Grace Downtown Member Alicia Akins shares her experiences grappling with being a single woman and learning to flourish in this season.
My Independent Woman™ ire flared when I learned in Lao language class how to respond to “Are you married?” There were only two answers: yes and not yet. I attempted “no” in conversation, but was always corrected.
I wasn’t married. And, I didn’t know if I ever would be. I wanted to be, but I knew the desire did not make it a guarantee. While I’m glad English allows for a greater variety of responses to that question, my current orientation towards it remains as complex as when I was stuck answering, “nyang.”
“Are you married?” packs a punch. More than a simple request for information, it can leave the person being asked immediately second guessing their lives, themselves, their futures and their God. It’s easy for us to superimpose on that question a cluster of smaller ones: Are you desirable? Is your future secure? Are you lovable? Are you successful? Do you matter? Are you enough? When we answer the marriage question in the negative, whether it’s a no or not yet, it may often feel like a proxy answer for the others as well.
Our stories as single women are many-chaptered and, though they may at times feel otherwise, they are not without a protagonist suitor. Perhaps we are happy with where we are or perhaps we’re disappointed. Maybe we’ve recently arrived at a place of peace or, like the Israelites, we seem to wander in circles in the desert without end, anxious we’ll never see the promised land. No two of us are in the same place and each story is unique.
Dissecting my own story has helped me see that “struggling with singleness” is actually a composite condition consisting of any number of possible challenges such as comparison, poor self-image, insecurity, unhealed wounds, ambiguous friendships, shame, lust, entitlement, racial discrimination, a distrust of God’s will or misunderstanding of his character, impatience, discontentment, idolatry and more. By reflecting on these, I also see that abounding in singleness—the beautiful and rich alternative offered in Christ—goes beyond just learning to enjoy my own company, knowing I will be ok if I don’t marry or even remaining celibate. Like the struggle, abounding too may be multifaceted.
A Yellow Tank
Nowadays, when men ask why I don’t have a boyfriend, I joke, “Well isn’t that the question of the century!” In high school, I wondered the same. I desperately wanted to know what made the girls with boyfriends different, so I set out to discover their secret. One day in class, I observed a girl—wearing a yellow blouse—who I knew had a boyfriend. I took in every detail about her. Days later, in a different class, I spied another coupled girl in a yellow dress. I put two and two together and realized guys must like girls who wear yellow.
Home I went to check my closet but found nothing in that color! I went out, bought a yellow tank top, and strutted back to my car, confident I was on my way out of Singletown and obscurity. Soon my luck would change.
Monday I wore that shirt. Tuesday I wore that shirt. Wednesday I wore that shirt. Finally, on Thursday, something happened: my older sister ratted me out to my mom. She wasn’t aware I had been wearing the same shirt everyday because I’d changed into it at school. The shirt was confiscated and thus died my dreams of finding adolescent love.
I wish I could chalk this penchant for half-baked speculation up to youth, but I have continued my search for a common denominator among chosen women into adulthood. At 24, I became convinced men liked women named Sarah after getting beat out by two consecutively and my dad remarrying one. So, for a short time, I experimented with introducing myself as Sarah.
Hypothesis after hypothesis failed, but I had to know. And whatever the secret was, I hoped it was something I could change so I wouldn’t have to be alone forever.
Five on a Good Day
Growing up, no one could be more negative about me than I could. Guys called me all sorts of animals, an ironing board, and other names not intended to boost self-confidence, but I beat them at their game. I laughed with classmates saying that if I became a prostitute, I’d be the only one in the history of the profession to earn no money. I was convinced I’d never be able to tempt a man. I saw nothing desirable in me.
Whatever one could feel insecure about, I did. The size of my nose? Too big. Lips? Too full. Eyebrows? Too thin. Eyelashes? Too short. Legs? Too jiggly. Skin? Too dark. Hair? Too short and nappy. Chest? Too flat. Butt? Well, okay, maybe not everything; I see God’s provision there. But, for everything else, I craved external validation I didn’t get. To me, my not being chosen, even at such a young age, meant I was deficient.
I have outgrown correlating being chosen with being enough; I don’t think I’m single because there’s something wrong with me anymore. At least most days. But, even now, I’d say I’m a five on a good day. I send pictures to my mom of my outfits and she says that I look nice and I clarify the outfit is nice but I look gross.
Sitting fully clothed on a tropical beach with friends in their two-piece swimsuits a few years back, I mused aloud about how I’d probably never be comfortable enough in my own skin to wear even a one-piece in public. One friend remarked that she used to feel similarly, but that it had helped her feel confident knowing her man loved her body. I was drawn to that idea, but deep down I didn’t want a man to be the antidote to my self-image issues. I knew that was building on sand.
Recently, I lost a lot of weight and one of my biggest concerns throughout the process was that I would end up a confident size 6 when I lacked confidence as a 14. I’m ironically happy to report I still lack confidence about my body as an 8; I did not want to hitch my confidence to my size. Being strong and disciplined, however, does boost my confidence.
Both man’s praise and the ideal body are volatile measures on which to base my sense of worth or beauty. What men find appealing depends on the man. Weight fluctuates. “Ideal” itself is flawed. Who decides what that is? Shouldn’t the Creator determine the value of the creature?
As people along the way tried to remind me how God saw me, I didn’t outright rebuff them, but I simply did not value His perspective over man’s standards and affirmation. Ultimately, I cared more about what others thought of me than God. So much for Him and His truth being first in my life. I looked for immediacy but He often seemed far off, His rewards too distant in the future.
Returning to college from a summer missions trip where I’d been convicted of idolizing men and relationships, I made a vow to stay single the next year and to learn to do it right. I had always been single and so I assumed it would just be a shift of focus.
Less than a month into the fall semester, a friend I had developed feelings for over the summer who I was 100% certain was not interested in me asked me to be his girlfriend. I asked if there was a deferment option. I wanted to honor my vow.
He waited and we spent the year as friends serving together with our church and campus ministry (he was the president and I was vice president). I prayed that if this guy wasn’t “the one” that either or both of us would lose interest. I brought the potential relationship before the Lord and asked for a light grip and strength to say no if it wouldn’t work out and wasn’t His will. After a year committed to the Lord in both body and spirit and of prayers for discernment, I said yes when he asked me out again after my last final.
We did our best to put God first in our relationship. Our pastor and his wife were our accountability couple. We memorized Ephesians together. We committed to not kissing before marriage. I thought, ‘The Lord has blessed me with this relationship, I’m honoring him through it. Certainly, this will go the distance.’ Six months later, we were over.
My reaction was delayed. Immediately afterward, I put on my favorite worship song and walked to my next class as though nothing happened. Three months later, however, I stood in a sanctuary about to sing Blessed Be Your Name but couldn’t.
I filled with anger instead. You give and take away? Why? I had done everything right. I didn’t deserve to have my blessing taken away. How could God make so little of my obedience?
I thought He owed me, that somehow because I’d been obedient, He was indebted to me to give me blessings and then leave them be. I felt entitled.
I also misunderstood God’s will. I thought if something “worked out” it was His will and that if it didn’t, it wasn’t. It stung that His will could have been to grant me that gift only briefly even as I tried to honor Him with it. This my first disappointment with God flattened me. It eroded the fragile sense of trust I had put in a god who only gives and I was unacquainted with the God worthy of praise even while He takes away.
In his preamble to “let’s break up,” my ex shared his rationale: despite my being the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and our spiritual compatibility, we were not well-matched intellectually. I lacked a curiosity about the world that his father had instilled in him growing up, he found it absurd I had attended so many football games as part of the marching band but didn’t understand the rules, and after living in the same place for four years I had no excuse for still getting lost driving to routine places.
Buried within that hack of a break-up job was an indictment that exasperated a pre-existing insecurity: inferior intellect. I’d grown up the average middle child student, sandwiched between two talented and gifted, straight-A, full-ride-to-college, genius sisters. With this relationship, I’d somehow cleared the twin hurdles of my appearance and my race, only to be felled by my smarts, or lack thereof. It would always be something.
About a year later, walking down the middle of an empty street in Thailand with a friend I yelled words I’d never allowed myself to believe before: “I AM NOT STUPID!” I wasn’t ready to say I was smart, but this was a big step toward truth for me.
This joint sabotage mission by comparison with my sisters and fear of intelligence-based rejection has crept into my thirties. I went on a date a couple years ago with a guy in MENSA and worried he’d be able to smell my stupid from across the table. I wondered if I should even bother showing up. Turns out, this guy wanted mixed race kids—Indian and white—so it wouldn’t have worked out even if I smelled like a genius. Especially in a city of overachievers like DC, I’ve given up thinking I’m going to “win” a man over with my brains.
Southeast Asia has a stray dog problem. They are everywhere. Hit afresh with loneliness upon moving to the region by myself, I could not have appreciated their antics less. Here I was, having checked off the career and travel boxes I’d hoped to in life, with only the ‘finding a partner’ box left, and here were these dogs, antagonizing me all along my commute every morning, two by two, male and female, attached at the rear and unable to decouple. Rub it in my face why don’t ya?
The combination of boredom and loneliness often left me reaching for poison to medicate. Instability in other areas has driven me to bad choices as well.
Years ago, I thought it might be nice to just kiss someone to get it over with. This way, in the event of an emergency, I could go straight for the nearest exit, rather than trying to find someone to kiss in my remaining moments alive. Work was stressful then and I poured a lot of my post-work time into (unsuccessfully) finding willing lips.
I eventually emailed my prayer update ladies with the subject line: “Help! I’ve been possessed…” I shared, “I don’t know why, but I’m seriously having a hard time with this recently. I don’t know if it’s throwing myself back in the dating scene, a wintertime ache, age, or something I ate, but it’s strong and pervasive and with me from the time I wake up until I go to sleep.” I told them about a non-Christian pair of lips online I’d been chatting with. Anticipating the question I knew was coming, I said, “That’s not yoked, right? Just a person whose face will have been on mine?”
I wrote on with tears falling onto my phone’s screen because I didn’t want to seek help, but knew that I needed to. I confessed that I’d entertained the idea of leading a double life, of engaging in secret behaviors I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with them. I was honest about my raw desire to be desired. I invited accountability, saying I would both love and begrudge their support as I waited for God’s provision if it ever came.
I didn’t realize then that provision always somehow comes.
A friend replied to my email and suggested I take a break from dating until work stabilized. It stabilized 21 months later. It was a long hiatus, but also a wise decision.
How we medicate matters. Having people we can tell about our struggles matters. Whether we see God as a perpetual provider or a half-hearted sporadic one matters. That we see God, though, is mission critical; keeping our gaze fixed on him keeps our feet on solid ground.
Shame and the Scarlet “I”
A few years ago, I attempted to make plans with a guy I had been talking to for a couple weeks who I had also met online. It really shouldn’t have, but it came up that I’d never kissed anyone and he responded “Turn off. Lame.” and I never heard from him again.
That night, I decided to google, “Are virgins a turn off” and—surprise—the internet was mean. Really mean. I stayed up all night soaking up barbs and insults from at least ten search result pages worth of cruel message boards and woke up emotionally sore, disgusted with myself and ashamed even. I thought, who would ever find someone so inexperienced attractive?
If there’s anything the world is reliably good at it’s spinning virtue into vice. The rest of the week, as I took the crowded subway to and from work, I felt hyper self-conscious, like there was a scarlet “I” for inexperienced on my chest, wondering if men could tell at a glance that I lacked experience, and if they’d all be turned off by it too.
I opened up to a Christian guy friend about what happened and he reminded me that while yes, girls like me were rare that didn’t mean there were no men who wouldn’t consider my inexperience a virtue rather than a handicap. He said the right guy wouldn’t find it a turn off.
Last fall, five days into 34, I finally got my first kiss. It came on the upswing of one of the most severe bouts of sadness I weathered during my 15-month job search. I began the evening saying I wouldn’t kiss him, but ended the night gushing to my roommates about the euphoric turn of events, about what felt like my “leveling up” as a woman.
Weeks of introspection later, I came to half regret my decision. I realized I didn’t do it because I felt life was full, I did it so that life would feel full. It was an attempt to counter boredom and deflect attention away from a life gone stale. I got caught up in the moment, but the precarious path leading up to the moment was paved with pebbles of discontentment and frustration. If I could go back in time and retract the kiss, I wouldn’t. Instead, I would rewind past that night, learn to be content in the Lord, then kiss away from a place of fullness. I’d keep the kiss but change my motives, restricting life seeking to the only place life can actually be found.
“In May, a large wolf-like creature was shot by a rancher in Montana, and its identity puzzled local experts and social media users around the nation. Was it a wolf? An unusual bear? Some even started speculating about Bigfoot or a real-life dire wolf from “Game of Thrones.” A DNA test was ordered up to determine the animal’s true identity — and the results may be a disappointment for Bigfoot-hunters.”
Male friendships should come with the warning: May Cause Confusion. We’ve all been there. Staring down a wolf-like creature, unsure of what we have on our hands. Is he a friend? Is he interested? When I worked at MIT, I purchased lab supplies and a grad student once put in an order for a mixed signal scope. I asked if I could take it for a spin when it arrived.
I have loved befriending men. It’s rewarding and those friendships can be quite rich. But, they can also be quite confusing. My freshman year of college, my best friend was a guy. We were the only two Christians in the tuba section of the marching band. On trips, the seat next to either of us on the bus was assumed to be reserved for the other. He invited me to keep him company at his dorm security desk job every night and when he got off, he’d walk me to the bus stop, put his coat around my shoulders, and rub his hand across my back if it was especially cold while we waited for the bus.
Winter break he invited himself to my family’s house in Virginia, taking the train down from New Jersey. We met up with my friends for mini golf and Coldstone Creamery. He came with me to church. He declared he wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up marrying a girl from Virginia and when I asked how many he knew, he responded, “Just you.” I spent a long weekend with his family in New Jersey in the spring at his invitation. I stayed at their house, attended his church, and met his friends. At the end of the year, he said he only thought of me as a sister.
The whole time I thought he’d been interested, but he wasn’t. With my ex, I hadn’t thought he’d been interested, but he was. I was horrible at deciphering these situations then and haven’t improved much, except now I always assume no interest even if my heart is tempted to think otherwise. Better safe than broken.
I once misjudged a guy’s interest and it almost ruined our friendship. It took nearly a year to get back to where we’d been and it left me with a recurring nightmare for every future crush—a series of collapsing overpasses I barely clear while driving under them on the interstate. Fear began to take over friendships whether I also harbored romantic interest or not. The more I hemorrhaged emotional energy, the more paralyzed by fear.
Last summer, I fractured my elbow and went to see the doctor. He applied pressure all over my arm to discover my pain points. He did this to be able to properly diagnose and treat my condition. When a doctor does this he finds the pain so he can know where it is, but when the Lord does this in our hearts, He does this so we can know and seek Him for treatment. He already knows.
We are wise to look deep into our stories for struggle, to locate our pain points, but remain lost if we stop there. Only a bigger story supplies meaning and treatment and hope for our own.
Surviving singleness is not the goal; abounding in it is. Not being wrecked by it is not the same as flourishing in its plenty. What if an abounding single woman is one who turns to the Lord to provide all she might otherwise attempt to smuggle from a relationship—stability, excitement, significance, identity, healing, worth and companionship? What if she took God at His word and sought refuge in the goodness of His will and the sufficiency of His grace against the backdrop of unmet desire or loss? What if, rather than merely relishing in her independence as a single woman, she relished in her God and the truths He sings over her able to make her insecurities and fears obsolete? What if she was able to bask in the life-enabling reality of already being a chosen woman? Could this be the intended plot to our stories?