I’m a life-long singleton. I’ve been in love twice but never got as far a long-term relationship. The last time I kissed anyone with tenderness and passion was . . . well, a long time ago.
I’m a middle-aged virgin. I remember the day I reluctantly confessed this to the practice nurse in my local Well Woman clinic when I was there to have a smear test. Her face was a picture. I honestly think she’d have been less shocked had I confessed to sleeping with the entire Manchester United football team.
Secular society, of course, can scarcely believe that such creatures still exist. Virgins were regarded somewhat askance a hundred years ago, let alone now.
I’ve yet to meet a single Christian who possesses the elusive (and absurd) ‘gift of singleness’. Most singles I know are single by default, not design—through divorce, or bereavement, or simply not having found a life-partner (that would be me). I suspect there are many such in the evangelical community, outwardly cheerful and apparently fulfilled but quietly hiding their pain as they serve their churches.
I grieve in several ways:
Longing for love. This can be a profound ache, a deep sadness, tapping into a fundamental sense of rejection and abandonment. I know perfectly well that marriage and parenthood are hard work. But some people do actually manage to find the love of their lives, and, even though God is kinder about this than I am on myself, my ‘failure’ in this area stings.The longing has hit many times in many ways: the bittersweet emotions of being a bridesmaid when I would rather have been the bride—the green stab of jealousy I felt in my mid-forties when another forty-something friend became a wife and mother—wondering where I went wrong, if I wasn’t intentional enough about dating, or praying for a husband.
Mourning motherhood. I’d have loved to have been a mother. That hurts, especially when I think about children who are ill-treated by their biological parents. Another sting is that I’m adopted, and would have liked to have passed on my genes. I have also yearned to have the physical experience of pregnancy. These longings hit me hard on the day when I held my two-day-old niece in my arms, a delicate baby girl with a mouth like a rosebud. Such a primal wave of fierce tenderness surged within me. I wondered then if this might be the closest I would ever come to cradling my own daughter. I was right. That day would never come.
Missing out on rites of passage. I don’t believe that sexual initiation automatically confers maturity since there are plenty of people who are sexually experienced but emotionally immature, but sex is such a basic, human drive that I often feel empty and hollow inside for not having had it. This has often been a physical ache but it’s also an emotional yearning, when your arms reach out only to embrace an empty circle, when you wish you had someone to hold, and cherish, and take care of.
How have I coped with extended singleness over the years? I have often anesthetized the sense of loss through a vivid sexual fantasy life. Now the menopause has come and gone and I’m done with grieving for the children I never had. My libido has also calmed. Perhaps that’s just as well, because sexual frustration can be painful–not just physically, but emotionally.
I wouldn’t want anyone reading this to assume that I am always unhappy, or in a constant state of grief. I have a rich life in many ways, with many interests and friends. I’ve had blessings others haven’t, including God giving me the gift of a ministry I love.
Neither do I resent the traditional teachings of my faith—the view that sex is for the covenant of marriage, and the command of celibacy for the unmarried. I don’t regret the demands of following Jesus. I could never regret following him.
I don’t want pity: pity feels patronising. Neither do I want pious lectures about being ‘content’ with singleness. Empathy, however, is welcome, knowing that someone respects my feelings and my struggles, and understands something of what it costs to be a single Christian in today’s culture. Christ is worth that cost, but an acknowledgement of it still goes a long way. Such a rare moment came recently, during a women’s worship event in London. One of the married speakers publicly affirmed all the single women there. She called us ‘heroes’. I could have hugged her.