Sunday, May 21, 2017

On Being Single and the Marriage Assumption

Even as much as the legitimization of the diversification of individual development, relational development, and family formation has entered into American culture, the marriage assumption continues to hold great sway. The marriage assumption is an intergenerational process, religious process, cultural process, and economic process that many people between the ages of 20 and 40+ are almost required to navigate so long as they remain unmarried.
In short, with a few exceptions, there are few pathways for being single that appear legitimate. The marriage assumption seems to require families, churches, and society to be anxious until the single person gets married. Once the single person person gets married, everyone (usually highlighted in family and in church) can finally take a sigh of relief, clap the dust off their hands and say "our work is done here." It is as if the final task for parenting, for socialization at church, and for broader cultural structures, pronounces marriage as ultimate goal. Marriage crowns the adult ascent to total and complete legitimization.
For the person heading into their 30's without being married, family, church and culture seem poised to leverage energy and resources to help solve the singleness problem.
By the time someone enters their 40's without being married, it is as if family, church, and culture looks at them holding back the tears trying not to say, "How have we failed you?"
By the time someone enters into their 50's without being married, family, church, and society just hopes they are a viable economic unit with some spoken and a lot of unspoken regret.
What is ironic about the marriage assumption is that it assigns the problem of developmental legitimacy to the unmarried individual when the reality is that these institutions themselves are finding it difficult to see themselves as legitimate while the marriage assumption is being broken.
The question that social systems must face is this: Can a family, a church, and even a culture that depends heavily on the marriage assumption broaden its identity allow for legitimate singleness? Can the structure itself survive without the marriage assumption? Can social structures shift from the marriage assumption to broad and diverse acceptance?
If individuals who are single and social structures that have singles in them want to survive together in healthy ways, there needs to be legitimate ways for single people to be single and legitimate ways for a social structure to be sustained where people who are single have meaningful and legitimate status.
One way to help individuals and social structures broaden their scope of legitimate ways of being, narratives for singleness legitimacy must exist and be widely accepted.
Here I offer 4 simple narratives of singleness. These are by no means that end of the matter, but hopefully a way for a conversation to start in some areas where it is stuck inside the marriage assumption. I want these to offer some relief for people who are single and are tired of constantly having to outflank the marriage assumption. I want these to be grist for families, churches, and other social systems to think through in order to become self-aware of their systemic and perhaps invisible support for the marriage assumption, but also to broaden their scope and perhaps rewrite some unwritten rules. Here goes:
Narrative #1: Single For A Reason:
This narrative for singleness highlights the need for a person to dive into their vocation, career, or service in ways that are incompatible with marriage. This person realizes that they may owe the world something, but that thing is not marriage. It is not that this is a narrative of marital incompetence, but rather of choice. This person resolves that the best things they have to offer the world are not found in marriage, but rather in some other vocation that marriage would only diminish.
Narrative #2: Single For A Mission:
This form of singleness can be due to a specific ministry or service call from God, perhaps like the Apostle Paul. Mother Teresa never married and gave her life to the sick and dying in Calcutta. This form of singleness is because there is a mission so great and so necessary to accomplish that being married would absorb too much energy and the mission would never make it. There are people who are clergy, nuns, monks, and many non-clergy people who determine that they simply must respond to God giving their everything to the mission or cause.
Narrative #3: Single Forever:
This form of singleness is a choice to be single, but not necessarily due to a specific mission like Mother Teresa or for any vocation, but rather because it is the preference of the individual. There might be some reason, but there might not be. It does not have to be justified to the world.
Narrative #4: Single For Now:
This form of singleness is for a season or time period. It could be to accomplish something in life that is time limited (e.g. a two year mission) or to become mature enough to marry or perhaps to heal over some past experience. It could be an effort to become financially more stable or to find oneself. It is understood that whenever whatever needed to be accomplished is accomplished, then marriage is available. This is a way of being single that seeks growth, healing, and improvement while keeping marriage open as a possible, but not determined, future.
There are certainly more narratives that exist, but these are four legitimate ways to be single.
One final note: I am a Christian who loves the church and believes that Jesus started a very good thing in the church. It has so much potential to bring about peace and justice in this world. With that in mind, I think churches should be a social system that is the most hospitable for people who are single to be safe and accepted. The theological impulse from the singleness of the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself should be enough to push back on how fully and completely too many churches have become dependent upon the social force of the marriage assumption - often to the point of practicing a kind of marital idolatry and family idolatry that places an undue, inappropriate, and theologically bankrupt burden on people who are single. Clergy, church elders, and other religious leaders should be actively and aggressively solving for how to expand the identity of their congregations to be so safe for single people that they are not marginalized, not tolerated, but embraced as fully legitimate members who do not have a singleness problem to be solved. If their congregation is incapable of making such a change, these leaders should consider how they might start a new church where singleness is as much in its DNA as marriage.
PS: As a married man of over 20 years, a father, and a marriage and family therapist, I affirm marriage as a beautiful, meaningful, and legitimate decision for many people to make. I reject the notion that there is something wrong with someone who does not get married. Marriage can be a gift. Being single can be a gift. It is not about your status, but rather it is about who you are in that status.