It’s Not What You Say, it’s How You Say It

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From time to time friends of mine send me articles on singles/dating. Let me just walk you through what happens when I get these:

Notification. Click. Cringe. Reluctantly read.

The absolute worst is when someone posts one on my wall for the whole world to see.

Notification. Click. Horror. Delete. Delete. Delete. Why is it so freaking hard to remove from my phone?! How long has it been there?!?!

In my right mind, I’m thankful friends take the time to pass them along. I need to be up to date. So please, keep sending… as emails.

Recently I was sent one called, “What Not to Say to Single People” posted on Relevant. Let me start by saying there are helpful ideas in her blog. My goal isn’t to attack it. I’m responding because it made me stop and wonder for the first time, why do Christian articles on singleness make me so uncomfortable?

I came up with the following: It’s the way Christians talk about singleness and dating. It’s not so much what we say, but how we say it.

Think about it; in the secular world the single life conjures up images of fun, freedom, excitement, choice, and strength. It’s hot and sexy to be a single girl. The single storylines we see in movies and TV aren’t tragic, but exciting. The plot ends when a girl gets married.

The storyline we get in church is that life can’t begin until we are married.  We usually only see the roles of wives and mothers played out. Christian single life paints images of tears, desperation, cat ladies, and awkward adults gathered around a bowl of church punch playing Catch Phrase.

Why is this? Both groups are talking about the same exact phase of life. (And both have misunderstandings to be sure) But why do Christians talk about it so differently? How can we talk about dating in a way that highlights the good parts about being single?


Don’t Make Singleness a Thing

Honestly, I’m horrified by the fact that an article on on how to talk to singles even exists. (I realize I am writing one.) I’m sitting here feeling all-normal, when apparently people need help talking to me. Really? It makes it sound like we have some type of rare disease that requires special handling. I can’t imagine an article like this in a secular setting. Married or not married, it’s not as big of a deal outside the Church.

Don’t Make Singleness Everything

In my office, people talk about all kinds of things- sports, news, and job related issues.  At a Christian function? Forget it. I’m constantly fielding random questions about my dating life. Since the Bible is largely silent on romantic love, it seems odd that Church is the place I feel most pressured to answer for myself.

I don’t hate talking about my dating life and I’m grateful people care about what goes on. It truly is an issue of proportion. One friend wrote me,  “My pastor is CONSTANTLY commenting on how he’s praying for my future husband. However he never comments on how he’s praying for a better job or financial stability or something else equally worthwhile.”

My friend appreciates her pastor’s concern and prayers. It gets tricky when it starts to feel like the only thing people care about.

Don’t Talk About Singleness if You’re Married

I’m going to get burned at the stake over this one, but hang in there with me. Think, “I can talk about my mom, but you can’t.”

Just like finances, marriage, parenting, and dieting are often precarious and complex issues, so is dating. These are topics we build up to with people we put our trust in over time.  For some reason it’s socially acceptable for a married person to casually ask a single person how their relationship is going, but inappropriate for a single person to ask how a marriage is doing.

That being said, I have married friends I love talking about my relationship with. The difference is, I’ve invited them into it.


Don’t Treat it Like a Problem to Solve

My biggest concern with Christian single articles, books, and conversations is they typically come across as “how-tos” with lots of advice. This is off-putting because it presupposes the single person is unhappy being single, and unmarried because of a lack of knowledge or effort.

You can see how this would be frustrating.

The Relevant article said, “It’s important for those who are married to remember the struggles that come with being single and do their best to walk away from an interaction with a single leaving them feeling helped, not hurt.”

Do you see the top-down innuendo? While I appreciate the heart behind this, it’s uncomfortable to read your life as a “struggle” in someone else’s eyes. Also, it assumes I need help when I don’t see finding love as a problem to be fixed; I see it as something that happens when it happens.

The truth is, I like my life. I don’t like reading things that give the impression I’m unhappy because I’m not married. If you are married, how would you feel if most articles assumed you were depressed in your marriage?

The bottom line is no one fully understands love. Poets, writers, musicians, and philosophers have tried to capture and describe it since the beginning of time. Despite all efforts, we still don’t even have a solid definition.  Single people don’t like being talked to as if it’s something married people have figured out while we haven’t.


Don’t Go too Far with Expectations

Christians can be weird.

We somehow manage to get even weirder around the topics of dating and relationships. We don’t like grey areas. When you take a mysterious concept like falling in love, it’s tempting to want to put it in a standard sized box.  In this case, married with children by 26.

When a person doesn’t fit this expectation, our instinct is to want to fix, help, and give advice. Which is a bummer. My single friends and I don’t want to be fixed. We aren’t unhappy with all of life because we aren’t married. Sometimes we love being single. Like Saturday mornings, when no one bugs us or needs our attention. We look at the divorce rate and know marriage isn’t going to solve any of our actual problems. In the meantime, we pursue other things and enjoy our independence. Maybe we’ll get married at 40 or 50. Maybe we’ll love it. Maybe we’ll hate it. Either way, we want to decide for ourselves.

There are so many ways to live a life. I often wish I lived outside my Christian circles because there seems to be more space for things to look differently. Which is disappointing since Jesus is the ultimate includer of the outsider. Something about the way He spoke to people made them feel welcomed and validated. And at the end of the day, that’s how we all want to be talked to.

 (photo source unknown)
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23 responses to “It’s Not What You Say, it’s How You Say It”

  1. Michael says:

    Fantastic insight and a graceful response. Being single is probably just as awesome and just as sucky as being married but just in different ways. Or rather, both will help me in different ways to grow in becoming more content, finding joy in life, and walking towards Jesus. But neither is necessarily a better way. Now you’ve made me think: why is the church so hell-bent (poor choice of words?) on getting people married?

    My only push back leans on the subjective side. I think there are some single people who know that are meant for marriage rather than singleness. Those people can tend to skirt the responsibility and challenge of dating and/or marriage because they’d rather not do what they know they should do. I say this because this is me. I’m not saying I need to get married now—but probably soon-ish. So I wonder if I avoid dating when I know that it probably would be for the better. You get me?

    Likewise, I’m sure there are married folk who probably feel like they either shouldn’t have gotten married when they did or are married when they know they probably shouldn’t have. But these cases are individual and only those closest to the person should be brought into the know and conversation.

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      Thank you, Michael! I’m so glad it came across as graceful. I really didn’t want it to sound mean, so that is excellent news.

      You bring up great points- why are they hell-bent on getting us hitched? I have a couple funny ideas but maybe they don’t belong here. I also appreciated your thoughts on avoidance. Its absolutely the other side to this coin. I think you described it best in that it is a conversation you have to have with yourself and close friends. It won’t be the same for all of us and we have to be aware of how we’re being called to grow and change in the moment.

  2. Heather says:

    Well said. There are always challenges and room for growth in every phase of life. And I totally appreciate your thoughts on how Christ always made outsiders feel welcome and validated which is what we all want- so true. And definitely something to strive for in our interactions with others. Thanks for the great post Cindy!

  3. It makes me so uncomfortable the way that article referred to single people as “a single.” What? I have never thought of my single friends as one weird group I can refer to as “the singles.” Life has taught me a lot about the double standards and relationships. I think this was a great post for anyone, married or single. It’s kind of like being really tall (wink wink) and people can gawk and say, “OMG YOU ARE SO TALL!!” But it’s considered rude to look down on someone and say, “You are sooooo short!” (Which, to me, would be a compliment!) It’s funny that people have almost stopped asking married people how their marriage is because it might be considered rude or invasive. We DO want to be asked. I just think it’s rare when someone with an issue will come out and say it. I guess that’s the difference? But then again, I know some very secretive “singles” (GAHH!) and they don’t share all with the world, either. I guess it kind of drives me crazy when people get so caught up on one particular group and making broad statements, when people are just people…. just living life…. just getting by however they can.
    Great post, Cindy!!

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      Thanks, Melinda. Great point about the tall vs. short! Total double standard and another perfect example. I for sure speak without thinking all the time…working on it though:) I love what you said, “people are just people…living life.” So true.

  4. jenni says:

    Great post!! Loved it and totally agree!!

  5. susan saarloos says:

    hI cindy,
    Love your blog and your insight. This is really helpful. I miss your beautiful face.

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      Hi Susan! Thank you. Thanks for reading! I miss you, too! And just so you know, you’ve always been an encouraging voice in this area for me:) Thanks for being great at it.

  6. Alecia says:

    Being married, I’m a little hesitant to weigh in here! Good points all, and I love the question Michael raises about why the church is so hell-bent on people getting (or getting people?) married. Aren’t we usually most comfortable caring for and planning for and being with people who are like us? The demographic of the church is more married than single, so it’s geared to marriage and family. Being inclusive–whatever the differences that divide us are–takes thoughtful effort, and sometimes as a community, we’re just not thoughtful enough and don’t work as hard as we should. Now, though I get your frustration, in all fairness to the article, I think it’s written to those of us who are married, right? This is the well-intentioned, but thoughtless, careless stuff WE say, and the author is telling US to stop saying it! But I have a feeling the primary readers were probably single…so the article may have missed it’s target. Have to say, though, I would love to tag along on an experiment where you asked married people how their marriages were going. With a camera to capture their speechless, gaping mouths:)

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      Thanks, Alecia. Great questions and thoughts. What’s interesting is the single population is the fastest growing population in the country right now. It’s comprised of young unmarrieds and older widowers. So while each of those groups has their own issues (and some shared one) it will be interesting to see how the church responds.

      You are right, the author was writing to a married audience. I just didn’t love the way she referred to the subjects (is that the right word??). But well intended for sure.

      I’m not sure I’m brave enough to try the experiment! I’ll let you know if I get there;)

  7. Rebecca says:

    awesome! However, think it should be “Don’t talk about singleness if you are in a relationship” 😉 While I was in the Philippines there was a guy a year younger than me who has been dating a girl for a while, getting ready to propose in January. He brought up the question to me, “Is there a special someone in your life?” when I said no, He wanted to know why. (the infamous question) haha. He offered up different suggestions on how to meet people (nothing I haven’t heard before), and then He then continued to tell me, I just have to keep waiting (as If i am doing anything else). He ended the conversation with, “well I think you will be married in 2 years” not dating, not in a relationship, MARRIED. All I could do was laugh. :)

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      …oh, wow. Thanks for sharing Becky! Even all the way in the Philippines, huh!? That’s hilarious!…We’ve all been there. I think you’re right, it can be easier to connect with someone who doesn’t have a relationship going sometimes. It’s like you forget all your woes as soon as you’ve met someone;) Here’s to 2 years!

  8. Jason Brown says:

    So, thanks for helping those of us who are married AND way on the inside of the church (I’m a pastor) think about what and how we say it. I hope I haven’t been too big of a jerk, but I think I’ve said stuff that was hurtful and perplexing. I think that leaders in the church (by this I mean myself) feel the need to offer tangible solutions to this dilemma of 1)the-single-people-in-my-congregation-don’t-want-to-be-cateogorized-as-singles AND 2)many-of-my-single-people-have-confessed-to-some-degree-of-lonliness-and-a-desire-to-be-married. I’m hearing you say that you don’t need tangible solutions, just normal ole friendships. Am I hearing right? Please be gracious with me in your response. Also, for the record, Cindy, Em and I don’t feel like you ever need to get married. We are grateful for you and your friendship.

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      Hey Boss! You and Em have been nothing but GREAT friends and encouragers to me in this area, and every other one! I’m so thankful for you!

      You summed it up well! People just want friends. No one wants to be made to feel like something is wrong with them or in need of fixing. When we do, we want to have that conversation with people we trust. I think ALL single people (myself included) swing between your number 1 and 2 descriptions. We just want the freedom to be either at any given season. In particular, I think having people assume you are ALWAYS in number 2 is uncomfortable.

  9. I LOVE this! I have actually corresponding with the writer of that article a bit and gave very similar feedback and wrote an article very similar to yours above (I like yours better:) because I was so sick of reading about what to say to us poor lowly folks when I never read anything telling me what to say to married people…why? Because they have it all together? Uhhh….
    I love you heart and well articulated words, friend.

  10. Courtney says:

    Awesome post Cindy! You are a rock star.

  11. Hi! I found your blog via Melinda at Hey Lou Writes, and I just wanted to say hello :) I really love this post. I am married, and I think your point about not not talking about singleness if you’re married is spot on. I’m not perfect at it, but I did make a conscious decision (and continue to) to not talk to my single friends about being single. I realized that once I got married, I didn’t have the right (unless I was invited into the discussion) to sympathize. That’s not to say we don’t talk about guys and dating, but I don’t feel right about giving them the old “if you stop looking he’ll find you” line. Anyway, I could say more, but this is getting long (and you don’t even know me!) :) Thanks for sharing. I’m sure you’ll be seeing more of me around here. Love your stuff!

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      Hello!! Thanks for saying hi! I just love Melinda and any friend of hers is a friend of mine.

      I really appreciate your feedback. It’s so helpful to know you are married and weren’t offended by my post, as that was NOT my intention. It’s one of those strange things that probably isn’t fair, but we have a hard time hearing unsolicited input from someone who isn’t in our position, right? And it’s so easy to take when the other person is in our boat.

      That’s very kind of you to have known when to draw the line with your friends. I’m sure they must appreciate your friendship on so many levels!

  12. JH says:

    This is a great post! Come visit Tennessee again soon!

    • cindyannjohnson says:

      Thanks, John! Thanks for reading! Man… I would LOVE to make a trip out soon. I’ve never tailgated! It’s on my bucket list:) Looks like your roadtrip was awesome!

      • JH says:

        No problem, you’ve got some well written stuff!

        My trip was an absolute blast. I’m sure you could tell I was excited by the numerous pics…lol.

        And you really should come back and experience some good ol’ Southern football/tailgating! I might be making my first Ole Miss trip ever this fall so I’ll let ya know how it is :)

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