“Never say never!”
“You’re still young.”
“Don’t give up hope!”
“Don’t be so negative.”
“There’s someone for everyone.”
“Don’t worry, you still have time.”
“You should put yourself out there!”
“When the timing’s right, it’ll happen.”
“Must be nice to do whatever you want.”
“Are you praying for your future spouse?”
“You should open yourself up to the idea!”
“I have a friend who got married when she was in her 50’s!”
“Enjoy this season of your life, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.”
“When you’re married, you won’t be able to do this anymore.”
“When you get married (and have kids), then you’ll understand.”
“The moment you’re content being single, God will send someone.”
“Just trust God’s plan for you, he’ll send a spouse when you’re ready.”
Each Sunday, I brace myself for these words to be poured over my head like a blessing from well-meaning churchgoers. Each time I meet someone new at work or in social settings, I grit my teeth, knowing one of these phrases will probably follow the inevitable question of “Are you married?” and its frequent partner “Do you have kids?” My response of “No” seems to be an invitation for all sorts of fake encouragements, unfulfillable promises, empty hopes, exposed judgments, and subtle insults. Or there’s the awkward silence as their brains scramble to figure out what to say next.
I understand this, I don’t fit the usual script for a 39 year old Christian woman. They can’t easily move on to “how long have you been married? What does your husband do? How many kids? How old are they? Where do they go to school? etc.” I require more thought, some creativity even. Married men and women without children go through this, as well as anyone else who doesn’t fit whatever mold is seen by their community as A Typical Christian/American/Grown Man or Woman. Words matter.
What’s happening with these stilted conversations, filled with phrases like those listed above, is a revelation of your heart, your values, and your biases, not mine. Rather than getting to know me before discussing how I might actually feel and think about my singleness, you’re assuming you already know. I might be incredibly happy about being single, or devastated. Your words in this moment could make me doubt my happiness or increase my grief. Wouldn’t you rather speak words to me that will encourage, bring joy, and invite a deeper relationship?
Words matter; they can lift up or crush, encourage or dismay, offer true hope or false promises, offer helpful insight or reinforce bad beliefs. God chose to speak to future generations through the written word of man, the act of divine creation occurs when God speaks it in words, and in John 1 Christ is referred to as the Word. Proverbs is filled with the importance of choosing our words carefully, of taming our tongues. Luke 6:45 states “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Words reveal what is in our hearts; words matter.
I realize this means the stereotypical small talk won’t cut it, and you’ll have to work a bit harder to actually converse. But shouldn’t we be trying to do that with everyone anyway?
Here are some tips on how to talk to a single person you’ve just met:
Read the Tone
Sarcasm is my love language. I like to joke and laugh. Sometimes I joke about my singleness, hilarious jokes in my mind. But more times than not I have been almost rebuked in these moments. When I’m trying to lighten the mood and make it less awkward for all of us, I’m often met with sincere concern, as if I just said I was dying or a drug addict. Please, read my tone. If I’m happy and laughing about my singleness, don’t turn it into a moment to remind me to trust God or not give up hope or some other shallow theological phrase that doesn’t belong. Saying I’m single is just a factual statement, not an invitation for a sermon. If the single person in question is joking, maybe the best bet is to laugh with them. On the other hand, just because I am currently happy being single, this doesn’t mean I always have been or that everyone else is, so keep the tone in mind and respond accordingly.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Until you get to know me, you have no idea what singleness in my life is like. You don’t know if it’s by choice or by accident, through tragedy or just regular life occurrences, if it’s the best thing that ever happened to me or the worst, if I love it or hate it. Like most things with humans, it’s probably a very complex combination of some the above and more. Please do not heap all singles into one big box, thinking you know what we’re going through because you were single until the ripe old age of 27. Your experiences are not mine, and mine are not yours. Take the time to get to know me before you start talking about my singleness.
Check your Theology
Telling someone not to lose hope because they’re single is just bad theology. First, you’re assuming they are hopeless, which you can’t know at this point. Second, you’re telling them their hope should be found in another person which is just theologically wrong. Our hope is in Christ, nothing more or less; not that Christ will magically grant us all of our desires, but in Christ himself. By reaffirming the false promise that “God has someone for everyone,” you can only harm a single person. Soulmates aren’t promised in the Bible, guys. If you want to find terrible theology, Just run a Google Image search on “God has someone for you” and you’ll encounter platitude after platitude like the one above, ascribed to God, which are not biblical. You can either help singles continue to place their focus, dreams, and hearts on something that may or may not come true, stir up discontentment, confuse them about what promises are actually in the Bible, or just piss them off. If you tell a single person that they “just need to grow more mature, and more content in God, and then when they’re ready God will send a spouse,” you are lying to them. This is not a biblical statement, not a promise God makes, nor is it reality. There are a heck of a lot of messed up, discontent, immature married people, and many incredible single ones. Nothing good comes from preaching bad theology, false promises, and incorrect priorities through easy, quick, thoughtless small talk.
Ask Thoughtful Questions
Since I’ve inadvertently removed the next few inane comments you usually say when meeting someone, what should you do once the “are you married?” receives a glaring “no”? Rather than following it with one of the above problematic comments or standing awkwardly silent, may I suggest asking some thoughtful questions? Let’s rule out asking why someone is single, because most of us don’t know. If you’re just meeting me, some better questions to ask are “what do you spend a lot of your time doing? What are some of your interests? Can you tell me a bit about your job? What have you been up to this week? Are you reading any good books or watching any great shows lately?” There are literally hundreds if not thousands of other questions to ask that don’t have anything to do with the lack of a spouse or children. This doesn’t mean singleness should be completely off the table, as it is a big part of our lives. However, maybe hold off on this topic until you’ve invested a little bit more time in getting to know me. As a friendship forms, if you’d like to be able to actually help me in regards to this aspect of my life, feel free to ask questions like “How do you feel about being single?” and “How can I be an encouragement in this area in your life?” I’d rather get a well meaning question about my singleness than a comment, even if it’s an awkward one. A question reveals an interest in the other person’s experience rather than a patronizing assumption. Questions can lead to actually getting to know each other.
Treat Us Like Adults
One of the most frustrating things about meeting new people as a singleton is being patronized by people younger than us. I realize I look a bit young for my age, but when you add singleness on top of it, I am constantly being patronized by men and women 10-20 years younger than me. This is annoying. My telling you I’m single is not opening up the door for you to school me on dating, married life, or parenthood. Maybe wait a bit to see if I actually want advice in any of these areas. Instead, why not treat me like the grown woman I am and have an adult conversation with me about topics of importance to our society today?
Switch out “When” for “If”
Growing up in the church, I heard “when you’re a wife” or “when you’re a mother” over and over again. Teenage girls are taught to pray and prepare for their future husbands. (Again, if you’d like a vomit-inducing picture of terrible theology, Google search “Praying for your future husband.”) Godly character traits were taught with the caveat “you’ll need this when you’re married” or “this will make you a better mom someday.” Little boys are taught they must be good, godly men so they can become good, godly husbands and fathers. There is some truth here, but not all truth. Yes, having godly character traits is important in being excellent husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers. But I’d argue they’re pretty important in just being great humans in general, helping us glorify God in the workplace, at church, with roommates and friends, with our parents and siblings, in our art and ministry, and in our communities. Can we stop raising our kids with the final goal of wife/mother or husband/father but with a goal of glorifying God in all we do? Can we switch out the inevitable “when” for “if”? Let’s tell our girls and boys things like, “if you get married someday…” and “if you have kids…” instead of “when” so that when they grow up, if they don’t actually marry or have kids but are living awesome, God-glorifying lives, they won’t feel like they’re still doing something wrong. And when you meet singles, just leave off any statement that starts with “when you get married…”
Don’t Underestimate the Depth of our Love
One assumption I’m constantly battling is that I somehow can’t understand love because I’m single. Seemingly benign statements like “I didn’t really know how selfish I was until I got married,” “The main thing God uses to sanctify us is our spouse,” or “I didn’t know real love until I had kids” and are actually quite insulting to those of us who aren’t married and don’t have children. The flip side says to us “you must be a very selfish, unsanctified person because you live with roommates or on your own, not with a spouse” and “because you don’t have kids, you can’t possibly know a love this deep or real.” In one phrase, you have just called me self-centered and relegated any love I have to second class. You cannot know how much God has used my roommates or times alone to help sanctify me, nor know the deep, beautiful, and sacrificial love I have for my family and my friends. You also assume all spouses are no longer childish, and all parents are just automatically imbued with a supernatural, deep, selfless love. I worked in social work and counseling for years so I know this is not the case. Some of the worst relationships I’ve seen have been marriages, and some of the most selfish people I have met were parents with more love for themselves than their children. Some of the most mature selfless people I know are single men and women who pour out their lives for their friends, families, and communities. There are also a lot of us out there who have “fallen in love” but are still single for one reason or another. Don’t underestimate us. Singleness can actually mature us and increase our capacity to love others, as we don’t have children and a spouse to take up our affections and can therefore look outward to our parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, friends, fellow Christians, and communities. Our hearts are often full to the brim with true, deep, beautiful love.
There are many other things to say on this topic, but I think this is enough for now. Please, just think before you speak. Words matter, affecting those who hear them. And for those of us who feel like we’re often seen as outside the normal expectations of what a Good Christian should be at this point in our lives, your words can help us feel like we’re part of the community instead of in the waiting room.
- Singles, what are some more pet peeves about singleness that come up in small talk?
- Marrieds, what are some of the questions/concerns you have about conversing with singles?
Check back next Monday for “Responding to Marrieds for Dummies” to see how we singletons can better respond to these awkward small talk moments with the marrieds we meet.