When the unmarried and married ‘friend’ each other – Part 1 (the unmarried perspective)
If you’re unmarried, what does it mean to be a good friend to someone who is married?
Friendship is a deliberate commitment to love another. Unlike other commitments of love (like that of a father and a son), friendship establishes a bond that is unnatural. It is something we enter into knowing that we could keep the commitment, or renounce the commitment, and isn’t grounded in factors such as our biological association. This is why Proverbs 18:24 can say that friends can be closer than your own brother – you can’t choose your biological brothers, but you can choose your friends.
In my own life, I’ve found that being a friend of others is hard. Friendships can be difficult when we are unable to maintain the commitment to love. We can act selfishly, ignorantly, and carelessly. But friendships can be hard particularly when the individuals involved are in different circumstances. As an unmarried man (as of the writing of this post), I’ve thought a bit about how I can be a friend of those who are married. It can be difficult. It can seem alienating at times, especially if the cultural assumption is that your married friends are ‘moving on’ with their lives while you’re ‘stuck waiting’ for marriage. What follows are some reflections I’ve had and wisdom I’ve gained regarding this relationship between Christians (i.e. an unmarried Christian and a married Christian).
Understand that the special relationship your friend has with their spouse will not be given to you as well. This might seem like an obvious point, but it is one that I have increasingly found helpful to remind myself, and others, as we see friends get married. Ephesians 5:21-33 shows us the unique calling that marriage bestows upon a man and a woman to embody the relationship between Christ and the church. Husbands lay down their lives for their wives, giving all of themselves in sacrificially loving service. Wives respect and submit to their husbands in emulation of the church to our saviour. This kind of reciprocal relationship is not mine to have with my married friend. Understanding this tempers my expectations for what kind of attention I can receive from my friend and even the level of commitment that I should give to them.
If my married friend needs to decide between keeping a commitment to meet up with me and heading home to his wife to have dinner, I need to understand that the basic expectation is that he should favour the latter. If my married friend wants to share something with me that isn’t respectful of their husband and ends up making fun of him, I should ask her not to tell me that detail. These are some ways I can encourage my friend in their marriage and ensure that I am not disrupting the union that they have pledged to each other. I should not feel bitter about this privileging. In fact, what I am doing is helping them re-enact the gospel story, and being a good friend who is loving them rather than loving myself.
This also means that I should point my married friend back towards their spouse if a topic or point of contention arises about them. I should not try and be the confidant who they can turn to when a conflict arises. Much of counselling married couples comes down to reminding them to speak to one another, and seeking to give them strategies and skills to do so graciously and truthfully. As a friend, I should not seek to bypass this vital line of communication and become a third party in the relationship.
This can be especially difficult if we are friends with someone before they become married, and then enter into marriage. I must understand that with marriage, the relationship will most likely change. Married couples need to consider how they will keep friends and maintain commitments to them. Unmarried friends must understand that the nature of their friendship is not a sacred ornament that cannot be touched. Instead, friendship is an adventure that we enter into with another where the kind of commitment we give and receive can change depending on our situation in life.
Moreover, 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 speaks about how the married man or woman is divided in their interests when it comes to serving the Lord in a single-minded fashion. This is not to say that marriage is not a way of honouring Christ! What we should understand is that our married friends will not have the same degree of spontaneous freedom and capacity to serve that they would have if they were unmarried and undivided in their devotion to the Lord. As a friend, I can encourage them to serve their spouse as a form of honouring Christ. Sadly, many married Christians I have come across neglect their spouse (and/or children) in some way for the purpose of ‘serving God’. However, if they do not fulfil their duty towards those whom God has given them in marriage then they dishonour God.
As a loving friend, I can prayerfully support them as they minister to their family. I can also ask questions that remind them that their marriage divides their interests, but should not replace their interests. They are still a child of God who is called to be involved in the work of the gospel. How are they going with their church attendance? Are they encouraging younger men and younger women? In what way are they using their marriage to serve others in their local context? Futhermore, if I am unmarried then I can offer myself to support them in their ministries with the time I have available. For instance, I could offer to care for one of their babies after church so my married friend is able to speak to others and encourage them.
Finally, I should not feel bitter about their marriage when compared to my unmarried state. Marriage is not the ‘next stage in life’ where I prove my adulthood. It is not the expectation for all people. It is not even the bedrock of society (the image of God in humanity and the dignity and respect that should flow from that is what must ground social discourse). When I am loving my married friends, I cannot be envious of what they have because it will reveal itself in a poisonous attitude. I should thank God for their situation in life, and seek to support them. After all, my identity is not found in the union of marriage. I am a new creation in Christ who is adopted, redeemed, forgiven, and loved. Who could ask for anything more?