his middle school years, my older brother subscribed to a humorous
cartoon periodical called
It had a section titled "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions."
"So," asks the policeman, "why did you wreck the car?"
"Uh …" replied the driver, "because I thought it would be so much fun to
meet a nice police officer like you!"
is no excuse for wit, a twelfth grade English teacher
reminded us with a posted notice behind her desk. However, sometimes it
can play a very close second. And while "Why aren't you married?" isn't
necessarily a stupid question, it sometimes can bamboozle the one asked,
leaving that person fumbling for an answer, perhaps even a snappy one.
In the now fifteen-plus years since college, I've gotten the "Why aren't
you married?" question or its cousin from a greater variety of folks
than one might ever have imagined. Hannah, a third grader at the time,
asked with the earnestness of her age, "Why don't you have a husband and
kids? Aren't you lonely without a family?" A homeless woman with whom I
was eating lunch asked between bites of her pizza, "So why aren't you
married? Don't wanna be, eh?" A bighearted, completely sincere member of
a board for which I was the note taker declared in wonder during our
break time, "I'm amazed! Why hasn't anyone snatched you up yet?!" It's a
bit awkward to know how to respond. Most memorable, however, were the
words spoken to me at a wedding reception. The mother of the groom
(whose bride was four years my senior) took my then twenty-nine-year-old
hands in hers, looked directly in my eyes, and implored, "Why isn't a
beautiful young woman like you married?"
At that moment, her words felt something like a plea for me to stop
doing or being something wrong, or maybe a prayer to God Almighty on my
behalf. In truth, I think it was a well-meant compliment flowing out of
motherly love. I remember looking her back in the eye with the least
vacant look I could conjure up and pleasantly mumbling something about
not having met the right person yet. A few hours later, however, as her
words still throbbed with their unintended sting, I came up with my own
snappy answer: "Well, see, actually, one of my personalities, Jane to be
precise, is married. But the other three, well, Mary has too many
issues; Sue is a commitment-phobe; and Sally, well, she's just too
My twelfth grade English teacher was right, however. Sarcasm isn't a wit
substitute. And in the end, even the most deliciously crafted, snappy
response can't hold at bay a question that seems to nip the heels of
many single women as they move into their late twenties or early
thirties. Yeah, why, so
many of my friends have wondered, am
I not married?
It's a question that more women than ever before are bumping up against.
In the last forty years, the population of twenty- to thirtysomething,
college-educated, single women has exploded. In 1960 this group
represented 1.6 percent of all women between the ages of twenty-five and
thirty-four, or the rough equivalent of the then population of Fort
Wayne, Indiana. Today, this percentage has grown to a staggering 28
percent, roughly equivalent to 2.3 million women or four Bostons.i
So a lot of those four-Boston residents, scattered throughout the
nation, are sitting around with their girlfriends, doing dinner on
Friday nights, and drinking cups of coffee on Saturday mornings poking
and prodding for answers to this same question about men and marriage.
In one sense, answers are out there. Actually, many people who ask the
question already have answers in mind. Mary, my homeless friend,
immediately attributed my singleness to a lack of desire. And the board
member answered his own question with a rhetorical "No guy has been good
enough yet?" I'm not sure if he meant that objectively or was implying
something about my subjective judgment. For I have been told by numerous
folks that perhaps I'm too something.
The blank has been filled in with "picky," "eager," "real," "scared,"
and "threatening." I suppose all of those things probably have some
grain of truth. My very down-to-earth hairstylist, Jackie, once
commented, lowering and pointing her shears like a therapist with
reading glasses, "Look. You're really into the God thing. If you're
gonna find a man, he's gotta be into the God thing too. Cuz no guy is
gonna want to compete with God."
Dr. Jackie was insightful. Maybe the "God thing"
has gotten in the way.
Ironically, by the time I graduated from college, I had my own
back-of-the-mind explanation for unmarried women over thirty. With nuns
and wealthy heiresses as possible exceptions, the reasons seemed clear:
Those women were either unusually unattractive, had issues with their
fathers, or were gay. Where my conclusions came from, I'm not exactly
sure. But you can imagine why I felt derailed when, as I neared the end
of my twenty-ninth year, that dear woman held my hands and asked me why
I wasn't married. What was I really going to say? "I'm not sure, but I
guess it must be because I am ugly, have issues with my dad, or am gay."
I don't think any of this back-of-the-mind thinking is atypical. Libby,
a single, forty-year-old friend, laughingly recounted a recent
conversation with a twenty-one-year-old male friend of hers. (Note:
Libby has modeled, is straight, and has normal father issues.) When she
was talking with this young college guy about the recent engagement of a
mutual twenty-something friend, the guy declared with a smile of knowing
authority, "Well, Libby, it was inevitable that Kristen would get
engaged; she's so great!" Of course, the message that he didn't even
hear himself sending to Libby was clear: If A equals B (great women like
Kristen inevitably get engaged), then unfortunately, "Not B" equals "Not
A." In other words, unmarried women—such as Libby—must be lacking
It seems that no matter where you turn—to a third grader, a homeless
woman, an esteemed and gifted board member, a college guy, a nurturing
mother-type, or perhaps even yourself, the answer to the question "Why
aren't you married?" often boils down to the same thing: It's probably
your issue. Now occasionally some wise older married man will shake his
head, roll his eyes, and offer with an exasperated sigh, "What's wrong
with guys today? You are such a catch. They're all idiots." Or as a
loving girlfriend once said to Libby, "You know, I have a beef with God
about his not bringing you a husband!" In other words, the locus of
responsibility does sometimes shift away from the single woman and her
perhaps unidentifiable flaw.
As an aside, I've often wondered if straight, attractive, single women
with an unfulfilled desire for marriage scare people. I told one friend
that a weekend spent as the only unmarried bridesmaid in a wedding felt
something akin to being plopped down naked with my upper-leg cellulite
and stomach rolls on public display. Sure, everyone has some fat they
wish would melt away, but mine was impossible to hide. And the sight
seemed to cause a quizzical, slightly disturbed shock among otherwise
gracious people. Picture crinkled noses, furrowed brows, and awkward
silences. Perhaps straight, attractive, single women with an unfulfilled
desire for marriage are an awkward reminder that all is not right with
the world. And that's a bit of a conversation killer at a wedding.
Of course, some women do not want to get married. One friend of mine
said candidly, "As I grew up, I could never see myself married. I had
too many other things I wanted to do and be about." Fair enough. When
asked, "Why aren't you married?" her reply is simple: "I've never been
that interested in marriage." There are decidedly many meaningful things
into which a woman can pour herself besides a husband and children. A
woman's freedom to make this decision is one of the great and
unprecedented privileges of living in the West today. But it seems like
most single women I've known, somewhere between the ages of twenty-eight
and thirty-two, if not before, start asking the
why question and grope—some
more doggedly than others—for answers. So we are brought full circle to
the girlfriends' coffee klatch.
At the end of the day, you and your friends might approach the question
from a hundred different angles. You can evaluate men and the reasons
for their passivity, their seeming crises of personal authority, and
their assorted fears. You can analyze the divorce culture and how it has
damaged and scared many younger people. You can investigate how the
freedom (and sometimes compulsion) for women to have careers has changed
how the genders perceive and relate to one another. You can get a
therapist and explore your own history, issues, desires, and
expectations around men, marriage, sexuality, intimacy, etc. You can
stand on a mountaintop and beg with a guttural yell for God's
explanation. You can take a long, hard look at your dress size, body
language, calendar, and social skills. And if you are not too utterly
exhausted after all of this, you can make some changes. Get out more,
update your hairstyle, practice being a little more vulnerable, steward
your sexual wares more wisely, pray more, and quite possibly, genuinely
enjoy the growth and change.
Still, all the analysis and restructuring in the world might not get you
what you want, including a satisfying answer to the
why question. I mean, you
might come to understand what has wrought the four Bostons full of
single women. You may grow to understand why it would have been a total
disaster for you to end up with Dave or Eddie or whomever. You might
even discover that your singleness has nothing to do with your relative
greatness or lack thereof. But you still might not know why
you are single or why your
best friend or younger sister isn't living in the "four Bostons" with
you. You might understand that the world is fallen and often unfair, but
that's still not the kind of answer that warms you on a lonely Saturday
night. And if in your heart of hearts you still yearn to be married or
have a family, this hard mystery lives, eats, and sleeps with you.
A few years ago, I was in Vancouver, Canada, for a work-related
conference. I took the occasion to spend one free evening with an older
Scottish couple, Jim and Rita Houston, with whom I had lived while in
graduate school. Though we hadn't kept up since then, I always had a
warm spot in my heart for them, built on fond memories of Sunday
afternoon family lunches (five students lived with the Houstons at the
time), games of Scrabble in front of the fire, and incisive comments
from each of them. Mrs. Houston was a practical, matter-of-fact woman:
"Dearie, it's better to be single and wish you were married than to be
married and wish you were single!" She had a good point. Dr. Houston,
who looked like a clean-cut, twinkly-eyed Santa Claus, was a professor
of spiritual theology at the college. His words: "As you grow, you will
discover that your personhood is more important than your personality."
I always nodded with a twenty-three-year-old's faith that one day I'd
actually know what he was talking about.
Thirteen years later, I was once again in their home, eating Scottish
food and playing Scrabble. During the evening, we chatted about my work,
mutual friends, our families, and the direction that the college was
going. To my surprise and perhaps relief, nobody mentioned my marital
status, and the conversation remained pleasant and easy. Then, at a
reasonable hour (the Houstons were now both in their mid to upper
seventies), Dr. Houston suggested he drive me back to my hotel. Mrs.
Houston and I bid each other good-bye.
I can't remember what we were discussing at the moment, but as we moved
through the numbered streets, Dr. Houston quietly spoke. "You've
suffered much being single." I couldn't tell if he was asking me or
telling me. "Um, well, um, well … I …" I stammered like a person who'd
just gotten a wave of indigestion. In fact, that word
suffered had hit something in my guts. "I am sorry," he said
in the silence.
It was strange, his use of the word
suffer. It seemed a bit dramatic. I mean, isn't suffering
when you have a horrible disease, lose a family member in a car wreck,
or starve in a famine? Isn't that what it is to
really suffer? I decided to
shake it off. More silence. Then he continued. "Your mother, too; she
has suffered in your singleness." Now he was getting in my business. I
watched the storefronts and their neon signs whiz by in a blur as we
drove through downtown Vancouver; I was ready to be at the hotel. I
tightened my stomach, trying to muffle the chord his words had struck.
"Well, yeah, I think it was really hard on her at first, because it
messed up her vision of her daughter's ideal life. And then I think her
sadness switched to just being disappointed on my behalf, you know, like
any mom would be sad to see her daughter's desires go unmet." And then I
quickly added—as if to say, But let's
not get all grim about this; you know there is a silver lining in the
cloud—"But I think it has made me appreciate my parents more
and grow closer to them than I otherwise would have."
"Yes, yes," he quietly concurred. "Of course that's good." He was
looking at the road through the windshield, and I now joined him,
staring straight ahead. Come on,
hotel. "The question, of course," he continued, "is
how will you suffer? Will you
suffer with bitterness or will you suffer prophetically?"
O Lord, I don't like how this sounds. "You see, your
generation is experiencing the fallout of a culture profoundly confused
about who God is and therefore about what it is to be human and what it
is to love. Your relational disappointments and suffering are, sadly,
emblematic of the age."
It suddenly seemed like he was speaking from a vantage point I didn't
want to share. I didn't want to be the poster child for some cosmic
cultural crisis. I wanted a manageable, fixable problem. "Well, I have
tried to work on any issues I might have."
"Yes, yes," he gently agreed without dropping the matter, "though I
imagine that has only made things worse. You've kept growing, and most
of the men around you have not. So the gap and perhaps the sense of
suffering from isolation get greater."
Please God, get me to the hotel quickly.
Suddenly, it appeared—a seeming sanctuary—and we pulled into the
driveway. Finally. He
turned now to look at me. I tried to smile an
oh yes—emblematic of the age—what a
shame—oh well, whatever—I'm sure the right guy will come along for me
shortly—thanks for dinner kind of smile. He looked at me
pleasantly, as if patiently waiting for my internal monologue to cease.
Then, with more compassion than I wanted for a level of suffering and
vision that I decidedly did not want, he looked at me with the kind of
warmth that burns away every fiber of defense standing between me and
the pain of an unanswered why.
"Connally, like the prophets of old, take the pain—which is also the
pain of this culture—to the Lord. Seek his heart of love and direction
for yourself and for others." He paused, and in spite of my tightest
belly and my most clenched jaw, his words got in and tears quietly
spilled out. "Perhaps I can pray for you now?" he suggested.
He prayed. I gave him a quick
hug, thanked him for dinner, and tried to hop merrily out of the car.
(Sometimes I'm ridiculous about not wanting to cry in public.) I smiled
dimly at a few colleagues lingering in the hotel lobby and headed
straight for my room. By the time I got to my floor, the tears were
gushing. I think I spent the rest of that night in quasi-escape mode. I
on my laptop DVD player, the high drama of the movie giving me an outlet
for the inarticulate pathos churned up in me.
In retrospect, it was strange what that conversation with Dr. Houston
did to and for me. Somehow, in linking the word "suffer" to my
unintentionally single state, he legitimized something at work in my
guts, some pain that I wanted to avoid for very good reasons, like:
nothing is more depressing than some old, whiny, lonely spinster; it
could be worse (I could be married and wish I weren't); it's not as if
there have been no men whatsoever—it has been my choice to say no to a
few along the way; and lastly, what would be the point of going
there? To sit around and
bellyache? But in calling it "suffering," he was legitimizing a part of
me that did ache at sleeping alone every night. And the simple
acknowledgment—having the ache compassionately seen and known by
another—did its own quiet, little miracle. Something in my guts
More than that, however, Dr. Houston's words flipped my
why question on its head and
left me asking, What now? How then
should I live? I wasn't sure what living prophetically meant
(images of wild-haired, wide-eyed, angry men came to mind), but I knew
at minimum it meant living in the truth. It meant admitting that the
confusion plaguing me (and so many of the men and women around me) was
real and not easily navigated. It meant owning my unmet desires and the
related disappointment. And it also meant holding on to and holding up
the goodness and the realness of God in the midst of it. Dr. Houston's
words about suffering prophetically had felt like a gut-level punch. But
in reality, they were more like the compassion-induced Heimlich
maneuver, freeing me to live.
It is worth considering this question of
How then should I live? I'm not talking about asking
yourself, How then should I get a
man? Or How then should I
explain my singleness? Or even
How then should I prepare for life
alone? Those questions have some merit, but they are
secondary. Rather, I'm talking about asking for your eyes to be opened
to see what's real and then learning how to move forward in reality,
even if it's wading one step at a time through periodic waves of tears.
Your steps will likely be different from mine or from any of the other
four-Boston residents. They could lead anywhere—to quiet, hidden, heart
places or to large, dramatic, public stages. To marriage, to a single
life. To home ownership, to a rented apartment. To a meaning-filled
career or "just a job" that pays the bills. Most recently, my steps have
led me to risk entrusting my Saturday nights to God. It might sound like
a really small example, but it's one of the toughest things in the world
for me. Just combine an extrovert hungry for intimacy with a lot of
songs running around in her head about Saturday nights—there are a lot
out there—and the outcome is obvious. She can be one lonely and
dissatisfied chick on the weekends. So instead of numbing out, I'm
asking God to step into my Saturday night scene. I have no idea where
that request will lead. But I'm up for the adventure.
Last spring I was in Colorado for another conference. I spent one lunch
hour with Esther, a wise and beautiful African woman, who in her
fifties, is still single. She is the sort of woman whose eyes make me
want to trade secrets. Our conversation meandered from work to men.
"Esther," I asked, "do you think you've been called to be single?" She
sat, quiet, and looked at me with one of those Dr. Houston kind of looks
(maybe there was something similar in the water of Scotland and Kenya
that each of these two drank growing up). With a lilt in her voice she
said, "Yes, Connally, for today I am called to be single. I cannot say
For today I am called
to be single. I cannot say about tomorrow.
That is how I want to live: not anxiously asking why but simply looking
for what is supposed to be for today. I think of the story about Jesus
with the man who was born blind. Jesus' disciples were concerned with
figuring out why this man was blind—whose issue was to blame, so to
speak. "Who," they wanted to know, "sinned … causing him to be born
blind?" Jesus' response always amazes me: "You're asking the wrong
question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such
cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do."ii Or as
another version puts it, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. …
This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."iii
And then Jesus demonstrated that in fact God is at work today; he
miraculously healed the guy.
Sometimes I think that one of the primary works God has done in my life
is to tenderize and enrich my heart through the "Why aren't I married?"
struggle—the suffering I still hesitate to call by that name for fear of
others rolling their eyes. But instead of the disappointment leaving me
a cold, bitter, angry wench or a hotly desperate man-eater, it's wrought
a heart more capable of and committed to giving and receiving love.
That, in my estimation, is miracle-level material. And though anything
might happen tomorrow, that is the work of God I've seen today.
Given all this, wouldn't it be something if the next time someone asked
you, "So, why aren't you married?" you paused, looked him or her in the
eye, and then quietly replied, "Honestly, the bottom line is pretty
simple. The reason I'm not married is so that today the work of God
might be displayed in my life."
That would be quite the answer. It wouldn't be a snappy one, but it just
might be the truth.