Erika Anderson slowly made her way down the makeshift aisle atop an apartment building on an overcast, windswept summer evening in New York City, with the Brooklyn Bridge serving as a backdrop. She wore a traditional white dress and carried a small bouquet of white flowers. Erika’s family and closest friends smiled approvingly as she recited her vows. This however was no traditional wedding ceremony. Though Erika pledged her devotion and fidelity, no groom or bride was present.
Erika had married herself.
In recent years the idea of marrying one’s self has gained considerable traction as the number of unmarried people continues to climb in many developed countries. Though the bride has been the primary focal point in contemporary wedding ceremonies for some time, this latest redaction pushes this trend to the extreme by dispensing the groom altogether. “Sologamy,” a recent addition to our cultural lexicon, derives its meaning by joining the paradoxical ideas of marriage and singleness. The advent of related terms like “single brides” and “solo weddings” signals a curious iteration of self-celebration by drawing on the language, solemnity, and customs of an historical (and God-ordained) institution built on a life-long commitment between two individuals who, according to Scripture, become one flesh. But when the term “marriage” can be applied to nearly any kind of human relationship—including one’s self—it stretches language to the breaking point and borders on the absurd. Though it is certainly possible, by way of example, to insist that a large retention pond is every bit as oceanic as the Pacific, something has surely gone wrong not only with our language, but more fundamentally, our perception of the world. The greater is at risk of being diminished through elevating the mundane. As Alvin Plantinga once observed, excessive individualism entails a kind of creative anti-realism where human thought and language are thought to determine the fundamental structure of the world and human relations. At the same time however, maybe we shouldn’t take this quibble over language too seriously, for reality often has a tendency to get in the way. Indeed, no amount of feverish rebranding and embellishment would lead us to confuse one for the other, whether speaking of bodies of water or marriage.
What should we make of the self-marriage movement? Is it merely a narcissistically fueled cry for attention? Is it a feminist assault against a crude and patriarchal practice that marginalizes women through institutional servitude, or a deliberate deconstruction of marriage? An inevitable byproduct of our fragmented and atomistic culture increasingly inclined to self-expression and self-promotion? While there may be some truth in these interpretations, sologamy seems to be an ironic insistence of relational self-sufficiency insofar as it simultaneously undermines the very institution it draws upon to derive its meaning. This might suggest that sologamy makes both too little and too much of marriage.
On the one hand, sologamy makes too little of marriage by trivializing the covenantal joining of a man and woman together before God. For Christians, marriage is held in high regard in part because it functions as a living portrait of profound spiritual realities, bearing parabolic witness to God’s redemptive activity in Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:25-27). Moreover, a Christian understanding of marriage confesses that the joining of two is accomplished and sealed by a Third, the triune God of the Old and New Testaments. Marriage attests to the reality of the eternal love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a sharing that is not the outcome of some prior agreement between solitary divine beings, but a shared love that constitutes God’s very being. One Greek term used to describe this reality, perichōrēsis, preserves both the individuality and reciprocity of the divine persons as each participates in the life of the other. Though this term has mistakenly been interpreted as a “divine dance” etymologically, it nevertheless serves as an evocative metaphor to describe both the unity and reciprocal relationality of God. Marriage is meant to both reflect and bear witness to this deeper spiritual reality.
Whether intentional or not, sologamy collapses the historical, sacred, covenantal relationship with another human being into a solipsistic celebration of the self. Absent the other to whom one pledges the love and self-sacrifice that such love entails, self-love inevitably rushes in to fill the void. Sologamy is thrown into sharpest relief against the backdrop of the Benedictine investiture ceremony, where the postulate dons a wedding gown to symbolize her long journey toward espousal to Christ. While both the sacred and secular ceremonies appropriate particular cultural aspects of the traditional western wedding, their respective aims could hardly be more incongruent. Indeed, sologamy feels a little like arranging one’s own surprise birthday party. To be sure, savvy marketers are cashing in by promoting sologamy as an opportunity to “experience the feeling of being a princess” in donning a bridal gown while one is still “young and beautiful.” A few years ago, a Japanese travel company offered a two-day solo wedding package as a way to encourage “positive feelings.” For about $2500, single brides could choose a special gown for their big day, complete with a custom-made bouquet, personal hair stylist, limousine service, and a stay at a luxury hotel. Imarriedme.com offers a more modest marriage kit as “a roadmap to positivity,” stocked with everything needed to create one’s own unique ceremony. Messages like “Hell yeah I’m awesome,” “Choose Love,” and “You should totally Marry Yourself!” stream across their page. Peddlers of these packages seem to discern that the self marriage movement is more about pampering than polemics, though both avenues are open for exploitation.
Though Sologamy might be dismissed as a secularized, threadbare remnant of an historically thick practice, sologamists could also be accused of making too much of marriage. Would that Jesus turn this wine to water! For whether marriage is described as a divine mystery, a blessed sacrament, or an order of creation, its significance is somewhat relativized in the New Testament. Following Jesus’ declaration that there will be no marriage in the resurrection (Mk. 12:25), St. Paul was at best ambivalent about marriage in light of Christ’s imminent return. He recommended that his listeners follow his own example in remaining single, as the married are inevitably anxious over more mundane affairs—and this following an era when the Roman emperor Augustus had instituted a new set of laws requiring marriage in an attempt to curb social deterioration and bolster the numbers of upper classes in Rome, known as the Lex Iulia et Papia Poppaea. Certainly, the apostle conceded that the one who marries “does well.” But the one who remains single “does better.” (1 Cor. 7:38) While marriage is good, it is not always a necessary good.
Though it is tempting to dismiss sologamy for making too little and too much of marriage, on a deeper level it belies anxiety over relational suitability. The self-marriage movement taps into the deep insecurities that fuel our quests for relevance and relational intimacy. It underscores our need to matter, and reveals that as liturgical animals, communal rituals offer a way to tap into the transcendent. Indeed, when Anderson reflected on her own ceremony, she viewed it as sending a message of self-sufficiency, a message echoed by others who have married themselves. “It means that we are enough, even if we are not partnered with someone else.” In this respect Sologamy may represent a protest against the romantic notion of falling helplessly into another’s orbit as a way of fulfilling the need to feel completed. It may also help place a roadblock between an individual and her pain. Indeed, some sologamy ceremonies follow the end of a long-term relationship. Certainly, there is a sense in which it is proper to say “I am enough” insofar as it resists the notion that marriage is necessary to one’s sense of wholeness, purpose, or calling. Once again however, the substantive content of that message—that marriage need not and should not be the measure of one’s worth—is diluted by appealing to the very institution that one is (at least temporarily) reviling. Once again, sologamy may be making too much of marriage, investing it with a significance that borders on the idolatrous.
But maybe this criticism is unduly harsh. Perhaps sologamy should not be so quickly dismissed. Indeed, it might illumine some rather unflattering aspects concerning the construal of relationships within the church. If Catholicism tacitly sanctions a dualistic vision for women by promoting traditional marriage on the one hand or a lifelong commitment to a religious order on the other, Protestants are no less culpable in fostering an equally troubling narrative when singleness is viewed as the inevitable outcome for having failed to find a suitable marriage partner. This leaves single women in the awkward position of having to defend their suitability for marriage with the not-so-subtle subtext that they are relationally impoverished and morally deficient. Surprisingly, sologamy may shed light on the ways in which the church perpetuates idolatrous, extravagant, and often unrealistic assumptions that are inevitably brought to marriage. Moreover, when marriage is exalted as a bulwark against the moral decline of a culture that undermines family values at every turn (whether the church has a responsibility to influence culture is not a question we can take up here), and when Christian radio is marketed to mothers as “family friendly,” single women might conclude that they have a diminished role in God’s Kingdom. It is not clear whether singleness itself can be a vocare or “calling” without either over-spiritualizing or ignoring it altogether. Perhaps Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocare as the place where one’s deep joy meets the world’s deep hunger honors the connection of the spiritual and the mundane, both geographically and relationally. Sologamy as a celebration of singleness may remind the church of the need for a space for women between the nunnery and the nursery, the cloister and the closet.
Nevertheless, even if we assume that most women embracing sologamy are making a positive statement about their suitability for meaningful relationships, it is hardly a calling, at least as Buechner understands it. It also significantly waters down fidelity. What promises are more easily broken than the ones we make to ourselves? More fundamentally however, it reduces notions of unity and oneness to near meaninglessness. Sologamy props up the notion of individuality by borrowing on the currency of unity by insisting that “one” is no less viable than “oneness.” Such claims, which have a certain validity, resonate deeply in a culture heavily oriented toward the idea of the autonomous self. Yet each person is a unique, unrepeatable individual who not only has a history, but is marked and even defined by relations that extend beyond the relationship one has with one’s own self. Fashioned in God’s image, all human creatures exist in relation to God, whether we recognize this or not. In fact, enshrining a declaration of self-sufficiency in the company of witnesses ironically underscores our need for relationships that go beyond the ones we have with ourselves. We might see sologamy as a distorted quest to find the kind of love that can only come from God. This is what makes sologamy so thoroughly secular. For it fails to account for one’s relationship with the divine Other, the living God whose very existence is eternal love as being-in-relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not even God the Father says, “I am enough.”
Given these reflections, we might be led to conclude that sologamy is morally problematic because it both elevates and celebrates love of self to the exclusion of God, that, as Kierkegaard held, what falls under the name of love from the world’s perspective is nothing but an alliance of self-love. Certainly, Scripture describes self-love as the root of destruction that yields the bitter fruit of arrogance, brutality, conceit, treachery, and the love of pleasure over God (2 Tim. 3:2 ff.). This love of self, noted Thomas Merton, is the source of all the boredom, restlessness, misery and unhappiness that so relentlessly hounds us. Ultimately, this self-love is hell. But things are not that simple. For there is another self-love—a kind of neutral, universal love of self proper to humanity as such—presupposed in the command to love our neighbor (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27). St. Augustine was well aware of this “morally neutral” self-love in addition to these two other forms of self-love—the sinful and the sanctioned—condemning the one while praising the other. Indeed, he spoke favorably of self-love as the human creature’s discovery of his or her true welfare in God. Augustine saw this proper love of self as co-extensive with the love of God, asserting that the one who loves God cannot err in loving herself (City of God XIX.14). Conversely, the love of self apart from the love of God is not a proper self-love at all. In some strange and inexplicable way, the one who loves himself to the exclusion of God does not love himself.
Augustine never developed a theory to explain how these aspects of self-love—neutral, negative, and positive—are related. Nevertheless, the absence of God in the rhetoric surrounding sologamy (and its liturgies) raises suspicion that a destructive form of self-love, an incurvatus in se, is at work, despite the claim to the contrary that it fosters a “self-love [that] builds inner strength.” With Augustine and Merton, we might conclude that sologamy enshrines a fallen form of self-love that is not self-love at all, but rather a manifestation of hell on earth. Though there is certainly a sense of self-love worthy of approbation, any acknowledgment of relational self-sufficiency, any “I am enough,” ought ultimately to be grounded in a prior confession of one’s love of God, a “You are enough,” a confession enabled by God’s prior love for us (1 John 4:19). In other words, those who first learn to embrace God’s prior love for us are far better equipped to learn to love themselves for God’s sake. No doubt, this is much easier said than done. But this lifelong task affirms a proper love of self, capable of underwriting a wide variety of callings and the personal relationships unique to them. Indeed, those captivated by the beauty of this love will find sologamy to hold little appeal.