In my corner of the religious world, being married is quite often seen as the design and existence for the first part of your life. From a very young age (at least as a girl), you are asked to start considering what you're seeking for in a spouse. You make lists of things that you want. If you're like me you had your "responsible" section of the list and the secret unwritten dream list. The responsible list has things like good education and goes to church and not destitute. The secret unwritten dream list included things like taller than me and lean and brunette and likes to read and travel and knows how to dance and maybe looks a bit like Gilbert Blythe.
Growing up, I was pretty sure I had my life figured out. Always a practical planning individual, I knew that I wanted to graduate from college, go to approximately 3 years of college, get married in my senior year, teach for about 3 years, and then have babies. I knew that I wasn't the world's most attractive girl, but I'm not hideous or stupid or weird (ha!) so I figured that the dating slump I was in from high school could be blamed on the small population of eligible religious counterparts and that going to BYU would fix all my dating woes and find me "eternally tied". After all, I was the good girl. The one who went to early morning church classes before high school every day. The one who actually participated in class. The one who had direction and faith and never really experienced teenaged rebellion. It was just karmic justice, right? The perfect guy would fall into my lap like an angel from heaven sent to rescue me from the hell of single life.
Only it didn't happen (obviously). And the funny thing was, the older I got, the more I looked around and saw so many people (both men and women) who are perfectly attractive and righteous sorts of people who were still single and I realized: wait a second. Beauty and brains and obedience are no guarantee of wedded bliss.
And then I realized something else: people don't know what to do with me in the church. Do they accept my singleness, or does that suggest they think I'm hopeless? Do they ask me about my dating life or not? It's easy to start feeling like a bit of a cultural leper.
Outside of Mormon culture, the average age of marriage is 27. I turn 27 next month, which means that by all national trends, I've still got a hope of being within the range of average for about two more years. My non-Mormon friends don't understand what all the fuss is about. But inside the church, adults and married couples my age aren't sure what to say to me. So here are some of my thoughts on the inherent challenges of being an older single Mormon and some suggestions:
The biggest challenge I feel is the expectation of being consistently unsettled. I am counseled to continue in my education, to develop my talents, to serve in my church, to get to know people, and, essentially, to do everything that every human should be doing in or out of a marriage (minus things related to sex.) But I'm also told that I have to be ready to drop everything for that perfect guy. Love your job - but not too much! What if you love it so much you aren't willing to leave it for marriage?! Love your hobbies - but not too much! If you love them too much you won't have time for dating! Get to know people - but get to know the right people! Get to know single people or people who set you up! It's hard not to feel like the "object and design" of your single existence must, like the earth around the sun, constantly rotate around a singular purpose, and if your eye isn't constantly fixed on that purpose, then you are clearly losing your focus. So that in mind -
1. Recognize that for an older single - particularly those out of educational settings - dating is an entirely different ballgame. Dating in college is a bit easier. Life is still a bit flexible. Dating outside of college means that both parties will have to, of necessity, be a little more creative in how they connect. This doesn't have to be a bad thing - in many ways it is a realistic set up for marriage as you have a couple having to decide where their priorities are. It can work. But if you married young, you probably just don't get it. It's not as easy as it sounds to find someone after you graduate - and you can't stay in school forever.
2. Recognize and honor the ways that singles can contribute uniquely to communities, workplaces, and the church.
3. Recognize that it's not a crime or a sin to take advantage of the perks of being single. At least for Mormons who believe that marriage is forever, being single is a very brief period of time in the grand scheme of things. There are some advantages to this that, frankly, you're kind of ungrateful not to take advantage of. If I had married at 21 like I'd planned, I would have gained a loving (I hope!) spouse, the responsibilities of a home, and eventually the responsibilities of children. From what I hear, those are pretty amazing things. I want them. But since I don't have them, I get the opportunity to travel without my budget impacting the chance for my kids to participate in sports. I get to teach. I make decisions and don't have to stress too much about how those decisions will impact others. I get to read uninterrupted. I get to pee and shower without anyone interrupting me whenever they want. Heck, I get a lot of time alone -something a quick trip to Facebook confirms to me - is a great luxury later. While I've got it - I'm going to enjoy it, and I'm going to proclaim that this isn't selfish. This is gratitude. It's just the way single life works. It is acknowledging the good that I have in my life instead of mourning what I don't have (and don't have lots of control over.)
4. Please don't set up single people with other single people just because they're both single. Those dates are always the worst disasters.
5. Please don't be afraid to ask if you can set someone up, especially when you know them well. At least for me, I'm not bugged. I never turn down the opportunity to meet someone new. It may not go great, but, to quote Carrie Underwood "It's not like I'm not trying, 'cause I'll give anyone a shot once."
6. Share your life with us. I'm old enough and mature enough not to freak out when you get married or pregnant or whatever. Really. There was a time when I was younger (about 21-22) when every marriage/pregnancy from a friend or former roommate felt like a slap in the face but I'm totally over that. I'm actually super happy for you because, from what I understand, marriage and babies are awesome and everyone should totally do them! (Have them?) In return, ask me about my life. Not just my dating life. Ask me about my job. Ask me about what I do for fun. Ask me about books or movies or other things. As an added bonus, this will make it easier for you to help out with #5 should you have the desire to help me find that perfect-for-me-man-specimen.
7. Don't be afraid to invite us places. I recognize that sometimes there are couples events and date nights and you need those. I support those. Heck, I'll babysit for you if you want. No big deal. But every so often, being invited to hang out with people my age is awesome. I don't care if you're married or not. We can still hang. You'll talk about potty training and I'll talk about smelly junior high classrooms. It'll be a party.
8. Don't be afraid if we're happy where we are. You know those newly engaged couples who see nothing but sunshine and hearts and sugar and want nothing more in the world than to spread that love to the rest of the population? They're cute and a little annoying but they mean well, right? I love when people are happy in their relationships. I've seen enough stress in marriages of my friends and family by now to know that marriage is hard, so it's great to see when couples work and are happy. It gives me hope. It gives me something to work for and want - which is great, 'cause sometimes (lots of times) dating is discouraging (you're rejected more than you're not, after all.) But in that same token, don't assume that because I don't have your brand of happiness that I am wrong to enjoy mine. It's important for me to be happy with my life where it is. I can be happy with new states of life too. This is part of everyone's life, really. What if you knew, for example, that at some point in your future you were going to be transferred across the country to a new job and a new neighborhood but didn't know when? Wouldn't it be really sad if you missed out on the chance to enjoy your current job and current neighborhood just because you were going to move sometime? What a wasted opportunity.
9. Trust us to do what is best for us. Those of us religious single adults have learned to rely pretty heavily on faith and trust in the timing of the Lord. We cultivate close relationships with Him and work to do His will. Please trust our ability to receive revelation for what is best for us and understand that we may not want to justify why we do what we do, why we live where we live, how we spend our time, etc. to you - because that's really between us and God. Please don't treat us like we still need to be babied through responsibility and the gospel.
10. Don't be afraid if we've accepted the possibility that marriage may never happen. For most people this isn't resignation, it's determination. It's the acceptance of God's hand in all things and acknowledging that if marriage and family aren't in the cards, then we still have to be OK. We have to be MORE than OK. We can't crumble into a pit of despair. We can't live in lukewarm - we have to do something awesome with our lives!
Ultimately what most older single adults I know want, including myself, is to be treated like adults. Like professionals. Like competent religious participants in congregations. We don't want to be defined solely by things that are largely out of control. We want to be included, respected, and loved. We want to be content with life - just like everyone else.