We need to talk about singleness

singleFirst up, a confession: I was once a junior chess champion. I even got a medal for it. So there’s nothing wrong with joining a chess club to find a date.

I don’t think we talk too much about relationships. But I do think we’re not very good at talking about relationships.

The conversation might vary depending on who it is with, it is different with married friend to those who are also single. But there are some people who I know I will pretty much have the same conversation with whenever I see them, especially if I don’t see them very often. Miriam Skinner’s comments about ‘Martin in the blue jumper’ hit a little close to home. I’ll mention someone in a slightly off-the-cuff but almost obligatory response who I have taken a fancy to, who will then be brought up when I next see someone even if it’s a year later.

Miriam’s article is amusing and clever and filled with plenty of wisdom. But I think I disagree with its core message – that we talk about relationships too much. I don’t think we do, I think we easily slip into stale formulaic conversations that you could record in advance and hit play when the questions arise, and that needs to change. I also think we need to match our words with action, so that frustration is not left to fester.

We waste a lot of breathe and emotional agony on shooting the breeze, feigning sincerity when we speak barely masked gossip. Discussing the relative merits of courting over dating, contemplating whether to use an internet dating site, analysing the minutia of the actions of the opposite sex. Looking for clues about where romance lies and where it leads. Asking each other for advice which more often simply serves as affirmation for our intransigence.

I have a rule that I’ve developed over the past few years: most people who are single would rather not be. Rocket science, I know. Some people are happy – or content, to use the phrase de jour – in their present singleness, and a few think that is how things will always be. But for most people I know, even if they don’t see a relationship as important at the moment envisage themselves at some point with someone, or might like that to happen. I can say I am content being single and would yet might not want that to be the end of the story.

And I do not think that is a problem.

The Church should value and affirm singleness. And not just as a stage of life to exercise patience in. The Church should be aware of the ways its structures, processes and events can sometimes become hard to access for those without families or a husband or wife. I’ve heard of dinner parties that suddenly open up when the first ring goes on the finger: ‘my fiancé and I’ is the password to a new social circle.

Being in a relationship does not remove our need for God, it does not lessen out dependence on him, but I don’t think it needs to be a trade off. I think you can want a lot from romance and get even more from God. In some way the closeness of our human relationships with someone else reflect the way God makes himself known to us, and wants to know us more. We get to have both.

Here’s a hunch I have no way of verifying: if you get married the conversations don’t go away. The same sort of inquisition the Spanish would be proud of probes into new areas, and probably the banality of formulaic conversations won’t go away either. It might be a children, or buying a house. It might be about your sex life, or lack thereof. It might be about lust. Because that doesn’t go away either.

How do we talk about relationships in a way that is not formulaic and does not suggest that the shift from single to married is somehow answering a problem? I don’t know. It is hard.

But not talking about it won’t make the longing many people have go away. But it might, and I absolutely do not consider this to be what Miriam was saying, make people less willing to say words that are hard to say. To admit frailty in knowing who they like and whether they do. To say the person who caught their fancy last week is not in the picture any more. To speak of fears and hopes. To verbalise feelings and emotions that might get lost in a vacuum of solitude.

We probably need to cut out a lot of the crap from our conversations. The flip side is that we do just need to get on with stuff. Relationships, and I don’t just mean the romantic sort, are best built when we do something. As much as I like a relaxing evening in the pub there is something productive about activity, even if it’s playing games or cooking food. Much more if it is some sort of quest, some daring adventure, overcoming foes and reaching for the prize. Sorry, got carried away there.

I don’t mean just guys man-ing up and asking girls out, I mean helping each other, being the go between like we did at school discos when we were twelve. We could even set up our own dating service, I’m thinking ‘Church’ would be a great name for a place to meet and introduce people.

And when talking about relationships…

  • Accept that Sarah, the short brunette mentioned last week might not be someone’s eternal destiny
  • Talk about specifics, don’t let conversations become generic and repetitive, ‘oh there’s someone I like but I’m not sure whether they like me, or if I like them enough’.
  • Talk about beauty and attraction more than lust. Attraction is a good thing.
  • Talk about faith and where our identity and security is coming from (see I agree with Miriam there too).

Christian Connection has carried out research into the views of single Christians in the UK and are presenting the findings at an event in London next Tuesday (23rd April). I’ll be there and having seen a sneak peek of a few of the findings I can assure you it will be fascinating.

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11 thoughts on “We need to talk about singleness

  1. Agreed! It’s human nature to care/think/talk about these things. It is frustrating when people imagine singleness as a problem to be cured ASAP; but that could be all the more reason to talk about it. Even if it’s true that, in an ideal world, we would talk less about dating/who’s single/who’s hot-or-not, romance is such an obsession in our culture that I think we have to keep addressing it in healthy ways – you can’t necessarily “move on” from it.

    I was mostly confused about why Miriam would mention “the guy in the blue jumper” rather than just say “I’m actually happy being single and not especially looking.” That seems like a much more interesting and productive conversation.

  2. Hmm, not sure I entirely agree with all of the above Danny.

    I think the church does value singleness, much as it values couples. I felt valued, I could serve and enjoyed my faith when I was single within the church. Now I am married, the same applies. The invitations to help sometimes come to the couple rather than just me, as it opens up a few more opportunities to do things, just as it closes others down. That’s a simple reflection of the practicalities of the situation that i’m no longer footloose and fancy-free.

    I wouldn’t call the conversations banal or shallow. If I hadn’t contacted a friend for a while, i’d probably want to ask the questions about some important aspects of their life. If you’d expressed a desire to someday marry, and had previously mentioned the short brunette last week/month/year, i’m going to ask you about her as that’s my last point of reference. To some degree, i’m interested in what’s going on in your life. You probably know me well enough to know that if I wasn’t interested, I wouldn’t ask.

    Equally, to some people, a relaxing evening in the pub is just the best way to get to know someone… it just depends what you’re like as a person.

    • I was probably a bit harsh on the banality of conversations, in my experience I actually welcome it, but sometime feel it is a rigmarole that has to be gone through in order to get somewhere else. When you have no news, saying you have no news can be a bit tough. I think it is the expectation of change, which exists because of the potential for change, which can lead people to feel their singleness is somehow inferior.

      Whether they asked me last week or last year, or never before, I’m happy to talk about relationships. But what it shouldn’t do is create a pressure to conjure something out of nothing, which can then prompt introspection into a situation which had not previously existed. Sometimes something becomes something only when it is spoken. And that can be both good and bad.

      I love a quiet evening in the pub, but I still think there is something that deepens relationships through activity.

  3. As a fellow school chess champion, I can see a lot of where you’re coming from. In my previous church (note the emphasis on previous) they really had no idea what to do with singles. We were a problem to be solved, with the solution being to marry them off or else ignore them and shut them out of opportunities to serve the church. Though that was better than many churches I’ve been into, where a single guy older than 25 could not be treated with more suspicion if he’d have had 2 heads. I’m not sure if women receive the same treatment.

    Some of this seems to stem from conflicting ideas about the term ‘family’. My opinion is that church *is* a family, but so often churches seem to be *comprised* of families.

    Is it now a cliche to say that one is content? I would say I am; but there is a little more to it than that. I cannot foresee any set of cicumstances whereby the current state of affairs would change. Moreover, the point often seems to be that marriage is more important than being married to a particular person. When asked why I don’t get married (which I get ased fairly frequently) I sometimes respond by saying ‘married to who?’ – I was quite scared by one couple at my last church who both affirmed that it was their desire to marry young. But this was before they had even met one another. i.e. it didn’t matter to them who the counterparty was in the relationship, the existence of *a* relationship was what was paramount. So what happened was that they married pretty much the first person they met. Maybe that was a meeting of like minds, but I never got my head around their reasoning.

    So by all means suggest marriage, but if you do so you must have the guts to suggest who that person ought to get married to.

  4. I don’t know that I take issue with HOW MUCH we talk about relationships so much as THE WAY we talk about them. One of my main problems with the way marriage is often talked about in Christian circles is that it is seen as the “ultimate good.” The community I live in is perhaps even more oriented this way than some, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. In general, I don’t have a problem talking about being single, but I DO have a problem with it when people view it as something to be “fixed” and that I am somehow less complete of a person because I am single. As Paul suggests, it is, in ways, easier to focus on God when you’re single than if you’re married, and yet many Christian circles elevate marriage to a much higher status than it should be.

  5. Coming back to a couple of the comments above…

    Sipech: if you’ll forgive me, your previous experiences seem to focus your comments somewhat. I feel sorry on your behalf that you ever were part of a church that discriminated in such a fashion. Some people – men & women – just have a calling to remain single and serve in such a fashion, and they are far more flexible than I could ever be (because of my family commitments). I have a certain amount of admiration for them, especially those who are comfortable with that.

    – Marrying young? Not necessarily a problem as long as they’re marrying someone suitable. I was my wife’s first and only boyfriend, and – so I like to think – am eminently a nice chappie. She was my second serious girlfriend. There was mutual attraction, we got on well enough and were both committed Christians. What else was there to work out? Seems very simple, with the benefit of hindsight.

    Some might say with the sheer opportunity and choice afforded most singles today by the internet, mass transit, social media, we are presented with so many choices that we are far more picky about who we want as a future spouse.

    As I have learned in my own marriage, those of friends, and running marriage courses, you will never meet your perfect match. Never. But a marriage is a commitment to a long term relationship and growing closer to each other. For those who want to start young, there’s no problem. Arguably, they just waste less time.

    – They must suggest the person to whom you should get married? I see what you mean in terms of giving ‘pointers’ or practical advice, and I do sometimes look out for potential partners for single friends who want to be married (our first attempt was spectacularly successful as they got engaged within 6 months). But beyond that – in terms of any sort of responsibility to do so – no, I think not. The choice remains firmly your responsibility, and you should always consider it such. Otherwise there is the temptation to pin blame on said person should anything ever go wrong… “why did they introduce me to her? It’s all their fault.”

    Awritespot: again, I just feel sorry on your behalf if you’ve been in such Christian circles where they see it as something to be ‘fixed’, especially if you’ve expressed either a calling to singleness, or that you do not want a partner at this point.

    I agree with the points you make, and I could simply be lucky with my choice of churches, but I just don’t recognise that culture at any of the churches i’ve been at.

    It could simply be something that singles are far more sensitive to than those who are married perhaps?

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