The inherent subjectivity of love means that no philosophy or style can be a one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone. So as one seeks romantic love, spirituality demands attentiveness to the emotions. Awareness of one’s emotions can help attune the heart and soul to more deeply understand the will of God. As one navigates the treacherous waters of single life, how can a spiritually grounded approach help steer the ship?
First and foremost, pursue the spiritual discipline of detachment. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius describes this sense of balance or indifference as “making use of those things that help to bring us closer to God and leaving aside those things that don’t.” If you find yourself frustrated at not finding a significant other, confront it with earnest spiritual authenticity. Acknowledge the emotions of that apparent hurdle. Identify what God is revealing to you about yourself by those emotions and move forward.
If the frustrations are causing fixation and obsession, remember old Uncle Screwtape and turn instead to the good that God is working in your life and move forward with it. We must cast aside narrow-sightedness and look more broadly for God’s endless grace.
As a junior in college, I connected with a friend and quickly grew very close to her. We traded wordy emails and shared lengthy video-chats while I studied abroad, and when I returned to the States, we hit it off in person. But as fast as it sparked, it flamed out even more quickly. And in experiencing my range of sadness, disappointment, anger, and confusion, I didn’t make space for myself to legitimately process and accept the outcome, or for my friend to be able to move on. It wasn’t until six months later, when I finally let go of her and of our romantic relationship, that I realized the affections of another dear friend who had helped me through it and opened my heart anew and more widely to her. Six and a half years later, we are married and just welcomed our first daughter. If I hadn’t been able to let go of that star-crossed relationship, I might have remained blind to the potential love awaiting in another dear friend.
Detachment necessitates humility, fosters patience, and facilitates joy.
Second, develop relationships. Instead of looking for a husband or wife, or even for a boyfriend or girlfriend, simply look for friends.
A friend and I once debated, “Can two people of the opposite sex meet as friends and never wonder about the romantic potential between them?” We figured it’s possible, but very unlikely. We naturally tend to consider, even if not immediately or seriously, the potential romance there could/would be between us and a new friend. Again utilizing detachment, it’s important to confront this potential, understand the emotion driving the consideration, and move forward from it. When you meet someone new, don’t deny feelings of attraction or romance, but don’t dwell on them either.
Instead of seeking a significant other, seek friends, both old and new.
Invest yourself in sustaining and maintaining your existing relationships: commit to writing letters or emails to update others on your life; make a Christmas card list; invite friends over for dinner; meet up for drinks; call a friend to catch up during your commute; meet up with friends for Mass and brunch on Sunday.
And be open also to finding new friendships, but on only those terms. Instead of creating countless profiles on dating sites and apps, consider more organic ways to make friends: respond positively to invitations to friends’ parties and ask to be introduced to new people; greet people you see at Mass and introduce yourself; be more talkative to co-workers and those you see at work.
In college, I enjoyed dating. I enjoyed taking a girl out for dinner, getting to talk to her, thinking about where to go or what to do, thinking about her. But the girls I took out on dates weren’t all that interested in me. They were nice girls, but we didn’t have a friendship to draw upon. Instead, our encounters had the awkward iciness of a date – How serious is this? Are you more into me than I am into you? What are we expecting to happen from this? Am I playing it cool enough or do I need to close off more?
I definitely had butterflies in my stomach around the girls I dated. When I thought about them, my heart raced, and I had that spark of excitement and nervousness when I asked them out. However, it was more so a thrill than a deep feeling. It wasn’t until I started dating my now-wife that I found what dates should really be like – open, honest, comfortable, relaxed. My dates with her involved no game-playing, no guesswork about when or how much to text and call after, and no doubts about the intentions and nature of the relationship. The difference was that we had been good friends before dating, and we took the transition from friends to good friends to mutual romantic interest to dating to an exclusive relationship. My friend became my best friend as we became romantically involved, and our romantic relationship simply ratified and confirmed that we were and are best friends.
Instead of worrying about getting dates, think more broadly about your social life. Value and nourish your existing friendships. Discover and build new friendships.
Third, seek contexts in which shared gifts and passions flourish.
Dating and social apps can be great helpers to those of us (cough, introverts!) who need the nudge or facilitation to help us connect to others. They can even help match important characteristics about ourselves to others who are also seeking to connect. However, those moments happen in isolation, and no matter what the advertised context of the app is, most apps are still pairing people off for one-on-one meetings that are nearly impossible to separate from romantic context.
Rather than coffee meeting bagel or getting drinks or dinner, the better way may be to seek out situations where a group of like-minded people gather together around a common cause or interest. Looking across my life and social sphere, there are so many accessible groups to plug into. Many parishes offer young adult ministry, which invites young adults to participate in events like Theology on Tap, post-Mass receptions, and special speakers and discussions, and many of these parishes ask young adults to take charge of the ministry as board members and coordinators. I have many friends who play sports in social leagues, getting their athletics and competition fix while also meeting new people. I play bar trivia every Wednesday night, which has reconnected me with guys from my college dorm who are all intellectually curious and widely intelligent. Young professionals groups and networking organizations also provide opportunities to make social and professional connections. No matter the route you choose, finding friends in the context of shared interests creates not only a starting point for conversation but a platform for continued socializing and developing friendship.
In college, I never made more friends more quickly than when I was doing pastoral ministry. God made me to teach the faith to others and help discuss it and reflect upon it together. When I sang with the Notre Dame Folk Choir, I was surrounded by people who were committed prophets of joy, desiring to enliven hearts by inviting others to praise God with us in song. When I was a mentor-in-faith for Notre Dame Vision, I was surrounded by people who sought to energize young people for their faith, both by personal example and by facilitating activities and discussions to help them realize they are not alone but rather loved and accompanied by God and by others. It is from these two groups that I drew my closest friends, most of my wedding party, the godmother of my first child, and the sure-to-be-lifelong college friends who I keep in closest touch with. And it’s from these groups that I found my wife.
Bars and clubs and drinks might make for glitzy fun, wild stories, and hazy memories, but they’re rarely the genesis of the lasting relationship that the heart desires. Going out can be fun, but one’s strongest gifts and one’s deepest passions are what fuel the heart, and those fuel the strongest relationships.
My wife and I found each other as friends and companions in the throes of pastoral ministry. She carries that same sense to her patients as a nurse; I carry it to my students in campus ministry. We both bring it home to each other and to our daughter.
The single life can be a roller coaster, but remember that the good work of God has already begun in you. God is working through the profound openness that single life entails and invites you to discern ever more deeply who He made you to be. May God help you to embrace detachment, sustain old friendships as you discover new ones, and follow your gifts and passions toward deeper encounter with others.
Dan Masterton is a campus minister and speaker in Chicago and the editor of The Restless Hearts blog.