The Thrill of Hope for Now and Not Yet

Aug 16, 2007 |Candice Watters

Three books are mined for truth about singleness and marriage.

Once upon a time, if a maiden wasn't married by a certain age, she dropped the "en" and added "old." Old maid. It conjures up images of a wrinkled spinster living with her bachelor brother or female best friend. Far from today's empowered, successful, fulfilled still-single woman, she was an object of pity.

For all the unwanted delays in getting married, at least today's single woman no longer elicits sorrow or scorn. A slew of books document her progress. Many praise the rise in age of first-time brides as a sign that women are waiting until they're more ready for marriage. Even those who bemoan the society-wide delay show that it's not the fault of women — our extended education and career tracks, post-marriage culture, and lack of quality, marriage-minded men are likely culprits. As such, advice abounds about how to make the most of the single years, given that marriage — if and when it happens — is largely outside a woman's control.

Three books stand out for their contributions to understanding this new trend of later marriage. The first, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, provides a sociological look at how women's choices about sex, marriage and babies shape their future success, or lack thereof. The second, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century, explains matter-of-factly that more women are staying single longer and encourages them to fully embrace their time on their own. The third, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, documents vividly the author's journey from being unsaved and sexually active, to finding faith in Christ and letting Him reform her mating habits.

When You Marry Matters

"First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage." So goes the schoolyard chant. The one we used in grade school when a classmate had a crush on someone. Now author Kay Hymowitz confirms utter wisdom of that ditty.

The order is what matters: first love (and college according to Hymowitz), then marriage and only then, motherhood. According to Hymowitz's Marriage and Caste in America, this is the script that orders a successful life. Young women who have babies first, then drop out of school to care for them, and only later, or never, marry, are often consigned to a life of poverty. Their children fare even worse.

Murphy Brown led an entire generation to believe it was acceptable, and even admirable, to have a baby on your own. She was a model of independence and achievement; the single, working mother extraordinaire. Reality paints a bleaker picture. "There is a typical single mother, and she is not Murphy Brown or Angelina Jolie," writes Hymowitz. "She is poor, or near poor. She has no college degree. She has few of the skills essential for negotiating a tough new economy. On the other side of the tracks is her college-educated counterpart. She is skilled, of course. She is also married."

It is the woman who marries and only then has children, and her children themselves, who are the winners in this emerging culture of marriage haves and have-nots. As one review of Hymowitz's book put it, "her research shows that middle-class kids growing up with two biological parents are 'socialized for success.'"

Hymowitz, a self-described agnostic, is a welcome source for proving the rightness of God's design for marriage, sex and family. "As the core cultural institution, marriage orders life in ways we only dimly understand," she says. "It carries with it signals about how we should live, signals that are in line with both our economy and our politics in the largest sense." And, I would add, in line with our faith and God's created order.

What happens when we tweak the order?

Perhaps the most damaging consequence of unmarriage ... is the loss of the life script that would allow [men and women] to escape the struggles of poverty. Every society has a life script.... In the United States the script has a number of acts: childhood, adolescence and schooling — or apprenticeship or some other preparation for work that would lead to self-sufficiency — then marriage, and only then children. Middle-class children growing up in today's information economy know that the preparation act of this script will last well into their twenties and possibly even thirties; that is why the average age of marriage has climbed in recent decades (emphasis added).

If only men and women were delaying marriage because they were preparing for it. The rise in the age of first marriages is far more complex and at points less commendable; something Hymowitz overlooks. She seems oblivious to the growing number of still-single women who want to be married now. Just believing babies should arrive after the wedding isn't enough. Many still-single women say they want to follow the right order of events — college, career, marriage, then children. To their dismay, they're finding themselves languishing in the career act of the drama with no prospects of being able to follow the rest of the script.

Not Yet, or Not Ever?

Enter Jennifer Marshall, whose book Now and Not Yet, acknowledges that despite their desire for it, marriage simply isn't happening for many women the way it did for their mothers. For the growing number of still-single 30-somethings, "singleness is a fact of life more than a choice of lifestyle," she says. As the director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, Marshall is well suited to analyze the cultural shift leading to later marriage in America.

Delaying marriage is a problem, she shows, not only for the single women who wish they were already wives, but also for society as a whole. She lists some of the social consequences of later marriage including a declining birth rate despite women's desire to have more children; the companion problem of the graying of the population with fewer young workers to pay into social programs like Medicare and Social Security; and "the unraveling of social connectedness." She knows from her work in D.C. that healthy marriage is central to a healthy society, and she encourages her readers to "continue to hope for marriage (until God convicts you otherwise)."

Still, she seems resigned to later marriage telling women the best they can do is live well in the meantime. But the mere passage of time holds no power for making marriage happen. She doesn't explain why many women are still single well beyond the average age (herself included) nor what they can do about it. Aren't there biblical principles for living in the now that can hasten the not yet? Is there no wisdom for going against what's average; for living counterculturally?

Oddly, rather than suggest solutions to the problem of later marriage — and she does present it as a problem — Marshall's book is built on the premise that the long wait for marriage is inevitable. And not only inevitable, but God's will. "Singleness, too, is a part of His design," she writes. While it's true that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose," that's not the same as willing all things.

As part of God's will, Marshall says, it's up to single women to use all their gifts and talents to the full. She says the question isn't "Why am I not married?" but "What should I do in the meantime?" The bulk of the book emphasizes all the ways women can make a good life for themselves before marriage. What's missing is the possibility that women sometimes do live in ways that contribute to their marriage delay, as well as suggestions for making progress toward marriage. It's as if women are empowered to act in every area but one — getting married.

For all her advice about how to live in the long unmarried season, stretching a decade or two or even three after the onset of puberty, Marshall is strangely under spoken about sex. The book has little to say about it — just a single page under the header "Commit to Purity" with a simplistic "just do it" tone.

"Reasons for purity don't change with age, even if our feelings and urges do," she instructs. "Every young woman must make sexual purity a personal priority early and commit to it for all her single life.... [She must have] strong convictions anchored in a relationship with God in order to have the willpower to apply them when needed." She says women must remain pure, but are they?

The statistical reality is that most singles are not waiting — even among Christians. To say simply, "don't," or "wait," seems especially disingenuous given that Marshall seems to hold out so little hope for marriage. The reader is left wondering, "What, exactly, am I waiting for?"

Take Heart with Hope

While Marshall's book tiptoes around the elephant in the room, Dawn Eden's Thrill of the Chaste spotlights it in the center ring. Eden's book is a powerful counter-script to the hyper-sexualized lifestyle of the majority of single women, Christians included. Her skillful storytelling shows the disappointing, damaging, vapid underbelly of the falsely glamorized "Sex and the City" life. She talks a lot about her life before getting saved at 31 (at points a little too much) to great effect.

Eden masterfully sells chastity. She makes it desirable; a prize better than the short-term thrills of sex outside of marriage. She dares to hope for marriage — and that's the high point of her book. This is exactly the kind of inspiration I longed for when I was single. Back then it was hard to find. I did read Elisabeth Elliott's Passion and Purity. My copy is full of underlining and notes in the margin. But now that I'm married, I no longer recommend that book to my single friends. Although Elliott's exhortation to remain sexually pure is good, beyond that, the book provides little encouragement and even less practical advice for getting married in our post-marriage culture. Such books may have been sufficient when they were written, but no longer. Back then, marriages happened far more easily and early, and the cultural expectation was that chaste is best. Today women are widely expected to sleep around, and they're marrying later than ever despite their expectations.

Lots of books accurately assess the problem. But what's the solution?

Eden's book hints at it. Of all the books I've read on the issue of extended singleness, hers is the one that most esteems marriage. She dares to hope for it. "If you want to receive the love for which you hunger," she writes, "the first step is to admit to yourself that you have that hunger, with everything it entails — weaknesses, vulnerability, the feeling of an empty space inside. To tell yourself simply, 'I'll be happy once I have a boyfriend,' is to deny the depth and seriousness of your longing. It turns the hunger into a superficial desire for flesh and blood when what we really want is someone to share divine love with us — to be for us God with skin on."

A husband. That's what she longs for, more than casual sex. And the possibility of marriage, a good and godly marriage, is worthy of sexual restraint until it happens. Ironically, such lines and the hope they reveal are the very ones that have come under criticism. Lauren Winner, herself an adult convert and proponent of chastity, writes,

Indeed, Eden veers close to suggesting that marriage is a reward for practicing premarital chastity or that marriage is somehow the telos of chastity: "Chastity ... relies on faith that God, as you pursue a closer walk with him, will lead you to a loving husband." Well, maybe — although as Jesus and Paul made clear, everyone is called to sexual self-control, but not everyone is called to marriage.

Actually, biblically, most of us are called to marry. It's the norm. Yes, some are gifted for lifelong celibacy as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, but few are called to it. In all of Scripture only one person, Jeremiah, was explicitly told not to marry. Just because the hope for marriage will, for some singles, be disappointed, is no reason to tell all singles to stop looking forward to it.

If you're called to marriage — and most of us are — faith that marriage can happen is essential for living chaste. Without the hope of marriage, what's a woman to make of her sex drive? It can seem like either a cruel joke or something that becomes all consuming. This is an area where many singles say "just give it to Jesus and pray for self-control," but Paul was clear that marriage is the God-ordained channel for our desire for sex.

Books for single women have made great progress away from the simplistic "just be content" message. These are three of the better examples. But they have yet to offer practical help for getting married. Can women be more intentional in how they spend their single years in a day when marriage is often delayed? Yes. But not just about their jobs, education and church involvement. They can also be intentional in a prayerful pursuit of marriage — realizing, thankfully, that a long season of sex-free singleness isn't inevitable.

Copyright 2007 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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