Still not married: Jane Austen’s insight on singleness

Twenty-three and married … or at least dating the guy I want to marry. For how many young women is that not the hope, yet for how many is that not the reality? By 25 or 26, the inevitable tension hits: “I need to find somebody soon.” One young woman in her mid-20s told me she was contemplating freezing her eggs because she was so nervous she was going to be past her prime fertility by the time she found a husband. Setting aside my serious concerns with that decision (she was only in her 20s!), I assured her she had plenty of time and encouraged her to relax. But what stuck with me was the seemingly universal preoccupation with the age by which a woman must marry.

We now live in a culture where it is perfectly “acceptable” to be a single career-woman in her 40s, yet there remains a decided anxiety that accompanies a modern woman (or at least her nearest family members) when a woman who hopes to marry is without a significant other anywhere past her early-to-mid-20s. You need only watch a Hallmark movie or talk to a handful of relatives at your next holiday gathering (most of whom will ask about your dating life) to recognize that. While a woman marrying young is no longer dictated by societal norms at large, it is still a social pressure and often a personal expectation that women place on themselves.

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Enter Jane Austen. In her classic novel “Persuasion,” Austen unveils a unique heroine: Anne Elliot. Probably the least vibrant of Austen’s heroines, she has been my favorite for years. As a gentle, obedient middle daughter who fell in love at age 19 only to be cautioned away from the relationship by the parental figures in her life, Anne lives a solitary life through her 20s. Her beauty fades, her marital expectations diminish, her younger sister marries, and Anne is written off as likely to quietly slip into the existence of an “old maid.” We are introduced to Anne at age 27, a promising age for marriage in our century, but one that has nearly reduced her to a spinster when the book was written more than two centuries ago. Consider that life expectancy in 1816 was approximately 30 years less than life expectancy in our era, and 27 begins to sound nearly ancient. Now I won’t reveal the plot twists, but I can assure you “Persuasion” is worth a read and that Anne’s story ends happily.

As with any truly great literature, the concept is both universal and stunningly relevant to our modern age: How ought a woman respond to protracted singleness when all her hopes and expectations were set on being married by now? For some women who hoped to marry the year after they earned their college degree, that age is 23; for others, the age is nearer to 40, but the question remains pronounced and often painful.

Perhaps I find Anne most relevant because her story mirrors mine in so many ways. I felt called to married life since my early 20s, but by the time I had multiple godchildren and strangers at church had regularly assumed me to be some sort of consecrated virgin, something about my marital timing felt off. I had exited a very serious relationship in my college years and experienced ongoing singleness while many of my friends were marrying and having children through a good portion of my 20s. Ultimately, I found myself in work and social settings where it was challenging to meet anyone new and where my best guy friends were distinctly friends. Akin to Anne, I must admit that my story ends very happily: I found myself in my upper 20s on my wedding day with a husband who could have stepped out of a fairy tale. But that didn’t happen without years of experiencing the “marital ache.” For many women, I also know you wish that your story was more like mine as you are still looking for a spouse and feeling “single anxiety” well past your late 20s.

Let me reassure you: I didn’t just set out on writing this article to commiserate with all my sisters fretting over their singleness. Rather, I am convinced it is necessary to be willing to talk about the topics that make us feel vulnerable and anxious as women and that we frequently want to sweep under the rug as “not a big deal” even as we let them pester our brains at night. Austen’s writing and my own experiences have inspired me to offer a few reflections on how to respond to an unexpected time of singleness and how to live those years to the fullest.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a woman marrying young or with having that hope or desire. But there must be a healthy response to unexpected singleness, and I am convinced that response is led and guided by our faith.

1. Relish your singleness

A dear friend and mentor of mine pointed out during my single years that I ought to treasure the time of singlehood as a time I would never get back, a time with unique opportunities to both serve and experience the world. I am so glad that I took her advice. It was during those years of singlehood that I lived and worked overseas, traveled to more than a dozen countries on a backpacker’s budget, and earned my Master’s degree. It was during those years that I had the opportunity to serve on a medical mission to Guatemala, teach weekly religious education at my church, assist with the parish youth group, participate in yearly retreats and serve as a volunteer counselor at a pregnancy center. I did most of those things while simultaneously working multiple jobs in which I found fulfillment, purpose and mission.

Looking back, there are things about that lifestyle I wouldn’t recommend, yet my takeaway is crystal clear: I am so grateful for my friend’s advice and so glad that I took it seriously. We often talk about treasuring a time of engagement or the honeymoon period or the first year of a child’s life, but we too infrequently recognize and appreciate the gift of singleness when we have it. If you are single and hoping not to be, don’t waste or wish away the time: carpe diem! Make the most of these years in developing your own womanhood and identity as a daughter of God and in serving and loving the family and community around you. That is something you will never regret.

2. Run the race

I have heard it repeated that the best way to find a spouse is to look at and run toward Jesus. When you’ve been running for a while, then it is time to look to your right and your left and see who is running with you. If you are called toward marriage, it is often among those people that you will find the spouse God has created with you in mind. For my own part, there was a multi-year stretch in my mid-20s in which I didn’t even go on a date; I was ready and hopeful for the opportunity to arise and admittedly disappointed when it didn’t, but that wasn’t my primary focus. The primary focus was Jesus; he is the one true love of every Christian, and all of our most perfect expressions of love stem from that love.

If you are anxious about marriage, cultivate a habit of Eucharistic adoration. Chase and meet Jesus first. I can assure you that he is the best one to seek out for relationship advice and for peace in your own heart. To be clear, I recognize that there is a time for dating and that it is good to be intentional about meeting and socializing with men around your age, but it is most important to have our priorities in order. At the end of the day, my own experience says that it is far from coincidence that my husband proposed in front of a tabernacle.

3. Recognize the goal

If the goal is marriage, you will be unhappy. Marriage alone will not fulfill you, and it will not fulfill your spouse. That may sound harsh, but it is actually extremely refreshing and freeing — both in your time of singleness and in your marriage. The goal must be heaven! If the goal is heaven and if you are called to marriage, then marriage is an avenue God will utilize to lead you and your spouse to that goal. If the goal is heaven, then any stage of your life can be one of peace and joy. When we recognize the goal, we free ourselves to live each moment as a gifted opportunity to draw us closer to God rather than as one more moment of not yet achieving.

I pray these reflections give you a chance to both ponder and appreciate your singleness. For a bit more inspiration, pick up “Persuasion” and be touched by the example of a literary heroine who lives her life simply and well, serving her family and her friends first, and later finding that marriage will come when the time is right. I can promise you that the dream you hardly dare to dream for your life is far less than the perfect plan God has in store. When all is said and done, we will never be able to outdream God and his love for us.

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