In a fawn-colored silk dress and up-do, a contemplative young woman sips champagne while a bridal bouquet flies over her head. As other never-married wedding-goers readily will detect, she's scrupulously ignoring this ritual reminder of an unrealized longing for marriage.

This is the photograph of Kate Bolick, 39, that runs alongside her cover story, "All the Single Ladies," in the November edition of The Atlantic. Beginning with that picture, her piece captures the anxiety of many single women as the age of first marriage continues to climb.

Those who always expected to be married by now are wondering whether to keep hoping for marriage, how to find fulfillment without it, and why relationships with men these days can be so frustrating. Rather than pointing to answers for these important questions, however, Bolick's article leads to a dead end of further disappointment and confusion.

The author is one of countless women who have struggled with the unexpected in-between of prolonged singleness. "If I stopped seeing my present life as provisional," she writes, "perhaps I'd be a little … happier." (The ellipsis is hers.)

Bolick seems to have resolved the sense of being betwixt-and-between by demoting marriage. In her book, marriage should no longer enjoy pride of place as the basic building block of society and the relationship that harmonizes the needs of men, women, and children like no other.

In other words, if experience doesn't match up to the ideal, toss out the ideal.

But should we give up on an ideal just because it hasn't worked out for us personally? That might make sense if marriage were an ideal simply because the majority, the powerful, or forces such as evolution or economics made it so. The unique status of marriage, however, is timeless. God ordained it as the basic institution for ordering human relations.

To esteem that ideal is not to dismiss singleness as second rate. Kate Bolick's hunch is right: Our current status isn't "provisional." We'll gain a better perspective on our circumstances, though, not by downgrading marriage, but by taking a higher view of what God is doing both now and in the long run. Amid the tension between circumstances today and longings unfulfilled, joy can come only from the confidence that a purposeful Author has a grand design for our lives.

Bolick writes that she aspired to wed but "spent her early 30s actively putting off marriage." Now a magazine editor as well as a writer, she walked away from a serious relationship in her late 20s after struggling with "wanting two incompatible states of being—autonomy and intimacy."

Article continues below

The quest for independence is no doubt a result of the prevailing feminist winds that carried along today's 30-somethings as we grew up amid "The Girl Project." That's the moniker Barbara Dafoe Whitehead gave the "you-go-girl" era ushered in by the 1972 enactment of Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity in education.

From Little League in the 1970s to the Citadel in the '90s, feminists have been beating down doors on behalf of girls ever since. A generation of girls happily proceeded to more and more educational and vocational achievements.

Meanwhile, it's been "a bad time to be a boy in America," as Christina Hoff Sommers wrote in "The War Against Boys," a May 2000 cover story for the very same Atlantic. With all the focus on girls, she argued, we were overlooking a crisis emerging among boys.

Fast-forward 10 years to "The End of Men," Hanna Rosin's Atlantic cover story (July/August 2010) documenting the declining circumstances of men. Her research showed men lagging behind women in a variety of education and employment indicators.

More troubling is an identity crisis that leaves men asking, "What does it mean to be a man today?" as William J. Bennett writes in his newly published The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.

Along with the sexual revolution, these cultural changes have made male-female relationships—fraught since the beginning of time—even more complicated. The path to marriage is much more difficult to discern, and clearing the way will take serious effort.

For one thing, we need male leaders to address the real challenges facing men today. It's heartening to hear—to pull examples from just the past few days—voices like Bennett's and Kevin DeYoung's engaging that dialogue.

For our part as single women, we help shape the climate in which that conversation takes place. If delayed marriage tempts us to give up on the ideal and unmet expectations challenge our sense of fulfillment, frustrations with men tempt us to retrench in the storied battle between the sexes. Antagonism expressed in power struggle for too long has been the default perspective.

Our Christian brothers are our co-heirs of the kingdom as well as co-victims of the chaos after feminism, the sexual revolution, and all the other changes of recent decades. We all are confused, carry baggage, and make missteps.

That calls for a charitable spirit and mutual respect. Rather than viewing the opposite sex through the fog of cultural stereotypes, we need to appreciate one another for the unique individuals God has made us to be.

Article continues below

Whether in friendships or romantic relationships, our goal should be to help the other pursue the personal callings God has given each of us. All the while, our shared first call is to glorify and enjoy He who is the Bright Morning Star, still fixed amid our perfect storm of cultural change.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.

Related Elsewhere:

Marshall also discussed The Atlantic story this week at National Review Online.

Her.meneutics, Christianity Today's blog for women, regularly addresses singleness, marriage, and related issues.