When I was growing up, I looked forward to getting married someday. I had the privilege of having two parents who, though they weren’t perfect, honored the Lord and their marriage vows. My mom and dad, who recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary, showed genuine love and affection for one another, and made family life fun. I suppose you could say I witnessed a pretty ideal marriage relationship.
As an adult I learned that the institution of marriage was established by God (Genesis 2) as a means for companionship and sex, a picture of the love Christ has for the Church, and the ideal relationship from which to raise children.
Through the years, social research has affirmed the marriage relationship as the key building block of society. But in “What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse,” Mandy Len Catron challenges that premise when she asks, “What is lost by making marriage the most central relationship in a culture?”
The short answer: Marriage weakens other social ties, limiting the influence and support of extended family and the community at large. She cites the findings of sociologists Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel, who reviewed two national surveys and concluded that, “Instead of promoting marriage, policy should acknowledge the social constraints associated with marriage and recognize that single individuals have greater involvement with the broader community.”
In line with that, Catron argues,
Single people […] are far more connected to the social world around them. On average, they provide more care for their siblings and aging parents. They have more friends. They are more likely to offer help to neighbors and ask for it in return. This is especially true for those who have always been single, shattering the myth of the spinster cat lady entirely. Single women in particular are more politically engaged — attending rallies and fundraising for causes that are important to them — than married women.
Advantages of the single life
I think the author makes a good point that single individuals have a greater capacity for cultivating community. When I was single, I invested in many more relationships and circles of people than I do now. I had more coffee dates and I invested more deeply in my relationships with family members, coworkers and friends. Now married with four young children, I simply don’t have the bandwidth to do that anymore.
In a way, the Apostle Paul makes a similar argument “against marriage” in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 when he says that unmarried people have fewer concerns and can be more wholly devoted to the Lord. But in Ephesians Paul affirms the institution of marriage, so he’s not saying singleness is the only way to go. He is, however, communicating that being unmarried provides specific opportunities for wholehearted service to God, including a greater capacity for involvement with an extended community.
While this truly is an advantage of single life, experience has shown me that whether or not a single person takes advantage of this “gift” varies greatly. When I was single, I observed that some of my fellow singletons connected deeply with family members while others rarely had contact. Some offered help to neighbors and received it, while others lived like recluses. Some were politically engaged, while others had no interest in such things.
So while stronger social ties may be more attainable in single life, the benefit of those relationships is greatly overplayed in this article. Catron seems to be talking about some utopian existence where the unmarried are never lonely and always feel supported. This became clear later in the article when the author offered one of her practical applications for a less marriage-centric society. She first explained that in marriage, the meeting of needs falls mainly to one person (the spouse). She continues:
And in different-sex relationships, especially once children are involved, the work of this care falls disproportionately to women. Without marriage, this care and support could be redistributed across networks of extended family, neighbors, and friends.
It could be, but from my vantage point this is unrealistic. In what way would the care be “redistributed” and who would pay for it? In truth, this model is already being lived out in some communities. Grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Neighbors and extended family are providing childcare and support to single moms. Churches and community programs are stepping in to help disadvantaged children, many of whom have experienced abuse, neglect and the absence of at least one parent. And yet I doubt many would argue these alternatives are superior to a stable, two-parent home bound by marriage.
A case for community
I do think there is something to be learned here. Singleness is a wonderful season in which to develop deep, rich community on many fronts. If you’re single right now, don’t miss it! I sometimes pine for the days when I could invest in and find support from multiple people (who weren’t age 8 and under) during a day.
But marriage between one man and one woman is God’s intended structure for companionship, sex, romantic love and child-rearing. Even if you remove the biblical perspective, you don’t have to look far to see the many benefits of this important institution — including better health and more positive outcomes for children.
There’s a gem here for married folks, too. Those who marry should be aware that building community may be more difficult. They will likely have to be more intentional about staying connected to their families, friends, churches and communities. Investing in one another’s lives through fellowship, service and hospitality are biblical mandates. And I know from experience, that’s something you can do single or married. Marriage doesn’t have to weaken our other relationships. By God’s grace, it can enhance them.
Copyright 2019 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.