Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out, Part Three
Just as I’ve discovered over the years that being a single, celibate, adult in the church and the world can be incredibly difficult, leading to all sorts of awkward or even degrading perspectives, trying to be a single celibate person in relationship with others can be just as difficult. Therefore, this final entry in my Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out series will focus on how intimacy in relationship is just as important to the celibate single as it is to the married person, yet how difficult this can be to put into practice.
Intimacy is something humans need – we were created for it. Not meant to be independent creatures, we thrive in community, with the mutual help and support of others. But more than this we need closeness, understanding, familiarity, and affection. Modern American culture, including the church, often sees marriage as the cure for this need. Genesis 2:18 becomes the prescription for all human intimacy – “it is not good for the man to be alone.” So Eve was created. But more than that, Eve was created with the powerful ability to produce family and community. Adam was not just given one other person who would fulfill all of his needs for intimacy, he was given the very person who would extend their closeness beyond themselves as a couple to others.
Sadly, both the church and the world often pair intimacy down to sex. They are frequently used synonymously, so much so that my high school students would snicker if the term “intimate” appeared in any piece of literature, no matter how benign the context. What a tragic stripping down of such a powerful term. And, by depleting this beautiful idea of its many nuances, we place celibate single adults in a particularly lonely tragic place, one in which we will always lack fulfillment.
I read an article this week based on the underlying premise that intimacy = sex, and since intimacy is required for full human development, anyone who is not having sex is not fully developed psychologically and therefore will have all sorts of issues. It was one of the more disturbing articles I’ve read, and yes, it stemmed from a religious background, making it all the more concerning.
Let me knock this argument down at its base. Intimacy does not equal sex. Sex can and will help many people become more intimate, but it is not the foundation. I’ve counseled enough people who have experienced abusive, harmful, careless, or selfishly motivated sex to know sex can even diminish one’s ability for intimacy if it is abused. Also, if intimacy is mainly or exclusively related to sex, where does the profound closeness experienced by children and parents come from? How about the special bond of twins or close siblings? The profound intimacy experienced by elderly couples whose sexual desires have ebbed? The aunt or uncle’s deep committed love for and bond with their nieces and nephews? Best friendships that last a lifetime, sometimes even outlasting sexual partnerships those friends have had with others?
The best sex should indeed increase intimacy, it should help a couple bond emotionally and physically, increase understanding of one another, develop familiarity with each other in a profound way. However special this bond can be, it is not the only path to intimacy, and, as stated before, it can often be a path away from it if used harmfully.
So if intimacy does not equal sex, then what is it? It is a closeness between individuals, a deep understanding of one another, a familiarity with another based on time and experience, and a true affection for the other. This is intimacy. It is beautiful and multifaceted. It is not limited to one type of experience.
The greatest intimacy in existence is between God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are bonded for eternity, incredibly different and yet the same, independent yet reliant on each other. This intimacy was extended to us, his children, when God gave up Christ, his son, to die for us and then sent the Holy Spirit to indwell us. There is no greater closeness than that. In fact, marriage, including sex, is merely a metaphor for this relationship between Christ and us, his church, his bride, meant to help us grasp something so profound our finite minds can only understand a piece of it.
Some of the most intimate relationships depicted in the Bible are between fathers or mothers and sons, daughters and mothers-in-law, best friends, teachers and disciples, brothers, sisters, old friends, cousins, and even strangers being brought into Christ’s fold.
So while I do agree that intimacy is necessary for human development and fulfillment, I take great issue with narrowing this down to one’s sexual experiences. Deep lasting relationships in which we know and are known, understand one another, care for each other, and actively practice loving another are possible without even a hint of sex.
This does take a lot of work, however, and a lot of vulnerability. We singles can easily grow into our independence, and after years of disappointment in dating relationships, loneliness, or lost friendships, we can withdraw. We look at our married friends and think how easy it must be for them to have this one person assigned to be their intimate partner – they don’t have to seek closeness outside anymore because they have this person living with them to fulfill that.
Two truths about that – first, many a married individual feels lonely, and struggles with truly being intimate with their partner for many reasons, so our grass-is-greener view is often not true. Married couples who do indeed have a deep level of intimacy have probably worked darn hard at it for a very long time. Second, it may indeed be a bit more difficult for us as singles to develop intimacy because we don’t have one person who has committed to try and work at it for a lifetime. And, our intimacy will most likely come in the form of more than just one person, which is awesome, but also takes quite a bit of work on our parts. Also, lacking the lifelong commitment part up front can make it scary and risky to put so much into our relationships as we try to develop the level of closeness and understanding that can be called intimate. However, in this era of easy divorce, marriage is no longer a guarantee for that anyway.
So how does a single, celibate, Christian adult develop intimate relationships? There’s no perfect recipe for this. Sometimes they just happen over time! Those are the best – friends that have just been around so long, and you’ve experienced so much together, that at some point you realize they know you better than anyone else and will always be part of your life, no matter what happens. Others take more purposeful effort. If you desire friendships that go beyond just having a few things in common and hanging out sometimes, it often takes some work. Texts, phone calls, emails, coffees, dinners, crashing at each other’s places on the weekend, camping trips, etc. Time. Lot of time. And an openness to be who you really are around each other, to talk about real stuff, not just the fun things. And commitment to the friendship, being willing to debate and argue when you disagree but still come back as friends.
I honestly think the most important thing for us in creating intimate friendships as celibate singles is to think how we can love them best. If the entirety of our motivation in friendship is having them pour into us, take care of our need for understanding and affection, then we’ve missed out on being able to be that person for them as well. There are times when we will need more than they will, and vice versa, times when we’ll be a bit weaker, times when they’ll need our support most of all – that’s normal and good. But if your whole friendship is about you taking from them, then you probably won’t experience that intimacy you seek, the intimacy of two people who build each other up, point each other to God, and bring out the best in each other.
This intimacy will not happen in all of our friendships. As humans, our capacity for that level of depth with others is limited. Even Christ had his close circle of most intimate friends within his larger group of friends. Sometimes we already have these beautifully deep relationships in our lives, but don’t recognize them as such because we’ve been trained by society to only see sexual partners as intimate soul mates.
I can’t help but think of Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables – bosom friends, soul mates. Or Frog and Toad, some of the dearest of best friends from my childhood imagination. Even in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the most important relationships were those of the Scooby Gang, the friends and mentor, the romantic ones came and went, but they were the one constant. The Gilmore Girls developed the mother/daughter relationship more than any other in the show. Every buddy movie depicts soul mates in friendships, not romance.
In my life, I was surprised a few years ago when I realized I actually already had several intimate relationships. There was a time when all I could see ahead of me was a lonely single life, moving from apartment to apartment as roommate after roommate got married and rents went up – an endless stream of temporary. So I decided to change that, decided to move to where I could experience permanent a little bit more. And there it was! My mother, my brother, my sister, my niece, my nephew. People who knew me, truly, who understood me. And I was so afraid that by moving I’d lose my bosom friends in LA, the ones who’d been my family for almost a decade. But I didn’t. They’re still there. It takes some work on both ends, but they’re still there. They still know me, still love me. Because of the effort these friends and I put in over the years of getting to really know each other, of opening up in the hard times, of supporting one another, and truly living in loving community with each other, we can go our separate ways and still hold on to that intimacy. Most of them have gotten married, some have kids, and some of us are still rocking the single life. Yet, when I need them they’re just a text away. When they need me, they know I’ll be there.
So, singles, don’t take so much pride in your independence that you don’t ask for help. It’s often in times of shared weakness that intimacy develops. Reach out to your roommates, your community groups, your families, your neighbors, your coworkers. You won’t have deep lasting relationships with every single one of them, but find the ones you connect with most and work to develop that. Spend time, real time with them. Open up and let them open up. Let your actions prove your friendship, not just empty words. Start to see these friendships as permanent, not temporary. It will change how you treat each other when you know you’re in each other’s lives forever. Love them. And let them know how they can love you. It can be hard – I was very much the strong one for most of my life, trying to help everyone else but not letting them help me. But that’s not reality, and without letting your friends into your reality, intimacy can’t grow. Needing people isn’t weak, it’s what we’re created for.
The Bible is full of incredibly powerful, beautiful commands to love one another. Few of these commands are aimed at couples; they’re aimed at the church, at brothers and sisters in Christ. Christ himself gave a new command just before he proved his love for us by dying on our behalf: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34).
Interestingly, the command for husbands to their wives echoes this: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Thus, marriage is only one example of Christ’s love for the church, only one aspect of true intimacy in relationships. We too, not just husbands, are to love one another just as Christ loved us, just as he gave up everything for us. Take heart, single Christians! Intimacy is possible even when marriage may not come, even without sex. Intimacy is greater than that and is available to all.