How Do We Solve a Problem Like the Singles?

Contentment is difficult for singles because from our perspective, both the believing and unbelieving world seem to agree that happiness in celibacy is impossible.

This sounds serious, but the implications are radically liberating.  You don’t need to get married or have sex to live a rich life! The single person is a whole person on their own. They wait for no “better half” to live the good life.  That life is for now. That contentment is for now.  

 
Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24

What the Catholics Know About Singleness
Protestants are clueless about singleness. In spite of the many strengths of my reformed Presbyterian upbringing, at 25 I had absorbed the church culture’s implied teaching about singleness – that it is a state of interminable suffering.  Accepting that I would be crippled without my “better half” until marriage, I turned to my church’s much better teaching about suffering.  As in Herbert’s poem, “The Pulley” my loneliness and restlessness tossed me to Christ’s breast, and that rich friendship is not one I would trade for any number of dates with the dashing music director. Yet while it is quite true that there is a suffering in singleness, much of it results from the contradictory attitudes in the church; if Paul was right about the blessings of singleness, why does the church seem to pity us so much?

Among the Catholics I met while in graduate school at the University of Dallas, this contradiction was far less apparent. There, I met the numeraries of Opus Dei – a semi-monastic order of (essentially) nuns and monks who have jobs in the “real” world, but live together in large houses where they minister to the community and the church.  The presence of convents and monasteries changed all the assumptions about singleness among these devout Catholics.  Here, singles had more opportunities for enjoyment of God, for service.  They had a voice.  They, in fact, had to tell the other Catholics that they were not holier than married people – a sentiment summed up in the Catholic girls’ complaint that “God gets the best and we get the rest.”  I’ll not deny the problematic theology here, but the Protestant theology that the singles are the poor left-overs is hardly an improvement.

The Protestant Message in a Sexual Age
When I returned to Protestant (specifically reformed Presbyterian) circles, my ear was tuned to notice the cultural pressures towards sex, the Protestant pressure toward marriage, and the silence of the pulpit.  In their most recent podcast on the Sexual Revolution, the MOS team summed up our culture’s immense pressure toward sexual identity.  Christine Colon takes it one step further in her book Singled Out – culture tells us that virgins are immature and emotionally stunted neurotics whose only escape is in having sex. Christian singles hear this from culture and from the church that sex outside marriage is wrong.  The result is that the slightest nudge toward marriage from a well-meaning believer comes across to the single like another reminder that we are immature and emotionally stunted and our only hope for happiness is marriage.

We are told to both “enjoy our singleness while we can” and to “get serious about getting married.” When I answer the “Are you dating” question in the negative, the look of pity, confusion, surprise, and embarrassment that follows is another reminder that I as a “professional” woman am outside the experience of the housewife with three children. What follows is rarely helpful: “Maybe you’re too assertive,” “Don’t worry!  You’re pretty!” “That’s right – party it up!” and the recent classic – “Have you tried eHarmony?” In the Mrs-Bennet-like moves to cure the problem of our singleness combined with the pulpits’ occasional teaching that singleness is good, both married and single people have grown confused.

In hyper-complementarian and patriarchic circles the damage goes even further.  If all women are to submit to all men, and if a woman’s natural place is in the home, where does that leave single women who work for a living?  Can a woman be the boss of men?  Can she even take pleasure in her work outside the home?  And when she does return to that empty home at night, what happens to her sense of “femininity” if she is then too tired to keep house like a good woman should?

The Difficulty of Content Singleness
Contentment is difficult for singles because from our perspective, both the believing and unbelieving world seem to agree that happiness in celibacy is impossible.  In both worlds, sex/marriage has become a defining threshold between childhood and adulthood. We are children, teenagers, college-age, single, then married. When we pass 30 or 40 and are still celibate, everyone (literally) thinks something’s gone wrong.

Even popular scientific theories like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs classes the need for sex at the same level as food, water and air.

Read More