We sometimes lie to children and tell them that there are no bad questions. But there are, as a matter of fact, some very bad questions. For instance, asking just any woman who happens to be carrying some weight around the midsection, “Oh, when is your baby due?,” is generally bad policy. So, too, is it frequently a bad idea to ask a philosophy major, “Oh, what are your plans for after graduation?” or to ask someone in Detroit, “So what do you do for a living?”
Another bad question, especially when asked in public, is, “So why are you still single?” This may come as a surprise to some of you, but, trust me, I am speaking as a friend. You may mean it to be somewhat flattering. You mean it to imply, “Why, you have so much going for you! You’re such a great person! You are so good looking/sweet/kind/fun/nice/smart/whatever! How have you not gotten snatched up yet?” But, whatever your intentions, if you meet a single person, perhaps in their late twenties or thirties or early forties or whatever, and that is the question on your mind, I beseech you: Do not ask that question. Certainly not in public. I assure you, it is a bad idea. And if you simply must ask, ask in private but be prepared either for a non-response or for a rather difficult one.
I speak both as one who has made the mistake of asking it and now as one who is asked it ad nauseum. You see, the real answer to that question for not a few older singles is a painful narrative comprised of a series of disappointments and heartaches, rejections, near-misses, and sometimes even horrifying betrayals. It is usually not a story that a single wishes to rehearse at, say, a baby shower or a church retreat or a cocktail party. And, so, more often than not, the response that is offered to this question is either a glib, or faux-cheerful, or awkward, “I guess I just haven’t met the right person,” or, worse, a deflated murmured, “I don’t know.” Or, worst of all, they might break down and make a fool of themselves by actually telling you. And then you’d better be prepared for tears and anger and a story about getting stood up at an airport or some such thing. If you have not braced yourself for such an answer and haven’t either tissues or bourbon on hand, it is probably best to leave well enough alone and just not ask.
The question is, in any context, frequently a difficult one because the older single often has been wondering that very thing him or herself and more often than not has not come to any firm answers. Did I do something wrong? Is it my fault? Is something wrong with me? If it is something wrong with me, is it something I can even change? Have I missed my chance? Do I have it in me to even try a relationship again? Am I just not marriage material? These questions jostle along behind the question, Why are you still single?
In short, unless you are a licensed counselor, it’s probably best just not to ask.
A famous dictum by Stanley Hauerwas has been making the rounds around the interwebs lately because Tim and Kathy Keller site it in their new book on marriage, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011). (You can check out some of the Kellers’ wisdom here.) Hauerwas says this:
Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.
We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
I think I believed this long before I heard Hauerwas say it, and I think he is fundamentally correct. You never marry the “right” person. Mr. or Ms. “Right” doesn’t really exist, and if he or she does, s/he’ll likely evaporate within a year of your honeymoon and you’ll have the rest of your life (assuming you stick to your vows) to figure out how to make do with the person you actually have. So the moral of the story is to quit being so doggone picky.
Fair enough. But I think Hauerwas’s dictum needs to be balanced with another, this time from Søren Kierkegaard:
Better well hanged than ill wed.
It may be true that you always marry the wrong person, but it is also true that some persons are wronger than others. And it’s also true that for all of the awkwardness, frustration and loneliness of being 28+ and single, it’s preferable to being trapped in a bad relationship. So a little guardedness is in order. A little pickiness is in order. A little hesitancy is in order. A little aloofness is in order. And that even when–perhaps especially when–one is an older single.
So, to make a long story short, whenever I am asked, as I often am, “Why are you still single?,” I never say, “I guess I just haven’t met the right person.” There ain’t no such thing. Rather my answer is simply to say, “Better well hanged than ill wed,” and to leave it at that.