Our culture is obsessed with relationships. I’ve been in youth ministry for years, and I wish I could take back every time I asked a young boy, “So, you got a girlfriend yet?” or a young girl, “Do you like someone right now?” Now, I definitely don’t want to over-correct and send a naive and prudish message that those kinds of discussions are inappropriate in church. That belief causes us to fail our young people so badly by refusing them a safe space to talk about their romantic relationships, which are almost inevitable. But I also don’t want to reinforce the assumption that our young people need to have a crush on someone to be functional.
This obsession only gets worse as we get older, and here I am not pointing the finger at others any more than myself. We’re always asking about who is dating who, always brainstorming how we can set up our friends with each other, always match-making and “shipping” people* in our heads and in our gossip circles. Crushes, dating, relationships, marriage – these are realities of life, and I don’t think for a second that denying or ignoring them is a healthy thing. But why do we have to be so obsessed?
Several years ago, I moved from my childhood home in New Hampshire to attend a seminary in Illinois. I spent nearly a year recovering from what had been a devastating breakup that happened only a few months before the move, a breakup that happened just as I was making plans to propose. It was around this time that I began really diving into the ideas that would eventually be printed on these pages. Probably because I was thinking so deeply in this area, I became very sensitive to the fact that every time I came home, one of the very first questions nearly everyone seemed to ask was, “So, is there a lady in your life?” “Have you found a girlfriend yet?” “Are you seeing anyone?” If you’re single, you know this litany of questions from family reunions and catching up with old friends.
When I say I became sensitive to these questions, I don’t mean to say that they offended me or hurt me. Annoyed me a little bit for sure, but the annoyance came not from the well-meaning people who were asking but from the cultural obsession that caused these questions to be normal. “Why,” I asked myself, “does everyone have to assume that my top priority is finding a woman I can wed, bed, and impregnate?” What about my schooling, my ministry, or even my own mental health, which was not great after a major breakup and a cross-country move!
I asked this very question from the pulpit one time during a trip back home when I was able to be a guest preacher at my church in New Hampshire. I talked about the amazing blessings and challenges of singleness. I talked about vibrant singleness as an opportunity for counter-cultural witness to my faith. And I put the question before them: “Why do all of you assume that getting married is my first priority? If you don’t, then why is it always one of the first questions you ask?”
I have a great relationship with my church community, and I didn’t say these words in anger or frustration, but I did want to challenge the status quo. And challenge it I did. I received so much excellent feedback from that sermon. From singles who were happy to be affirmed. From married people who encouraged me and felt challenged to support their other single friends in new ways, and from so many people who really hadn’t given the idea of singleness much thought before.
Truth: Making the search for romance your top priority is counter-productive
For the single person reading this who really does want to find a partner, I hope that the previous three articles in this series have given you some good things to think about to prevent the anxious and unhealthy obsession with “finding someone.” They certainly did in my own story. I also hope you don’t walk away feeling like I’m saying the desire to find someone is a bad thing. But for me, it was so freeing to discover that I could focus on the things I was doing with my life as valuable and important without feeling that somehow I was failing by not prioritizing a search for romance.
If you make marriage and starting a family your first priority, even your obsession, you are only hurting yourself.
This truth was put in technicolor for me during an interaction with, of all people, one of my seminary professors. A few months after my graduation, I met with Dr. Fleagle to catch up and to tell her about my trip to Lebanon to work with Syrian refugees over the summer. (Actually, the main purpose of the meeting was about an audit of my internship hours, but that part was much less interesting.) I explained how great the trip was, how I fell in love with the kids, how I felt a very unique connection to the ministry, how our organization had decided to partner with them, and how I felt the work being done in Lebanon shows what the Church is really meant to be. Then I shared with her what I had only told a handful of people at that time: I know I’m supposed to go back. (Now, 18 months later, I actually live and work there.
Lastly, I told Dr. Fleagle about how ironic it was that children’s ministry had always been something I avoided like the plague. Young kids usually annoyed me, and I kept them at a distance. (The fact that working with middle schoolers was my ministry of choice only made people think I was even more crazy.) But I shared with her how much God had been changing my heart over the previous year through various ministry opportunities, including getting thrown into being a pre-school team lead for a large VBS, which at first terrified me. My heart had so transformed to the point that I was now seriously considering going to work teaching young children from ages 6-12.
Now, Dr. Fleagle is an amazing woman who has helped me tremendously and for whom I have the highest respect, so I don’t want to sully her good name, but I was a bit disappointed by one part of her response. While she was telling me how exciting this all sounded, at one point she commented, “Besides, this will be great training for when you have children of your own.”
Yikes. Why would this be one of the first benefits that comes to mind, even to a pastoral care and counseling instructor with years of experience? This small comment, which was said out of a generous heart and with wonderful intentions, betrayed the false cultural belief that marriage should be one of my top priorities. I wasn’t angry with her at all. But something stuck out from this interaction: that one of her first thoughts (not exactly the first, thank God) about this ministry opportunity and testimony of God’s work in my life was that it should be viewed as a “preparation” and “training” for having biological children.
I want to say this loud and clear: The assumption that everything I do has to be connected with preparation for marriage and children unintentionally devalues everything I am doing with my life.
Now, I’m not saying that Dr. Fleagle’s comment couldn’t be accurate. Maybe my work with children in the Middle East will be good preparation for having my own children. But I truly believe that if you make marriage and starting a family your first priority, even your obsession, you are only hurting yourself.
First, obsessing over getting into a relationship stunts our spiritual growth. It’s hard to grow in the current stage of life when your top priority is moving into a different stage. When you view your years of singleness as no more than a waiting period, you will forfeit so much opportunity to grow. As we have already seen, pursuing a whole, healthy, and mature life as a single person is a great blessing. And without this pursuit, you are not doing much to prepare yourself for the marriage you want!
Second, obsessing over finding someone stunts our relational growth. Although this isn’t always the case, it can be difficult to really invest in deep friendships and find the intimacy we need in our lives when our top priority is to be in a relationship. It especially hinders our ability to have good friendships with the opposite sex, since we are buying in to the way our culture over-sexualizes all male-female relationships so that any close friendship – or even just fun interaction – raises eyebrows and starts gossip.
And finally, obsessing over finding a partner sets us up for failure in actually doing that well. The more desperately we grasp at finding someone, usually because of the false belief that singles cannot be complete people, the more likely we are to cloud our judgment and move forward, sexually or emotionally, in relationships that aren’t actually healthy.
It’s not that the search for a partner can’t be a priority, even a high priority. It’s not wrong to desire it. But if we care at all about becoming mature, healthy, well-adjusted people, we have to accept that making the search for romance our number one priority is counter-productive.
*”Shipping” is a term for setting up two people we want to be together in our own heads, then trying to make it happen in any way possible.
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