Joy Beth Smith is the author of Party of One. She was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions about the book and about life in general and was an absolute joy to talk to.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you chose to write Party of One?
I’ve been single basically my entire life, and for about that long I’ve operated under the assumption that I would get married and pass out orange slices to shin guard–clad kids on Saturday mornings. But after I graduated first with my undergrad and later with my master’s, it was like waiting around for an Uber that never arrived. So, I had to find my own way, try my hand at teaching and latte making, finally forging a career in online publishing, and now, the book.
Party of One grew out of my profound sense of seeing the need around me. We didn’t need more stats and figures. We didn’t need another married person telling us what we were doing wrong and how we could get married if only we _____ (fill in the blank). We needed a safe place for coming together, for comparing war wounds and dating horror stories, a space where we can realize that our longing for marriage and frustrations and bouts of cynicism don’t isolate us here—they are what connect us.
Throughout the book, you are very candid about your own fears and struggles with singleness. What would you say are the most common struggles that singles deal with in the church today?
As I found in my book, it’s difficult to speak on behalf of all singles because the only thing we have in common is a lack of a spouse, so our struggles are as varied as we are. Some singles long to be married, so our greatest struggle might be sitting in the tension of that unmet desire and acceptance of God’s sovereignty, which is only compounded by the church’s idolization of marriage. Other singles may not share that same longing for marriage though, so their greatest struggle could be feeling ostracized by the church’s prioritization of marriage when they feel no desire to pursue that end.
I also think single people, like all people, are longing for community, for inclusion. They’re desperate for a place where they can be seen and valued, as they are. Because it’s difficult for them to find this in the traditional marriage-centric model of the church, many single people may skip Sunday mornings to find community in small groups, or even invest more in spiritual online spaces that fill this void.
Part of your research for the book included holding a few roundtables with other single women to talk about how they have wrestled with singleness. How would the church benefit from creating a similar kind of space for its singles?
The idea of churches holding roundtables for singles is thrilling to me. Honestly, I can’t imagine an environment where a church could learn more about the experiences, desires, and frustrations of the single people (or any marginalized group) in their congregation than to eavesdrop on a group of them. Forget a Sunday sermon. Set up a table, mic each of them, prep a few questions, and just see what happens.
In my experience, it’s not that single people are unwilling to share—quite the opposite—it’s that we’ve never even been asked. We’re desperate to tell you about our lives, our opinions about the singles’ ministry, our waning hopes for the future, our desire for representation in church leadership. And in this peek into our humanity, in listening to the conversation, you see so much more easily how to love us (it’s not in asking us about our relationship status).
One of the points you return to consistently is the truth that a person’s significance does not begin at the altar. Rather, singleness is a valid life stage in and of itself, not merely one to be weathered. In what ways has this been a freeing truth in your life? What can the church do differently to encourage this truth in its singles?
This is one of those truths that when I read it in my book, depending on the day, I have to suck in a breath and go, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” When I’m viewing my current life stage as significant, I’m choosing to stop putting off vacations just because I think they’d make a better honeymoon than a trip by myself. I’m valuing the relationships I’m building right now, knowing that this community is what is being used to sharpen and sanctify me. And I’m taking pride in my accomplishments and will continue to seek to accomplish new things, even though they be unconventional, because weddings and babies shouldn’t be the only mile markers we measure this life by.
The church could begin to encourage singles in this by celebrating the lives that singles are living now. When the only showers that we throw are wedding and baby showers, it sends a message that nothing in the single life is worth celebrating to such a large degree. But if we’re changing that narrative, we have to find the accomplishments and joys in the lives of all of our congregants and celebrate them. Bring honor to them. Praise what is praiseworthy in their lives—there is so much more than you would ever expect.
You devote a significant portion of your book to the topic of sexuality and demonstrate the damage that can occur when we talk about it in too simplistic of terms. What are some common ways you see the topic of sexuality overly simplified in Christian communities? How practically do those conversations ostracize singles and what would be a healthy alternative approach?
It seems the church is very scared of the sexuality conversation, especially where singles are concerned. Growing up in purity culture, you see something like virginity lauded as the ultimate goal—if a couple remained physically pure before marriage then they would have a healthy relationship. And this simultaneous obsession with and repression of sexuality led to a really unhealthy culture that we’re still recovering from. And, of course, the conversations rarely, if ever, address how singles fit into the equation. What does the intersection of sexuality and singleness look like? Too often sexuality is treated like Pandora’s box that’s put in a corner and left unopened until the wedding night. In reality, I think the church could begin a much more robust, encompassing conversation on sexuality that would include singleness and equip singles to lead a life (or prolonged season) of celibacy, whether by choice or circumstance. Instead, too often, singles are having to turn to sources outside the church for answers to questions of sexuality, and it’s muddying a conversation that the church could be steering from the outset.
In your section on the common forms of relational “advice” singles receive, you describe much of it as a form of the prosperity gospel. Could you elaborate on that? What kind of advice would be helpful for singles to hear from their loved ones today?
So often we unintentionally push a relational prosperity gospel—it’s where we assume God is withholding a spouse until we’ve spiritually matured, fixed that moral failing, grown more responsible, learned how to handle money, or performed in some similar way. If only I’m good enough, God will then be good to me. I have had to stop trying to barter with God this way. If my good actions aren’t enough to convince him to save me, they probably aren’t enough to convince him to send me a husband either.
Instead of this kind of advice that holds single people responsible for their own singleness, trying to find them at fault in some way, what would be the most helpful is offering a safe place of lament or grieving for those who are struggling in their singleness. Being single is hard for a lot of us, and often in the church we don’t feel like there’s a place we can go to say that without being placated by practical advice or clichés. Be the person who can sit and listen, who will grieve the loss of dreams, who won’t promise futures that aren’t sure-things. That is far more valuable than most advice.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I wrote my book for single women who long for marriage, so for them, I hope they come away feeling in good company. Amazing, accomplished women are in our ranks, and I am proud to be among them. And I hope they realize it’s okay to not be okay—that a lot of us aren’t okay. We’re hobbling along, holding ourselves together, duct taping windows and crying in our cars. The veneer of perfection has no place here, and I cast it out with my Dorito-dusted fingers.
And for everyone else who eavesdrops on the conversation, I hope they laugh and listen with all the grace in the world to a conversation that is probably foreign to them. I hope they come away seeing that singleness can be a much greater struggle than they realized, and I hope they want more than ever to find new ways to support the single people in their lives and communities.
If you could offer a word of encouragement to struggling singles, what would it be?
Even if this is it, even if it’s you and a bag of Mint Milano cookies and Hulu every Saturday night from now for the next two decades, that is a life that you can be ridiculously proud of. Find your people, find activities you love, surround yourself with things you enjoy, read good books, serve others, and build an interesting, full life. It won’t be what you imagined, and might not ever be what you prefer, but it can still be good.
Cover image by Jakub Dziubak.
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