Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Problem With Problematizing Singleness, or Happy Valentine's Day

Sometimes, when I’m in need of a good laugh, I peruse the Internet for Christian resources on singleness. Not because I’m a desperate single guy or living in dread of my singleness, but because I’m morbidly curious to see what the Church is making of this always popular subject of singleness. You may notice that I do not employ the use of the term “singles.” Since reading a book on chastity and the Church by Lauren Winner (Real Sex), I’ve determined to strike the word “single/s” from my terminology, at least as a noun. After all, we don’t refer to married couples as “marrieds,” do we? (If you do, nod your head in agreement, pretend that you don’t, and resolve to rid your speech of that word in the future.)

Singleness among Christians—and perhaps among non-Christians as well—seems to be a perplexing “problem” to many people, both single and non. Therein lies the actual problem. If we start with the precept that being single is some kind of a negative quality, a deficiency or a failure, or that it’s a plan not yet brought to fruition, we start with a pernicious and often damaging lie. Jesus, you may recall, was a single man (romantically speaking) for his entire time on earth, despite any arguments to the contrary by Martin Scorcese or Dan Brown. The Apostle Paul wrote passionately about the benefits of long-term singleness, while also pronouncing the inherent goodness of marriage. 

One of the lies we have fooled ourselves into believing is that singleness is a problem, and that, consequently, marriage is a solution. I’ve known friends in college who seemed sure of this logic. My own impression is that a marriage that’s established in order to “solve” someone’s feelings of inadequacy as a single person is a badly formed marriage. It recalls the famous line in the movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “How can one drowning man save another?”
The church seems to have two responses: one is the sympathetic approach, where well-meaning church members take poor, pathetic “singles” under their wing. The other is the overcompensation approach, where the term is embraced with a phony sense of glee as a gift like none other. Neither seems to be worth much, because both rely on that same faulty premise that singleness is a problem. 

One thing Lauren Winner’s book impressed upon me was the need for the church to radically rethink its idea of the Body of Christ—the community of believers. The way Winner describes it, “there should always been an odd number of chairs at your dinner parties,” demonstrates perfectly the healthy practice of a community of believers, where we truly embrace the meaning of the Body, and rely upon each other, sharing in our community and understanding each other better. 

The problematizing of singleness seems to go hand-in-hand with the issue of church segregation, where everyone seems divided by age and marital status within the church. The result of this attempt to get people into common communities is that nobody seems able to relate to different members of the Body. It stands to reason that an 85-year-old widower might have something to share, some unique perspective on life, to pass on to the 35-year-old family man or the 22-year-old college student. And that works each way. Young Christians often have a vitality—a fervent sense of urgency in them—that hasn’t yet been squashed by the cynicism of the “real world.” Christians who have moved past that stage have probably gained much wisdom and experience, and perhaps at the expense of that passion for life. It goes without saying that there is value in both, and that the real problem is a fear of true community, true living of the Gospel, not a fear of staying single forever.

How many times have I heard my parents or someone else’s parents turn to us kids and caution us, “don’t ever get married”? How many times have I heard a joke on a sitcom implying that intimacy fades after couples take that enormous step into marriage? In one episode of Mary Tyler Moore, Mary is handed the task of explaining the “Birds and the Bees” to her neurotic neighbor’s daughter, Bess, who’s 12. Bess asks Mary if love and sex always have to go together, and Rhoda, Mary’s best friend, interjects, “of course not. Just ask any couple who’s been married ten years.” It’s funny because it’s true. There seems to be something about the routine and the business of life that drains the intimacy: the excitement fades or the energy and the time for spontaneity simply aren’t there anymore, for various reasons. My point here is that marriage has lots of problems too, and that it’s not some kind of lucky break for the single person to find marriage. 

Loneliness is a common fear among single people. We often wonder, even if we’re content in our lives now, if someday we’ll wake up bitter and talking to the untold numbers of cats that have flocked into our homes. I don't make a habit of watching Desperate Housewives, but recently I did sit down and watch one episode. One of the women on the show discovered she was pregnant with twins. She was in her early 40s, and had just sent the youngest of her four children off to college. Sensing the excitement of a new chapter in her life, she was absolutely devastated to learn that she was pregnant again. (Her husband, however unrealistic this might be, was elated, on the other hand). Not only did she feel devastated about this unexpected twist in her plans, she felt incredibly guilty that she did not want to have the children. In a particularly grim but hilarious scene, she encounters a glowing young mother-to-be in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, and sets the record straight on being a mom: “you’ll be lonelier than you’ve ever been, but you’ll never actually be alone.” Not to belabor the point, but I think this scene demonstrates just how lonely married people can become. Look at the divorce rate—which is equally high among Christians as it is among non-believers. 

Perhaps I’ve run the risk of disparaging marriage in an attempt to argue that it’s not a solution. I don’t believe all marriages are empty or lonely. I believe loneliness can and will enter everyone’s lives—single or not—at some point. We have to turn to Jesus rather than our statuses, and we must have a firm sense of community where we can go, not just for our own encouragement and benefit, but where we can stop focusing inwardly and start focusing outwardly, delving into other people’s lives as they delve into our own, as the body of Christ. Hopefully then we will understand singleness as an aspect of rather than a problem in our lives. It’s no more perfect than being married, but it’s also not a punishment or an exile. Although you may start to develop a fear of choking alone in your apartment. (30 Rock anyone?)


  1. For an article that counters much of what I say, check this out (it makes for an intriguing debate):

  2. The article by Debbie Maken, originally from 2006, argues that marriage is a Biblical obligation, offering the theory that 1 Corinthians 7, which says it's better not to marry, was written at a time when there was a famine going on, and Paul was merely writing "in the moment." It's interesting that Focus on the Family is the "parent" of this website...I wonder what they would say to someone arguing that other passages of the Bible were merely "for the moment" (e.g. subjects like homosexuality, where today there's such a big debate about whether or not the Bible is culturally dated or timeless).

    Maken suggests that it's our culture that has proffered up singleness as something good, when really it's generally bad, and as a lifestyle, not biblical. Again, I think we need to acknowledge that Jesus never married, and that to our best knowledge the Apostle Paul was not married either.

    Maken closes her argument with a support of marriage on the basis that it "restrains men's baser instincts and desire to live unconstrained, immature lives ...[and]... assists women and pities them when their desire to be a homemaker is snuffed out."

    I'll refrain from commenting further for now.

  3. What 'desire to be a homemaker'????

    Will comment further after I've read the article and reread your post.

  4. I think you make a good point of tying singleness into church segregation. I am continually frustrated when people assume that a single person cannot offer insight of any value on certain subjects because they aren't tied to another person through marriage. I also find the concept of singles ministries... awkward... When I've visited them in the past, they either feel like a support group or a meat/meet market.

    Another good point you brought up: "How can one drowning man save another?" Marriage is not a solution. To anything. If you're lonely or single or depressed or feeling unfulfilled please (I beg you!) don't think that marriage will solve your 'problem'. If anything, it will be the start of more trouble.

    A number of single people I know have good, valid reasons against marrying or in favor of putting it off. Is it wiser to marry young or is it wiser to wait until such a time as you're financially secure? Is it being a 'good steward' if you aren't responsible and end up pulling someone down with you? What about the examples of people who married young and end up regretting it for the rest of their lives? What if they're not able to have children (one of Makken's touted reasons for marriage)? What if it turns out that they got married for the "companionship" and "physical affection" and end up with neither?

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. :)

  5. Ok, I take it back. I'm not reading the rest of that article. She made me too angry. Am I now to be considered an angry, bitter, single person?

    I think with the 'examples' she provided (well, in what I got through anyway) were way too subjective. Every Bible verse can be taken out of context and made to say something the reader wants to hear.

    I would also argue, as you pointed out, that Jesus and Paul (allegedly) were both single men and had incredible ministries.

    On my part, my singleness covers a lot of issues. Listing just a few:

    1) Most of the marriages I have been close to have been horrible -emotionally and/or religiously. Why would I want to follow the examples into spiritual and emotional bankruptcy?

    2) I have never had the opportunity to get married (according to Maken - "it's not my fault")

    3) I have enough problems on my own and don't want to have to force someone to put up with me. I realize this one can sound shallow or selfish, but I truly have seen too many cases where a marriage becomes a one-sided leeching arrangement. I don't want this. Ever.