“Why aren’t you married?”

This question, which belongs in a category with, “Are you pregnant?” or “When are you having kids?” is somehow still acceptable to ask any single person over the age of 24 (where I’m from).

On particularly rough days, I sometimes mused about what would happen if I responded, “Why haven’t you finished that degree you started?” or something equally snarky, highlighting their implication that my life was only valid as long as I was meeting our culture’s benchmarks in a timely fashion.

In the end, I settled for either steering the conversation into less sensational territory, i.e. everything else happening in my life, or giving in and sharing those funny dating anecdotes that the Marrieds love to hear.

In the LDS world (and many other religious communities), it’s easy to feel like your worth as a person, male or female, is inextricably tied to your relationship status. It’s not. But marriage is something that a lot of us desire, since a large component of the Gospel is finding joy through family relationships. 

However, that is not the Gospel. The Gospel is centered on Jesus Christ, and doing all we can to come to know Him, emulate Him, and accept His atoning sacrifice as central to our lives. Our marital status alone does not qualify us for salvation, so we need not feel ‘less than’ because of it.

This past year, I’ve had several single-and-looking (different from simply ‘single’, as not everyone is interested in getting married) friends reach out to share thoughts or ask for input about that phase of life.

The main question that comes up is, “How can I feel like I am progressing, when the area in which I want to progress is out of my control?” Another way to put it, is “How can I be ‘looking’ without ‘waiting’?”

Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answers, and even if I did, they wouldn’t fit every person. But I have spent a lot of time thinking about these questions, both prior to and since getting married, so the best I can offer are the thoughts I’ve shared with friends when asked.

I’ll start by saying, do not wait.

The issue of waiting–inactive waiting, where you stagnate with resentment and often use ‘if only’ and ‘I will when’–applies to everyone. The single years are a good time to develop the ability to actively wait and appreciate the present, since the rest of life is one opportunity after another to exercise that skill.

I am guilty of periods of (inactive) waiting. Times when I should have been embracing all life had to offer but instead stayed in jobs I hated, dated people I didn’t enjoy, lived in areas that were not interesting to me, and held one too many pity parties. I apologize to my closest friends who bore the brunt of my Debbie Downerness; they were good sports.

Fortunately, these spells didn’t last long. Over the years I found four main strategies that helped me get on with life and be much, much happier with it.

Set Goals

Goal-setting is far and away the fastest-acting antidote to wasting time dreaming of Mr./Mrs. Right. Both before marriage and since, anytime I found myself wishing I had a different life, it had little to do with how great the thing I desired actually was, and it had nothing to do with my current life being bad. It had everything to do with ingratitude for my current life, combined with an unwillingness to set the bar higher for myself.  

In short, it’s looking for an easy fix or some sort of novelty to distract from the hard work of growth. 

Newsflash: you may have heard that nothing worth having comes easily. Wishing away the present and idealizing the future is just the mind’s way of not dealing with the here and now.

As soon as I refocused, asked the hard questions about what needed to change in order to move forward, and took concrete action to achieve something worthwhile, almost instantly the marriage obsession left. In its place was more self-respect, progress, and the pursuit of love taking a healthier role in my life.

Step out of Tunnel Vision

During the times I was overly focused on dating and marriage, I treated many new relationships as if they were disposable. This went for female and male friendships alike. I became self-centered in this area, and I regret that I missed out on some wonderful people and memories when I was only looking for romance and nothing else.

It’s impossible to connect with people when you have an agenda in dealing with them. Had I chosen instead to open my heart and life to all of the great people I met, I would have gained invaluable memories and connections with a range of people. Not to mention possibly making a positive impact on their lives.

I could have done all of that without being any less likely to find a romantic partner. In fact, I would have been more likely to find someone, because I would have been more genuine, selfless, and fun to be around. That’s much more attractive than the desperate girl.

Be All In

Too often there’s a tendency to want to stay put in a ‘good area’ to increase the odds of meeting someone. The reality is, none of us know if or how or when we will meet someone. (Also, Utah has a 2-1 ratio of LDS women to men. So ladies, maybe it’s time to bail if the guys don’t stop dragging their feet.) 

A question I learned to ask myself when I recognized that I was making decisions based on likelihood of marriage was:

“What would I be doing differently if there were no question that I would be married within five years?” Essentially, it’s removing the self-inflicted pressure and assuming the best.

Move away if you want. Start that graduate program. Take that crazy career leap. If there’s one thing I have learned since being married, it’s that you figure it out. You find a way that both people can have what they want. Don’t assume that the thing you want to do will mess with a plan you have yet to make with your husband or wife.

There’s a way. Be doing everything you hope he/she would be doing, namely, living a full and happy life from which both of you will eventually benefit.

Finally, forget the saying, “In order to find the right one, you need to be the right one.”

This might ruffle some feathers, but hear me out. I understand that like attracts like, so attracting certain qualities will be easier if you possess them. But that adage, and other sentiments that imply that there is some finite amount of work that we must do before we will be ‘blessed’ with a spouse, needs to go.

For two reasons:

1) Serial killers in prison find people to marry, while some of the world’s finest individuals never marry, despite having the desire to. Too many of my friends go along believing that they must not yet be ready for marriage, otherwise they would be married. They believe that God still wants more from them before He will bless them with their deepest desire. I think there’s more to it than that.

I won’t venture to guess why some people never find a spouse in this life, or why anything happens exactly when it does. But I know that it’s not in God’s nature to hold back blessings until a mysterious checklist is complete. 

Marriage is not earned.

2) Self-improvement needs to be done anyway. If there is something you are working on only to attract a mate, stop working on it. If the mindset is that I need to earn marriage by becoming the right one, then I’m more likely to put an event that is largely out of my control as my motivation for everything I do. This is dangerous to one’s self-worth, and also puts too much pressure on one’s future marriage.

If instead I focus on personal growth for the sake of my own self respect, my relationship with Christ, and my commitment to God, every gain I make will contribute to the richness and enjoyment of my life, independent of my marital status. As a bonus, people who do this, once married, are less likely to rely on their spouse for the fulfillment of all of their needs.

Sure, we can expect to attract people who are like us, but we don’t have to take on the entire burden of becoming ‘right’ for another person. 

It’s important to take care of yourself for reasons that transcend attractiveness to others. Ironically, in the process of doing so with the proper motivation, you will become more attractive to others.

I have this list in my mind that has five names on it. These people are some of the most valiant, kindhearted, marriage material people I have ever met. They are ready, willing, and wanting to marry. I think of these friends often, and pray for them by name almost daily.

I don’t pray for them because I think God is waiting for enough prayers to be said on their behalf in order to ‘give’ them marriage, but because they deserve the support. My heart aches in empathy for them at times, but I don’t pity them, and I don’t worry for them. Each one is a wholehearted individual who chose to go after life despite their relationship status, and in doing so, is going to make the world’s best spouse. That wouldn’t be the case if they had put life on hold until someone came to rescue them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t experience loneliness, sometimes to a virtually unbearable degree. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to pay a major price to start a family. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t go on each first date with high hopes, and experience the let down that comes with the realization that it’s not a match.

What doesn’t change is their belief that marriage and family are still a worthy pursuit, their faith that Heavenly Father loves them and is aware of every aspect of their life, and their hope that at the right time, it will be their turn. I continue to learn from their examples, as marriage or children are not things you get and then suddenly become happy forever after.

The ones who are going to be most happy in their marriages are the ones who discovered how to be happy outside of marriage, and thus can bring that independently driven sense of self and peace into the union. 

I am grateful for the years I spent on my own, but I know I would not look on them as fondly if I had wasted them in sadness over not being married.

Two years ago this list had ten people on it. It would be great if in two more years it was down to zero. But if not, I trust that these friends won’t be waiting around. They’ll be making the world a better place as they have for years, and they will be rewarded handsomely in due time. No matter how long it takes, marriage is worth the wait.