Defying the Marriage Culture

Note: For those of you following the “Keith Saga”, see the end of this post. Because stories.

‘Nother Note: Some of this will be repetitive to those of you who’ve been around here a while. Repetition is good for the brain. 


It’s going to take me a while to get everything off my chest in regards to singlehood and marriage. Part of the issue is that I’m surrounded by these topics; there’s a whole culture of marriage in my social circles. We are Baptists, after all.

So here’s a disclaimer before I dive in. I know I’ve made a note like this before, but I’ll say it again:

I am not against marriage. I am not a feminist. I fully believe that the highest calling for a godly lady is that of helpmeet and mother. I have great respect for the women who fulfill that calling. Having never worn either of those hats, I can only guess at how trying, challenging, and rewarding both of those hats are to wear.

‘K? ‘K. Moving on.

I can see, considering the facts in the above disclaimer, how we developed this culture where marriage is central. Paul himself compares our spiritual relationship with Christ to marriage; Israel is God’s Bride. And for illustrative purposes, that works very well. Those are concepts most of us can grasp, at least basically, without trouble.

But there are aspects of this marriage culture that make me cringe.

Back in school, both middle and high, while I sat under the teaching of my youth pastor and other godly men, very regularly phrases like these would come up: “Girls, when you get married….”; “Guys, this is the kind of wife you want…”; “Girls, your husband may feel called to the ministry…” If I posted on social media about making chili, learning to sew a pillow case, or babysitting, somewhere, someone would respond with, “Look at you, learning to be a helpmeet!”  Good grief, for about a year Andrea conducted a group at her home centered around young women learning valuable life skills – life skills a dutiful wife and mother needs.

We were told that a spouse would complete us, that marriage was fulfilling, that somewhere God had put a life partner who would somehow find their way to us and we could embark upon this daring adventure together, the way we couldn’t expect to on our own. If Matt had his way, our prospective partner would come from among the ranks of fellow youth groupers.

We learned to shape our identities around that vague, intangible future spouse. We developed the sense that life didn’t really begin until marriage. (And what teenaged Baptist girl didn’t plan her weddings and write up long lists of qualities required of her future husband? It was encouraged.) After all: school, more school, marriage, children, retirement. That’s how the world turns, right? But amid all of their well-intentioned life advice and training, no one told us what to do in the down time between being a child and getting married.

No one told us what to do if our Mr./Mrs. Right didn’t show at all.

I know someone is thinking it: “Quit worrying, Phoebe. You’re only 22. You have plenty of time. You’ll be married before you know it.

Yeah, maybe. My mother tells me almost daily that I’m overreacting. For all I know, I’ll be in a relationship next month and by this time next year I’ll be married and pregnant. If you want to dwell on that little puff of sun-warmed Cloud 9, make yourself comfortable.

But there is one person those godly men always avoided looking at whenever they brought up the seemingly inevitable fact of marriage: Deb.

Deb is 10 years older than me. She, too, was raised to believe that someday she would be married. So she waited. She went to college, she learned her skills, and still no husband. Instead of twiddling her thumbs, however, she got a job, got her own apartment, and threw herself into the thick of our church’s ministries. (And, for the most part, ignored Matt and Pastor when they said, “There’s a really special guy out there for you. Don’t worry; we’ll track him down.”)

It’s weird to think that, about the time I was joining the youth group, Deb was my age. She was still figuring it out and, near as I can guess, still waiting for Mr. Right. But she wasn’t useless. She kept active. She invested herself. She never slowed down.

I’ve mentioned before about the concept in I Kissed Dating Good-bye which has stuck with me all of these years: singlehood is not a transitional period, but a stage of life in itself. For some people, it’s where we settle to complete our life’s work, for whatever reason.

And there is no shame in that.

But alongside the marriage culture, a stigma has developed about people who are content to remain single, or who are single against their wishes: something must be wrong with you.

Jo and I ask each other all of the time what’s wrong with us. Jo jokes about having a “reasons I’m single” list, which includes her style of sarcasm and her habit of randomly screaming as the mood takes her. “It’s because I have such a mean resting face,” she’ll say. “I need to work on that. I look ready to kill somebody.”

Though I’ve come to terms with my singlehood and have determined to not waste this time I’m given, I ask myself the same questions. I’m nice enough. I know how to conduct myself in society. I have a decent smile, and I try to be polite. I’m intelligent. And look at that pie! It’s beautiful. So where are you, husband?

I’m starting to detect a hint of something like regret from the old ladies who pat my cheek and tell me I’m beautiful. It’s like they just manage to keep from sighing or clicking their tongues. What a pity. She’s wasted as a single woman. Perhaps they even send up a prayer to God to look in on Mr. Right and see what’s keeping him, because he’s missing out. Heaven forbid one of the Morryce girls becomes “the ones that got away”. That can’t be in God’s will.

Um, have any of you read I Corinthians 7:8&9? Paul didn’t write his epistles as the whim took him.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with “preparing to be a helpmeet”; not at its core, because at its core all girls are learning is how to survive. They are learning how to keep a home, how to cook healthy (or at least hearty) food, how to maintain a garden, how to balance a checkbook. But whereas guys are told, “These are useful skills,” girls are told, “These skills will make you a valuable catch for godly men.” We aren’t often told to simply maintain healthy lifestyle habits; we are told that our bodies will one day carry children and the healthier we as their caretakers are, the healthier they will be.

But check this: girls – young women – can be complete without ever getting married. Their better half is not found in a human as fallible and flawed as they.*

Yeah, that’s God’s role.

Here’s a radical notion. (Try not to faint.): Teach girls useful life skills for the sake of having useful life skills. Tell them they need these skills so they can be effective servants for their Creator. Show them how these skills will open doors to reaching souls for Christ; to ministering to their fellow saints; to being lights in a darkling world. Tell them these skills – cooking, gardening, cleaning, art, music, changing tires, cutting hair, speaking in public, memorizing scripture, understanding the workings of sound systems, being well-educated – will make them limitless. It will teach them their own value and strength. Help them understand that their purpose in life is to live it well, to live it for God’s glory, single or married.

If we put an emphasis on God instead of a husband, girls will learn to trust in and rely on our infinite God instead of finite humans.

How’s that for radical?

Just recently my pastor made an observation: often, members of our church who just graduated, just got married, or just had a child will wander away. They will step down from the goods works they’ve been doing. They’ll all-but (or up to) disappear from the church. I have a theory about why that is: we are not taught how to live after the milestones. I just graduated: now what? I got married! What comes next?

My personal goal in this season of life is to be resourceful. I want to shore up tools so that when God asks me to move, I won’t have any excuse to hesitate. If a man enters the picture in the midst of this season, in the next stage of my life, or never, I don’t want it to throw me off my rhythm. I want to be so secure in my ultimate role as a willing vessel for God’s glory – so set with Him as my center of gravity – that nothing short of eternity can rock me off course.

I’m not saying stop teaching young people about how to live when they grow up, get married, and have children. We do still need to understand those things. We still need to learn about the practical side of life. Any advice experienced authority figures can provide is very helpful, even if we don’t really pay attention at the time. Trust me, we’ll remember (most of it).

That said, don’t make marriage a given. Don’t tell us, “It’s going to happen, so here’s what you do when it does.” Tell us, “If you get married one day, this will be useful.” A lot of that advice can be equally useful to perpetual singles. Everyone needs to understand the Bible, how to balance a checkbook, and what to do if a child gets a fever. Just like it isn’t a given that everyone will become a missionary, a youth worker, or a teacher, yet we still learn about those roles. It still helps to understand about them.

Yes, I want to grow into a young woman who is suitable for marriage – trained, resourceful, capable, and confident. But what makes me suitable for marriage also makes me suitable for life in general. I am called to live, not to get married.


 

And now for another episode of “The Keith Saga”. (Tell me I’m obsessed. Do it.)

The scene: Bible study. We’re missing some regulars, which has thrown everything out of whack. In keeping with Matt’s challenge, I decide to sit at the kitchen table instead of the one in the dining room.

Naturally, I regret my choice.

From my seat I can just see Calli at her usual place at the dining table. Across from her, far from his usual place, is Keith.

To think, I text her, I could have sat at the dining table tonight!

Calli has been very active in this saga. She’s become my Keith-radar.**

Eventually my dinner companions become unbearable and I slip away to try my luck at the other table. There’s a seat next to Calli at which she is waving frantically, so I slide into it.

Keith, having finished his dinner, has moved to stand by the sliding door leading to the deck. He isn’t engaged in conversation with anyone, but is just taking in the scene. (And I have to wonder if that’s what I look like when I’m absorbing the world around me. And then my brain says, “You’d make the quirkiest couple.” Shut up.)

Supper is breakfast food, which includes orange juice. Being a fan of citrus, I decide to help myself to a cup. The drink table is in a corner of the dining room, so I make my way over, passing Keith as I do.

A moment later (before I’ve even picked up my cup) Keith appears.

Barely glancing up before I go back to removing the seal on the o.j. jug, I ask, “Do you want some orange juice?”

Reaching for his own cup, he says, “Yes.”

Wow. A word.

Nodding, I fill the cup in my hands. He offers the one he’s grabbed and I trade it for the one I just poured.

“Thank you,” he says, and leaves.

Three words! Not quite in a row, but in the space of 30 seconds!

I pour my o.j. and go hunting for Jo to giggle about it with her like sisters do. Of course she’s surrounded by people in the kitchen, so all I can manage is, “Three whole words!” Naturally, this makes no sense to her, and she’s too distracted to try understanding.

As I’m settling back into my seat, that obnoxious part of my brain that’s dosed up on too much P&P plays a scene from the book: Lizzie pouring out tea and coffee after dinner while Mr. Darcy hovers nearby, not saying a word but sending very significant vibes.

Doesn’t matter that this particular scene in the book takes place after Darcy has proposed. Nor does it matter that my personality type is more aligned with Charlotte than Lizzie. Semantics like that don’t matter to the subconscious.


 

*I’m starting to feel like an advocate of single Baptist girls everywhere, but I know I don’t have all the answers to this very complex subject. If you think I’m overlooking something or something I’ve said is inaccurate, or if you would just like to discuss singlehood and marriage in general, don’t hesitate to shoot me a comment!

**Disclaimer (I’m doing this a lot): I have nothing personal against Keith, outside of the fact that he is apparently lacking in the basics of making eye contact and small talk. But this blog is about my life, and the dude keeps coming up, and it makes for a good story. Go ahead and judge.

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