The idol of marriage weighs most heavily in my heart when I am overwhelmed with life,stressed with work, or feeling lonely in my community, because in those moments it’s easy for me to believe that a husband would fix so many of my problems, that he would lighten the load I’m struggling to carry. And while there’s some sprinkling of truth in this belief because there’s a line between believing things would be different and believing it would be better. And this distinction, of marriage being a better option than singleness, harms the health of the church. “People who are married might feel like they have to view marriage as superior to singleness, not just different from singleness, because they feel like they have to justify their marriages,” my friend Morgan says. “But what if they rushed into their marriages? What if there were impure motives or they were responding to family pressure and now regret it? Or they have doubts regarding their own marriage?”
If I’m doubting I made the right choice, it’s easier for me to make peace with myself if I can find the weaknesses in the other options I didn’t take. When I was at Liberty University my first year, I wondered if I chose the wrong college (because when you shove three eighteen-year-olds into a small dorm room and make them share a sink, one is forced to cling to the cross). There was a smaller school in my home state that I was constantly drawn back to when things at LU weren’t going well. In order to soothe my discontent, I would look up the other school online and criticize it in my mind: Look how small that gymnasium is. Can you imagine showering in there? I bet that girl is being paid to smile.
But here’s the thing—we don’t have to keep playing these roles. You don’t have to break down singleness in order to feel good about marriage. I don’t have to diminish the value of marriage in order to accept my single state. My happiness does not mitigate, or lessen, your happiness. And your identity is not a threat to my identity.
We don’t have to keep parading around marriages as the ultimate good in order to justify our undue emphasis on them. And for all of our efforts here, marriages are still falling apart. Abuse is still occurring within Christian homes, and divorces are still taking place. It seems that our idolization of marriages has done little to actually help them.
I want to share an e-mail with you from a male friend of mine who is married. He wrote it to provide a glimpse into the struggles of married life, to cut out the marriage PR. I hope that by reading it you’ll see what I see: that marriage comes with its own struggles. That marriage, like singleness, is different. It’s not better or worse; it’s a choice that can be made, a path that can be chosen, that has its own bumps and knocks along the way. And once all the flash is stripped away, it can be filled with suffering too.
The simple fact is, many, many Christians are unhappy and frustrated and even despairing in their marriages. But because of hang-ups or fear of how they’ll be viewed or financial reasons or just plain lying to themselves, they feel unable to do anything about it or get help for it. This makes it very difficult for them to create deeper relationships with single people, because it’s hard for a single person to understand that specific type of despair.
Marriage can be very ugly because it can make you feel like it takes some of the best parts of yourself and stomps all over them. It can turn perfectly good days into terrible ones because of stresses that have nothing to do with you and make no sense to you. It swallows your time and energy and effort. It can block you from things you’d like to pursue, ideas you’d like to try, risks you’d like to take.
I share this with you because it’s easy for singles to feel that they are on the outside looking in . . . lonely creatures peeking through the window into the warm, cozy lives of families. And that feeling is perfectly legitimate, because being intimately loved is certainly a wonderful thing, and it kills me that wonderful people like you aren’t having that experience.
But I think the other side is that sometimes (often!) married people feel as if they are the ones inside looking out: at freedom, and at opportunities for a loving relationship, and at a much more actualized life. They feel trapped in constant arguments, incredibly boring routines, financial inflexibility, constant judgment, and little to no hope that things will change. When they meet an attractive member of the opposite sex, they can’t spend time getting to know that person. When the opportunity for an adventure with friends comes up, it’s very difficult to make it happen because of the needs of the family. When the church needs money or help or volunteers, often one spouse is willing but the other is not.
I share these things because too many singles I know are hung up on the idea that marriage will somehow be better. And for some people, it is. But for some it is not. For me it is significantly harder. I wish I had known more.
Not all marriages are rosy bright, and I so appreciated my friend’s honesty in sharing this insight. As C. S. Lewis says, idols always break the hearts of their worshipers.[i] I’m not implying my friend is in this position because he worshiped his wife, but I am saying that marriage is hard enough already—why put even more pressure on that situation by setting it up for failure?
Perhaps the greatest rebuke to the idol of marriage is found in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We all appreciate the support of family, and those who are married love theirs very much, but we must comparatively hate them. We must love them less than we love Christ. Our joy in these relationships must pale in comparison to, must be completely consumed in, our love of God. That’s what we’re called to here.
When dedication to one’s family is being praised from the pulpit as the highest virtue, we’ve missed something. And if we continue to emphasize saving and restoring marriages at the cost of ignoring or diminishing singleness, there will be very few marriages left to save.
[i] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” Verber, http://www.verber.com/mark/xian/weight-of-glory.pdf.
Excerpt from Party of One: Truth, Longing, and the Subtle Art of Singleness. Used with permission.
Joy Beth Smith is the author of Party of One: Truth, Longing, and the Subtle Art of Singleness (Thomas Nelson). Find her on Twitter @JBsTwoCents