I broke up with my one and only boyfriend when I was 25. I thought we were going to get married, and the break-up sent me into a deep emotional crisis, probably clinical depression in retrospect, that started right before my twenty-sixth birthday and lasted until right before I started dating the man I would eventually marry. Looking back, my experience of pain and depression around singleness was very short, and I acknowledge I’m writing to others who’ve had several decades of frustrating singleness. But that experience, along with the vulnerability of dear friends who’ve shared their own pain, prompts me to offer some thoughts here.
There comes a moment for many singles, male and female, where singleness just stops being fun. You’re done with the singles scene, you’re worn out by the meat markets, and you’re frustrated by well-meaning but insensitive family members who keep suggesting yet another blind date. I remember one particular man my friends thought was a good match for me but who made me feel like dying inside. Was he my last chance at happiness? They seemed to think so. I wasn’t at peace with it, and looking back I’m thankful I didn’t try to talk myself into a relationship with him. But at the time, I felt the increasing pressure that growing older as a single Christian woman in the church often brings.
While I only seriously struggled with unfulfilled longing for marriage for less than two years, I have friends who’ve struggled with it much longer than that. A few months ago, one shared with me how she keeps thinking she’s dealt with the emotions and has put them to rest, only to see them resurface again months later. Each resurfacing of the pain of unfulfilled desire is particularly hard. “I thought I was past that! Not again!”
Another friend told me about her struggle to figure out her future. She thought she’d be at a different place in her timeline at this point. She told me of all the things she would have done differently if she’d realized she’d still be single into her late forties. I was tempted to point out all of the positives in her life. Isn’t that how we like to counsel and encourage people sometimes? “Hey, it’s not so bad. Look at all the opportunities you have. Look at all the people who love you. You’ve done this, this and this that you couldn’t have done if you had a family.” Blah, blah, blah. In reality, she’s allowed to feel disappointed and disillusioned with where her life ended up, and so are you.
I think there’s something profound to be learned from God when He noted at Creation that it was “not good” for Adam to be alone. This statement is monumental. In perfection, it was not good to be alone. Though the community God established in that moment goes beyond marriage, we see the deep need for a man and woman working in harmony to image God out in the world. When single people long for marriage, they are experiencing a legitimate desire, a desire God acknowledged from the earliest moments of this world.
You’re Allowed to Feel Pain
Stop kicking yourself when the painful feelings of loss arise in your heart. Don’t fall into the why am I not past this mentality. You aren’t past it because you’re experiencing the effects of a deep, unmet need. We shouldn’t guilt someone who’s lost a loved one when recurring feelings of grief arise, but we often project such guilt onto our single friends. Though you don’t grieve the absence of someone you have already met, you experience a similar sense of loss.
Ultimately, you feel pain and restlessness because you bear the image of God – because you are like Him. He loves intimate community and created us to love it too. Of course, there are other avenues than marriage for us to work together as God intended in perfection (I experience community with my dad, my sons, my pastors and my brothers in Christ), but our longing for marriage still reflects this truth.
So often the testimonies we hear of relief from such deep longing involve romantic relationships that blossomed after someone learned to be content in their singleness. Women experiencing infertility get this kind of advice as well: “Once I learned to be content, I got pregnant.” “Once I stopped thinking about this guy, we started dating.” But isn’t this a works-based way of thinking about the blessing of God? Isn’t this anti-gospel? And doesn’t this seem to contradict the hundreds of parents who in no way deserve to be parents or the irresponsible married couples who squandered their dating life rather than stewarded it? Heaven knows God didn’t wait until I had it all together in my singleness for me to get married or to have children.
Don’t stress over what lesson you have to learn before God will give you a spouse. Your brothers and sisters in Christ who have spouses and children did not earn that good gift by their obedience or faith. It only takes a cursory look at the church to know that for a fact. You are not single because you wasted your final chance at happiness with your last boyfriend or girlfriend (which is what I thought when I was most depressed). You don’t have to talk yourself into marrying someone because you think it’s the last opportunity you’re going to have. You don’t have to self-flagellate over the one who got away because you didn’t realize his or her qualities at the time. Finding the right person to marry isn’t a rewards-based transaction with God.
Living in the Longing
How do we experience abundant life in the waiting and longing and grieving? Paul exhorts us to “godliness with contentment” in I Timothy 6:6. But what is that in these circumstances? It’s not bucking yourself up to be all happy and smiley with your situation. Contentment is not a command to resign yourself to the very loneliness God himself says is not good. You long for something you were created to long for, yet in this season that God-given aspect of your nature is unfulfilled.
Contentment comes in understanding you are not left as an orphan in this longing. You can scream and wail “This is hard. This does not feel good.” Because, frankly, it is hard and it does not feel good. And you can say all of this hand-in-hand with God who said it first.
You are equipped by the gospel to do battle and not be overwhelmed in this season. Stay engaged with God in the wrestling. You don’t have to put to death longings that are part of your God-given nature, and you don’t have to disengage from God because He refuses to answer those longings. Give yourself permission to both cry out in longing and rest in peace in His arms – call on Him at every moment to meet the physical, spiritual and emotional needs exposed by your pain.
In reality, this is the key to life in general, for most married couples will admit loneliness and wrestling with God continue well after a wedding takes place. It took several rounds of battle at different stages of life for me to understand this truth. Life is hard, and we need intimate community, but we don’t always get it. In both the hard seasons and gentle moments of peace in between, God invites you to come boldly to Him for grace and mercy in your time of need. Christ’s death on the cross has bought you this access – be sure to make good use of it.
Copyright 2016 Wendy Alsup. All rights reserved.