Singleness was very hard for me. I’m not sure why exactly it was so hard. Marriage and family life had always been very attractive to me, and I had a strong natural desire for the life. The questions and problems of married life deeply interested me, too. I wanted to know about all marriages – good ones, bad ones, hard ones, easy ones, and to know why they were hard, or easy. It’s difficult to articulate, but marriage appeared to be a crucible in which to work through the biggest internal dramas we face – the desire to be loved, the desire for holiness and goodness, to find extraordinary themes in the ordinary.
Wanting it so much, and being single for so long, often made me feel ridiculous, particularly when I talked this internal difficulty out with married friends. I wondered if my desire was pointing me toward something that wasn’t really for me? And believing that God leads my life, and speaks in the circumstances of my life, I often wondered if God was telling me that it was a different life that He was calling me to.
So, with all this in mind, I want to share some of the things that people said to me, or experiences I had along the way that helped – as I waited, wondered, agonized – and some of the things that, in the end, didn’t really help. You may be reading this and find something that you have said along the way, and I am going to try to get these words as right as I can, but of course they’ve probably changed in my memory of hearing them. I’m also opting to keep each person anonymous, but you hopefully know who you are, and please accept my gratitude by knowing how you helped me!
Things that Didn’t Help
Let’s start here, and then there’s no way to go but up!
“Maybe you’re just being too picky”
Why this didn’t help: Maybe I was being too picky. And it’s true that being too picky can make you single longer. If I’m breaking it off because I’m two inches taller, or because I eat supper at 7pm and he eats supper at 5pm, this might warrant the above advice.
But in my experience, I was too picky especially at a time when I wasn’t really internally ready to be married. I thought of all kinds of silly excuses for breaking things off – “we don’t listen to the same music,” etc. The pickiness hinted at something underlying: that I felt I needed more time to get to know myself. That I had a gut feeling it wasn’t quite right, and because I couldn’t decode the gut feeling, I made up a “picky” reason for it.
When you’re in your 30s, and you’re single, it can be even easier for people to offer this advice, because of the assumption that “it should have happened by now.” It can be easy to date several people with whom it doesn’t feel quite right, and the reason you’re still single must be that you’re too picky. This logic often made me second-guess myself, flirting with the idea of letting go of some “must-haves” because “maybe I am too picky.”
One must-have for me was faith. Into my 30s, the need to share faith with a spouse became clearer: faith determines many of the decisions I make about how I spend my time, how I spend my money, the career I choose to have, the circle of friends I know. Many people said, “It’s just where you go to church. Why does that have to matter so much?” But when the reality is that faith feeds into most aspects of how I choose to live my life, my reasoning was that I had to share my life with a person who could walk with me in the direction I had committed to walking. It came to a head when I realized that this faith mattered so much that, if I couldn’t find someone to share it with in marriage, I was better off continuing to be single. [Disclaimer: I’ve known many married couples of different faiths, or one who had a deep faith married to one who did not, who had good marriages. This reflects only my own thoughts in discernment for myself].
Another area of potential too-pickiness came in the area of attraction. Because meeting a guy with faith was already so difficult, I wondered if maybe I was too picky to break things off when I couldn’t bring myself to want to be physically close to him. This could be agonizing. I wondered if my lack of attraction meant that I was afraid of commitment? I wondered if I should wait 6 more, 8 more, 14 more dates to see if it developed? After struggling through this question many times, I finally determined that physical attraction is essential, and not feeling it doesn’t make you “too picky.”
“You just need to surrender it/let go and let God, and then it will happen. Once I finally stopped looking”…
Why this didn’t help: See number 2 below.
“The church needs single people, because they’re more free to serve. Maybe you’re one of those people.”
Why this didn’t help: I think that is somewhat self-explanatory. It demeans singleness to the role of “cleaner” or “garbage collector” for the church. There are better ways to market the beauty of singleness within the church. Let people who are joyfully single tell you why the church needs single people.
Things that Helped
“I wish I hadn’t worried:”
One friend shared with me that she had married at 34. She had watched friends marry and have children, while she went from one place to the other, working as a nurse, studying to be a pastor. What she said that helped: “I wish that I hadn’t worried so much. I wish that I’d realized it was going to be alright, and had spent my time thinking of other things. Then, once you get married, you realize that the worries don’t end there. There are always other things to worry about in life – whether you’ll be able to have children; and then, the safety of your children, and how they will grow up.”
This helped because: well, she was an example of someone who married in her mid-thirties, after having a career, after years of wondering. I was surrounded by friends who, if they married, married either as college graduates, or about five years later, at age 26 or 27. Sometimes it’s just helpful to hear a story about someone whose life looks different from the “norm.” Now, having married at 34, I too wish that I hadn’t been so consumed by the worries about whether it would happen, or wouldn’t. But I don’t know how I could have avoided the worry, either 🙂
Not a reward for “figuring it out:”
Another friend hadn’t struggled with singleness, but she had struggled a lot with infertility. Years went by before she and her husband were able to conceive. After their son’s birth, another seven years went by as they tried everything and thought of everything, hoping for another baby. In a miraculous sequence of events, they were able to adopt a beautiful baby. Having heard so many stories from people about how “You just have to surrender it, and then it will happen,” etc, I asked my friend if she had experienced a moment of surrender. In fact, I did remember that a year before at Christmas, she had had an important moment of peace regarding her desire for children. However, this friend answered:
“No – I struggled the whole way through the whole thing. I was a big baby for most of it. There was nothing I did that made me worthy of this gift. It was always hard, and it would have continued to be hard. This is pure gift.”
Why this helped: It undid some of the negative impact of the ever-so-popular myth of “Once you are fixed enough/whole enough/figured it out enough, then you’ll receive the thing you want.” When I think about the damage this did to me as a single person, I still feel angry. I highly doubt that anyone who says it realizes what the backlash might be to the one who receives those words. It often sounds like a smug, “Well, I figured it out, so now I’m married/have a baby. And you just need more work. That’s why you’re here struggling with this.”
One thing I’ve observed, is that we’re often too eager to ascribe the meaning of people’s circumstances, rather than allowing people to discern those meanings for themselves. For long-term (undesired) singleness, infertility, miscarriages, or other difficult situations, there may be many reasons why a loving God might ask us to bear the pain – and those reasons often aren’t about our inadequacies.
In the case of prolonged singleness, it might not be about us being stuck in a corner until we learn the lesson that all married people figured out already. Why do we tend to treat those who have something as being more blessed as those who do not have that thing? I look back on the time right after I moved to Minneapolis, when I had no money, knew almost no one in the city, as one of the most beautiful times in my life, not because of what I had, but because what I didn’t have opened my eyes to a beautiful city and people around me. The vulnerability I felt at that time opened me toward those around me who were in need- of friendship, of kindness – in a way it is hard for me to be when I am in a place where I have many friends, have enough money, etc.
Perhaps there is an area of our life and work in which we have particular gifts, or particular people, to offer or to influence, and that if we had married earlier, these people might not have experienced the gifts through us. It could also be that in the waiting, agonizing and worrying, we have an opportunity to draw nearer to God and and invitation to be closer. Being single isn’t solely about us being broken or doing something wrong. And being married isn’t necessarily about getting rewarded for doing something right.
We should learn not to see our circumstances are rewards or punishments, period. Anything we experience can be a lesson if we let it.
“Our vocations will flow from living the best life we can live:”
Turning 30 and still not having much sense of where my life was going, a priest suggested seeking spiritual direction with a local sister. I was scared to take this step, thinking that this was the first step toward me, too, becoming a sister. Kind of funny to think about this now. Sister E ended up being a wonderful help. Practical and no-nonsense, she told me forthright to stop thinking about my vocation and focus on the present. “Our vocations will flow from living the best life we can live,” she said. Instead, she asked me to focus on the very real present things: praying each day. Exercising each day. Thinking of a virtue I’d like to grow in, and practicing that virtue. Reading good books.
Why this helped: It took the pressure off. In focusing on the present, I found a joy that had been missing in my life. I loved the internal balance I felt as a result of living as Sister E prescribed. And knowing a sister made the idea of being a sister less scary. Sometimes, when we’re living without something we really want, it can be easy to hold the rest of our life hostage. Our minds are on the future, and whether the future holds what we hope it does.
“Retreat to the real:”
At age 26 or 27, I went on a retreat with brothers and sisters. They were very attractive people – joyful, and authentic. Their real-ness and honesty was compelling… and it released many fears in me. What if I was actually called to be a sister? What if this was God’s plan, to spring this upon me at the retreat? What if I wasn’t headed where I thought I was in life? I finally decided to present this cornucopia of questions to one of the joyful brothers on the retreat. He said that fear and worry can be like a hydra monster inside of our heads. One worry gives birth to another, until it becomes a many-headed beast and we are trapped in anxiety. He gave me this phrase that has helped in many areas of my life: “Retreat to the real”. Whenever consumed by the worries, fears and doubts, stop engaging them, and go and do something real. God is in the real. Go rake the leaves. Go wash the dishes. Do something that engages your full concentration, and if possible, your total physical strength.
Why this helped: Maybe it just helped because I’m prone to worrying about things, and that came out in singleness, just as it comes out in married life, and any area of life I am in. But in that uncertainty about where my life was headed, there were many potential “what ifs”: what if I’m not in the right city and I won’t meet anyone? What if I need to fix something about myself and I don’t know what it is? What if I’m actually called to be a nun? What if…. Fill in the blank. “Retreat to the real” prompted me to stop the what ifs and get out of the vicious cycle, and I found that the real came as a welcome relief. And I find out, again and again, that the “what if” monster is nothing but a worry merry-go-round that never lets me off. The only thing that comes of that is dizziness.
Seeing examples of well-lived lives:
Sometime after turning 30, I started reading about Dorothy Day. Her life was so compelling – first of all, it was sloppy and all over the place, which was appealing in and of itself to someone who often wondered what direction I was going. The passion that Day felt for the poor really attracted me. The many people she invested deeply in and knew, the searching questions she asked of life and of God, and the way each step in her life asked a new question and was not wasted by triviality – all of these things gave me a vision for how, if lifelong singleness was to be my life, I wanted that life to look.
It wasn’t just Dorothy Day. One friend, who was single into his thirties and forties, was an inspirational elementary school teacher. His energy and charisma was truly transformative within the classroom. I noticed another single friend’s deep thoughtfulness and way of contemplating her life in a way that always gave me new insights when I talked with her. I longed to be able to shine in the way that I saw these people shine.
Why this helped: I’m not exactly sure why reading about Dorothy Day, or seeing my friends’ examples, helped. I think it started awakening me to the many ways life can be beautiful and well-lived – the many vocations we each live within our vocation. It can be so easy to fall into line and only think about whether you’ll be married or single or (if you’re Catholic) a priest, brother or sister. Dorothy Day’s life… it was an awesome life. No one else could have lived her life in that particular way. It started me thinking about what my unique gifts are, and how can I put them to work in the world, and how God might write a unique story in me. And that “unique story” part freed me from thinking monochromatically about vocation.
Finally, some words of wisdom from my hubby (paraphrased):
John, married shortly before his 39th birthday, weighs in with a few insights, too.
“People who married right out of college often try to give advice to those of us who are single into our 30s, but they often don’t realize that it’s a different ballgame.”
In other words, if you met your spouse at the time when your school, living space, and social circles are all within the same campus, you may not be able to offer the wisdom that is needed for blind dates, trying to meet people outside of your work environment, online dating struggles, etc. It can be easy to oversimplify the struggles of singleness if your single years post-high school were four, as opposed to fourteen.
“I wish I had heard more from the pulpit about the struggles of the single life, and how to live that life virtuously. It is often taken for granted that the congregation is all families and married people. I’ve heard a few homilies about finding your vocation, but virtually none about singleness itself. It would be nice to hear, ‘Some of you won’t get married, and that’s okay.’ I especially think that priests, who deal with some of the same challenges as single people, are in a position to offer help and good advice to those of us who are single. Instead, it can often feel within the church that single people are 2-headed monsters, an anomaly, or we’re just forgotten about entirely.”
I agree with John wholeheartedly on this. Sometimes the loneliness and out-of-placed-ness I felt about singleness was because of the lack of conversation about it – or, if conversation came up, the emphasis was on how to “fix” it: “maybe you need to ______”.