I’m in that season of young adulthood when engagements and weddings are nearly ubiquitous in my life, and because I’m single, I frequently attend weddings without a plus-one. That I genuinely enjoy weddings (i.e., celebrations of lifelong partnerships) in spite of my relationship status seems to make me a bit of an odd duck among some of my peers, and while I was watching two more of my friends tie the knot this past weekend, I began thinking about what I love so much about weddings.
From those reflections, I’ve created a guide to enjoying weddings without a plus-one. It’s intended very specifically for people who attend weddings alone without the goal of acquiring a partner but with less-than-100%-confidence in their status as singles, people for whom the joy of celebrating two friends committing their lives to one another might provoke feelings of confusion, fear, insecurity, doubt, or jealousy. I’m hopeful it addresses some of the broader areas of uncertainty that singles face—whether they’re single temporarily or permanently—in a culture that often feels designed for couples, a problem Christian communities often unwittingly magnify. While I absolutely don’t want to downplay the seriousness of the pain and disappointment many singles experience, the guide is quite blunt, since I tend to be straightforward about my own experiences. My conviction is that singleness (temporary or permanent) is a gift and that singles are are an essential part of any community, so this guide reflects an attitude of emphasizing what singles have and offer rather than what they lack. I should offer the additional disclaimer that most of the weddings I’ve attended recently have been within my denomination (meaning they’re relatively subdued) and in the South (meaning they’re fairly old-fashioned—charmingly so, in my opinion), and my perceptions may be a bit skewed.
So, before you write a “1” on that RSVP card and mail it in, familiarize yourself with the following tips for enjoying weddings without a plus-one:
1. If you know anyone else going to the wedding, go with them.
Undoubtedly, the most intimidating tasks for the solo attendee involve finding seats, both for the ceremony (especially if there are no ushers) and the reception. You can avoid both of these crises if you arrange in advance to come with others. Meeting up with other single friends is a given, but don’t hesitate to make plans with couples or families you know who are attending. There are couples who will unknowingly make you painfully aware of your status as the single in the group, and there are other couples who will include you so seamlessly it won’t be clear who’s including whom. Go with a couple from the latter group. If they have kids, they’ll probably appreciate the extra childcare you provide.
Are you imposing on these families? I don’t like the question, because it somehow implies they’d be better off without you or that they’re doing you a favor, when in reality the way Christian community works is that everyone (even those people who have traditional nuclear families) benefits from their relationships with the larger, nontraditional extended family. Forming those nontraditional relationships comes easier to the singles in the group, and they serve an essential function by pulling people away from some kind of last-name idolatry. The kingdom of heaven is hardly a place where everyone shows up in their own family minivan; it’s not difficult for me to imagine Jesus extolling the virtues of the carpool. Go with other people, and for the evening, the three (or four or seven) of you are, in a very non-metaphorical way, a family.
2. Feel free to cry throughout the ceremony.
Weddings are usually sweet and beautiful, especially if you’ve read Revelation; and you do have a heart, after all.
3. If you’re not dancing, you’d better be having super important conversations.
…by which I mean to say there are at least two excellent ways to avoid spending the entire reception feeling dejected, and both capitalize on your autonomy. The first is to seek people out for meaningful conversations, since there’s a good chance you’ll be around people you haven’t seen in awhile. Conversations at weddings tend to be flyby catch-ups, brief updates about the kind of information you can find on a Facebook profile; but when there are tables and chairs and hours available, it’s a great opportunity for more substantial dialogue, and you can be the one who raises the standard for interactions with the people you encounter. It’s easy for couples and families to close themselves off from a broader social scene accidentally or stick to shallow chats, and single people can be a catalyst for connecting people in relationships that draw them outside of themselves.
The second involves rocking the dance floor with your incredible moves. Oh, you don’t have incredible moves? Then you’ll fit right in on a wedding dance floor, where your fellow dancers will consist of people like the bride’s 14-year-old cousin and the groom’s middle school English teacher. Seriously, though: I grew up in a denomination in which people considered dancing to be inextricably tied to sexual sin, and it’s only been in recent years that my people have started to recognize there is such a thing as righteous dancing, the kind of self-unconscious celebration that has nothing to do with sex other than the fact that it acknowledges our bodies are important and useful. That tends to be the kind of dancing I see at a Christian wedding, and there’s nothing like the “Cupid Shuffle” to eliminate any lingering feelings of discomfort related to your relationship status, especially since dance floors are the great levelers of all those demographic distinctions that might otherwise divide us. One of the gifts of singleness is the freedom to connect with a huge variety of people from all walks of life, and dancing helps break down the walls that prevent those connections, so make the most of the opportunity to make friends (even if the friendships last only a few hours) with a diverse mixture of people. (Yes, dancing can involve sexual immorality, so don’t do that kind.)
4. Don’t get anywhere close to drunk.
No, I don’t think Christians ought to be getting drunk in the first place; but in my experience, Christians are often at an increased risk of drinking too much when they’re with other Christians who are drinking, since it feels like a relatively safe atmosphere in which to cut loose. Are you ready for some real talk, singles? One of the benefits of having a significant other at any social event is that they can tell you when you’ve got something in your teeth, or when your political jokes have stopped landing, or when you’ve maybe had a few sips of alcohol more than you ought to have. This kind of social accountability is an important function of marriage, but for singles, that accountability only exists when you’ve got particularly close (or particularly forthright) friends nearby. If you choose to drink at a wedding, there might not be anyone to tell you when you’ve passed a limit, and you need to be fully aware and in control of yourself. (Don’t get me started on drinking if you drove yourself to the wedding.)
Does this mean you shouldn’t relax and enjoy the festive atmosphere? No, but it does mean you have to be smart, especially if the situation already has you feeling particularly tense or emotionally vulnerable (conditions that mix particularly poorly with alcohol). This proactive thinking doesn’t just cover intoxication; it translates into a general attitude of being respectful and responsible with yourself and with other people, avoiding the temptation of allowing yourself to become a burden to others. There’s a fine but crucial distinction between inviting someone to share your burdens (which Christians are supposed to do) and becoming a burden to others (which Christians ought to avoid). Single people need to learn to depend on others and to ask for help, but they also have the unfortunate duty of actively doing for themselves the kind of maturing that marriage often does automatically for people, especially since we live in a culture where it’s acceptable to live as an adolescent until you have a spouse. If you’re a single 25-year-old, you don’t have to pretend you’re a 37-year-old, but you also don’t get to pretend you’re a 17-year-old.
5. If you’re feeling any resentment or sadness, don’t work through it during your conversation with the newlyweds.
…because it has nothing to do with that particular couple. You need to admit and process those feelings—God created us as feeling creatures for a reason, and if you’re in pain, there’s nothing to be gained from denying that pain—but if you have to work through those feelings at the wedding itself, please, please, please do so in the many hours of the evening in which you are not talking to the couple rather than the five minutes in which you are, because your pain is entirely unrelated to their happiness, and on the day of their covenant ceremony, they ought not to feel as if they’ve done something wrong. (They haven’t.) It’s wrong for married people to condescend to singles with an attitude of superiority or privilege and treat singles as if they’re necessarily unhappy or unfulfilled, and it’s equally wrong for singles to blame any unhappiness they do feel on the married people in their lives. Both vocations are equally valid and meaningful in God’s kingdom.
6. Participate in scheduled activities.
Yes, we can all agree it’s gross when the groom throws the garter. (You don’t even get the luxury of pretending you don’t know where it’s been.) Those who plan the wedding may choose to include any number of an endless list of wedding traditions that are only enjoyable in the rarest of circumstances, and many guests will require extreme measures of prodding and persuading in order to participate. (Many of these traditions will even draw special attention to your singleness.) Nevertheless, remember the wedding is not about you or any of the other guests. It’s 2012, and gone are the days when people have to include certain traditions for the sake of keeping up appearances. You can safely assume the traditions matter to someone involved in the wedding planning.
Use the freedom your singleness grants you to make a big deal out of the traditions that evidently matter to someone. If everyone agrees a dollar dance is silly, then everyone can sit tight in their chairs and be cool and not participate, and at least one person in the room can be supremely disappointed. But if everyone agrees they can make the dollar dance fun, then they will, and you can be a source of momentum for making that happen—the life of the party, as it were. I don’t mean you have to take over and tell everyone what to do; it’s enough for you to participate yourself and do so ungrudgingly. Even if everyone else in the room is too cynical (or too distracted) to recognize the beauty of any particular tradition, or ritual, or rite, or act of worship, the single person can breathe new life into any given activity and set an entirely new tone for the room, throwing dignity out the window so that other people recognize they might be holding onto their own dignity a little too tightly. You’ll have a better time, and most of the others will, too, and a particular someone will be so happy to see what they envisioned coming to life with joy and energy.
7. Find ways to be helpful after the couple leaves.
If finding seating is the most uncomfortable task for the solo attendee, leaving is probably the most emotionally perilous, especially if you didn’t or couldn’t follow step #1. An empty car can feel especially empty if you leave immediately after watching the happy couple depart in a limo for, you know, potentially 60+ years of life together. Here’s more real talk: Many of your married friends will need to rush home after the ceremony to put kids to bed or put a spouse to bed or do anything else because married life just takes longer, but you’re under no such compulsion. If there’s any work to be done after the wedding—gathering centerpieces, wrapping up food, transporting gifts—volunteer your time and services. If it’s a small, low-tech wedding, it’s entirely possible that the newlyweds’ families may be looking forward to the cleanup time to relax and laugh and reflect privately with one another after the guests depart; if this is the case, it’s probably best you go ahead and hit the road. But if it’s a large wedding with a lot of work to do, I can almost guarantee the families will eagerly put you to work, and you’ll save an already-exhausted group of people from spending ten hours putting tortilla pinwheels in plastic bags. Believe me when I say leaving immediately after seeing the couple off (when you’re conscious of how you don’t have what they have) is profoundly more bleak than leaving after helping to move 300 chairs (when you’ve been able to demonstrate love to a family in need of those with time to give).
Human beings are created in the image of God, whose very nature is love. That means the nature of humans is to love, and love requires an object. Those who are married and/or have children have the benefit of constant recipients for their love, but singles will feel consistently frustrated and ineffective if they don’t find other people towards whom they can direct their love. Fortunately for singles, our world is and never has been lacking in people who need to receive love, and while wives and husbands and dads and moms are busy spending significant amounts of time showing love to their immediate families—as God is calling them to do!—singles have the privilege (and it’s as much a privilege as loving a spouse is) of dedicating their love to God and to the world who needs them.