Dear Mary Beth,
I just can’t imagine the emotional pain that people experience after searching for a spouse for 25 or more years. They have seen all of their friends get married, but they are still single. I’ll admit, the prospect of spending the next decades of my life without a family of my own scares me a little. Can you suggest ways that you coped with it, to further strengthen my current position of not being depressed from it, or point me to an article on here that talks about it?
— Looking Ahead
You didn’t write to me initially, but the good folks at the CatholicMatch Institute asked me to respond to you. I can give you an article that talks about your fears, but I can also give you a living, breathing example … me.
I had my first date at age 16—I’ll be 51 soon. I’ve never been married. So I passed up your 25 year milestone quite a few years ago. I’ve seen most (not all) of my friends get married. And I’ve lived my entire adult life without a “family of my own.”
I am your worst nightmare. Or, at least, my life reflects a path that “scares you a little.”
And I’m here to tell you that it’s really not so bad.
First, the article: For more on my specific story, and how I’ve “coped” with this vast span of unmarried years, read this.
Now, let’s focus on you, a young professional who wants to get married and is a little unsettled at the possibility, however remote at this point, that it may not happen. And, while we’re at it, let’s pull in “Hurting” from last month’s column, who in part asked a very similar question (“Why Don’t I Feel at Peace About Being Single?”), and I promised I’d address that soon.
How do we cope? How do we find peace, when we sincerely desire marriage and haven’t yet found a spouse?
The answer, to me, is simple: we need to let go of the idea that there is only one way to be happy in this life.
I remember being 22. I saw two paths. Marriage, which of course would be happy. And eternal un-marriage, which would be bitterly lonely and awful and lead me to long for the blessed relief of sweet death.
Aside from being a vast oversimplification, that kind of attitude leads to a problem. We ultimately have very little control over whether or not we find that “right” person. But if finding that person is the sole key to escaping a “loveless” life of loneliness and isolation, of course we’re going to get increasingly desperate to find him or her. We’re going to make ourselves crazy. We’re going to cling to the hope that God wouldn’t do that to us, that He simply must have somebody stored away for us, and that if we just say the right novena, that person will appear and we can finally be happy.
But it’s all based on a big illusion. Married life isn’t guaranteed to be happy. And unmarried life isn’t guaranteed to be unhappy. In fact, I can pretty well guarantee that each state of life is going to offer a mix of both.
I will grant you, however, that there is a particular cross to the single life. I get that we were made to “be fruitful and multiply,” and “it is not good for man to be alone” and all of that. There is a certain unnatural-ness to the single life.
So how can we be happy in the single state? For me, that answer has been to put Christ in the center. With him I am never “alone.” With Him my life is fruitful, love-giving and life-giving.
Without Christ, I can’t imagine what my single life would look like. So I pray. I receive Him regularly in the Eucharist. I trust that our Heavenly Father loves me madly, and that He has a plan for my life that takes into account all of my foibles and missteps—a plan for my happiness, and for my salvation. And I try to seek His will—not my own—in everything. Everything.
Not that it’s easy, or that I do it perfectly. But I try. And, to the extent that I succeed, my life is plenty happy and plenty fulfilling.
I think that you—and those like you—will find far more happiness in life if you tweak your thinking slightly.
The primary goal of your life should not be to marry. Your primary goal should be to live a life pleasing to God.
So you’ll still be dating. You’ll still be looking for “The One.” But you’ll be doing it in a spirit of trust. Not trust that God will provide you a spouse, which He never promised. But rather that He has a plan, and that as long as you remain in Him and strive to follow His will, He will be with you and your life will be fruitful.
You may find He has amazing surprises in store for you.
Do you have questions for Mary Beth? Write to her at email@example.com.