Making Space for Religious Single People
Allison (not her real name) grew up in a religiously Christian community. She was raised by the Church and the values it holds dear. As she got older and her friends began to settle down, she found herself in a precarious position. Anytime she would attend church, she was met by sermons emphasizing finding forgiveness within marriage and motherhood.
Allison loved the church but felt isolated. All her life, she had been taught about singlehood as a stage in preparation for marriage. How could she find solace in a community that doesn’t make space for her?
Allison isn’t alone. Across the board, single people in religious communities report feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disconnect.
What do religious singles feel in their communities?
Especially in religious communities, single individuals are fed with the idea of the supposed glamour of married life by years of a narrative preaching marriage as the endgame. A 2016 study noted that people in the religious Jewish community who fail to follow the social expectation to marry in their early 20s find themselves facing social and religious ostracization.
These findings apply to those who live in other religious communities, such as the Muslim and Christian communities. A 2017 study found that there are many similarities among singles within religious communities, regardless of which specific religion they affiliate with. The pattern of feeling marginalized and subsequently leaving religious life are prevalent all around, perpetuated by the collective overemphasis on traditional family values.
The “marriage narrative” leads to feelings of distance from one’s community, confusion about one’s religious and social identity, and feelings of perpetual loneliness. In fact, the longer religious people remain single, the further they feel marginalized by their community. This feeds into the cycle of loneliness that they live every day.
When someone fails to fit into a communal mold, it’s easy to understand why the idea of leaving feels comforting, especially when long-term singlehood is more widely accepted outside of religious communities. The same 2017 study noted that while the secular world has a sort of structure in place for singlehood years, religious communities fail to provide such a structure.
A 2020 study on single Mennonite women noted that religious Mennonite women grow up being told that their role is as a wife, mother, and grandmother. This can feel extremely limiting in providing opportunities for self-expression outside of marriage.
It’s then easy to understand why religious singles feel rejected and outcasted by their communities. How is one expected to feel independently satisfied and happy when they’re living in a world without space for them?
The compound effect of restrictions on sexuality
Additionally, the often strict religious standards surrounding premarital sexual activity have been found to place psychological strain on young adults, adding yet another barrier to achieving happy singlehood.
These findings were similar across studies following American Muslims, Jews, and Christians struggling with their expression of sexuality outside of the bond of marriage.
A 2020 study on the experience of singleness in Indonesia, a country in which sex is legally and culturally restricted to marriage, noted how the level of religious observance amongst Indonesian singles correlated with their experience and relationship with sex. All of these pressures result in a “love-hate” relationship with marriage. Singles feel restricted to express themselves fully only within marriage, yet also desire to live a full and independent life beyond matrimony.
The 2020 Mennonite study also noted that before age 21, courtship is discouraged among single Mennonites, further restricting the window in which religious Mennonites can express any semblance of sexuality.
How can religious communities improve?
Since the average age of marriage has increased as of late, religious communities have to confront the inclusivity of single people in communal life.
It is imperative that space is made in religious communities for its single members. The conversation needs to shift towards how each individual adds to their community for who they are as a person, rather than for their potential to marry. As the religious single population grows, it would be beneficial to establish and normalize a structure for adult singles, in which they feel accepted.
A religious single should never feel ostracized and marginalized just because of their marital status. It’s important to acknowledge and address the social struggles experienced when a religious single wants to remain a part of their community yet feels isolated.
Changing the conversation in terms of how people speak about single individuals would also create a collective shift in the communal approach towards singles. Acknowledging and appreciating people for who they are and what they add to the community, while celebrating their richness and fullness as people will further support the goal of creating space for religious singles. Singles will be present more fully in a community that celebrates them for who they are regardless of marital status, and they will likely feel empowered to continue to pursue personal goals.
Furthermore, when individuals feel empowered, change is made. The ramifications of the attitude shift towards singles will likely have long-lasting positive effects on each community. When individuals feel engaged and appreciated by their communities, they will likely actively contribute and participate.
Communities will not only benefit socially by creating space for their adult singles, but they will also likely further thrive and flourish as more people feel empowered to help their community grow. When we normalize religious singlehood, both single individuals and communities will face happier and healthier realities.
People like Allison deserve to feel connected and satisfied with their religious and communal life, regardless of marital status. Across the board, all religious communities could stand to make sure that people like her feel the happiness and inclusion they deserve.
This article was written with Abigail Winokur of Yeshiva University and Hebrew University's Rothberg School.