Singleness Is Hard and Problematic

How often have you heard a Christian pastor or writer tell the same sorts of negative stories about long-term singleness that they do about marriage? I rarely see any of it.

It’s very obvious that there are a lot of unhappy singles in today’s pews, and pastors are incredibly sensitized against saying things that might make them feel bad.  Or at least sensitized from saying anything bad against the single women. Pastors have no problem chastising single men.

The fact that pastors feel very comfortable punching married people in the face, but treat singles with kid gloves tells you everything you need to know about the relative conditions of these estates.

Singleness is a “Blessing”

There are countless articles written about how singleness is a gift with titles like, “Singleness as a blessing - Don’t Waste Your Singleness,” or “Six Truths of Singleness,” or even “4 Lies About Singleness.” Talking about how God is using this time to mold you for his plan. All the articles look to justify singleness or even go so far as to say Christians have an idolization of marriage.

The articles all seem to quote from scripture that singleness is a “gift”(1 Corinthians 7:7).  But they almost all leave out 1 Corinthians 7:9. That says, “it is better to be married than to burn with passion.”

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:6-9)

This is not to say that a young person would always have a significant other. The gift of singleness is good when you are young and still figuring things out. A single-life can lead to growth and a better understand and love of Jesus Christ. But a life of celibacy is difficult and it’s not what most people are called to do. It’s difficult to be one person alone in the world.

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To be clear: I’m not telling anyone how to live his or her life. It’s a free country. Whatever you want to do, do it. But I do think that pastors need to make a point of explaining the potential future consequences of life choices so that people can make informed decisions.

It’s Good to Be Married

The Institute for Family Studies put out a short pamphlet on the benefits of marriage for men. Men in first marriage have a median wealth 300% higher than a single man. Even factoring in the risk of divorce, a man who is divorced and remarried is still almost 40% richer than a single man in the United States.

On average, sex between people who are married is rated as better than sex between those who aren’t married. (As a Christian obviously, any pre-marital sex is off-limits, so this is an even bigger advantage for marriage). Also from the report: “Married people appear to manage illness better, monitor each other’s health, and adopt healthier lifestyles than do otherwise similar singles.” And “Married men experience less depression and more happiness than bachelors.” There’s other research suggesting things such as that married people live longer.

Invert these and you have the statistical negatives of singleness: you’re poorer, have worse sex, degraded health, and are more likely to be depressed. This doesn’t even begin to address the issues of being a single parent.

I can also tell you a variety of bad stories about the terrible consequences of singleness. In 2015 the New York Times ran a story about the death of George Bell, a 72-year-old never-married man who lived alone.

Once firefighters had jimmied the door that July afternoon, the police squeezed into a beaten apartment groaning with possessions, a grotesque parody of the “lived-in” condition. Clearly, its occupant had been a hoarder….It falls to the police to notify next of kin, but the neighbors did not know of any. Detectives grabbed some names and phone numbers from the apartment, called them and got nothing: The man had no wife, no siblings. The police estimate that they reach kin 85 percent of the time. They struck out with George Bell….“You can die in such anonymity in New York,” Gerard Sweeney likes to say. “We’ve had instances of people dead for months. No one finds them, no one misses them.”

This is a powerful piece that I’d encourage you to read.

Singleness with Purpose

If you are going to forgo romantic relationships do it for a temporary amount of time. Take a lesson from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:35 and “secure your undivided devotion to the lord.” Be the unmarried man in 1 Corinthians 7:32, “anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” With the absence of a dating relationship, you can now have a singleness of purpose to God. This is good in theory and might work for a limited amount of time. But it is difficult for a human being to do for a lifetime. The church has a way of overselling singleness.

Once you reach middle age, it’s easy to see the trajectory of long-term singleness is not what it’s cracked up to be when you’re younger. A single male friend in his 60s talks of the greatest regret of his life is not marrying a woman he’d dated many years ago. The female colleague who, after years of being the life of the party, told me at age 42 she never got asked out on dates anymore.

I watch on social media my single friends and see their life trajectories. In their 40s and certainly by their 50s they are now largely isolated in a world inhabited by other singles. Their photos, for example, are often of a group of their single friends at dinner.  While married friends have had kids and moved on to different parts of their lives, these people are still in many ways living life from circa age 30, played in an infinite loop.

Too many of the single men I know around my own age are overweight, play a lot of video games, presumably watch tons of porn, and seem caught in a holding pattern of simple existence. This is hardly the life of celibacy with undivided devotion to God Paul prescribes.

A recent Wall Street Journal article called “The Loneliest Generation” shows the emerging trend.

Baby boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history, and the resulting loneliness is a looming public health threat. About one in 11 Americans age 50 and older lacks a spouse, partner or living child, census figures and other research show. That amounts to about eight million people in the U.S. without close kin, the main source of companionship in old age, and their share of the population is projected to grow…“The effect of isolation is extraordinarily powerful,” says Donald Berwick, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services…The baby boomers prized individuality and generally had fewer children and ended marriages in greater numbers than previous generations. More than one in four boomers is divorced or never married, census figures show. About one in six lives alone.

More senior women than men are kinless because women’s life expectancies are nearly five years longer, at 81 years. Of Americans age 50 and over in 2016, 27% of women were widowed or never married, compared with 16% of men. Women are also less likely to cohabitate and date later in life, research shows.

Research suggests that those who are isolated are at an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia, and that social relationships influence their blood pressure and immune functioning, as well as whether people take their medications.

The Boomers were the original “Me Generation.” But subsequent generations have if anything probably enhanced their family choice trends. Whether Gen X, Millennial, or Z, you need to read about this and think about your own life trajectory and where it might be leading. As the article shows, marriage and children are far from a guarantee that you’ll be surrounded by family in your old age.

That’s why we need to give the same real talk to single people that we do to married ones. That means doing the same thing for singleness that they do for married life.

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