A candid talk about singleness from a couple who spent most of their lives as singles.
I recently sat down with Mark and Sarah, two friends who spent a longer time being single than they had anticipated. They'll celebrate their third wedding anniversary this summer, but they remember well the season of singleness, and shared candidly about their experience.
* * *
David: Mark, tell me a little about your experience with singleness and dating?
Mark: I dated two girls seriously in college and one after I graduated, but I spent six years without a girlfriend before meeting Sarah. I was very interested in girls and being in relationships, but I didn't have a good context for what I was looking for.
David: Did you struggle with six years of singleness?
Mark: It was a real challenge to interpret and ask, "Where's my life headed?" I was just out of college, still living with parents, and focused on, "What is life going to become?" The challenge was to be patient and trust in God, to be in that time and bear up under it. And it was increasingly difficult after my failed relationships to believe I could be in a successful one.
David: Did being single affect your relationships with other people too?
Mark: It did. I wondered, "How am I supposed to have community?" I spent a lot of time alone. And the real hurdle was how to have faith in the midst of that loneliness.
I gained weight, became increasingly introverted and depressed, and grew cold toward others. I kept people at arm's length because I was feeling hurt and down. My way of coping was trying to control every relationship I had.
David: Looking back now, do you see any blessings in this period?
Mark: Though I wasn't happy with it, I was able to focus on building some skills at work and with my career that I needed to work on. It forced me to learn to live on my own because I had lived in codependent relationships.
Eventually, it forced me to admit to God and to other people, "I need some help here. I can't keep trying to do things the way I'm doing them." And it prepared me to be in a good relationship with Sarah.
David: How so?
Mark: It squeezed me to the point where I said, "If I don't talk to someone about this, I don't know what's going to happen." I went to a Christian counselor and got into a mentoring relationship with a pastor, which prepared me for relating appropriately with others and with Sarah.
David: Speaking of your wife ... Sarah, tell us a little about your story.
Sarah: I dated a guy on and off in high school and college for four years, and I was sure we would get married. When we weren't dating, I was miserable, trying to figure how I could get him back. When we were together, he seemed perfect, but I kept wondering, "Why isn't he perfect?" Finally I broke it off.
David: What did you do after that?
Sarah: I dated here and there. And I read Mark of a Man by Elisabeth Elliot, which helped me define what I was looking for.
But when I wasn't with somebody, I was so despairing. I thought, "I am such a weird person, I'm never going to find the right person."
Early on in college, I thought, "How could God make anyone single? How could he punish them like that?" Then I graduated and wondered, "How am I going to meet people?" During this period, I vacillated: One day, I was settled — "I'm fine by myself" — and the next day, I despaired — "I'm never going to be with anybody!"
Finally, I came to grips with the possibility that I could be single for the rest of my life. I said, "God, you are enough and with you I can survive." After that point — and it took a process to get there — I felt freed from being desperate for a husband.
David: Now after you two eventually met, you dated for a year and a half. Then you got married, nearly three years ago. As you think back on your period as singles, did you face pressures or expectations that made it harder?
Mark: I remember when I was in college, people kept saying, "Don't get married, don't be in a relationship all the time." Then at a certain age they starting saying, "Why aren't you married?" I was told, "You need to be married before you're 30."
I think too that the church is culturally — though not spiritually — established around American perspectives on family and marriage, so people communicate in terms of couples and singles. But I hate the word "singles." It describes people poorly. The single person becomes just a tag at the end, which is so hurtful.
Sarah: For me, the dynamics of hitting your fourth year at a Christian college raised the inevitable question: "So who are you going to marry after you graduate — because, of course, he's here." It was the last-minute scramble. And I saw a lot of people getting together because of that pressure who didn't seem compatible. I wondered, "How many will divorce?"
David: As you watched your friends getting married, how did you deal with that?
Mark: You have to expect that as friends get married, there will be a natural change. It's a little naive not to expect it — and after all it's a biblical principle, leaving your parents and cleaving to your spouse (Gen. 2:24). They have to separate from other things.
I could have done a better job of looking for other relationships as my relationships changed. I didn't see any natural methods beside joining a softball team — which I did, but it didn't help.
I also could have tried harder to network with people and say, "Look, I'm struggling with relationships and community; can you help me figure out ways to build that stuff in my life right now?"
And I could have thought outside the box to use my time, because you have a lot of time. I could have gotten a master's degree. Taken a six-month or yearlong sabbatical from work for a missions trip. Gotten a second job to pay off bills. I wasted a lot of time waiting for life to happen for me.
Sarah: But when you feel that way, it's so hard to get motivated.
Mark: Yes, but those events would have provided community without making the search for a mate the priority. I'm reminded that we need to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:34). Personally, I became introverted and self-focused.
Sarah: It's true — when you're serving others, you're not looking at yourself.
Mark: Sometimes you need something out of the ordinary to help you, because you can't get out of a rut yourself. But God is at work no matter what. God used it for good — He redeemed it.
David: And what role did your Christian faith play in living through singleness?
Sarah: For me, it was a comfort. I trusted that all things were perfectly timed and would be good. Still, I often didn't understand. I would wonder, "Why did I have this relationship? Should I not have had this relationship?" I had lots of why questions, and they don't all get answered when you're married.
Mark: Church can actually play up the despair aspect of being single. Often I despaired because of what was going on in my church and the way people related to me, not despite it. I think relationships can be exalted to some high place.
Sarah: Yeah, it always seems like single people are the add-on. There's no category for them. Churches serve families, but if you're single, you're waiting. What about the Pauls out there who are single?
David: Is there a way the church can do better here?
Mark: The church could focus on where people can be serving, even if they're not married.
Sarah: When I was single, it would have been beneficial for me to have mentors, not simply teaching me to be a good wife, but to be a godly woman. But the single is often being prepared for the next step rather than for living now.
Mark: The church can also focus more on integrating people, not basing integration on your relational status or organizing groups around demographics.
David: As you think back over these years, did anyone say something that just didn't help?
Mark: Yes: "You're going make somebody such a great husband someday." Blah!
Sarah: Another thing I heard was, "Just wait, it will happen; you'll forget this time period ever existed." And I thought, "But that could be a big chunk of my life!"
David: How about any advice that really worked?
Sarah: In high school, both my mom and dad said, "Just be friends with lots of boys and lots of people. Get to know better what you're looking for."
Mark: Someone encouraged me to concentrate on improving myself. Focus on the Lord and growing spiritually. Find a way to serve.
A good paradigm-shifting question is to ask, "What's the next step — beside marriage — that God has in mind for you that you can focus on?" We need to broaden our thinking to see how we can be more useful to him for his kingdom's sake. You can find wonderfully fulfilling things to do if you have that mindset.
Sarah: And that's often how you end up meeting people too.
David: As we wrap things up, what suggestions can you give other single Christians who want to be married for dealing with the challenges of singleness?
Sarah: Do things to grow your relationship with God. No matter what you're doing, you should do that. Marriage is not the end-all.
It also helps to read personality books and birth order books, so you can get to know yourself and learn how to better relate with others.
I did some traveling too, and I'm so glad I did. If I didn't do that, I would be so sad.
Mark: If I could go back, I would tell myself to make the most of each day. Even with praying faithless prayers, just keep praying them. Often my prayers were pretty weak, but the truth is that God sustains us.
And in the darkest moments, when you're feeling all alone, even if all you've got is just a little bit of faith, exercise it. Hold on to that mustard seed of faith.
Copyright 2009 David Barshinger. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.