Marlena Graves’ recent post on Desperate for Their MRS Degrees highlighted the desperation of young evangelical women in college to find a husband before they graduate. She pointed out how women will go to great lengths to find romantic "salvation." She wonders how this obsession impacts women and their callings.
As a white evangelical male, I write this with great fear and trepidation. I don’t know what it's like to walk in the shoes of an unmarried woman in the evangelical sub-culture. But I’ve made it a point to listen to the stories of women. I also know something of the crisis in the evangelical church and unmarried women.
Perhaps this crisis could be more adequately understood if we looked into the pain of an unmarried woman who is fiftysomething. I’m sure her number is growing.
This woman writes, “I’m never married but I always wanted to be….I have a found it a difficult place to be . I am treated for the most part like a third class citizen…I have prayed for a husband for decades… I have prayed for what I could do in church but I am very limited.”
Another woman in the evangelical book, Singled Out, observes:
“Many single women are conditioned to believe that their lives are insignificant because they lack a man’s romantic affection…Single women often live with a sense of inferiority, wondering what defective aspect of their lives has made them privy to the horrors of partnerlessness. Most damaging is the notion that singleness is something unpleasant to be endured, like swallowing a bad-tasting pill or walking through a foul-smelling tunnel.”
There is something deeply wrong and unhealthy within the evangelical world when young and mature unmarried single women are experiencing this. To experience the biological, spiritual, and relational yearnings to be married is good, natural, and sacred. Yet, this wide range of urgency, obsession, desperation, and as years go on, deep disillusionment is not surprising given the evangelical obsession with romantic utopia.
In romantic utopia, a woman’s worth is determined by her sexiness, her erotic-romantic self, her desirability as a romantic partner.
It doesn’t take too long to see that “sexiness” is the defining criteria for choosing a mate in the modern world—and this is no less true in the evangelical world. I won’t address in this post why this is an ongoing issue for married women and their love life.
What happens in this romantic saturated culture is that a woman’s worth and identity is not found in Christ, in her personhood, character, friendships, and community; her self-worth and image “does not precede the romantic interaction, but rather has become something to be crucially negotiated and established in it” (Why Love Hurts, Eva Illouz).
This is the dilemma for unmarried women in romantic utopia: without erotic capital, they are vulnerable in a sub-culture which prizes deep, meaningful, passionate romantic relationships above all else. The unmarried woman never finds her "true" self, because her "true" self is to be found in romantic engagement.
As sociologist Dagmar Herzog points out in her book, Sex in Crisis, the evangelical sub-culture in the last twenty years has claimed enormous erotic, relational, emotional, and spiritual capital for those who are married.
There is no shortage of books on the romantic utopia in the evangelical world. Evangelicals Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus in their book, Intimate Issues talk about “soulgasm”—what happens when husband and wife experience when they have sex plus intense emotional connection plus God’s presence at the high peak of the moment.
So where does that leave unmarried women in this hyperromantic culture? Women in college? In their 20s? 30s? 40s? 50s? Implicitly and explicitly the message sent to unmarried women in so many evangelical institutions (academic and ecclesial) is that unmarried women cannot experience real love or be a real woman without hitching up to a soul mate—enjoying deep emotional intimacy and passionate sex. Sarah Bessy wrote a wonderful post on language and "real" women.
If one steps beyond the evangelical obsession with romantic utopia, one sees hope for unmarried women discovering and using their gifts as well as discovering the fullness of intimacy beyond the romance.
E. Kay Trimberger in her book, The New Single Woman has this powerful insight. Sociologists, she points out, see friendship as the key to a happy lasting relationship. She writes, “If friendship is the model of intimacy in marriage… why can’t friendship provide intimacy for those who are not coupled?” She adds, “Many people experience their most successful and lasting intimacy with a friend, not with a soul mate.”
Then she adds something that I think would be so liberating for unmarried women in the evangelical culture. Speaking of unmarried women, “To recognize that their lives are full of intimacy, however, single women today individually have to reject the idea of finding a soul mate.”
Perhaps, what great faith outside of Israel!
I think she’s onto something. I think many evangelical unmarried women who are in their 30s and 40s are wrestling with this issue but the ambivalence of sexualizing friendship is a deep fear among many women. You see it in the book, Singled Out by Christine Colón and Bonnie Field.
This is where the virtue of cross-sex friendship as an alternative ethic to romantic utopia is a powerful, life-giving, intimate relationship for unmarried women in this new century. While they still may long for marriage and sexual intimacy, for women who are open to the fullness of chaste intimacy--the fullness of love in friendship, and who are willing to invest their whole their embodied selves in chaste intimacy, cross-sex friendship opens up new vistas of the good and the beautiful in their present lives for vocation and the deepest of relationships.