Prolonged Singleness: Are you Stuck in the Single State?

When I was in my mid-thirties and still single, I seriously started to seek God about this marriage issue. I think it was partly because I had just come out of a relationship and was confused as to why it did not work out. Also, I realized there had to be an answer: Did God want people to be married or not? Were some people called by God to just be single? If someone desired marriage and prayed for a spouse, did God care? According to the Bible and the Church, God holds concrete opinions on a lot of issues. Did he have a definitive point of view on the issue of singleness? If he did, I was determined to find out what it was.

I began my search in the Scriptures. I always knew that “the Lord God said: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.” (Genesis 2:18 NABRE) As such, I knew marriage was God’s idea and that it was good. This scripture by itself, however, did not confirm for me if marriage was God’s design for most people. I needed to know if some people were designated by God to live a single life apart from a religious vocation.

Does God want you single? See Matthew 19

In Matthew 19, some Pharisees approached Jesus and asked a question about divorce for the purpose of testing him. In response, Jesus clarifies why Moses allowed divorce and the new law he is bringing about does not: from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:4-9) This is perceived as an impossible standard regarding marriage and divorce. In response:

“His disciples said to him, ‘If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ He answered, ‘Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” (Matthew 19:10-12 NABRE)

Wow! I found these words from Jesus insightful and comforting. Jesus appeared to me to be clarifying for his disciples several things. Foremost, do not be afraid of this indissolubility standard of marriage; if you marry my grace is sufficient for you to live it out. This is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) in §1615:

“This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy – heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. The grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life.”

Next, Jesus never reproved his disciples for their initial response regarding the avoidance of marriage given the higher standard of indissolubility he was returning to the marital bond. Rather, Jesus takes the conversation in a different direction. He points out that fear is not one of the reasons not to wed. Instead, Jesus clarifies for everyone that there are only three grounds a person would not marry: the person is incapable of marriage based on reasons from birth; a person is unable to marry due to the actions of other people; and a person renounces marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first group of people which Jesus indicated was unable to marry were those born that way. To me, this is a small group of individuals.  I wondered, what would make someone incapable from birth of entering the nuptial bond? There are four things that are required to make a sacramental marriage covenant:  the spouses are free to marry each other; (2) the spouses are able and do give their free consent; (3) part of the free consent includes an intention to be faithful to each other, to be married to each other for life, and to be open to children; and (4) the consent is given in the proper ecclesial form (CCC 1621-1654). This is my opinion only, however, I must believe that if someone is unable to marry due to some issue they were born with, it most likely falls under the purview of free consent and the inability to give it.

The second group of people which Jesus describes as not able to marry are those individuals who have somehow been made this way by other people. I found this category most interesting. These folks seemed to be people who would have wed had it not been for some unfortunate encounter, situation, or circumstance that happened upon them as the result of others. Like the first category of singles, maybe someone had suffered from a tragic accident that took away their ability to give free consent to enter marriage.

However, I could also think of many singles I knew and met (myself included) that desired marriage. There seemed to be a host of reasons why we were not able to enter relationships and sustain them all the way to the altar. Issues that were caused by other people (childhood, past relationships, society), as Jesus had said. Nonetheless, these causes kept all of us stuck in a state of prolonged singleness.  

Prolonged singleness is a term I first heard used by author Kimberly Hartke. In reading her article, Singular Hope,[1] I was encouraged for the first time apart from the Scriptures.  I spoke with Mrs. Hartke shortly thereafter and she introduced and discussed the concept of Prolonged Singleness[2] to me.  She explained that “some people get caught in a cycle of protracted, chronic singleness; for various reasons they have been unsuccessful in sustaining a relationship through to marriage.” However, she also explained “one can work on the issues that are holding them back from true love and marriage.” Ms. Hartke was a firm believer that marriage was not out of the realm for anyone. You just needed to become a bit wiser in how you conduct your affairs with the opposite sex and look at how you may be getting in your own way.

With God’s help you can leave prolonged singleness

The CCC also addresses singleness in §1658:

“We must also remember the great number of single persons who, because of the particular circumstances in which they have to live – often not of their own choosing – are especially close to Jesus’ heart and therefore deserve the special affection and active solicitude of the Church, especially of pastors.”

The third group, as explained by Jesus, is when by an act of the freewill a person forsakes the great good of marriage for the Kingdom of Heaven. A person chooses of their own accord to follow Christ, either by a vocation to the priesthood or to enter the religious life. This is a calling from Christ himself that one commits to after much deliberation in prayer, spiritual direction, and counsel:

“From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming. Christ himself has invited certain persons to follow him in this way of life, of which he remains the model.” (CCC §1618).

When I discovered this teaching of Jesus, it clarified for me that God did have an opinion on singleness: there were three exceptions to marriage that are narrowly defined. I realized that I was not confined to a life of singleness; I was living in a state of prolonged singleness. Due to the consequences of sin (including our response to sin done to us) it can keep us from marriage. Even when we are not aware of it.

I became so much more inspired because I realized that marriage really is God’s blueprint for humanity. Although I was still not sure how to change my situation, I realized that it was hopeful because God could help me change it. I concluded that God really did want people to be married and that meant me as well. Therefore, I believed he would move on my behalf to help me, just as he has with so many other things in my life. And he did.  

With his help, I was able to overcome self-limiting behaviors and beliefs that kept me in the same situations wherein I kept meeting similar types of people. I also worked on a deep-seated rejection issue I had carried with me from my childhood; this enabled me to “put myself out there.” I will not tell you that these things were easy to do because they were not. However, with consistent prayer and God’s mercy, I did make headway. And I did marry at the age of 42. And I believe you can do the same because I genuinely believe it is what God wants for you. Amen.  


[1]   Kimberly Hartke, “Singular Hope,” Leadership Journal, Spring 2002, https: christiantitytoday.com/pastors/2002/spring/7.53.html

[2]   Interview with Kimberly Hartke, President’s Day, 2004

4 thoughts on “Prolonged Singleness: Are you Stuck in the Single State?

  1. The Catechism paragraph on singleness offers great comfort in spite of the silence of the spiritual treasury on life outside of religious vocations between youth and reaching holy happy marriage. I think of my great aunt, whose fiance died in the War. She did marry eventually, a man who was an alcoholic abuser, and her two daughters are a great blessing to our lives. My great grandmother’s great love died in the hazards of work in the early 20th century. If she hadn’t married again for the sake of her 4 young children, my grandmother wouldn’t have come. (Though he too drank heavily, and knew he was second choice.) But I don’t know how they did it. I think we all hope for lifelong, fruitful, mutual, self-giving LOVE, not simply “marriage.” And love is a choice that starts with a feeling! Many people were not able to marry the ones they loved due to war, death, circumstances, or unrequited heartache, even Blessed PierGiorgio Frassati, and so lived unmarried all their lives, and bore holy fruit in other ways.

    1. Great insight, Nina! Marriage is not always easy, even when it is lifelong, fruitful, mutual, and self-giving. But it will help sanctify us if we let it. I love your sentence: “And love is a choice that starts with a feeling!”

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