“Maybe you’re the girl thinking you’ll end up alone.” These lyrics from “Someone Worth Dying For” by Mikeschair still make me cringe when I hear the song come on the radio. While the overall message of the tune ultimately has good intentions, it sadly puts singleness on a short list of worst-case scenarios.
I’ve seen an unhealthy fear of singleness drive many women (and some men) to a desperate pursuit of marriage. This was especially true when my peers were in their 20’s and 30’s. When I parted ways with a guy I was dating in college, I remember him gasping, ‘Will I EVER get married?” He was 21, and the next gal he dated said, “I do.” When I was 39, I received a note from a friend in her early thirties. In it she described her plan to lasso a man. Clearly forgetting my age, she stated emphatically: “I will NOT be 40 and single.” She was not.
I, on the other hand, breezed into my fourth decade decidedly unmarried. Surprisingly, I did not turn into a pumpkin, a reclusive cat-lady, or whatever other fate-worse-than death scenario people believe will happen if you don’t marry by a certain age. Now in my mid-fifties, I can testify that remaining single is nothing to be feared or avoided at all costs. That’s why it concerns me that there is still a subtle, yet prevailing attitude that singleness is an inferior destiny – or worse, abnormal.
This view may come from vestiges of historical stigmas against singleness. In past generations, being single (especially if you were a woman) was clearly looked down upon. Certainly life was much harder for unmarried women years ago. With few career options, the pitied “spinster” was often dependent on family for her well-being. In the classic 1940’s movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey asks his wife, Mary, “Why did you marry me?” She teasingly replies, “to keep from becoming an old maid.”
We don’t live in Bedford Falls anymore. Today both men and women can enjoy the view from the top of corporate ladders. Yet singles are often viewed as an anomaly – with many people assuming “there must be wrong with them” if they haven’t coupled (or re-coupled in the case of a divorcee or widow) within a certain timeframe. Marriage still seems to be viewed as the expected path for a “normal” person. True, a vast number of people do marry (and remarry). It’s not wrong to wish for it or want it for others. The problem arises when other paths in life are viewed as second-best.
Too often singles, especially younger ones, are pressured to marry by well-meaning friends and family. Hints are dropped, inquiries are made about their dating status, and offers are made to set them up with the “perfect person.” During dating dry spells, they are soothed with the assurance, “Don’t worry, I know Mr./Miss Right is out there for you.” An older version of the same concept claims, “there’s a lid for every pot.”
While well-intended, these platitudes can end up doing more harm than good, since no one can guarantee that another person will get married. With over half of the American population currently unmarried, clearly not every pot is magically finding (or staying with) its perfect lid. Worse, if singles are promised that wedded bliss is a sure thing, where does that leave those whose soul mates are delayed decades or never show up?
One of the factors that seems to contribute to the urgency to marry (or to see someone else marry) is the fear of being alone. At the height of that spectrum seems to be the fear of dying alone. The other day I was watching an episode of “The Mentalist” where one of the characters was too shy to ask a woman out. His colleague brushed past him, mumbling, “You’re going to die alone.”
Two false assumptions were perpetuated in that phrase—one, that a spouse will meet all of our needs for companionship and is guaranteed to hold our hand as we lay dying; and two, that singles have no access to a caring support system. Marriage is no more a permanent inoculation against loneliness than singleness is a life-sentence of isolation.
There are many ways to foster meaningful, close relationships outside of the context of marriage. Moreover, even when singles are alone, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are lonely. This is especially true for singles that have a strong faith in God. Personally, I find great comfort and companionship knowing that Jesus has promised to “never leave me or forsake me,” and has pledged that he will be with me, “even to the ends of the earth.” Whether “by myself” at home, on the road, or even lying on my death bed, I will never be truly alone.
Another factor that adds pressure to marry is the proverbial biological clock. The perceived “norm” is to not only get hitched, but to produce children and then survive long enough to enjoy your grandchildren. Notwithstanding the outside pressure to conform, many men and women have a great love for children and long to be parents. While men aren’t as bound by a ticking timepiece, women hear each movement of the second hand with increasing volume as they approach their mid-to-late thirties.
Those who still believe “first comes marriage” and then the baby carriage may feel the urgency to intensify the “hunt” for a mate before it’s too late. For those who come up empty, they must face the loss of a deep heart’s desire, not to mention the possible disappointment of their parents who were hoping for grandchildren. Today, alternatives are available for some singles who long to be parents, including adoption, surrogacy, or even sperm banks. But these scenarios are not the right choice or affordable for most.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are disadvantages to being single. In fact, on a bad day I drafted a blog post entitled, “Sometimes Singleness Sucks!” There are certainly things that singles miss out on. There are many times we feel like the odd man (or woman) out. We bear responsibilities and burdens without the help of a spouse. And yes, we get lonely at times. But marriage is not always a bed of roses either. In addition, there are advantages and opportunities that can only be part of the single life. Most importantly, God never sees singles as second-rate. In fact, Paul’s writings indicate that being unmarried can be a good thing (see I Corinthians 7). In God’s eyes, both singleness and marriage are equally honorable paths in life.
There are some who are single by choice. There are many who are not. Yet either way, singleness does not need to be dreaded. Whether it’s for a season or a lifetime, the single life can be filled with joy, purpose and love.
Three of my friends come to mind as examples. One is using the flexibility of her singleness to make a difference all over the world, and is currently helping orphans and widows in Africa. Another friend has achieved her doctorate and is a highly respected professor, author, and chaplain. The third has worked in a Christian ministry for decades and has impacted thousands of lives. She may not have biological children, but she is lovingly called “Mama” by her mile-long list of spiritual progeny. Then there are singles like me, who by comparison lead a simpler and quieter life, but are nonetheless fulfilling our divine destinies.
Perhaps you long to marry. If so, I believe you should prayerfully remain open to it—even “pursue” it, but not out of a sense of desperation to avoid singleness. Resist the temptation to put your life “on hold” while waiting for the perfect spouse. You’ve been set apart for a special purpose right now. Use the freedom and flexibility of your singleness to serve others and God in a way uniquely possible during this time in your life.
Most of all, if the right person doesn’t come along, know that it’s OKAY. Continue to commit your desires to God, seek him with all your heart, and trust his plan. As you do so, you will discover fulfillment and contentment in your journey, and a heavenly companion who is with you every step of the way.
A documentary on “Women in Hollywood” featured a spot on Marlo Thomas from the 1966-1971 sitcom “That Girl.” It was one of the first shows that boasted a strong single female lead. As the series neared its conclusion, the writers were pressured to have her character, Anne Marie, marry. Although the plot had earlier included an engagement, the writers and Ms. Thomas felt strongly that Marlo’s character should remain single as the final credits rolled. The documentary narrator noted that this ground-breaking move “illustrated that marriage is not the only happy ending.”
Indeed, as I and many other unmarried adults have discovered, it really is possible to live “happily ever single.”