Before I got married and was asked to write on singleness every other day, one of the questions I'd be asked often was, "How can married women encourage their unmarried sisters." I thought a lot about this question because I think it's a good one, but also because it can be easy to forget some pains of singleness once the vows are said. In order for us to truly mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, it takes a great amount of empathy—entering into the sadness, fears, and joys of our sisters and brothers in Christ. What is unfortunate, though, is that the question is rarely flipped the other way around. "How can unmarried women encourage their married sisters?" I think this is perhaps due to an incorrect view that those who are unmarried are somehow lesser than and therefore need greater amounts of encouragement than those who are married. This simply isn't true. What is true is that an unmarried person has distinct and perfect gifts designed by God for their season, and a married person has distinct and perfect gifts designed by God for theirs. No one is less than, or has less than—though it's hard to believe that as an unmarried person who longs for what your sisters and brothers have through their spouses.
I know even as I write this there are those who are saying, "Well, of course you can say that, you're married. I'll bet it didn't feel like a gift when you were single!" To which I'd reply, actually, it did, and not just in hindsight. Yes, I felt the lack, and yes I mourned the reality that I might never have children or a husband, but it didn't make my unmarried life any less rich than my married life is today. If you're still disbelieving me, I encourage you to tend to the affections of your heart; if having a spouse is the pinnacle of joy for you, then your heart has settled for idolatry.
In hindsight, though, there is still one regret of my singleness: I wish I had encouraged, or known how to encourage, my married friends better. I prayed for them, loved them, tried to be specific about helping them and encouraging them when I knew how to, but I wish I had not looked at their lives and seen a form of completion that somehow (in my mind) negated my words and presence in their lives. There was a perception that the season they were in did not need my particular brand of encouragement as a single. I was wrong. Just as I needed their prayers, encouragement, vulnerability, and friendship, they needed mine.
Here are four ways the unmarried can encourage the married:
1. Fight the lie that says to you their lives are complete in a way yours is not.
This lie is not only damaging to you, it is damaging to them. Marriage does not complete a person, but when you believe it does, you remove the opportunity for them to be vulnerable about the ways marriage presses on them in difficult ways. If your answer to their struggles in marriage is always, "Well, at least you have a husband," the lie that can play on their minds and hearts is, "They're right. I have a husband. I shouldn't be struggling with this gnawing feeling of incompleteness." Now you're both believing lies. The truth is you are both complete and whole in Christ, nothing more, nothing less. The truth is also that you are both wholly incomplete in Christ, awaiting your final consummation with Christ. This is a beautiful truth if we can truly wrap our minds and hearts around it. Complete and not complete, but both in Christ, not in marital status.
I have really struggled with this in marriage because many of my still unmarried friends so long for marriage that they assume I can't possibly understand the struggle anymore, or I feel guilty talking about difficulties in this season of my life as though I'm not allowed to still struggle. God is doing a work on me in this area and I'm trying to be faithful to holding marriage up as a source of joy (though not the pinnacle of joy) while also being honest about the very real angsts within it.
2. Ask them probing questions about their marriage.
There has been an idea that one's marriage is somehow off limits for discussion. Perhaps you grew up in a broken home and any conflict meant divorce was around the corner, or perhaps you've heard men and women alike complaining about their marriages, or gossiping about their spouses. I've experienced both. There can be a paralyzing fear that if we talk about struggles we are having or our husbands are having with anyone, that we are slandering them or exposing our marriage.
The best thing for sin is to be exposed to the light, for the Holy Spirit to minister and heal, and for reconciliation to come. But often times as unmarried people, you can feel inept at asking those probing questions without seeming like you're digging for salacious details. I'll never forget being in a group of friends with one recently married and one of the other girls asking our newly married friend all kinds of details about marriage, sex, routines, etc.. I was embarrassed, but mostly because my newly married friend was embarrassed. But years later when that marriage had dissolved, I wished I'd asked more questions along the way. I wished I'd helped to be a minister of reconciliation instead of a bystander who thought I couldn't ask probing questions. You may not have all the answers (and in fact, none of us do), but hearing honest words about the difficulties within marriage can help dissolve the Hollywood version we all have in our heads—and God may use you to help heal brokenness along the way.
Here are a few questions that would be helpful for you and her: What does leadership and submission look like in your marriage? How does it make you feel? What is the hardest thing about being a wife? What are you afraid of in your marriage? What brings you joy in it? In what ways was what you were taught in the church right about sex in marriage? In what ways was it wrong? How can I pray for you and your husband today?
3. Pray with them about their needs and desires.
Something happens when I pray. I don't mean God always answers my prayers. I mean something happens in me when I pray. My heart is softened and becomes more understanding to the plight of another. I can talk for hours about a particular angst or fear or whatever I or someone else is struggling with, but the moment I say, "Father," and follow it with an earnest prayer, my heart changes. I don't mean this in a mystical way, I just think it's the Holy Spirit in me communing with the Son who intercedes on behalf of me to our Father in heaven.
When you bring your own longings, fears, and angsts to the fervor behind a prayer for someone else, something settles within you. You are able to understand and sympathize with a friend—in whatever season of life they're in—matching your longings ache for ache.
One of my good friends has a baby right now and a tiny apartment she longs to be out of. I am renting a home but ache for a baby. We are able to have what the other longs for (in a way), but pray for the other as though we both long for the same thing because we understand what we ultimately long for is God. Pray with your married sisters—even if you think they should just be happy with what they have because it's what you want.
4. Rejoice with them when their dreams are fulfilled.
I've told this story a hundred times before but for the past six years I had three friends who all struggled with infertility. They each mourned differently and struggled in unique ways, but we prayed and cried for one another in the lack of what we desired: a baby for them, a husband for me. Within a year, we saw all of those prayers answered for each of us in various ways. I'm not saying this is a guarantee for everyone, but it was a sweet picture of God's attentiveness toward each of us and because we had been faithful to love and encourage one another in our particular season, we were able to rejoice with a fullness we wouldn't have had before.
It is much harder to look with jealous longing at a friend who has what you want when you've truly entered into her mourning when she didn't have it. The safeguard against jealousy is not coveting all the more what our neighbors have, but rejoicing with them when they get it. This is a blessed safeguard and an opportunity more of us should take. Rejoice, as fully as you're able, when God answers the prayers you've both been praying for them.
This has also been a struggle for me in marriage because most of my closest friends are still unmarried. I have struggled to rejoice around them because I fear my happiness will lead to their sadness. God is teaching me to model joy for earthly gifts while at the same time keeping Christ as my constant joy at the center.
. . .
In many ways these are things we all need to do with all of our friends, but many of us do them more easily with those who are in the same season as us. It is easier to pray for a husband with a friend who longs for one too. It's easier to understand infertility when you're walking through it too. It's easier to counsel difficult seasons in marriage when you've walked through them too. But crossing outside of those boundary lines can bring, I might argue, a better more lasting blessing.
I know it's hard to fight the lie that your married friend has everything you want and doesn't need your encouragement, but I beg you to fight through it, set your truest affections on Christ, trust He supplies every need according to His riches, and assume the position of being the answer to your friend's need. Your joy will be greater, I promise.