Veronica Zundel challenges us to accept and support healthy connections beyond the ‘ideal’ the Church perpetually highlights
This year it will be 30 years since my dear friend Kathy died. We had much in common: single, intelligent Christian women battling the sexism of the Church, and survivors of brothers with severe mental illness. In her 30s Kathy vowed that if she reached 40 and was not yet married, she would “make her own arrangements”. In the event she got tired of being alone, and made her own arrangements earlier. She slept with a boyfriend she thought was a Christian and wanted to marry her (neither was true), then got pregnant by another who chickened out of marrying her. It was painful for her friends to watch. Finally she got engaged to her lovely lodger who went through a marriage ceremony with her when she was in a coma dying of breast cancer. He adopted and brought up her daughter, who was only 22 months old when her mother died.
Making our own arrangements
When I look around at my Christian woman friends, it seems to me that many have ‘made their own arrangements’, though not in such a negative way. Take the group of four other single women I used to pray with regularly. One got married in her mid-30s, then her husband left her – she was better off without him as he was violent towards her. One had a boyfriend who became increasingly disabled and she became (and still is) his carer. One lived with her brother, but couldn’t cope with the clutter caused by his growing model train set, and moved to live with her married sister. One moved in with her boyfriend, to be near and care for her mother without actually living with her (it was all very chaste, separate bedrooms). After her mother’s death she stayed there and eventually they got married “for tax purposes” (they seem very happy). And me – I married a man I wasn’t in love with, but with whom I felt I had a strong friendship, and somehow we are still married 35 years later. God moves in mysterious ways…
None of these (except perhaps myself, almost) conform to the pattern of two partners – two plus children and a cat or dog. I remember being a joint speaker with another woman at a groundbreaking faith and social action conference in the early 80s (I was skinny at the time, she was of generous proportions, and I heard the audience called us ‘Little and Large’). We were to respond to another speaker who talked about the importance of family. We got the impression from his talk that he was from a stable family unit, with lots of extended family and always enough money for everything they needed. Our response was designed to shake that myth. My fellow speaker talked about families she worked with, how they were always relationally and financially on the edge, how armies of single mothers struggle to feed and bring up children sometimes with multiple fathers. I talked about how my family had been decimated by the Holocaust and later by mental illness and suicide, with no extended family in this country and precious little elsewhere. It is not only sexual libertarianism that disrupts relationships: it can be war, sickness and even selfish parents like my grandmother who kept my ‘maiden aunt’ at home to look after her after my grandfather left.
Fostering healthy relationships
How can the Church – or indeed the Christian media – foster healthy, long-term, committed relationships in which people can flourish? I think we could start by not imposing an ideal love story in which two people meet, date, commit and do everything right, including a justified white wedding. You can have all of that dream and things can still go wrong if life changes or the foundation of love wasn’t as strong as you thought it was. We could also start accepting and supporting different kinds of relationship, so long as they are committed and faithful. If you look at the Bible, there is a whole slew of different models: a man marrying his brother’s widow, friends making a lifelong commitment to each other. Think of Ruth and Naomi, for example: two women, former daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, making vows of faithfulness to each other with no sexual component at all. That’s what I call the best form of ‘making your own arrangements’.
We all need someone in our life who is there to support us, and who we can support. After my father died, my mother had a similarly widowed friend who would ring her faithfully every morning and every evening just to make sure she was still alive. To me, that’s a relationship just as important as that of a young (or older) couple in love. To care and be cared for: that’s what relationships are for.