“Oh, so you’re single.”
“No, I’m not single. I’ve just been married 4 times and this last one was really a doozie!” That being my sinful, first response to such insensitive comments, I have to take a deep breath and pause before responding. I just get tired of it.
We’ve all heard it. We’ve cringed as we’ve seen it coming, hoping they aren’t really going to say it. Everything inside us wants to scream out that there is so much more to us than our marital status. And, yet, that’s what seems to come up first. Sometimes I wonder if people think I’m serving cross-culturally as a way to kill time until I find a husband and my “real” life begins. They would never say it, but that’s how it comes across. Or, they’re just openly sad about my poor life. Does anyone realize that being here on the field is fulfilling one of my heart’s desires?
I’m not waiting–I’m living.
After talking with several other single women in my agency, I thought I’d pass along their thoughts as well as mine in hopes we can encourage each other to persevere and to find strength in our relationship with God and others.
Nancy, a 22-year “veteran” global worker, tells how she processed being single and doing career cross-cultural work:
“Before I applied for service with my company, I was willing to serve cross-culturally but felt the way [it] would work out would be for a man, called by God to serve cross-culturally to come along and marry me, then we could go to serve God together. I was just willing to go as led. But, I have to say that I was being conditional about it in a subtle sort of way. ‘God, I will go if you send a man along to take me by the hand and lead me to the place you want me to be.’ Sort of passively waiting for God to accomplish His will according to the way I imagined it. God used a friend in my singles group to rebuke me for my passivity in seeking God’s direction for my life. I realized that I was, in practice, limiting God by holding out for a husband.”
“Really, the bottom line is ‘to whom do you want to entrust your life?’ Do you want to trust in God to satisfy every need in the very best way possible for you? Or are you…clinging to the belief that you know best what you need and are going to find a way to satisfy that? That sounds kind of strident and black and white. But it comes as a result of many years of trusting God and then taking back responsibility.
Modern singles are just as concerned about whether or not they will marry as their counterparts of twenty to thirty years ago. At the same time, though, they seem less willing to commit to long term global work service. Volunteers for global work service often struggle with facing loneliness and hesitate to consider longer term service because of it. Still, in our company, one-fifth of those serving cross-culturally are single, and ninety percent of those singles are women. There may be many socio-psychological reasons for the high priority that modern singles place on finding “the one” and getting married, but three interconnected theories seem to stand out when we talk:
- As our society fragments and the sense of community diminishes, our culture has become one of isolation. To be married and in a family unit is important—to have some type of “connectedness”—rather than being an individual entity “out there.”
- Although most Christian singles would say they try to be careful and guard about what they watch and read from the media, the sexual fabric of the western culture cannot be escaped. Sex is promoted widely. Even though Christian singles may be committed to purity in their hearts before God, marriage is the only biblical response to the pressure for sexual intimacy and contributes to the urgency to be married.
- Another more subtle pressure is that in today’s evangelical world, normal is “married with children.” Singleness is looked upon with a bit of suspicion (this comment is from a single woman serving overseas.) A “woman is not supposed to take any initiative about her desire to be married. Therefore she feels that it is not spiritual to express a desire for a husband, or shameful…as not trusting the Lord. To me it is a bit of a Catch-22. Single is not quite normal, but you are not allowed to admit openly a desire for a husband.”
The current evangelical strong commitment to “family values” and a shoring up of marriage and family—almost a “circling of the wagons” mentality—may actually communicate that singleness is not quite evangelical.
For many singles there is a heartfelt tension between a God-given desire to be married and a call to serve the Lord in cross-cultural ministry. The questions often are: “If this desire is so strong, should I just wait in the U.S. until I find someone who is also overseas-bound and marry?” Or “Even though I have this call on my life to serve the Lord, there is this great guy who loves the Lord but is not called to cross-cultural ministry. Should I settle for him?”
There are no easy answers. And there is no “better” way—married or single. Both paths have joys and problems. Both paths call for sacrificial living for the Lord. In both lifestyles for all the pain that sacrifice might entail, the richness with which the Lord fills our lives more than compensates for the sacrifices. Singles contemplating an overseas assignment often do not realize that coping with loneliness is not unique to being single, and having a strategy in place for coping is a wise plan. Here are some of the ideas we’ve come up with:
- Don’t run away from the feelings of loneliness but address them to God.
- Deliberately develop friendships from both singles and married friends who will be a support group, with whom you can freely discuss loneliness and from whom you can receive comfort, encouragement, a reality check, and humor.
- Recognize that loneliness and singleness issues can be cyclical. Don’t be surprised when they resurface at different times.
- Be prepared to be asked by nationals and co-workers about your singleness. It is not uncommon for nationals to openly inquire about your unmarried state or for colleagues to make comments like, “You’d make someone a great wife.”
- Commit to serve the Lord now, whatever the cost. There are no regrets at the end of life if this commitment is carried out in all decisions whether married or single.
Realistically, there are both advantages and disadvantages to being single in global work. Flexibility in ministry is a great advantage. For example, to be able to stay late at night in someone’s home to visit and minister might be difficult for a wife and mother but not for a single. Traveling light and being flexible in travel are advantages that married couples and parents find challenging. It is usually easier to implement a move, a change of jobs, or a U.S. home schedule when one is single. On the other hand, as a single it can be a challenge to take a real vacation outside of one’s country. It means either going by oneself, which can be very lonely, or going with co-workers or nationals, which can defeat the purpose of getting out of the country.
Being married in cross-cultural work carries with it many responsibilities that are automatically avoided by singles. Concerns for the health, safety, educational needs, daily care (food, clothing, etc.) and whereabouts of one’s spouse and children occupy a large portion of a married person’s time and energy. It is not uncommon for married people to look wistfully at the freedom and flexibility that unmarried co-workers enjoy. However, serving as a single within a context of married couples can inhibit freedom to express one’s opinions. A married person has her spouse as an advocate, but who advocates for the single?
Often singles have an easier time learning language and culture and they may bond more easily with nationals because they are more flexible in their living requirements and less distracted from learning. Married people tend to depend on each other to assuage loneliness and thus may not reach out to nationals as readily, whereas singles often begin to develop closer relationships with nationals, even if the motive may at first be to assuage loneliness. There are many things about any new culture that are uncomfortable, and it’s tempting to retreat to the safety and comfort of one’s own family and home. This temptation may be greater for married people than for singles.
People may assume that a single person has more time that she does. A single has all the responsibilities of home and work but cannot delegate some of them to a partner to handle; for example, handling finances or cooking. If a single says “no” to added responsibility, she may be perceived as not pulling her weight on a team.
Every time married people make a transition to a new ministry location or go on home assignment, they take with them the person or people they know best, their family. A single person must go through those times alone, which can lead to feelings of detachment. This also holds true of accountability. It is incumbent upon us singles to seek out and foster relationships of accountability, whereas married couples often function for each other in that role.
Babies need to be held and touched in order to grow up psychologically healthy. Adults, too, need human touch from others. For the single global worker, especially in a reserved culture, it is unlikely that people will be quick to give and receive physical affection. Singles working overseas need to be aware of how they give and receive affection and ask God to show them how to adequately and properly meet this need in the ministry context.
Not to be too simplistic, but one single friend summed up her approach this way:
- Single today, but not necessarily forever. I don’t have to decide today about singleness in the future. It is a reality just for today.
- Single by choice, not by chance. If I really wanted to be married, I could be…but I may not want to follow the path on which that choice might take me.
- To serve but not to sulk. If my life is about serving God, marriage is not a condition to service; a willing and obedient heart is. Going to work cross-culturally needs to be a completely separate issue from marriage, unless, of course, one is already married.
To quote another of my single friends serving cross-culturally, “Being a single in a foreign country is not an easy thing. I have gone through the cycles of being lonely and wondering if I will be married some day to feeling so content and full of purpose. The thing that has helped me the most is to look back and trace the steps where God has led me. The other comfort I have is to look forward. When I consider the brevity of life, the necessity of God’s work, and the hope of eternity that lies ahead—the issues I face seem smaller, my faith gets bigger, and I smile a little more.”
To my married friends, I would ask you to remember that if God wanted me to be married, He is quite able to accomplish that task. Since I am not married, apparently He has other plans for me right now. And, I would ask that you remember all the other pieces that make up me–the whole me. Remembering to ask how my national friend is doing or if I’ve made contact with that family downstairs from me in my apartment would deepen our friendship and help remind me that I’m more than my marital status.
View the original print magazine where this article was first published.