Romantic love and longing can be polarizing states, because they so often cause us to do seemingly unreasonable, needless things. They lead us to make questionable life-choices, to reconsider our belief systems, to abandon our public dignity in order to affirm and receive affirmation from someone else.
The longing for romantic companionship can haunt those who are too young for any practical pursuit of marriage. Many adolescents find themselves existing in a hellish limbo of “talking” and “dating.” They pursue and are pursued, only to later realize the extent to which they are romantically limited. Those are the lucky ones. Others find themselves constantly longing but never being longed for. They watch beautiful people pass them by for the more attractive and less awkward.
Our attitude toward romantic gestures and public longing is too often an ambivalent eye-roll, a needlessly cruel response to what are often a sincere and selfless gestures. Outside of weddings and engagements, we tend to treat sweet nothings with contempt. Men balk at romantic films out of a desire to maintain a macho status.
Too often we mock those who find themselves alone, not for being alone, but for longing and striving for a companion. We scoff at teenagers who are devastated after a breakup or rejection. We overlook or even balk at the struggles of Christian gay men and women without considering the deep sacrifice that is a life of celibacy. We anticipate that older single men and women will be self-sufficient and content.
To be sure, every one of us should be content with our own station in life. But the desire for a romantic companion isn’t some made-up personal flaw or fluke, but the logical, relational, and emotional implication of what God observed in his creation: it’s not good for man to be alone. That observation doesn’t just establish the institution of marriage. It alludes to a deep and profound tendency within us to prefer the company of others.
Certainly in this modern age we have devised ways of coping with this desire, but most distractions and mechanisms we have in place rest on the foundation of other people. In our attempts to live self-sufficient and solitary lives, we invest ourselves in the creations and stories of others.
I’ve had significant others most of my adolescent and adult life. In sixth grade I started dating my first girlfriend, and each breakup was followed almost immediately by a new girlfriend. This was a not a result of dashing good looks or a charming personality. It was because I was terrified of being alone.
I never had to face that fear head on until I was 29 years old, when I found myself alone in a one-bedroom apartment after an inevitable but nonetheless heart-wrenching divorce. I spent many nights alone in that apartment, desperate for company, but even more desperate for companionship. If it weren’t for the married couples in my church who took the initiative to include me in their private family lives, I would have floundered and despaired much more than I did. Because of those husbands and wives who invested their time in me and actively sought opportunities to demonstrate Christ’s love to me, I was able to be convinced that I was valued at a time when my own spirit was telling me otherwise.
I was a unique case: a recently married man in the midst of a painful divorce. But lately I’ve been thinking about all of those normal single people, forced to live their life as if everything was perfect. In fact, they’re told how lucky they are not to have kids, commitments to a spouse, to have the house to themselves, to have friday night completely free. But a free friday night isn’t always a gift when there’s no one to share old episodes of The West Wing with.
All of this isn’t to say that single people are automatically less fortunate or content. But it is crucial that we acknowledge the very real struggle of those who find themselves without their own, personal Other. The church doesn’t need to patronize them with overzealous match-making or unsolicited platitudes, but neither should its members minimize very real expressions of longing, sorrow, or uncertainty.
After all, families need single people too; otherwise we risk becoming too insular, too narrow-minded and set in our ways. The snake of family life can eat itself if the only people in the family’s purview are each other.
God gave us the gift of marriage and family as a foundation for service, not as a cave to retreat into, and He gave us the gift of singleness as an opportunity for unfettered ministry to others. With a little care, concern, and open and listening hearts, we can all begin to love one another, single, married, and everything in between.
This article was adapted from the editor’s letter in the most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, “Living With Longing.”