Let’s Talk About Singleness

Introduction

There’s no shortage of advice for Christian single people. From books in the “Christian living” shelves of bookstores to sermons in youth groups, single people are provided with various views on how to keep themselves pure, how to have healthy friendships with the opposite sex, and how to occupy themselves while they’re waiting for the right partner to turn up. It’s hard to ignore, however, that many of these books are directed toward audiences in their teens and twenties, and a disproportionate number of them written for women.

In 2011, five single people, three women and two men, ranging in ages from late 20s to early 50s, published a book called P. S. I’m Single: Reflections on Singleness. This book was an academic response to the need for meatier, multi-viewed discussion of singleness. The book offered perspectives from the Old Testament, New Testament, and pastoral ministry as well as socio-cultural reflections and reflections on being single again. By popular request, a second edition of this book is being released in 2017, written by the same authors in more conversational language that is accessible to wider audiences. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of this new book, Reflections on Singleness, by APS Press.

Excerpt from Reflections on Singleness (pp. 13 – 17 from Chapter 1 by Lily Arasaratnam-Smith)

In today’s urban Westernised cities, it is not unusual for people to be single in their 30s while they focus on building their career or finishing postgraduate studies. But this doesn’t exclude them from the well-meaning advice and admonishment from relatives or friends who interpret their singleness as lack of ability to commit, focus on wrong priorities (too “career oriented”), or the lack of ability to attract a potential spouse.

None of these interpretations may be accurate; but that is irrelevant.

The meaning-making process in a society is such that social reality is created by people, together; and therefore if you live in a community where being over thirty and single is collectively understood as an undesirable thing, then, as far as society is concerned, you’re in trouble – regardless of whether you feel that way or not.

Maybe this is an unreasonable generalisation of how things work. But the point is that a single person of a certain age—whatever that relevant age may be—communicates a certain meaning to the society by being single. It’s like you’re wearing a billboard that says, “Hey, there’s something about me you need to notice!”

Depending on whether singleness communicates a positive message or a negative one in that particular social context, the single person inevitably receives compliments (if singleness is perceived as a good thing) or sympathetic advice (if singleness is not seen as a good thing).

Based on my own experience as well as the countless anecdotes of my friends, it seems that a thirty-something single person invites more sympathetic advice (and the occasional admonishment) than compliments.

Somehow collectively we as a society seem to have agreed that singleness past a certain age symbolises a problem that needs to be addressed. This mindset is evident not only in pop-culture portrayals of singleness but also in the messages from the pulpit where singleness is often characterised as a “season” (implying a temporary period in time which will inevitably transition into another period, like summer into autumn).

Authors Virden and McKinney[1] speak of experiences of singleness with dry wit and a touch of realism to which many single women can relate:

I had been actively hunting to win the marital race for almost three-and-a-half-years. I was in college, for crying-out-loud, with a mere three months remaining to finalise my “hunt” and obtain the much sought-after M.R.S. degree. There was pressure to perform too! . . . Obviously, graduation from college came and went, but graduation into the ranks of the married was not a “degree” I earned.

The metaphor of graduation (which in turn is a rite of passage) once again implies that singleness is meant to be transitionary, and anyone who lingers too long in this state somehow falls short of social expectations, just as a student who perpetually remains in college without graduating.

I am by no means making an argument against marriage; but merely stating that it is necessary for us to take a deeper look at the social stigma associated with being single beyond the “acceptable” age of marriage.

Another author, DePaulo[2], poignantly writes about the social stigma associated with being single. This is what she says, in her tongue-in-cheek account of a society in which married people are discriminated against and stereotyped:

I can imagine a world in which married people were not treated appropriately, and if that world ever materialized, I would protest. Here are a few examples that I would find offensive:

When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like “Aaaawww” or “Don’t worry, honey, your turn to divorce will come.”

When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves busting with titles such as If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married? and How to Ditch Your Husband After Age 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School.

Every time you get married, you feel obliged to give expensive presents to single people . . .

Moreover, no one thinks there is anything wrong with any of this.

The point about the messages that are communicated to single people is well made in DePaulo’s illustration of this alternative reality in which it is socially unacceptable to be married beyond a certain age.

Granted, married people may argue that they offer advice to single friends because they “remember” being single once, and they know how “hard” it is. This may be (and often is) a valid reason for the messages communicated to single people. But there is an underlying power dimension to this interaction that is not readily obvious.

Speaking purely in terms of lived experience, a single person can’t give advice to a married person but a married person (having been single once) can give advice to a single person – right? This is usually the underlying (and often unspoken) premise on which the relational advice-giving process operates.

Which means the married person is in a position (of power) to dispense relational advice while the single person, in this premise, is only ever a recipient of such advice and never the provider (If you have trouble agreeing with this observation, think back to the last time you observed a married person going to a single person for relational advice). But this premise is flawed, on several levels.

First, even if we are to assume that a person has to have experienced something in order to be qualified to provide advice about it, a married person who experienced single-life until the age of 25 is in no way experientially qualified to understand the feelings of a single person who is 35, even if both people are presently of the same age. In other words, despite both being 35 at present, the person who got married at 25 has no experiential understanding of what it is like to remain single for ten years longer and to navigate the social stigma associated with singleness for a decade longer than her friend.

Second, relying on experience as the primary credential to provide relational advice is a limited perspective. Someone who has systematically studied psychology, relationship development, communication, etc., for example, is arguably well equipped to provide relationship advice to someone who has not—on the basis of education and expertise (just like a doctor is able to offer advice to a cancer patient even if the doctor has never had cancer herself).

The implicit assumption that relational advice can only be one-way (from a married person to a single person) is therefore flawed. It creates a false power dimension between single people and non-single people that should not exist.

If we can confront this power dimension and recognise that single people can also be equal participants in giving and receiving advice even in relational matters in which they may not have had first-hand experience, then we would be one step closer to creating a social environment in which singleness is not marginalised, especially in Christian circles.

***

 

Reflections on Singleness (2017) is available through Alphacrucis College and Amazon e-books.

[1] Holly Verden and Michelle McKinney, If Singleness is a Gift, What’s the Return Policy? (Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003): 3.

[2] Bella DePaulo, Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (St. Martin’s Press, 2006): 1-2.

 

About the Author: Associate Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith is the Director of Research at Alphacrucis College. Her disciplinary expertise is intercultural communication.