By: Elina Holland, Institute for the Psychological Sciences
It’s that time of year again: Valentine’s Day is coming! For many individuals, Valentine’s Day is a day of joy. Couples splurge on chocolates, stuffed animals, flowers, and romantic getaways to celebrate their relationship and relish one another. However, for others it can be a painful reminder of singlehood. For them, this can be a time of yearning and bitterness.
Why is singlehood painful? The problem partially stems from modern media that glorifies romantic relationships as a necessary ingredient of fulfillment. Popular music, movies, and TV shows follow protagonists who jump from one relationship to another. Single people surrounded by this media can’t help but notice their own lack of a relationship. They may feel that they will never be happy without one or are “falling behind.” To others, the lack of a relationship brings up painful feelings of unworthiness and shame because they feel undesirable. Finally, for many Christians, and especially Catholics, singlehood can be seen as a time of waiting for your “real” vocation to start. As a time of discernment, singlehood can be plagued by impatience. Thoughts such as “someday God will show me my vocation” or “someday I’ll be married to a wonderful spouse” leave the person feeling impatient and disappointed that “someday” hasn’t yet arrived.
These reasons explain part of the problem. A more basic reason that people feel sorrow in the face of their own singlehood is the yearning of every human heart to be in relationship. The human person is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). This means that God gave us a capacity to love Him and other people as He loves us. God Himself is a Trinity; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist together in a holy community of love. Human beings begin life dependent on their parents, they learn about loving and serving others within the context of the family, and they are meant to participate in meaningful relationships as adults. The most important relationship that we are all called to is to know and love God Himself. God is love (1 John 4:16) and He has put a yearning in our hearts to love and be loved.
The image of relationship is so present within the human person that God has inscribed it into the physical human body. St. Pope John Paul II has described the human body as an image of giving and serving. The complementary bodies of men and women reveal our holy purpose to unite with others, give ourselves to others, and receive others in exchange. Married couples fulfill this image most when they consummate their marriage. This spousal act reveals the purpose of all people, whether married or single, to give of themselves to others and most importantly, to God Himself. But for many people, being single feels as though they are alone in the world. No wonder this causes pain for human beings. We were not meant to be alone!
Vocation refers to the calling on a person’s life. This call comes from God and is usually perceived first as a desire to get married, join a religious order, or pursue priesthood. The period of singlehood is also a type of vocation, but perhaps more temporary. Every person begins life single (think of children) and some are called to stay single throughout life. However, this singlehood is still in relationship to others. Singlehood is about growing in virtue and holiness and living a life of service toward others, becoming a good brother, sister, and friend. This is the first level of vocation –to become a good person. The second level is committed relationships with others. For a married person, their commitment is to their spouse. For the single person, their commitment is to God to live a life of chastity and not “give themselves away” to someone else. If you are single, this time is a chance to strengthen the relationship between yourself and God.
The feelings of unworthiness, lacking, or impatience that can often occur in singlehood may spring up from what Albert Ellis, a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, terms irrational beliefs. They are called irrational because these beliefs are not a good measure of reality. For example, a single person may think, “I should have a significant other. If I don’t, it means I am abnormal” or “the fact that no one wants to date me means that I am undesirable.” These thoughts are not true but can still lead to painful feelings of rejection, shame, and unworthiness. People who think negative thoughts about themselves because of their singlehood can struggle to find meaning in this part of life.
Ellis argued that the best way to deal with irrational beliefs is to refute them, or challenge them. In the Catholic context, this means that we should counter our irrational beliefs about ourselves with the truth of God’s love for us. David knew this when he wrote, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14) We all have dignity because God created us in His image. Another truth we can use to combat our irrational beliefs is that we are in relationships even when we are not in a romantic one. We are in a relationship with God who will never abandon us and He gives us friends and family to love us and whom we can love. Finally, we can rest in the knowledge that God has a plan for each of us –“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11).
So when this Valentine’s Day comes around, make plans to spend time with friends, family, or with God and celebrate the relationships that you have now.