Lessons From a Lifelong Third Wheel
The pain of being left out as a single young adult is real, but there are practical things you can do to make it better.
A few years ago, six members of her small group grew into family, complete with inside jokes, sitting together at church, and barbeques on Sunday nights. One added a wife; their closeness continued. She dated one member; they went back to being “just friends.” Three more spouses were added, and now, unless she wants to be paired with her former boyfriend, she is the odd one out.
She says, “I hate that despite my best efforts, petty things like personality differences and gender and marital status can mean loneliness instead of community.”
Isn’t it inevitable? Once we leave college, we are increasingly surrounded with married people: among siblings, friends and colleagues; at church, at parties and within small groups. What does it mean to be the only single in your family, at the office, in a room? Are there any coping skills? And are there any benefits?
At our young adults’ Bible study, I’m five years beyond the target age. Among my young-mom friends and their children, I’m often the only unmarried person over the age of 5. Still, I have a lot to learn about how it feels to other singles to be the odd man out.
Lindsay told me her unbelieving co-workers see her as a problem to be fixed. “He’s single, you’re single: a perfect match!” (Never mind that she loves Jesus, and he does not.) It’s exhausting to be the only one at work without a significant other, knowing that people are wondering behind her back: What’s wrong with her? Is she too picky? Does she have something? Is she gay?
T.J. explained he’s also under pressure among his unbelieving colleagues, where his choice to be in an intentional relationship (or none at all) places him well outside the cultural norm. The women are attracted to his integrity and can’t understand why he rejects their open pursuit. The men equate his lack of a girlfriend with failure as a man.
Single men told me about the lack of support, in stark contrast to the solidarity and understanding often shown among and for single women. It’s difficult to confide in other single men, let alone anyone outside their demographic. It’s easier to avoid the topic and immerse themselves in work.
Single women tend to feel like they’ve missed a rite of passage. Because normal feminine chatter often uses marital status and motherhood as measures of maturity, she can feel that she’s viewed as a child, still ignorant of love and commitment. It’s tempting to avoid the cliquey married women altogether.
Besides feelings of failure, belittlement and loss, singles deal with awkward pauses in conversation, painful comments, band-aid matchmaking, and the feeling that they’ve been left out of the marriage club.
In some cases, the feeling of isolation and hopelessness becomes so strong that singles are tempted to compromise or even throw away their faith.
Jonathan believes that the biggest risk of falling away from faith in his native Britain is unequal yoking with unbelievers. “I have seen this so many times with friends who get tired of waiting, and opportunities to meet like-minded singles in church are so limited.”
The problems of being the odd man out are real. There are practical things you can do to make it better. But after interviewing 30-plus people, just when I was most excited to share all I’d learned, God turned His attention to my heart.
Born when I was 9, my youngest sister was my living doll. I lugged her around; I sang her to sleep. I never expected her to marry first. But in the last year, I have prayed and waited with her as she grew to love her guy. So when she called a few weeks ago to say, “I’m engaged,” I felt such joy!
And stabs of deep discouragement.
What’s wrong? I thought. Am I envious?
No, I was genuinely glad. It’s just that her joy was a mile-marker, a reminder of just how far I’d run alone.
My journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Mercifully, God made it too long for me to muscle through on my own. When I know I’m not enough, I am forced to get real. And when I stop making small talk with Jesus, I finally realize: He hears.
I’m grateful for the gift of desperation.Matthew 8:3 says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Greek for “poor” implies someone so destitute that he is publicly known as a beggar. See also Deuteronomy 8:2-3. It’s there that I’m most connected. It’s there I hear His love the loudest and come closest to other people.
This sense of desperation is common to every stage of life, whether marrieds who can’t create the unity they dreamed of without Him, young parents who know they need Jesus just like they have to breathe,See Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson: Desperate: Hope for the Mom who Needs to Breathe, Thomas Nelson, 2013 and Linda W. Rooks: Broken Heart on Hold: Surviving Separation, David C. Cook, 2013. or people who don’t know Jesus yet, but are being drawn to Him by their need. It moves us beyond the superficial things that divide us, and into the much broader reality we have in common: this marathon-run of faith.
Marathon-running can be a lonely sport. As the odd man out, you may have to reach outside your age group, life stage and location, but it’s worth it to have a coach (your mentor), some fellow singles as running partners, and some (married) folks on the sidelines to cheer you on.
This may be most difficult for men. To admit longing (or to cultivate godly discontentment),See Genesis 2:18. Note also that biblically mandated singleness is meant to benefit God’s kingdom or for violent times in history. See Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:26, Jeremiah 16:2-4, Matthew 24:15-22. to invite counsel, to risk the tension of not-yet-answered prayer — by beginning to ask for a wife James 4:2 — this is bravery indeed. And it begins by refusing to make small talk with God.
Be aware that the stakes are high. Real people are tempted to turn their backs on God. Settle it in your heart Who your true treasure is, and you won’t be turned aside, even in the times when His ways don’t make sense.John 6:60-68
Cultivate relationships (from a distance, if necessary) with other singles who are honest about their needs, yet still sparkle with His love. See them as a haven where you can recharge for more difficult interactions.
In the face of your unbelieving co-workers’ drive toward shallow relationships, audibly affirm your freedom and contentment. When family or church family brings up your singleness, be candid about your desire for marriage. How much to share? Treat it like a dance, and let them lead. Relax, and learn to be natural: If it’s not awkward to you, chances are it won’t be to them.
Accept thoughtless comments from whence they come (ignorance of your feelings, yes, but also love for you). Keep the conversation open, and they might learn something. Reward small crumbs of sympathy, and you might get more support.
Unwanted advice? Make it a serious matter of prayer, whenever it comes up. Sometimes my honestly held convictions are wrong. Sometimes they’re fine, but my attitude is off. And sometimes God sticks up for me. Carry on, He says. You’re doing fine.
Expect to be surprised by your own feelings and responses. See them as God’s diagnostic tool for your heart. Then learn to tell yourself the truth: about who you are, about who God is and how He feels about you. I’m God’s child. He delights in me. I am defined not by my life stage or by other people, but by Him.
Women seem to need this in a special way. Several young wives I know have to remind themselves that they are more than their marital status; my mother has had to redefine who she is, now that she has an empty nest. Life has many seasons; preaching the Gospel to yourself is a skill you’ll need in them all.
My friend Grace, a newlywed at 30, says that showing love can’t be formulaic. “Love takes time, probes gently, and is attentive to the individual himself.” The same holds true for showing love to anyone.
Do you wish married people would reach out to you and begin learning how you feel? Then reach out to them: Those you invest in are those you grow to love.Matthew 6:21 Learn to serve — it provides such a relief from the pity party — but beware of burning out. Serve from God’s strength and not your own. Read up on marriage and family, and become more relevant to them. Look for common ground. Learn to ask questions and to listen — and you may find that others will listen to you.
Like you, many marrieds wish there wasn’t so much segregation. They describe the presence of singles in a group as healthy, adding variety and richness to the conversation, a picture of the diversity of gifts in the body, and a good reality check for any stereotypes.
At the same time, our presence does make them want to watch their words. They want us to feel included in the conversation. And they struggle with how to talk about their marriages, avoiding gloating about or denigrating God’s gracious gift to them.
They need our example of boldness, our biblical encouragement and counsel, and the reminder to be world-focused when their own world sometimes seems so small. Likewise, we need their sensitivity, their respect and their assurance that family is a gift and that God’s matchmaking skills are for real.
Sometimes singleness is a lot like grief: We can’t predict what will trigger the sadness next. For that reason, reaching out to non-singles may always have an element of risk. In this season of life, male-female relationships are puzzling and painful enough. Why add another challenge?
Because if we’re members of Christ’s body, then we’re already one.
Because we’re meant for fellowship, which goes far beyond potlucks, into participation, partnership and investment.See Chris Brauns: Bound Together: How We are Tied to Others in Good and Bad Choices, HarperCollins Publishing, 2013, Chapter 10.
Because we have something to offer — and much to gain.
Copyright 2013 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Elisabeth Adams has lived in five states, one Canadian province, and the captivating city of Jerusalem, where she studied historical geography and Hebrew. As a freelance writer and editor, she loves hearing and telling new tales of God’s faithfulness. Most of all, she wants to keep a quiet heart.