Church people hate me.
At least, it’s hard not to feel that way as a single woman.
For over a year, I’ve watched people panic when I show up without a partner. I’ve been asked, “Soooooo hooooooow’s wooooooork?” more times than I can count. I’ve had others explain things to me that I already understand.
I thought I was the problem. I doubled-down on small talk, asked lots of questions, brought wine to Bible study.
Still I got panicked smiles, questions about college, the dreaded, “Hoooooooow’s work?”
I thought, Maybe these people are uncomfortable around singles.
Tim is many people. He’s the missionary kid from college that everyone was friends with but no one liked. He’s the potential set-up my friend described as “emotionally volatile but financially stable.” He’s the guitar-playing youth leader who qualified every statement with, “Can I be real for sec?” Like me, Tim is single. What baffles me about Tim is how others respond to him.
Christians GUSH over Tim. They relax when he enters a room. In a heated debate, they seek his opinion. They halt conversations to scream, “TIM, I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE,” across the room (this actually happened to me.) Tim has a pull with married Christians that I haven’t been able to emulate.
With Tim present, my awkward encounters increased. The fake smiles became more pronounced, the small talk more painful. More often than not, my contributions to any discussion were met with silence. The group would shift in their seats and avoid eye contact as I held out for a response.
Tim used these silences to repeat what I’d just said with a C. S. Lewis quote tacked on for flair.
“OH MY GOD, TIM, YOUR PERSPECTIVE IS SO FASCINATING,” the group would say.
“FUCK YOU, TIM,” I would say.
Much as I hate Tim, he puts people at ease. No one fumbles for conversation with him. Instead of asking “How’s work,” they ask real questions, such as, “What do you think of Trump’s latest decision?” or, “What’s your favorite brewery?”
Gender plays a big role. Church people go in assuming that, as a man, Tim has had Adult Experiences and knows about Adult Things.
On the flip side, church people view me with a fear normally reserved for young children, a fact not helped by my age. Like with children, Christians approach interacting with me with the question, “How do I talk to it?”
Some of them don’t even try.
Others end up recycling the same topics every time we meet.
A lot of them ask really stupid questions.
Others know their questions are stupid but can’t think of alternatives.
All of these instances work to create an unwelcoming environment for single women in their 20s.
I wrote this post to help.
I’ll admit a REALLY big part of me wanted to write, “TRY TREATING ME THE SAME WAY YOU TREAT TIM,” and call it a day. The church needs to grapple with its beliefs about gender and how those beliefs have damaged their credibility.
But I’ve tried that tack in real life to no effect.
I DO see that relating to women in their 20s is a struggle for many Christians. So here we go, folks: I want you to treat me the same way you treat Tim…and here’s how.
INSTEAD OF ASKING: “Where did you go to school?”
ASK: ANYTHING ELSE
I’m 25. I graduated from college 3 years ago and I STILL have people grilling me about my college experience. I thought these questions would go away after I’d been out of school for a year. But because I haven’t found a man or landed a tech job, people see college as the Most Important Thing I’ve accomplished. They keep bringing up my past as if it’s relevant to my situation.
They think they’re showing an interest by bringing up something I moved on from a long time ago.
Avoid questions about college. I’m a Real Adult, not a Recent Graduate on Their Way to Being a Real Adult, so ask me real questions.
(Note: This also applies to recent graduates. Questions about college inevitably lead to, “So what’s next for you?” and I’ve found, “I have no idea,” or, “I want to die,” tend to bring down the mood.)
INSTEAD OF ASKING: “What do you do?”
ASK: “What do you LIKE to do?”
I dread questions about my job.
I made the mistake of moving to Seattle without a 5-year-plan.
In Seattle, you either have a great job already or you plan to get one.
For example, you can either tell people:
- “I work at Amazon.”
Response: “Wow! That’s so great!”
- “I work for [company.] I’m looking to become [something impressive] and this job is a good stepping stone.”
Response: “Good for you!”
Or you could do what I did and tell people:
- “I’m a barista.”
Response: “Oh, so that job is just for now? What do you plan to do next? Well, what did you major in? So you want to work in media? Then what’s your plan? There must be SOMETHING you want to do.”
After my “promotion” to catering assistant, questions still centered around upward mobility: “Are you trying for a management role next? Do you see yourself as a GM? Pretty soon you’ll be running the store!” For as long as I’ve lived here, people have tried “helping” me figure out my career. Now that I work at a legal service (long story,) I have to field questions about my supposed legal career.
These conversations reflect a HUGE difference in worldview. As far as I’m concerned, my job is just a job. It doesn’t define my dreams, interests, or personality. I’d rather people ask about things I’m ACTUALLY interested in rather than what I do to pay the bills.
“Well, I don’t know what you’re interested in,” you might say.
THAT’S WHY YOU ASK.
INSTEAD OF: Avoiding the topic of singleness
ASK: “How do you feel about being single?”
I haven’t dated anyone in a long time, so I can see why it would feel pointless to ask about my relationship status when it seems like it will never change.
But I’ve seen Christians go to great lengths to avoid talking about marriage with me.
One married friend provided this bit of insight: she said she knows her single friends probably feel “bad” (e.g., lonely, depressed, hopeless, etc.) about being single, but she doesn’t know how to help them.
I can understand this to a point, but that doesn’t excuse complete avoidance of the topic.
I should rephrase that: Christians don’t avoid the topic of singleness as much as they avoid the discussion of singleness. The married Christians I know feel comfortable making snide comments about why they think I’m single. From what I gather, Christians believe I’m single because:
- I don’t believe in marriage
- I’m not interested in marriage
- I’m afraid of commitment
- I’m a lesbian (PSA: Singleness is NOT synonymous with homosexuality. New theory, please.)
- I’m too intense
- I’m not spiritual enough (i.e., I have too many opinions)
- I’m too immature (i.e., my opinions differ from everyone else’s)
- I don’t try hard enough
- I’m too picky
Somehow others feel comfortable defining my singleness, yet when I bring up the subject, they clam up. It makes them uncomfortable, they say. They don’t know how to respond.
And then they gossip with their partners about what’s wrong with me.
I’m not concerned with people saying the exact right thing; the bigger issue is people don’t listen. Too often, married Christians develop all sorts of opinions about my singleness without asking how I feel about the subject.
“How do you feel about singleness?” lets me comment on my own life without having to defend my relationship status.
I chose a “how” statement instead of a “why” statement because “why” implies an accusation, i.e., “What is wrong with you?”
Do you want to have a conversation about the institution of marriage? Hit me.
Do you have want to discuss sexuality? I would LOVE that.
I have plenty of answers ready, as my feelings on these subjects change daily. Just let me be part of the discussion.
INSTEAD OF SAYING: “You have it easy!”
CHOOSE FROM THE FOLLOWING: “Yikes. That sounds rough,” OR, “Oh man, I’ve been there.”
No one my age lives an ideal life. I can’t afford to move out of my high-crime neighborhood. A good friend of mine still lives with her parents. A couple I know is struggling to raise their kid on a retail salary.
Whenever we complain, we’re told, “YOU HAVE IT EASY.”
This attitude reflects a perception that millennials (single millennials especially) have an abundance of assets because they haven’t reached Real Adulthood or taken on Real Responsibilities.
For the last several years, I’ve worked retail. At my last job, I woke up at 4:00 AM every morning to work as a full-time barista. I rented the cheapest apartment I could find in an area with tons of homeless people but no grocery store. I experienced several health setbacks and blitzed through my savings in less than a year. I don’t want the Booker Prize; I just want some sympathy.
Instead, during that time, I had married Christians with well-paying jobs admonishing me to get a second job if I wanted more money, or to get a new job, or to ask for different hours, or to ask for a promotion, or to move somewhere else, with the capper, “You have it easy.”
When I’m exhausted, it doesn’t help to hear that I haven’t really been working THAT hard.
When I’m experiencing scary health stuff and I can’t afford the doctor’s visits, it doesn’t help to hear that I’m still pretty healthy overall.
I also hear, “You have it EASY,” with regards to singleness, the logic being that because I don’t have the responsibilities that come with a loving, monogamous relationship, my life is CAKE. Without a relationship, I’m free to spend all my time and money on myself, as if I have an abundance of both. I don’t have to share my luxurious 170-sq ft apartment with an intimate partner. LUCKY ME.
People throw out “You have it easy!” when they want me to stop complaining. Rather than engage with my feelings of loneliness, they point out all the downsides of the major blessings in their lives: “Sure, I get laid regularly, but I HAVE TO SHARE A BATHROOM! You don’t know how easy you have it!”
Since I suspect some of you still don’t hear me, I’ll make this about you:
Let’s say you gave up alcohol for health reasons.
This decision is more of a bummer than anything else: you don’t need alcohol, but you can’t help wanting it from time to time, especially around the holidays.
This longing intensifies when you’re around people who drink. While everyone else downs beers and discusses winery tours, you sit with your sparkling apple juice, wishing you felt less like a child.
Once in a while, you say to the group, “I miss drinking,” just to put it out there.
The group IMMEDIATELY starts in with, “No, you don’t!” “You’re not missing out!” “This doesn’t even taste good!” “Alcohol ruins your sleep cycle!” “And it’s SO expensive!” “You’re lucky you DON’T drink.”
Of course, they say this while polishing off a bottle of wine.
Imagine a different reaction: you say, “I miss drinking,” and the group nods.
“I get that.” “I would miss alcohol, too.” “I had to give up booze while I was pregnant.” “It must be irritating that you CAN’T have it.” “That sounds rough.”
Which group would YOU rather hang out with?
INSTEAD OF SAYING: “Your perspective will change when X happens.”
SAY: “I can understand where you’re coming from.”
My dad and I fought a lot when I was in high school, mostly about politics. I was testing out new identities and trying to think for myself. My dad saw this as rebellion.
He found a way to shut down arguments: when I said something he disagreed with, he would smirk and say, “You’ll feel differently when you’re older.”
He doesn’t do that now, thankfully; others have taken on that duty.
To some extent, I understand that I have a limited perspective in certain areas: I’ve never been married; I’ve never lived overseas long-term; I’m not saving for retirement.
Even as an “outsider,” though, I have a perspective that it wouldn’t hurt others to hear.
It’s really frustrating to join a conversation about marriage and have my comments shut down with, “You’ll feel differently when you’re married.”
The effect of this type of statement is two-fold:
First, it relates to a phenomenon I like to call Adult Opinions. In conservative Christian culture, there are default answers to certain topics that you should have memorized by the time you’re 25. Any deviation is seen as a maturity failure.
This phenomenon was what my dad was alluding to in high school: “You’ll feel differently when you’re older and have all the correct opinions.”
For the record, I STILL disagree with my dad about politics (though these days we have better discussions.) Maybe 20-somethings see things differently not because they’re immature, but because they’ve had different experiences.
The second consequence reflects an ever-rising bar I have to clear in order to participate in Adult Conversation. I’ve heard many permutations of this idea: “You’ll feel differently when you’re my age.” “You’ll feel differently when you’re married. “You’ll feel differently when you’ve moved a little bit farther away.” “You’ll feel differently when you have kids.”
All of these statements communicate the same thing: “I don’t have to listen to you.” They invalidate my current experience. They confirm that nothing I’ve yet achieved is good enough for other people. They prove that no one wants my perspective.
Here’s a better way to disagree:
My mom and I were discussing marriage (this happens a lot.) I made a comment about the absurd amount of time I felt couples spent together. “If I spent all my time with another person,” I said, “I would go crazy.”
My mom started to say, “You’ll feel differently when…” and stopped herself. She started again: “I think you’ll feel differently in the future…BUT I can totally see why you feel that way and I think your perspective is valid.”
TRANSLATION: “You’re still welcome to participate in the conversation.”
That invitation is all I want to hear.
INSTEAD OF: Offering advice
SAY: “That sounds hard and I’m sorry.”
While I don’t want his friendship, Tim remains a Great Guy.
His greatness is reflected in the sage advice he supplies in every conversation.
If I’m unhappy at my job? “Get a new job.”
If my doctor won’t listen to me? “Tell them they should listen to you.”
If I’m frustrated with the all the stupid advice I’ve been getting? “Don’t feel that way.”
While I don’t have many good things to say about the last few places I’ve lived, I will say this: I received plenty of emotional support while I lived there.
There, people knew me well.
There, people acknowledged my hard work.
There, when I expressed frustration with the lack of progress I felt I was making, friends told me, “That sucks and I’m sorry.”
I don’t get that same support nowadays.
I hear the intentions behind the advice; people want to help me.
Too often, however, “help” translates to “fix.”
The Christians I meet come ready with solutions before even hearing the problem. “Stop feeling that way. Ask nicely. Eat more greens. Invest. Find a job in your field. Find a field. Get a roommate. Dress better. Talk less. Smile more. Pray harder. TRY.”
They treat the symptoms and gloss over the root problem. Before I was diagnosed with depression, I had to fight off a slurry of advice to tell people, “I can’t get out of bed. I feel hopeless. I feel like nothing helps. I’m having dark thoughts. I’m scared.”
Yes, the impulse to offer advice comes from a good place. Even knowing how unhelpful it is, I offer advice all the time.
But the advice I get is the emotional equivalent of concealer on a bruise. Others cover up the hurts I bear that hint at a larger issue. “Here,” they say, calmed now that they no longer see the marks. “All better.”
I find most advice to be a reaction to discomfort.
Christians think they’re communicating, “Let me help you.”
What I hear is, “This isn’t a big deal. Let me fix you so we don’t have to talk about this anymore. I just want this problem to go away.”
Actually listening to me would reveal that my problems don’t have a quick fix…and that terrifies them.
Give yourselves a break; I’m not asking you to fix me.
I’m inviting you to walk with me.
Nothing monumental is required of you. No panacea is expected of you. All I ask is that you acknowledge my struggles: “I see you’re hurting, that sucks, and I’m sorry.”
I want friends who deal with the person I am now instead of waiting for a time when I don’t struggle.
Now a question for you that sums up all the suggestions I’ve given:
Can you handle that?