Last month I turned 30.
This wasn’t a painful milestone for me. The Lord has richly blessed my 20s. His mercies are new every morning and His faithfulness is deeper than I could have imagined at 21.
An old friend called me on my birthday to wish me a happy one. Though we no longer share the same biblical worldview, he and I are at a similar spot in life — early 30s, unmarried. We used to attend the same youth group, and one time we almost went golfing on a date. (My parents decided against it at the last moment.)
As my friend and I talked and reminisced our conversation fell to our single plight (deep down we all want things like marriage and family). “It used to be really simple,” my friend said with a laugh. By “it” he meant establishing a romantic relationship. (He was engaged his senior year of college, but it fell through.)
“Now I’ve lost confidence in my ability to choose,” he said. “I know how I am. I know all these things about myself, and I know what won’t work for me. I almost know too much about myself.”
I knew exactly what he meant. In the eight years since college, I’ve accumulated more than a house full of photographs, furniture and dishes that aren’t plastic — I’ve developed a fairly complex identity. And honestly, finding someone who’s a fit seems like a much more difficult task than it used to.
How Do You Like My Stuff?
My sisters and I were recently touring New York City to celebrate my birthday. My sister Sarah, who my college friends used to call “Mini-Me” (because she shares my blond hair and facial expressions), is extremely talented. While she’s humble about her successes, I see in her (as in myself) a tendency to lean on the achievements that define her.
While I was pondering this, an image suddenly filled my mind. I pictured myself stepping up to meet a potential mate. Only I’m not alone. Behind me is a mountain of suitcases marked, “Christian,” “College Graduate,” “Editor,” “Improv Performer,” “Sunday School Teacher,” “Blogger” and a myriad of other things.
If the bags weren’t there, I might simply extend a hand and say: “Hi, I’m Suzanne. I love Jesus. I tend to laugh loudly and I’m more insecure than I should be at my age.”
Instead, when I meet someone, I motion to my suitcases, as if to say: “Ta-da! How do you like my stuff?” I may even peek to make sure the person standing before me has an equitable mound. And, of course, I’ll analyze how that person’s bags will complement my own.
This is the kind of baggage my friend was speaking of. Not only am I considering if this person could spur me on spiritually, be a good intellectual match and be someone I could enjoy being around for the rest of my life, I’m looking for the person who likes my identity and has some matching luggage.
Pink Mist and Sparkly Eyes
In case I’m losing you with this analogy, let me go back to what my friend said about how relationships used to be simple. Some of you are in college. Picture the average guy-girl conversation on a college campus.
At my college, guys and girls tended to couple up in the spring when the weather got sunny and you could lay a blanket out on the lawn to study. (We called the falling cherry blossoms “pink mist” and the mist was said to have mythical romantic powers.)
Say a guy plops down on his female friend’s study blanket and they start a conversation. “What are you going to do after graduation?” he asks.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “I might teach for a year or apply for grad school or go on a short term missions trip. How about you?”
He smiles (because he likes her sparkly eyes). “Well, I’ll keep working as a server to pay off my school loans, but what I’d REALLY like to do is help inner city youth.”
“Really?” she says. “That sounds exciting.”
Freeze. This couple has very few bags so far. They have potential suitcases, but they have no idea what will fill them. They may even dream of selecting and filling suitcases together. Sparkly eyes and enthusiasm for the future is enough to create a bond.
The Highest Bidder
I recently read an article that looked at marriage in terms of an auction. Some singles consider themselves to be strong bidders. Perhaps they are popular with peers, are commonly compared to an attractive celebrity or make a six-figure salary. Because of these perceived assets, these bidders are looking for the crème de la crème partner.
The more bags you accumulate during your single years, the more likely you are to consider yourself a strong bidder. The problem is, according to game theory, strong bidders miss out because they fail to actually bid. Weak bidders, or those with less suitcases, end up married because they bid decisively on what they want.
My intention is not to discourage eligible singles here. When I began discussing this identity baggage issue with one friend, she expressed her frustration: “Sometimes I almost feel like I have to hide my bags! Or reserve them to show only guys who won’t be intimidated by them.”
Hiding who you are — strengths and attributes included — is not what I’m proposing. Neither am I suggesting you burn or trash your suitcases. The real issue is how much you’re depending on them, or using them, when approaching a relationship.
Acknowledge that the bags exist. A person in her 20s or 30s has had ample time for identity development. Forming a relationship after a decade of single adulthood will naturally be a little more complicated than doing the same thing in college. Studies have proven this. At the same time, a well-developed sense of identity can be an asset that helps you rule out inappropriate matches.
My friend Adam, who married in his 30s said, “The truth is, you’re probably not going to end up with someone who is way beneath you in intellect, spirituality or looks. I was looking for an equal.”
Because of this, hiding your light under a bushel, is unwise. At the same time, there is a difference between humbly being who you are and boasting in your accomplishments or expecting others to acknowledge them.
Realize you are not your bags. OK, so you have multiple degrees, are an award-winning violinist, look great from daily gym visits, have your dream job and lead four Bible studies. Those are facts about you, not you. Sometimes we treat our interests and accomplishments as some kind of bullet points on a marriage resume.
The problem is (as many online daters have discovered), facts are not always the most accurate predictor of a strong connection. Things like birth order, personality, natural temperament and daily routine can be much better indicators.
Don’t give the bags too much weight. Before my mom met my dad, she had always dated the same kind of guy: melancholy, intellectual, driven. The baby of his family, my dad was an athletic, funny, all-American type. He didn’t have the bags my mom usually went for, but he ended up being a great match for her. Through the years, his sense of humor and cheerful demeanor helped smooth over many stressful circumstances in our household.
I can be a little prideful when I look at my bags, and consider them too seriously when looking for a match. In the end, my spouse and I will probably have similarities, but he may not hold all the bags I think he should (and he may not be as impressed with some of my bags as I think he should).
What’s in your luggage? The factors of my identity that should matter most to me — and a future spouse — are those that center around my relationship with Christ. I have been justified (Romans 5:1), I have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), I have been redeemed (Colossians 1:14), I have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), Christ lives in me (Colossians 1:27).
If there is any value in my identity baggage, it is in those things that are bearing fruit. Each of those bags is on loan from God. In a year or 10, some of them will be gone, replaced by new ones. And only the Lord knows what those will be.
For now, I hope to approach each relationship in a simple way — with an open heart and a single bag stamped: “Child of God.”