Singleness: On the record

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I have never wanted to be the girl known for “singleness”. In fact, I didn’t talk about my experience much until recently, because I wasn’t sure how. I didn’t want to defend being single, because I didn’t think it was something that needed defending. That said, I wasn’t about to wave a banner and promote it either. I wondered if there was some elusive place in between, where it might be OK to be single, but also equally OK to not want to be—at the same time.

Belonging to a church community often heightened my sense of feeling misunderstood, invisible or in the “other” category, which leaves other people unsure of what to do.

Within church culture, especially, being coupled is greatly celebrated. Please don’t misunderstand me: it is worth celebrating and I am always happy to join that party—it’s the flip side that can be tough to take. The implication seems to be that anyone who isn’t coupled is in some kind of waiting room, hoping to someday join the rest of the tribe. It’s this sense of liminality that led me to do a little more investigating.

In my early thirties I went back to university to get a degree in counselling. As a side note, this was around the time when I was becoming blissfully freer of others’ perceptions of me and much more interested in how I understood myself. One assignment we were given was an invitation to explore a cultural issue in counselling. A culture I thought I might have some credibility in exploring was Adventist culture. And the issue? Singleness. Diving headfirst into the research, I found a few helpful things that now frame the way I talk about the lived experience of singleness, and how I interpret and respond when others inquire about it or confide in me.

Christian church culture has an undeniable dominant heteronormative narrative. Inherent in our biblical understanding is the belief that we are designed to be coupled and to procreate. Accompanying this belief is the idea that singleness is a linear stage of life that we should all move through (especially if we are doing the stages “right”). While research gives us several interpretive repertoires—ways we can understand and talk about singleness—let’s narrow it down to two. Singleness can be seen as an asset identity—a positive thing—or a deficit identity—a negative thing. In church culture it is largely spoken about and understood to be a deficit identity: “Single people lack something.” I acknowledge that this is often a case of unconscious bias. It’s like we have never had reason, or permission, to think about it differently. We could talk about the research and we could talk lots more about theology. However, I wonder if it might be more helpful to talk about ways we can ensure that, as church communities, we can have meaningful discourse going forward. We can begin by untangling some of the myths.

Myth #1: Single people are bad at relationships.

Being single does not equal being bad at relationships. As a single person, I have cultivated and maintained many rich, long-term relationships in my life, as have many of my closest single friends. As it turns out, when couples are formed, those skills are transferrable.

Myth #2: There is one right person for everyone.

There is no one right person for everyone. (Though if you have found someone you want to be with forever, you have total permission to feel as though that is the case!) We need to be careful not to rule out the variables of how and when people find and choose each other. Nor should we underplay the power of commitment in a relationship. Many of my coupled friends (even while happily married) reflect on how they would choose differently now. Some recount how they have met other people since committing to a relationship who they would have been well suited to. At the end of the day, we choose each other—and we do have choices.

Myth #3: You are single because you have something to work on.

The reason people are single is not because they have a fundamental problem to fix before they are allowed to be coupled. There is no destination point at which we are not continuing to be transformed by the Spirit. Some are doing that from within a committed relationship—but they didn’t get there because they received extra credit for all of the work they did earlier fixing themselves. We run into deep theological trouble when we begin to imply that we are measuring people’s faithfulness and deservedness of love by how well they have “worked on themselves”. This is not a scarcity issue. There is always enough love to go around and every person is already enough in order to receive it.

Myth #4: Singleness is inferior to coupledom.

The discourse is that single people are a “third wheel” or “left on the shelf”. But let’s not forget that couples are still made up of individuals. Hang around for long enough and you meet many coupled people who wish they were single. I have been in relationships before and had to make the sometimes-difficult choice that the relationship was not meant for a lifetime—as in, “please put me back on the shelf”. In these situations, being single again was an act of wisdom.

These are a few of the implied deficits that are part of our rhetoric and thinking. And they are unhelpful. They draw invisible lines and create categories that even the strongest single people don’t have the capacity to break down. So how do we begin to think differently about singleness? In my research, I found a quote that began this process, and strongly resonated with my experience:

“The question I’d long posed to myself—whether to be married or to be single—is a false binary. The space in which I’ve always wanted to live—indeed, where I have spent my adulthood—isn’t between those two poles, but beyond it.”—Kate Bolick.

I have hope that as a Church, we would be increasingly considerate about making space for everyone to exist in the room. Throughout my research, and having lived this reality for most of my adult years, I have come to the conclusion that the way we can do that is by embracing the ambiguity. Let’s allow ourselves to think and act outside of the binaries.

Singleness is not a stage of life or waiting room—unless of course the single person wants it to be. It depends on their individual story.

Singleness is not a cry for help—unless someone is actually asking for help. And some single people will, and that’s OK.

Singleness is not an open topic of conversation; it is sacred (like any relationship is)—unless the person indicates they are open to the conversation. As Brene Brown articulates in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, we tell our stories to those who have earned the right to hear them. [pullquote]

Every statement above contains a contradiction. This is deliberate to illustrate how damaging projections and generalisations can be and how much more helpful it is when we treat people as individuals rather than categories. Even now I am acutely aware that I cannot speak for all single people as a group. Single in your twenties is a very different experience to single in your thirties, forties and beyond. Single and never married is entirely different to post-divorce or being widowed.

Speaking of groups—and lean in because this might be my most practical advice for Adventist culture on singleness—one thing I have learned as a single person is to not conform to the “group mentality”—the idea that we only hang out with those who are like us. Single people who only hang out with singles, coupled people who only hang out with couples and families who only socialise with other families are missing the richness and diversity that can exist if we choose to spend our time with people who represent a variety of stories. Relationships grow because we care to listen to one another’s stories. How much stronger our communities would be if we made space for “the other”.

Let’s save the theological and philosophical conversation for another time. Let’s begin to look around the room and with genuine care and concern, begin to wonder: What’s their story? And then—and this is important—build the relationship that earns you the right to ask.

Keira Bullock attends Papatoetoe Adventist Community Church and works as a corporate chaplain for Sanitarium Health Food Company in New Zealand.

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