Can married and single people be friends? It seems simple enough in theory. But as many of us know from practice, these kinds of friendships can carry a lot of emotional baggage and jealousy—and not just about sex. How can we understand one another when our domestic lives look so different?
We’re two friends: one single (Katelyn), one married (Bonnie). Believing that it’s important for single and married people to push past these awkward barriers into transparent friendship, we’ve had many conversations on this issue, grappling with what it means to learn from one another and embody love within our unique contexts.
How do we know what our friends need from us? By simply asking and listening, by having tough conversations. But there are a few key needs that are fairly universal, important for singles and married people. We wrote this article as a conversation, in the attempt to show the ways we try to navigate those needs together, as friends and in the context of community.
(One disclaimer: Lifelong celibacy is a high, honorable calling. We realize that not every single person desires marriage one day. This conversation is for those who do have that desire.)
We need to stay active in each other’s relationship
Bonnie: There’s the famous African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In the same way, it takes the whole church to raise a marriage, to grow a family. The notion that we’re supposed to do it completely on our own, or that marriage is a personal affair, is damaging to couples because we believe we can’t share our struggles. This belief causes us to turn inward, instead of admitting our need for others to walk this relational road with us.
Obviously there’s intimacy in marriage that cannot and should not be shared. For example, it would be weird—for everyone—if we discussed the details of our sex lives with you. But overall, we need to share this journey in community, which can and should include our single friends. We crave your insights, concern and prayers. And in the long run, if you take part in the marriages of your friends, it will hopefully benefit you as you prepare for the possibility of your own marriage.
Katelyn: For singles who want to be married, having married friends simply keep you in mind as they move through their various social circles reminds you that you aren’t alone. When Bonnie and her husband have mentioned men who they think I would like, it makes me feel cared for and known. It helps that I know they are doing so to encourage, not to control my future or “fix” my singleness.
But more important than getting set up, singles need married friends to simply ask how they think of their own unmarried state and life course. Such questions might include: What is it like being single in a church oriented around families? Is it strange to hang out with all couples? Have you seen God at work in your singleness? And most importantly, how can I pray for you? For those who experience their singleness as a burden, having friends carry the burden with you reminds you of Christ’s presence and perfect law (Galatians 6:2). Married friends of singles sometimes don’t know how to broach the topic, afraid that it is too personal or painful a topic. Indeed, it is personal. But what are friendships but ways of knowing another person?
Katelyn: Few things annoy me more than single Christians who feign pious disregard for the thought of getting to have sex, and a lot of it. In God’s wisdom and biology’s urging, we are compelled to unite ourselves to another, to know and be known, to bring forth life from love. No, not all believers will have their desire for intimacy and union met in marriage. But writing off such desires as “worldly” risks downplaying the imago Dei. We are humans, not angels. It is a sign of health to want to have sex (with a future spouse).
Having said this, it is easy for Christian singles to fixate on what they don’t have—all the sex—and start resenting married friends who presumably do. Sadly, this fixation often leads to jealousy and blindness to the ways God might be meeting a desire for intimacy in non-sexual ways. It also is naïve about married life; as Bonnie notes, marriage requires time and commitment that limit the married person’s opportunities and freedom. So you are not having sex—but are you able to travel halfway around the world to serve Christ?
Bonnie: We get jealous of you, too. A single friend of mine just spent six months in Amsterdam working at a Christian hostel. I love her adventurous spirit, but as a new mom, I found myself envying her alluring life phase. With a husband and a toddler at home, it’s rare for me to spend a few stolen moments by myself at Starbucks … or even the bathroom.
Marriage often requires unique sacrifices that most single people don’t have to make, like alone time or certain freedoms. Even if we don’t want to be single again, the single life has appealing aspects. So, just like a married person shouldn’t constantly prattle on about how great sex is, single people should also exercise sensitivity with issues like freedom.
We need friends who aren’t like us
Bonnie: There’s an unhealthy assumption that when someone gets married, they don’t need or want to be with anyone but their spouse. Relationally speaking, they’re set. What I discovered, however, was a deep need for friendship outside my marriage, even if I had “married my best friend.”
Now, my husband and I are intentional about inviting friends, married and single, to share our life with us. We need one another. Singles need married friends because marriage, as a symbol, should point us to Christ. When singles hang out only with other singles, they miss out on this rich symbolism and its meaning for them as members of the body of Christ.
Likewise, when married people cloister themselves, they miss the irreplaceable perspective of the single person. In my relationships with single friends, I have learned much about serving without hesitation, patience and healthy male/female friendships. These lessons may only be gleaned in relationship.
Katelyn: The assumption that leads some singles to envy married friends also leads them to slowly exit their married friends’ lives: “They are relationally fulfilled. They don’t need my friendship anymore.” This assumption is not only false, as Bonnie makes clear. It is also unChristian. The New Testament speaks of the body of Christ, not the couple, as the basic unit of Christian identity (borrowing an idea from Lauren Winner’s excellent book Real Sex). And belonging to the body means being connected to people with radically different life circumstances. Just as there is neither “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female … ” in Christ, there is neither “married nor single.”
Beyond theological reasons, singles should also actively maintain friendships with married couples to learn what marriage and family are about. When I spend time with Bonnie, her husband and their daughter, I find myself saying things like, “If marriage ever comes, I want to treat my husband like that,” or, “Oh—that’s how couples should navigate disagreements!” Their Christ-centered marriage both points me to Christ and awakens desire for the best marriage, not just any marriage.
Katelyn and Bonnie live in the western suburbs of Chicago, and are both writers and active in their churches. They both like good food and long dinners with friends.