“The search for the perfect is usually the enemy of the truly good.” — Richard Rohr
single in the city
“Do you mind if I invite a few people over tonight?” I asked my roommates. It was Valentine’s Day, and as usual, I was single. So I started messaging some friends, telling them to come over and invite anyone else who was free.
By nine o’clock that night, more than forty twenty-somethings had crammed into my small New York apartment. I was shocked by the turnout. “How can all of these friendly, successful, and attractive young people still be single?” I thought. Something seemed off. We all spent so much time talking about relationships during day-to-day life, yet few of us were ever in one, much less getting married.
why aren’t we getting married?
As I’ve talked to young people around the country, they’ve shared similar stories to mine. After college, many of them had moved to trendy cities and developed large friend groups and social circles. They spent their twenties wanting to get married, yet despite all of the single people around them, they struggled to find a spouse.
This creates a marriage paradox: every Christian young person wants to get married, and we’re surrounded by other single people who want to get married, yet everyone’s afraid they’ll never find anyone to marry. At face value this situation doesn’t make sense. How can so many single people be friends with so many other single people, yet be afraid of always being single?
the late twenties blues
“I’m afraid I’m never going to find someone to marry,” the comment always goes. I’ve heard this phrase so many times from my peers, and have uttered it myself. Few young people ever share this side of themselves in public, but one-on-one, when you dig into what’s really going on in life, this fear tumbles out, unable to be repressed any longer.
“But what about her? Or him?” any good listener asks. “They’d be interested in dating you.” Uncomfortable squirm. “They’re nice,” the getting-ready-to-join-a-convent person says in a woe-is-me voice, “But they’re just not quite what I’m looking for.” This is the crucial phrase, and it begs the question: what are we looking for in marriage?
the unasked question
To understand what we’re looking for in marriage, we have to dig into a deeper question that rarely gets asked: what’s the purpose, after all, of marriage? We spend a lot of time thinking about how to get married, but few conversations ever address why we should get married. We assume every generation gets married for the same reasons, but in reality, marriage is an ever-evolving institution, adapted by each time period to fit its view of the world.
In the 1700 and 1800s, when the U.S. was full of farmers, young people pursued pragmatic marriages, seeking a spouse for their ability to work hard and create an economically stable and secure life. After the Industrial Revolution, young people began to pursue companionate marriages, where they chose a spouse on the basis of the excitement, intimacy, and romantic love they felt with the other person. While lots of young people in traditional parts of the US still pursue companionate marriages, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s ushered in today’s dominant marriage narrative: self-expressive marriage.
a new type of marriage
In self-expressive marriage, marriage becomes a means by which you pursue happiness and self fulfillment. While pragmatic marriage sought to meet the larger needs of the society, and companionate marriage was about meeting the immediate needs of your spouse and children, in self-expressive marriage, young people pursue marriage in order to meet their own personal needs.
Today, sociologist Eli Finkel writes, young people “view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment.” Marriage above all, he adds, becomes a quest for self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.
This change occurred as a result of society’s emphasis on the self, creating our current culture where self-expression and self-fulfillment are the highest values. So, we grow up focusing on understanding who we are and what will fulfill us. As we enter high school and college, these are the desires that become the criteria by which all prospective spouses are judged.
While young people have always had expectations for marriage, self-expressive marriage has raised them beyond any previous generation. This happened because when you start looking into yourself for guidance, you quickly find almost unlimited desires that you’d like to fulfill. According to Finkel, these unlimited desires have created increased expectations for marriage in four major areas. They’ve led to increased expectations for:
Emotional intimacy: we don’t just want a partner, but a best friend who naturally understands us and makes us feel alive when we’re together.
Sexual passion: we want every sexual encounter to be exciting, passionate, and full of ecstatic pleasure, with a person who we can’t take our eyes off of.
Social prestige: we want to marry someone that’s either equally or more successful than we are, in order to gain or solidify our desired social status.
Personal growth: we want a spouse that not only “gets us”, but helps us realize our hopes, dreams, and potential for life.
While every young person is different, these four categories describe the general expectations many of us use to choose a spouse. Just last week, while scrolling through Instagram, I came across a single guy’s “letter to the universe” about his future spouse. As you read it, look for his self-expressive expectations:
Dear Universe, I’m ready for you to bring my soulmate into my life. Here’s my vision of my ideal relationship: She lights me up! There’s a connection and oneness between us. She is my best friend. We know each other’s thoughts. I’m free with her. Our conversations flow. We inspire each other to learn and grow. We enjoy working out, making food, and doing yoga together. We love to travel to new places.
We have such incredible passion when we kiss, hug, and touch each other. When we kiss and make love we lose track of time. There is an energy between us that people can feel. We both put the needs of the other one in front of our own. We share similar interests. She has a growth mindset, very loving, playful, constantly smiling, funny, and loves adventure. I can’t wait to meet you!
While we’d be too embarrassed to ever express these things, this guy describes many of the unspoken expectations young people have for marriage. We’re not just looking for someone to share life with or raise a family, but instead want a deep friendship, strong sexual attraction, advantageous social connections, and a life of reaching our dreams together.
While none of these expectations are inherently wrong, together, though, they create a sky-high bar for what your future spouse needs to be. If you find a spouse who meets all of these expectations, we’re led to believe, you’ll be guaranteed a happy and fulfilling life. Because of this, we spend our twenties in the defining aspect of today’s pursuit of marriage: the search.
looking for miss/mister right
Because we have such high expectations for our future spouse, we need to cast a wide net to find such a special person. We develop large friend groups, attend large churches, and go to large parties, in part to increase the likelihood of meeting someone who can make all of our dreams come true. Cue Hall and Oates.
And so we spend our twenties in large friend groups, meeting new people and judging them against our expectations. This search for an ideal spouse dominates our twenties, and is the major reason for the popularity of dating apps, since they allow you to quickly filter through a large number of prospective dates. We start with a person’s external traits, their job, social status, and sex appeal, and if they pass those tests, we try to get to know them and see if there’s an emotional connection.
problems in paradise
As I went through my twenties, I spent a lot of time looking for this perfect person. If I could just find this person, I thought, I’d have my ticket to the perfect life punched. But by the end of my twenties, I was exhausted; I’d met so many people yet still hadn’t found some who met my expectations.
Looking back, I see the how the inherent flaws in the self-expressive marriage search made it almost impossible for me to ever find this perfect person.
My pride led to pickiness: since I was subconsciously looking for someone who met my needs, my preferences became the standard by which I judged everyone else. This caused me to disqualify a good option if they weren’t perfect, at least according to my definition.
I struggled with the paradox of choice: since I met so many young people, I eventually became paralyzed by all of the choices. Every person had pros and cons, and so I struggled to choose among so many good, but never perfect, options.
I had contradictory expectations: since expectations are inherently abstract, I was looking for mutually exclusive traits in the same person. I wanted someone who was good-looking, exciting, and had a strong personality, yet at the same time was humble, servant-hearted, and stable. But because every strength creates a weakness, this person can’t exist.
While finding your dream spouse sounds great in theory, these structural roadblocks in self-expressive marriage create a lot of frustration and make it hard to ever find your “perfect” person.
the waiting game
And. So. We. Wait. Years go by, while we search to find someone who meets all of our expectations. It’s as these years pass that the fear of being single kicks in, that even though we’re surrounded by so many other single people, we’ll never meet our ideal person who perfectly completes us.
But yet we can’t just marry any single person around us, for fear of “settling,” that dirty word for giving up on your expectations. If you settle, we’re told by society, you’ll end up stuck forever in an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage. And so we wait, afraid of being single and lonely, yet not wanting to settle and feel stuck and unhappy.
This is what creates our marriage paradox. When a young person, surrounded by other quality single people, expresses fear that they’ll never get married, they’re not actually afraid of never getting married, but rather that they’ll never find their perfect person. Surrounded by frogs, we hold out for our prince.
And while we’ll all meet people who meet all of our expectations, it’s difficult to find a prince who thinks you’re more than a frog. So we go through our twenties, single and frustrated with everyone else’s high expectations, but blind to them in our own lives.
the hidden cost of self-expressive marriage
“But what about my friends who are getting married?” you might be saying by now. “They look really happy.” You’re right, when two good-looking, high-achieving young people hold out for the best and get it, it’s incredible, between the gorgeous engagement pictures, beautiful wedding, and instagram posts professing they’ve finally found their “dream person.”
But as my peers both remain single and get married, I’ve seen that behind the initial promise of happiness and self-fulfillment, self-expressive marriage and the expectations that come with it create some disastrous side effects.
Pessimistic single people: When single young people expect their future spouse to meet all of their idealistic expectations, they often fall into a deep pessimism about dating and marriage. This creates either bitterness (all men/women are terrible!), withdrawal (it’s hopeless!), or rationalizing away major character flaws (s/he’ll change once we’re married), none of which are healthy.
Disillusioned married couples: some young people find their dream person, and get married to them, only to realize after the initial sheen has worn off, that this person isn’t great at making them feel happy and fulfilled. Eventually they wake up to the hard reality that they’re both incapable of and exhausted by the burden of meeting all of their spouse’s expectations. This causes disillusionment and cynicism, and they assume they must have married the wrong person.
Fulfilled yet self-absorbed married couples: self-expressive marriage can work really well, as long as the couple has the emotional energy and and disposable income available to focus on fulfilling their spouse’s dream life. But these marriages get so couple-focused, that they do nothing other than work and spend time together living their dream lifestyle, which usually involves lots of travel, restaurants, and leisure. But if the DINK years ever end, these marriages can struggle, as the pressures of life and getting older cut into each spouse’s ability to fulfill the other.
While the promises of self-expressive marriage sounds great in the abstract, it’s hard for anyone to meet these expectations either initially or throughout the lifetime of a marriage. So far though, we’ve only looked at the symptoms of self-expressive marriage. If we want things to change, we need to address the root cause of these expectations.
how did we get this way?
When the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s occurred, it completed what the Enlightenment had started, and kicked God out of the center of the universe, putting individual Self there instead happened. While society’s enjoyed getting rid of God’s rules, we’ve collectively struggled to replace the purpose and transcendence He provided. To fill this void, we’ve taken marriage, and tried to use it to regain a sense of purpose and transcendence.
Now that Self is the center of the universe, and we’re trying to use marriage to transcend our finiteness, we’re no longer looking for a spouse, but rather a savior. Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, puts our search for a love partner this way:
We want redemption--nothing less. We want to be rid of our faults, of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified, to know that our creation has not been in vain. We turn to the love partner for the experience of the heroic, for perfect validation; we expect them to ‘make us good’ through love.
In our finite brokenness, we all desire a savior, someone who will love us, validate our lives, and make us feel happy and safe forever. If we can just find our savior spouse, then we can create what we’re really looking for: heaven on earth.
the true savior
But since perfect savior spouses are hard to find, we spend our twenties either in unwanted singleness or struggling to love our spouse, with all of their struggles, flaws, and shortcomings. But if you ever want true happiness and lasting fulfillment, you have to follow this inner drive for a savior not to your spouse, but to Jesus, the real Savior our hearts yearn for.
Jesus, because He’s both God and man, is the only person who can fulfill your expectations for being known, loved, and cared for. This true savior knows everything about you, yet still loves you so much that He gave up everything in order to secure a relationship with you. He promises to only give you what’s for your very best, and that when this life is over, you’ll spend eternity with Him in a perfect relationship.
So if you want to get married, stop looking for a de facto savior, and instead find a person who points you to the only perfect Savior. When you find true fulfillment in God, you can use the good things God’s created, like beauty, personality, and passion, to glorify Him, not to selfishly serve yourself. That’s the path to a happy and fulfilling marriage, when you stop asking your spouse to sacrifice their life for you, but like Jesus, give up your life for them.