around issues ranging from inconvenience (being the only one without a spouse to accompany you to the department party) to a fundamental doubt and uncertainty about your identity and your future as a woman growing old without any spouse or children to sit with you when you’re sick or dying.
Most of you seem to be married. Do you have anything to say to me as a single woman? And I’d like to ask those particularly who have made it further along the road of life without having a husband or family — not to minimize the advice that married women may also be able to offer, but to get the perspective of someone still dealing with this situation.
I was single for 43 years, hence the indelible memory. The question of singleness posed by this good woman, whoever you are, who dares to speak for so many of us (thank you) ... well, it’s a lot to process. Maybe that’s why I avoided a response until Marcia Bosscher, editor at The Well, emailed me for the seventh time. But for a few weeks I’ve been stumped by the simple and deep honesty and layers of complex heartfulness of your question. So, please forgive the stream of consciousness, below. Perhaps you’ll find yourself pulled along with me in an eddy or backwater, or not moving very fast at all. At least we’re together in the boat, which is more like a flotilla of wonderful women.
Not to be pedantic or too theological, but in one sense we’re all married to the better Adam who doesn’t blame his bride, but died for her/us. He is belonging, and security, and identity. And the line between single and married (to a mere human) is a dotted one, not solid. We’re all children of God, trying to be faithful in our specific context. Someone asked Mother Teresa if she was married. “Oh yes,” she responded. “And my husband can be very demanding.”
A good single life is to be greatly preferred over a mediocre married life. Like you, I imagine, I spent my single years well, in mission and in passion, leaving few stones unturned. (Grad school, the Lake Placid and Sarajevo Olympics, joining the fun of Grad Christian Fellowships and Veritas Forums at Harvard and beyond, mission trips in South America and Russia, skiing and hiking and luging, etc.) At times looking back on my twenties and thirties, whether in a cabin in the woods or a lonely house, I could barely remember why there was so much activity, and so little solitude. So little intimacy. Activity suggested a life filled with meaning, and, besides, I was used to sleeping alone. Friends were everywhere and I loved them. There were very few dull moments, and much joy, and we touched a lot of lives with the love of Christ. But at some point I also felt that I had everyone, and no one, at the same time.
I confess that I hate the modern system of dating. Maybe it’s because I seem to have made singleness as painful as possible, with deep emotional connection over time to several good Christian men, keeping things going but then managing to not close the deal in the form of marriage covenant. A child of divorce, I tended to avoid emotional intimacy and commitment (unless I finally knew that I wanted it, in which case he avoided it). A Christian, I was wired to look out for others, host student events, honor a few hundred people and not one above the others, even introducing friends to men I might have dated myself. Really smart, I know. Some might call this self-sabotage and hand me a Darwin award. But re-reading old journals, I often felt Jesus with me, knew joy, and spent rather than wasted my freedom on many of the things of God.
After twelve years in a college town with too much social “deal flow”* and too much travel (flying on cargo jets to help with Veritas at many schools), I nearly married my grad school boyfriend, but he found me “distracted” and soon after married my very attentive and not-semi-nomadic next-door neighbor and friend. As a romantic, I could scarcely imagine taking anyone other than this love seriously. The healing took so long. I crashed in a cabin in the woods for a mere three years, and then, once again breathing and ambulatory, I moved back home to Ohio for various reasons including work, church, and parents.
Several friends married after returning home or moving to a quieter place. In family churches and communities they found context. History. Community. Less deal flow and more maturity and wisdom to understand that a concrete good is better than abstract future “best.” I’m not saying you should go home, but I am saying, attend to your soul, your heart and life, and to special people around you. In my case, I went home, and a handsome widower literally showed up on my doorstep to ask me to share the gospel with his old high school girlfriend so they might have a chance to get back together (never grow weary of good works), and to discuss books. We became the world’s smallest book club. The old girlfriend never wanted to talk with me (or so David said). Our friendship barely survived my red pen on his novel. And the rest is, well, still unfolding as a growing marriage. I love the man very much.
Here’s what I suggest, whether we’re to be single or married.
Live forwardly. Don’t shrink back, as a habit (yes, solitude, yes, community). Fall forward. Forgive yourself and anyone else you need to forgive. Mercy, as a habit, opens up our futures. Bitterness causes us to shrink back into safe places and sorrow, but mercy opens up new possibilities.
Live forwardly. Many friends, whether single or newly single, are making great choices after the age of 40 and 50. After the hard realities of life happen to us, we can better discern character and opportunity and who the really good guys and friends are. Meet families where you are. Abide in Christ, and branch out. Reach out. Take some risks. Some men just need a good woman to love them back to life and to remind them who they are in Christ. Yes, I think that’s it. Be a helpmate and warrior for God and for one another.
And now a note to married women to get with the program:
Join in the great fun of getting to know single women and men in your nearby university, workplace, churches. They help keep us young and interesting and growing. We, in turn, can introduce them to a wider community and network of kindred friends and families. This just in: for millennia, young people had elders helping them, looking out for their best interests, mentoring and encouraging. Further, my husband and I were just invited to a Napa Valley wedding of a woman and man we introduced. July in Napa! Think of the perks! But, seriously, think of the joy of amazing Christian people finding and loving one another, and possibly bearing and nurturing new life together. No wonder Jane Austen lovers call me “Emma.” (My batting average is much higher than Emma’s, including my own brother who met the love of his life and came to Christ in the process : ). Need a hobby? Join the “Emma Club.” Someone did this (albeit inadvertently) for me. Thank you, John and Susie.
Let’s all do this, together. For Christ, and his Kingdom. For the next generation. And for a Gospel and culture of life. Besides, it’s fun.
*Deal flow is my term for life in which I (and others) often traded concrete goods in front of us, including a wonderful friend of the other gender, for a sense of possible better or “best” life in the abstract future. Two birds in the bush looked better than one in the hand. That happens in busy cities in which we’re jockeying for position. Living for the future. Not practicing the spiritual disciplines of listening, attending to souls, praying, taking Sabbath breaks to enjoy the immediacy of life. We begin to love things, and use people, rather than use things to love people. Perhaps one person in particular.
From Leslie Walker
I think one of the persistent challenges in the church is how to fully incorporate single people into the life and ministry of the body of Christ without leaving anyone feeling like an extra or a second-class citizen just because they’re not married. I met my husband at a huge Society for Neuroscience conference, so I don’t know that I can speak to where to meet strong, smart Christian men, since you’re probably already going to professional conferences! But I think it’s great that you’re staying open to meeting someone without making that the focus of your life.
God gives all of us challenges or “thorns in the flesh” that we don’t understand and certainly wish would change. That can be true of singleness, but many of my married friends struggle with intimacy issues and disappointment in their marriages or in their husbands, so marriage itself doesn’t always solve the problem. But I agree that there is something powerful about a strong and vibrant marriage that has a true intimate partnership. If that models the relationship between Christ and the church, no wonder most people still want a good marriage! I think being honest about still wanting, hoping, and praying for that is important and good.
But the reality today is that there’s a small pool of good Christian men who are energized and not intimidated by strong and smart Christian women, and the pool seems to get smaller as we get older. I don’t think the answer lies in settling for either a weak man, or a non-Christian, or masking who you are and what you’ve been called to do to try to fit into someone else’s idea of what a wife should be. But I think we need to do a better job of including women who are single into every dimension of professional and church life. And I think we need to make it okay to say that although we may accept singleness, or difficult marriages, we also pray that our situations will change, and that we need support and encouragement in the meantime from our friends.
I also regret that many of my single friends have been largely left out of my life during long periods in which I seem to have little or no time for anyone who isn’t at work or part of my family. I have appreciated their willingness to initiate phone calls or ask me out for lunch, because it’s true that often I don’t think about calling them because I’m barely keeping up with the work/family issues that seem most urgent. If you are willing and able to be the initiator with married friends, my guess is that they will be happy to get together or talk, but you may have to manage feelings of resentment or frustration if you’re always the one to initiate. The flip side: that should get better once their kids are out the door and they have more time and flexibility again.
I hope you do find a wonderful man someday who can challenge and support you. Even if you don’t, I hope you maintain strong and enduring friendships with friends, and that the God of all comfort surrounds you so that you know that married or not, you are loved, and you are not alone.
From guest mentor Connally Gilliam
Writing from my vantage point as a single, but still hoping for (and secretly believing I’ll end up in a) marriage, here are a few thoughts:
There are a lot of quiet stabs in unsought singleness, centered not just around questions of intimacy (honestly, there are many married women I know for whom emotional intimacy is a longed-for but elusive desire), but around the question of “belonging.” In America — unlike even Europe or Australia, let alone places like Lebanon or Syria — there are unprecedented numbers of women who are disconnected from any familial structure whatsoever, who are hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. So the question of “to whom do I belong?” can loom frightfully large, magnified not only in conferences attended alone, but in the lack of someone to check in with right after the large plenary session is finished. It shows up in questions about where to spend Thanksgiving or with whom to go on a summer vacation. It shows up in church retreats where the big skit up front asks for “four daddies from the audience!” or in women’s small groups which inevitably move to conversations about babies and children. In other words, it’s not just about someone to cuddle with on the sofa or bed down with at night , but is perhaps even more deeply about someone to belong to with whom we can (for better or for worse) BE FRUITFUL within the larger world.
The truth is, of course, that we first and foremost belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to ourselves but to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ…but most decidedly, he set up people to be planted in both marriages and families and in the church. God sets the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6). I am absolutely convinced that he is radically committed to this concept, be they our own original families, and/or other families within his body.
The most deeply satisfied, unintentionally single people that I’ve met are woven into families. This is not always easy to come by, but it is worth the effort. I remember somewhat embarrassingly asking one couple if I could hang out with them and their kids simply because I knew I needed them. I needed the healthy smattering of conversations about the hard points of third grade math, the tricky parts of getting along with a big brother, the joys of comparing my nail polish with the pink, sparkly nail polish of a six-year-old, and the change of pace in having beanie weenies (instead of grilled salmon) for dinner. I knew I needed to be woven in somewhere. That need prompted me to ask. And that ask eventually morphed into a genuine and mutual friendship between this family and me.
Also, I live in a group situation with two empty-nester couples, and they are like a family for me. Sure, it’s a little different! And it’s certainly not what I pictured growing up (or what I hope will characterize my life forever!). Yet…they know my heart. They know that I have a sensitive area that can be triggered when I’m least expecting it. They realize that my periodic waves of loneliness or feelings of fruitlessness because of being childless (even with five godchildren — some in the area and some not — and seven nieces and nephews — who all live overseas) are real and legitimate. They join me as I name the waves, and they pray with me, lifting my desires back up to God. Likewise, they can laugh with me about bad match.com dates, encourage me to keep taking relational risks, and give me perspective when I’m being a drama queen about my personal pain.
In other words, this motley band of friends, this family of sorts in which God has set me, takes the achy parts of my heart seriously without letting me get lost in my own head (as hopefully, I also do for them). Plus, they remind me, because they are all married with grown kids, that marriage and kids are great gifts but not the silver bullet for life. Mostly, we move forward together (albeit somewhat clumsily) in a shared sense of mission, focused around hospitality and outreach, around being fruitful within the larger world. Even though I have not yet created “matter“ (i.e. a baby), there is still so much in life that eternally matters, and even unmarried, I get to help create and cultivate this lasting matter with others.
So, what would I say to a woman struggling with singleness? I’d say, ”Your struggle is real. It of course can hurt deeply. And honestly, there are no three-easy-step solutions. However, the heart of the Lord is profoundly empathetic, and just like with the widow of Nain, his heart goes out to you. He sees you, and his heart is turned over within him on your behalf. His compassion is aroused. And he does not want you to be left alone.” So, given that, get a friend and start asking the Lord together: ask him for a place of belonging, ask him for a shared sense of mission with others, ask him for a husband and a family, ask him to be able to feel his heart for you around this question of unsought singleness in your life, and ask him to show you the “next step” (and take it!).
I’ve been asking for these things for a long time, and he has seen fit to give me much of it. Most of all, he has given me a far deeper sense of his heart for me. I am not alone. I am not abandoned. I really do belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to Jesus — to the Jesus who feels me, and allows me to feel him feeling me. I cannot begin to find words for how this has transformed what I feared was a black hole in my soul (which I erroneously thought could only be filled by marriage) to a place that — though sure, it can have some chaos — has a rock solid bottom underneath.
I do not believe that Jesus wants any of us to perish, including emotionally. I do believe he will make a way in the wilderness. The path might look a bit outside-the-box (i.e., not according to my girlhood vision), but his ability to lead is real. As I keep opening up my hands to say, “Lord, I give you the longings of my heart for intimacy and fruitfulness,” I neither deny my longings nor demand they get met. I have found myself both receiving and even creating good things (NOT everything I would long for). But I am starting to realize that even as the ache of incompleteness keeps me tethered to the heart of God, as I chafe less and lean into him more deeply, I increasingly see that he has good for me, that he can bear meaningful (and also just flat out FUN) fruit in and through my life right now, and that in the very end, C.S. Lewis is right: this life is simply the title page and table of contents; the real story is still to come. That’s not escapist fantasy talk, but a guarantee which enables me to face, embrace, and willingly bear with him and others whatever good fruit in this life I can.
So, please know: his heart is for you and for me. He moves towards you and me. His heart will not be stopped. He truly is the One to whom you and I belong, in life and in death, in singleness and, perhaps one day, in marriage and family, alike. And even now, he is the one who sets the lonely in families. He is the one who makes your life and my life fruitful. He is our faithful savior.
An invitation from Connally: I want to invite anyone who is interested to join our prayer/fasting network. A group of almost 500 of us from around the world receive a weekly e-mail that one of my friends or I have written to keep honest, God-centered reflection about singleness (and marriage) in our culture.
We encourage women, and the men who are involved as well, to find a friend with whom to pray and to take what would be lunchtime on Monday (if possible) to pray/fast for:
- marriage for those who want to be married — or probably should want it even if they aren’t “feeling it” today,
- courage for men to walk upright and into marriage, and
- courage for women to be willing to see where we need to change as well.
It’s all done bcc, so nobody sees your name. And there are no embarrassing subject lines (no “Desperate for Love” or “Prayers for the Pitiful!”) to have to hide from colleagues looking over your shoulder. If you are interested, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, and give us the best e-mail address to use.
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