The first time I heard of “self-marriage” was on the TV show, Glee. The ever-quirky Sue Sylvester decides that she is her own best match, so she puts on an over-the-top marriage ceremony — to herself. Much singing and dancing ensues. I thought self-marriage was a little silly, even for Sue, but that gleeful event had real-world precedence.
Over the last couple of years, self-marriage has become a minor trend. Recent articles discussing the self-marriage movement have pushed the practice into the spotlight. It’s easy to write self-marriage off as nothing more than Sue-Sylvester-level narcissism. But if we pay attention, we’ll hear a longing that our culture in general and evangelical culture in particular would do well to address. Self-marriage is partly a reaction against the assumption that people find their true fulfillment in life only when they get married and start a family.
Single people need colanders, too!
For starters, take a simple tradition like the wedding registry. Filling a home with the necessities for cooking and cleaning and living can be expensive, especially on a single income. So, why should married couples get all the free home goods? Single people need colanders and toasters too! When Erika married herself, she created a registry as something of a joke, but when the inexpensive, practical household items rolled in, she felt loved and supported. (Source: Good Housekeeping). The wedding registry is more than just a gift wish list; it’s a social affirmation. Those hand-mixers and sheet-sets say to the married couple: “now, you’ve made it; now, your real life begins!” No such ritual inaugurates singles into the life of responsible adulthood. Single people can make do with Ikea and hand-me-downs; married people get the good china.
Rebecca Traister, who wrote the book on the history of the single female in modern society, comments on the social validation inherent in marriage. In an interview with Abigail Pesta for Good Housekeeping, she says, “as someone who lived for many years single and then did get married, I know that the kind of affirmation I got for getting married was unlike anything I’d ever had in any other part of my life.” She goes on to say that our culture treats marriage as the pinnacle of life. But self-marriage, she says, is a statement that “My life is just as meaningful as the life of the person who happens to be getting married.”
Such longing for a meaningful life — with or without a partner — is evident in the motivations of many women who have chosen to self-marry. Grace Gelder used her self-marriage as a way to hold herself accountable for health and self-care. When two people exchange marriage vows in the sight of friends and family, those witnesses both celebrate and validate the couple’s vows. Gelder sought a similar sense of community celebration and validation in her self-marriage. She called the experience of making vows to herself among friends and family “humbling” and “empowering.” (Source: The Guardian)
In an interview with Hannah Ewens for Vice, Sasha Cagen also expressed a sense of empowerment in her self-marriage. She called self-marriage “a coming-of-age ritual.” Cagen explained, “To really commit to yourself is to say what your priorities are on a deep level. I think it is a step forward for women to really value themselves.”
What these stories have in common is a need single people feel to be valued for themselves, not for their marital status.
A Church That’s Safe for the Family
A few years ago, Timothy George wrote about self-marriage for First Things. His primary claim was that the narcissism of self-marriage contradicts Christianity’s focus on community. He wrote that the Christian practice of celibacy was distinct from self-marriage because celibacy is “a distinctive calling from God” that is “based on interdependence and the radical service of love.” I agree with him that community and service are crucial for the lives of married and single Christians. But his statements make most sense in a church culture that embraces and celebrates single people and fully includes them in the life of the church.
Much of evangelical culture has fallen short of the call to honor singles. Modern evangelicalism touts “family values.” Many women’s Bible study curriculums cater almost exclusively to wives and mothers. A well-known face of evangelicalism, James Dobson, has made his mark as head of the Focus on the Family Institute. One popular Christian radio station distills the evangelical obsession with family into one pithy slogan: their Christian music is “safe for the whole family.” The “whole family” of God, however, includes people in all stages of life — whether single or married. (Read more on this topic in Bethany’s posts on singleness and the church, here and here).
The church should take the self-marriage movement seriously because it should take single people seriously. As rates of single young people continue to rise, the church cannot afford to neglect its single members. Single people are longing for community, value, and meaning. Let them find it in the body of Christ.