So, why aren't you married?

February 27, 2006

by Conally Gilliam
Christianity Today

During his middle school years, my older brother subscribed to a humorous cartoon periodical called Mad Magazine. 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!"

Sarcasm 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 independent!"

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 greatness.

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 watched Braveheart 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 unclenched.

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 about tomorrow."

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.