When I graduated without the ‘ring by spring’ so much coveted in my little subculture, I set myself up with a job and a nice apartment and was prepared for adventure. I’m afraid my impression of what that phase would be like came from a combination of my parents’ experience and old movies. I expected to be stylish, spontaneous, interesting, and go on dates with nice men at nice restaurants – if I couldn’t have the domestic life I really wanted, at least I was free to do those things. HAHAHA.
I will likely never know why things didn’t turn out that way. Maybe it was cultural, maybe the problem was me, maybe the timing was wrong. Sometimes I look at old photos or read my old journal entires and conclude with horror that the problem must definitely have been me. But as with all phases of life that don’t conform to expectation, and which force us to adapt with situations we didn’t plan or want, I did learn a lot from my unmarried years.
I realise now that I had a habit of making my singleness the scapegoat when there were many other sources of unhappiness. The times when I hated being single the most were always the times when I had other reasons to be unhappy: times of transition when I hadn’t yet made friends, times of stress, times of feeling bad about myself. It’s hard to know the cause/effect relationship between these things, sometimes – whether I was stalling in other areas because I was too consumed with misery over my loneliness, or whether the intense loneliness was actually the effect of other circumstances. Regardless, though, if I could relive the last few years I’d try to have a bit more balance in where I assigned blame for my unhappiness.
I spent too much time worrying about why I was single. As I said, I don’t think it’s possible to know the answer to this, definitively, and the results of constantly asking ‘Why?’ were mostly depressing and self-critical. I’d conclude that I was unattractive or off-putting or too boring. I think it would have been more productive to ask, ‘Is there anything practical I can do that might make it more likely I’ll find someone?’ Maybe yes, maybe no, but assigning constant blame to myself did nobody any good.
Contentment was possible. I had long periods of being really pretty happy with my single state; for phases when I was in college, and then again afterwards when I was in grad school, I could shrug and say, ‘I’m okay with it.’ But I also don’t think we have to feel happy about being single in order to be accepting of it. I think it is better to let that unhappiness sit in the corner and work around it than to try to force ourselves to feel happy about something we just don’t like.
Friendships can be a source of great satisfaction and are well worth cultivating. I don’t regret any of the time I invested in making friends, and the negative aspects of singleness – loneliness, unfilled spare time – gave me the drive to form friendships in a way I wouldn’t have if I’d had a boyfriend/husband during that time. There is a special quality to those friendships that, I suspect, would never have developed if I hadn’t been single. Moreover, while I understand that single and married people should be able to be friends, have community, etc., I do think that single people are in a particular position to help meet the needs of other single people. Cultivating friendships ministers to both people involved.
I did best when I tried to capitalise on what I could do in this phase in life. At times I’d ask myself, ‘What can I do now, while I’m single, that I couldn’t do otherwise? If I get married in the future, what will I be glad to have done?’ Going to grad school overseas was one of those things, but other less momentous activities sprang out of the same mindset. Settling in for an evening with a movie, nail polish, chocolate and crisps with no one around to make me feel indulgent was something I genuinely enjoyed. I learned to enjoy travelling for short trips alone, I found hobbies, I stayed out till 2 a.m.
Whatever our feelings, it remains true that our worth and purpose do not depend on our relationship status. I’m the first to admit that this truth doesn’t always sink in very deep; at various points during my single years I definitely felt unworthy, unpurposeful, and often felt like a second-class citizen. It’s sadly a common experience that church can be the loneliest place to be single. However, John Piper’s discussion of singleness in This Momentary Marriage highlights the way in which Christians find their identity as part of the family of God, where fruitfulness and belonging are defined in relationship to God. I had to hang onto this belief by reading about it, praying about it, and thinking through its implications.
In conclusion, though my goal in thinking about all this is to make sense of it, I have to accept that in some respects I have to cede it to the sovereignty of God. I don’t know why I was single, all that I should have or could have done differently, or even really why I got married when I did. Sometimes I marvel at how long it took just for one guy to get around to dating me (was I that awful?), other times I marvel that even he ever took an interest (because I am actually quite awful). Singleness and marriage alike have seemed implausible, and though I know my own attitudes and actions had much to do with it, there’s also much that I can only lay at the feet of providence.