Single and...Happy?

Hello, my name is Leigh, and I am happily single.

Yes, I really did use happily and single in the same sentence. No, I am not out of my mind.

For years I've bought into the societal notion that being single is like being afflicted with some type of life-sucking, deadly disease. *Cue the penetrating, icy cold emptiness of three hooded dementors closing in on their single prey to perform the deadly kiss* That being alone is the same thing as being lonely. That, if I'm single, there must be something wrong with me (oh, shoot, does he not like me because I forgot to shave my legs today?). This belief leads to nothing more than an ungrateful and deficient existence.

My parents were the exact same age as I am now when they got married. For the longest time, I measured the quality of my love life against the timeline of their relationship, as if it was expected of me to find the man of my dreams and marry by the ripe age of 22. From the time I was about nineteen, I was keenly aware of the impending three years I had to snatch this so-called dream man and put a ring on it. The more I wanted, the less likely it became. The more I worried, the less comfortable I became with myself and all of my seemingly unredeemable qualities. The more weight I put upon my love life to fulfill me completely, the more dependent I became upon a male to fulfill my worth, and the more aware I became of my lack of a love life. All this worry led me to believe that, as a young twentysomething, I was on my way downhill from the peak of my youth and allure. If I weren't married by the summer after I turned 22, I would become a cat lady overnight.

There were many relationships I started or stayed in simply because I was chasing after this idealistic life I'd constructed in my mind. If I was one step closer to marriage (read: if I was not single), I figured I would be happy. Regardless of the quality of the relationship. I was actually watching an episode of Friends this morning in which Rachel is unhappily single and Chandler is very happily happy solely because he is in a relationship. It struck me how common it is to hear people groan about their loneliness as a single person. As the Bobby Vinton (and Akon) song goes: "I'm so lonely, I'm Mr. Lonely / I have nobody for my own / I'm so lonely." Yes, there are times at which I do feel lonely as a single person. But if the foundation for our happiness lies in the circumstance of relationship status, we waste precious time pining after something that is, at that moment, unattainable, rather than relishing in the numerous blessings and opportunities of the single life.

I've heard it said that you truly find out what you want and need in a future spouse based upon the people you date. I agree. Having dated guys whose beliefs totally and utterly contradicted my own, I stand behind this truth, knowing that I need a man who can walk alongside, push, and encourage me in my faith, for example.

But I also believe - wholeheartedly - that it is not until you have experienced an extended period of time alone that you discover the qualities essential in a spouse.

Being "perpetually single" (a fun term my sister and I have coined for our ongoing, single relationship status) has been nothing short of a blessing. Although it is socially looked down upon, I would argue that my perpetual singleness has prepared me well not only for marriage, but for life. 

Come again? you might ask. How can being single prepare someone for marriage?

Because I have spent an extended period of time as a single lady, I have been invited into a space of deep personal reflection and understanding. Four years ago, at the outset of my undergraduate career, I knew very little about myself. Although I dabbled in various, noncommittal relationships and idealistic daydreams of crushes-turned-lovers, I spent the majority of my time alone. As noted before, I spent a lot of time wondering if I would obtain the coveted ring by spring. Underneath these questions and convenient relationships was an underlying sentiment of discomfort with myself. If I was so dependent on someone else to give me value, did my existence as a unique individual really mean anything to me? If I was so encumbered by this question of finding "the one," was I even ready to commit my life to him? If I was too uncomfortable to spend time alone, even in the occasional loneliness, would I be anything other than a clingy, dependent girlfriend?

Over the past couple years I have started to become more comfortable with myself, as well as my relationship status. I have come to understand, in quiet hours spent alone, as well as in loud, bustling crowds, what makes me tick. What are my likes and dislikes? On what qualities will I refuse to compromise? I've noticed destructive patterns of thinking and awesome qualities in myself. Instead of masking my insecurities behind a façade of relationship security, I have begun to tackle the why behind these insecurities so that I can work towards being more whole. I believe that, in being able to confront the world as an independent, single woman, I will be better equipped to enter a relationship as a strong, wholehearted woman. None of this would have become possible without this season of singleness.

Singleness, in other words, is a period of reflection and strengthening. It allows us the space to discover our strengths, and sheds light upon weaknesses we might otherwise cover up with a relationship. Singleness provides the nutrients for spiritual and personal growth, so that we may come to know ourselves and our faith in the most intimate setting of our hearts, without external distraction, as well as to know our inherent worth as an individual.

Singleness also puts marriage in perspective. Although I believe marriage to be a wonderful and beautiful promise of commitment, I realize that oftentimes we skimp on the intentionality within our other relationships in favor of romantic prospects and relationships. Regardless of whether we are single, in a relationship, engaged, or married, we do have a commitment to other relationships. Over the years, I have lost quite a few friends because of significant others (some cases were my fault; some were not). Being single has taught me the power of friendship, because no matter how hard I try, guys will never understand me like my close girlfriends do. Just as nothing can replicate the relationship between a man and a woman, absolutely nothing can simulate the bond between friends.

I just spent a couple days with my closest friend from college last week. Like me, she is perpetually single. We joke about the day when we both get married (that is, assuming both she and I get married): Who would ever dare tear us apart? But in all reality, we have a mutual understanding (which, yes, was explicitly stated. Gotta love that communication major life of intentionality) that we will continue to dedicate 100% to our friendship, and that we will continue to be intentional with each other. We both know that the majority of our time and energy will be devoted to our husbands, but that the institute of marriage does not diminish the value of our friendship. Like I said before, although marriage holds a high standard of intimacy, there is a level of intimacy created between friends that marriage cannot rival. It is our responsibility to uphold these relationships, for one's spouse should not be the sole relationship in one's life.

Family ties are also an essential in living a wholehearted life. Yes, I acknowledge there is dysfunction in each and every family, but as we grow older, we have innumerable opportunities to work through those dysfunctions and come to appreciate the people with whom we grew up. As children, we are naturally predisposed to think of ourselves. However, families are a source of support, and no unit could be unaffected by the other units. In developing my communication with my family, I have been able to grow closer to each individual. And when you think about it, marriage provides yet another space for creating a family. True, you can't pick your family, and you can pick your spouse, but that does not diminish the impact of your family upon your life. I am choosing to work through the uncomfortable, unhealthy patterns of behavior I have with my family members for the sake of our collective wellbeing, because I don't think any relationship should be left without intentional refining, as through a crucible (throwback to amily Crucible in my Family Therapy course this spring). This dedication to relationship building within our own families sets a template for future interactions and openness in the families we create, and can help build resilience in other relationships as we refuse to let our problems tear us apart, but to strengthen us. After all, when you get married, you are joining families, and you will have to work through the unique dealings of your spouse's upbringings. It might be a worthy cause to be cognizant of your own unhealthy habits for future reference....

I have also realized that marriage is a false pinnacle in the development of our lives. Please note that I am not saying that marriage is unimportant. It is a huge transition that is worthy of reverence. What I mean is, many of us, myself included, fall prey to the belief that once you're married, you're set for life. That marriage is the end-all-be-all of life. There seems to be a myth that, once married, all troubles and sadness vanish upon saying I do. If this is so, then wouldn't all of the world's problems cease if everyone were married? Oh, if that were the case! But life goes on beyond marriage. Just like the period of aloneness beforehand, we still experience tragedy, loss, heartache, conflict, loneliness in the romance of marriage. Marriage does not make us immune to the natural cycles of pain and happiness in life. I know there will be times in marriage (if I do get married) where life will suck, even though I may be surrounded by the love and support of my husband. Yet having the resilience to go through these heartaches alone - before those till-death-do-we-part stretch of years - can prepare us for the future struggles. Enduring the growing pains of life alone, with incredible friends at our sides, can actually prepare us for the companionship we need when we are most alone in marriage, and can strengthen the friendships we take along into our future lives as spouses. As long as we are mindful that the state of being married will not make us utterly happy and complete.

For some, marriage is simply not a part of life's trajectory. Oftentimes, we assume that marriage is, yet again, the end-all-be-all of life. Some are not called to a life of marriage. But do not assume that this absence of a romantic partner does not diminish one's quality of life. There is no 11th Commandment, telling us Thou shalt only experience happiness within the union of holy matrimony. There have been, and are, many individuals experiencing a high caliber of life who are quite single. By societal standards, these individuals are outliers to the expectation of marriage. What these people have come to understand is the universality of relationship. Despite a spouse, these people have discovered how to live a fulfilling life in the absence of a spouse. Gasp. Isn't this example what we should strive for, though? Developing meaningful relationships not only with those surrounding us, but also with ourselves? Though they might not experience the so-called benefits of marriage, they are capable of understanding the sanctity of friendships, the intentionality therein. All while pursuing their passions and still living life to the fullest.

It goes to say that quality of life is not directly related to relationship status. As a single woman, I am quite possibly happier than a married woman might be. At the same time, I might not be as happy as another married woman. Rather, I think quality of life is directly related to the quality and intimacy of one's relationships on a whole. If we strive to be wholehearted and intentional in all our relationships, including the ones we have with ourselves and our Creator, we have a much better chance of attaining a higher caliber of life than clinging on to whatever romantic relationship may come our way for the sake of avoiding the occasional loneliness and discomfort of a single life. Take it from me, it is much better to reach a place of discernment in your relationships that comes from a deep understanding of yourself than to succumb to fleeting desires to spend your time and energy on someone who you know, deep down, is not the right fit, but to hold out in pursuit of a healthy relationship.

A couple weeks ago, while at work, one of my new managers asked me where my boyfriend and I live. I simply laughed and said, "I don't have a boyfriend." He looked appalled, and scrambled to repair face, apologizing profusely as though it must embarrassing for me to be single. A year ago, I really would have been embarrassed, as if I didn't have my life together. My manager's question would have summoned deep feelings of shame, disappointment, and unworthiness. Even self-critical thoughts. Today I laugh because I've come to realize the worth of this time of singleness. My romantic relationship status has come to hold less gravity than the quality of friendships I maintain. And, to be truthful, I would rather spend some more time in this period of aloneness, because the time of reflection has brought to light so many ways in which I would like to be wholehearted as a single woman. And I have the rest of my life once I'm married to live with a man...I'll pass on that for as long as possible. And if marriage isn't in the cards for me, I can get an extra beagle...