As a single Catholic, it can be an easy temptation to fall into dangerous binary thinking. Either you do everything right, and get rewarded with a loving spouse and family, or God withholds these things from you as some sort of punishment. On my worst days, I suspect God of keeping these things from me not because of anything I might be doing, but because of who I am. This paints God as a strange and cruel torturer, deliberately creating broken things and giving them desires, then keeping the objects of their desire just out of reach.
I know that this is not even remotely true, and my logical, rational brain laughs at it. But I still find traces of it hidden in my mind, no matter how hard I’ve tried to root it out. It’s the voice that pipes up when someone who is married expresses feelings of loneliness, isolation, or frustration. “But you’re MARRIED!” it shouts. It believes that no one who is in a sacramental union with another person could possibly feel the true, deep ache of loneliness that I feel at times, like a dull knife sawing away at my bones, or the day-to-day heaviness of dealing with a desire that has no direction or object, or the instability of a patchwork identity that feels rootless and, at times, meaningless. It’s the same voice responsible for such age-old gems as “I'll never have love because I’m unlovable”, “there's no one out there for me”, “I'm unworthy and undesirable”, and “being single means I am a miserable failure at life”.
At some point last year, though, I got sick of the interior pining and pity-parties. I invited God in to heal the wounds I had from the past, and focused on loving myself, feeling worthy, and truly believing in His love for me. For the first time, I was able to look at my single life as a positive, an assertion of high standards and what I am ultimately waiting for, rather than the result of deprivation. I felt a newfound sense of control as I was able to define the things that I wanted and needed in a relationship, rather than falling head-over-heels for someone with whom I happened to have some things in common or who showed me some small degree of attention that was always less than I knew I deserved. Instead of eagerly gobbling up the breadcrumbs of affection and attention that someone might throw my way, usually a guy friend who did not return my feelings, I was able to see a relationship as something that would complement my life but not complete it. I learned that being loved in a romantic relationship did not define my identity or success or failure as a person.
This healing brought me a lot of peace, but the unexpected result was the opposite of my previous experience. I went from a long history of unreturned feelings and men that seemed interested but never moved forward, to being actively pursued by men I didn’t have feelings for. I started to meet quality men, who checked off many of the boxes on my list of non-negotiables, but there was something missing from my interactions with them, and a steady feeling in my gut that told me "no". For the most part, our dates and conversations were enjoyable and free of the fear and anxiety that had characterized my interactions with men in the past.
These guys were attractive, successful, stable, kind, open about their attraction to me, not afraid to ask me out and, for the most part, mature, but there was always something that kept things just shy of feeling “right” or making things fit together. Sometimes it was due to job circumstances, personality, compatibility, a lack of chemistry, or just catching each other at the wrong time in life. This year so far has even inexplicably brought me more than one eager suitor who lived in a different country. I could have continued pursuing a relationship with any of them despite my lack of feelings, and possibly even settled into a more-or-less comfortable long-term relationship, but every time that I entertained the idea and tried to convince myself that I just wasn’t trying hard enough or giving it enough of a chance, I felt a twinge of disgust.
After a dozen or so of these, I started to see dates as another chore on my to-do list which were taking time away from other things I needed to get done. It started to feel like trudging through mud to rally the motivation to open any of the dating apps and read the messages I had gotten or browse the endless parades of selfies and descriptions that, in the end, never fully express who a person is. The ones I did go out with didn’t excite me any more than if I had met a new platonic acquaintaince.
I don’t mean to give the impression that these dates were meaningless or that I resent having gone on them. I appreciated each interaction and learned from everyone I met. Each one brought me one step closer to understanding what works for me and what doesn’t, and with each one, I felt like I learned more about the secret language of attraction and flirtation that most people seem to learn at some point in their teens or 20s but remains somewhat of a mystery to me even today. With each one I also really tried hard to be present, listen, react honestly, be supportive, and make the other person feel comfortable.
Still, the lack of any strong passionate romantic feelings really started to worry me. After all the emotional work I had done, was there something still hiding in my subconscious that was preventing me from having a satisfying romantic relationship? Were my standards impossibly high? Was I self-sabotaging? Was it fear of intimacy or commitment? Was I only capable of liking men that didn’t like me back? Was it paralysis from too many choices? Out-of-whack hormone levels? Selfishness? Unworthiness? What was WRONG with me? Was I searching for someone who didn’t and would never exist?
Then I met someone.
Now, you might be thinking that this is where this story veers off into the platitudes every frustrated Catholic single is sick to death of. Just wait a little longer, put your trust in God, it will eventually happen, just pray a little more, it happens when you're not looking or when you least expect it, blah blah blah.
This is not that story.
Simply put, I met an amazing person who lives far away, and our lives don’t appear to be intertwining anytime soon. Nothing definitively “romantic” even happened, really. I can’t say with certainty that I will ever see him again or that we will even keep in touch in a meaningful way.
But for a short time, I had a small taste of what things SHOULD feel like.
From the first moment we met, things unfolded in a simple and easy yet somewhat magical way. I felt an attraction to him from the start, which I believe he shared, and I had no gut feeling to dissuade me. Over the course of a few days, we had a pure and honest encounter that flowed effortlessly, with no fear or anxiety, full of deep, enriching conversation, simple being, and laughter. I saw in him traces of men I’d fallen for in the past, but this time could measure the vast difference. I was able to feel truly joyful simply at the opportunity to meet and get to know him, and trust in the power of authenticity rather than trying to think of something clever to say, worrying about what his feelings were, or strategizing about how I could manipulate the situation to make him like me more. I was genuinely excited to see him every time he happened to cross my path, and we had no problem talking for hours, which of course weren’t nearly enough. It felt so incredibly refreshing, and miles away from anything I had ever experienced.
Then, naturally, it came time to say goodbye. I sat in a daze for hours afterwards as I stared out the window of a Greyhound bus, marveling at what I had just experienced, admiring the naïve joyfulness of the fluffy white clouds, and wondering if I should have missed the bus on purpose in order to spend just a few hours more in conversation.
In the past, this would have inspired an angry tirade from me to God. Why give me a taste of something amazing with little hope of anything in the future? It would have been better to not have met him at all, I would have said, crossing my arms and stomping my foot in indignation. I would have gotten together with my girlfriends and analyzed every interaction, scanning for even the remotest sign of interest so that we could fantasize about what might happen in the future, then all curse the men that have lead us on and used us in the past and validate each others' feelings of longing and betrayal. I would have cried at the thought of as God as magician and torturer who, once again, dangles something precious in front of me and then takes it away almost as soon as I catch sight of it. In His infinite organizing power, He figured out exactly how to improbably get me in the same place at the same time as someone He knew I’d be attracted to, knowing that the situation would have little life once we both went our separate ways, just like He gave me the strong desire for marriage without giving me the opportunity to see it fulfilled.
I would have done all of this because, for a long time, I thought that all that glittered was gold when it came to romance, the victim of the same sort of aforementioned binary thinking. The fact that I had met someone that I had a handful of things in common with, often under illogical and coincidental circumstances, was usually enough to convince me that I had met “The One” and get bitter and resentful when reality did not conform to my hopes. I don’t think I’m alone in this hopeless romanticism. Catholics are often guilty of it, and I believe it is because we value sacrificial love so highly, and we are more than willing to throw out nearly everything at the glimpse of it. This comes from an essentially good place. We believe that sacrificing everything for love is the best thing we could possibly do, despite any impracticalities that stand in our way. We’ve all heard stories of the triumph of love despite all odds, and how marriage is hard work, and we think to ourselves that we are more than willing to take on this hard work and prove that nothing else matters.
This is not a bad thing. It speaks to how important Christ’s sacrifice is to us and how ardently we desire to imitate him. The tricky part is when this belief and desire turn desperate. Simple willingness to love becomes an unquenchable thirst. What we should hope for becomes what we believe we are owed. We meet someone and fit them into the idea we have of who they should be to us, never mind that we might be trying to fit a square peg into a circle and turning another human being into something we feel we should possess. We get angry when the object of our interest does not have the same willingness to conquer barriers and give up everything for the love we know we could give them. We confuse the sign of love with love itself, and make our desire to love and be loved much more important than desiring God.
But the truth is that we can’t judge for ourselves the role that someone is supposed to play in our lives, or the lessons that God wants to teach us through them. And while we can work ourselves into a frenzy of bitterness that someone is not quite the person we want them to be, or doesn’t feel the way we want them to, it makes just as much sense as getting angry at the gifts God gives us which do not quite take away all of our pain or ease the horrors of the world. The sting of disappointment we feel upon contact with something that images our desires, but doesn’t fulfill them, extends to whenever we have glimpses of hope, truth, grace, joy, and eternity and then return to a reality that feels ever more harsh, cold, and cruel. We try to fit Christ into the boxes we want him in and contain and control God’s actions on Earth, then get outraged when things remain outside the work of our hands. God gives us a taste of eternity at Mass, and then it ends, and we go forth into the insanity of a broken world we can’t make sense of. But does that mean that we should get angry that we have the Mass at all, that it is temporal, and that we don’t already live in heaven?
The world of dating might be the arena that makes the brokenness of the world the most obvious and undeniable. I haven’t even had the most active dating life, but I’ve had my share of unbelievably crude and disrespectful online messages, friendships I wish had been more, the pain of distance that divides me from potential relationships, people I’ve had to let down, lonely nights when I’ve gotten stood up, uncomfortable conversations about expectations, intentional violations of boundaries, fear, awkwardness, and intense nausea when someone reaches for my hand that I am not attracted to but am trying to give a chance. Sometimes, the world of singledom feels like a giant sea of people flailing their arms wildly in search of communion and inadvertently pushing everyone away who might provide it.
But, occasionally, there is something else that points to a deeper reality. As soon as I was ready to give up on believing that there was anyone in the world who was attractive, thoughtful, and could really get me, God introduced me to someone that, at least for a few days, proved that there is still hope, and it is a hope I take great solace in. For the first time in a long while, I felt things that had been so dormant I was afraid they might be lost to me forever, and met someone so improbably amazing that I knew the architect could only have been God.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sad. This is absolutely someone I wish I could have a real relationship and future with. I feel deeply saddened by the circumstances of time and distance, and the fact that our time getting to know each other was so short. There are so many more questions I wish I could have asked him. Part of me still actively hopes for the possibility of a future and feels a weird sense of nostalgia, like I want to go back to sleep and continue dreaming the same dream.
But this time, I’m not going to try to beg, plead, cajole or convince either God or this man to give me any more than what I was already given. I would be quite happy to lie around all day and fantasize about hypotheticals, but there is something much more important than that: appreciating those moments simply for what they were. I’m daring myself to feel gratitude for them rather than sorrow, explore the many lessons they taught me and the ways they enriched my life, and resist the temptation to distort them into the thing itself rather than a sign of it. I want to learn the lesson of loving and giving of myself without turning over my whole heart and mind, of having authentic human connection without losing myself completely in it. I don’t want to live life in a hermetically-sealed and emotion-free world, but I also want to master the art of respecting the emotional boundaries that prevent me from going crazy. There’s no universe in which this situation wouldn’t be disappointing, but looking upon it with gratitude, feeling satisfied with the way I conducted myself, and limiting my overactive imagination let me dwell on something other than how unfair it feels.
So, I have returned to my daily life with a greater determination to keep my eyes focused on God and letting my life revolve around Him, and joining my sorrow to the cross. I’ve made a much more concerted effort to fill my life with prayer, learn to discern God’s voice and be obedient to Him, and purge my heart of the things that keep me turned away from Him. In my meditations, I’ve reflected a lot on the assurance Christ gives us that whoever loses his life for his sake will find it. This experience taught me, more than any other in the past, that God is so much greater than anything I might try to do to control my life. If I can let go, and focus on giving my life to Him, He can arrange things so unspeakably perfectly that go beyond what we dare to imagine, but they may not always fit within our ideas of what we should have, and He seems more than willing to remind us that running after idols, even the pretty, shiny, virtuous idols of good things like marriage, will never satisfy us. I still long for human connection and marriage, but know that I must first reach out in yearning for God as the living water for my thirst.
I’ve spent almost my entire romantic life in the “almost”…a space painted with shades of what might-be and what not-quite-is, of incomplete realization and one-sided longing. I very rarely make it out of this space and into something definite, and even then, true fulfilment is always elusive. It’s a discouraging place to be, one where hope can be scarce. But the “almost" is also a space that I’m sure is tasted even within marriage, as it is the same space inhabited by every serious Christian in the world. We are all constantly, painfully aware that we are not at home, as was the savior we worship, and we must all find the way of coping with a sometimes brutal reality. But we must do it without losing a clear vision of the standards by which we should measure all things, and the message of victory we claim to have. I must learn to accept the fact that sometimes romantic love is not possible, just as not everyone who is sick finds a cure despite the most fervent prayers. Those are facts that all the platitudes in the world won’t be able to change. But I know I must also avoid the temptation to throw everything away and settle for the temporary cures for loneliness as if they were the real thing. I must strive daily to balance the mysteries of pain by clinging to the hope found in Christ, turning everything over to him, and stating firmly “Jesus, I trust in you,” even if it’s only a whisper that spills out of my mouth amidst sighs of anguish in the dark. And then I can let myself be comforted, knowing that the one that hears me also shares my pain.