01 What is the State of Relational Health Today?

What is the State of Relational Health Today?


Relationships exist within a specific culture—and that means cultural change can profoundly shape our relationships. Whether they’re cultural trends related to cohabitation, delayed marriage, delayed parenting, working parents, telecommuting or social media, or changes in attitudes toward marriage, singleness, children, aging, friendships and community—all of these impact the formation and development of family and friendship. Even national policies—such as tax credits for childcare and education, or China’s former longstanding one-child policy—can shape household composition and relational dynamics.

It has been two decades since sociologist Robert Putnam released Bowling Alone, which documented rising community disengagement among Americans. Despite Putnam’s warnings, the problem of loneliness seems to have grown.1 A 2018 Cigna study of more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older revealed that “nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46),” and that 43 percent of Americans “sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.”2 The youngest group of respondents, ages 18 to 22, are the loneliest age cohort, pointing to an increasing trend of loneliness in younger generations. Likewise, Barna’s 2019 study of 18–35-year-olds around the world, The Connected Generation, found that that one-quarter of Millennials (23%) reports they often feel lonely and isolated.3 At the same time, just one in three often feels that “someone believes in me” (32%).

One factor that may exacerbate the loneliness epidemic is the social expectation to marry and start a family, which has a long history reaching back to ancient cultures. Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, notes that although one’s significance in modern society is less dependent on producing heirs, the pressure to find a partner persists. “Western culture tempts us to put our hopes in ‘apocalyptic romance,’ in finding complete spiritual and emotional fulfillment in the perfect mate. Innumerable Disney-style popular culture narratives begin telling life stories only when two parties are about to find True Love and then, once they do, the story fades out. The message is that what matters in life is finding romance and marriage. Everything else is prologue and afterword.”4

This narrative is in tension with more recent notions. As early as the 1980s, Keller noticed shifting attitudes among his congregation’s young urban professionals—attitudes that have since grown into mainstream objections to marriage: “Marriage crushes individual identity and has been oppressive for women, marriage stifles passion and is ill-fitted to psychological reality, marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’ that only serves to complicate love, and so on. But beneath these philosophical objections lies a snarl of conflicted personal emotions, born out of many negative experiences with marriage and family life.”5

This chapter of Restoring Relationships inventories the relationships that connect people today within the context of broad cultural flux. Barna’s findings confirm the pervasive problem of loneliness and highlight disparities in relational and emotional satisfaction between married people and singles, and between those with and without children. We also explore the benefits of frequent contact with family and loved ones, and examine how faith provides meaningful identity apart from marital and parental status—and how churches can play a role in combating loneliness.

Why is this so crucial? Because relationships are where the rubber of the gospel meets the road of everyday life. Christ came to redeem and restore lost and broken people, and our relationships are where redeemed, restored people live the good news. The Church can and must be a reliable place to turn for relational restoration.

To get the lay of the land, let’s look first at the relationships people are in right now.


Researchers wanted to account for various relational realms, so the survey included questions about family of origin, current household, close friendships and trusted advisors, such as a pastor or professional counselor.

When it comes to family of origin, practicing Christians and U.S.

adults overall are equally likely to have a living mother (58%). The proportions that have a living father also are the same (46% practicing Christians vs. 45% U.S. adults), less than half in both groups, but practicing Christians are slightly more likely to have a sibling (89% vs. 85%).

There are more significant differences when it comes to relationships that people make for themselves. Practicing Christians are much more likely to have a spouse (58% vs. 49%) and a child (68% vs. 59%). Among those 35 and older who have children, practicing Christians are also slightly more likely to have a grandchild (60% vs. 56%).

Outside the family, the overwhelming majority of both groups has close friends (95% vs. 91%). It’s worth contemplating what this means: One in 20 practicing Christians and one in 10 U.S. adults say they do not have a close friend.

A Relationship Inventory US Adults vs Practicing Christians

Practicing Christians are more likely to have a counselor or therapist (25% vs. 20% all U.S. adults) and, unsurprisingly, almost twice as likely to have a pastor or priest (92% vs. 47%).

Marital Status

Although practicing Christians outpace the general population in being currently married, some aspects of marriage are similar across groups, including the age when first married. Among adults of any age who have ever been married, one’s 20s, particularly the early- to mid20s, is the most common age range for a first marriage; however, the average increases among each successively younger generation. Men tend to marry for the first time two to three years later than women. Teen marriages are less common (16% all adults) as are first-time spouses in their 30s (14%).

One in three practicing Christians who have ever been married has also been through a divorce (33%), slightly less than the 39 percent of all adults that have divorced. Widows and widowers are less common than divorcees, but they still make up a significant percentage of adults: Eight percent of all respondents’ marriages ended with the death of a spouse.


While the majority has been married, a sizeable number has not: One in four practicing Christians (26%) and one in three among all adults (35%) have never wed.

About one-third of these singles reports they are involved in a romantic relationship, with fewer couples among practicing Christian singles (31% vs. 37% of single U.S. adults). Similar percentages of singles are engaged (5% vs. 6%), in non-cohabitating serious relationships (9% all), dating (9% all) and not dating but looking (27% vs. 25%). Practicing Christian singles are less likely to be living with their significant other (8% vs. 14%).

More than half of Christian Millennials (55%) are single, significantly more than the percentage of singles in older Christian generations (between 35% and 40%). Some of the disparity is due to cultural norms surrounding marriageable age, and the more pronounced rise in singleness in the general population indicates the upward pressure on those norms: Millennials (70%) are far more likely than Gen X (48% single), Boomers (38%) and Elders (35%) to be single.


At first blush, the significantly higher percentage of practicing Christians who are parents (68% vs. 59% all adults) might indicate that practicing Christians are generally more open to having children. However, accounting only for people who are married, practicing Christians and the general population track closely when it comes to frequency of parenthood (84% vs. 82%, respectively).

Among those who have kids, the number of children and their ages are similar across both groups. Most are parents of two kids, followed by parents of a single child. One-fifth in both groups of parents has a toddler or infant (0–5 years). The percentage rises for those with school-aged children (6–12 years) while fewer have teens (13–18 years). Two-thirds of parents in both groups (65%) have an adult child (19+ years).

Number of Children



Most people live in households comprised of a single generation (58% practicing Christians, 57% all)—that is, they do not live with their mother, father, sibling, children or grandchildren. Given the significant proportion of respondents with adult children, this is not surprising. Four out of five households of practicing Christians (80%) include a married couple, compared to two out of three households in the general population (66%). Seven percent of practicing Christian households include a cohabiting partner, half the percentage of the general population (14%).

The remaining households may include members of younger generations, children and / or grandchildren, as well as an older generation, such as a mother or father. Roughly half of parents have children living with them (49% practicing Christians, 52% all). Eleven percent of all parents from the practicing Christian group have a child over 18 living with them vs. 15 percent of the general population. Roughly onefifth of respondents has a parent living with them (18% of practicing Christians vs. 21% all). A small minority of households includes grandchildren (3% vs. 2%).

The Ambiguous Loss of Unwanted Singleness

Kelly Haer is the director of the Relationship IQ program at the Boone Center for the Family. She has a PhD in family therapy from Saint Louis University, a master’s degree in counseling from Covenant Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree from Furman University. Kelly has a wealth of experience working with singles in a variety of contexts, such as counseling sessions, the church community and research studies, including a project with eHarmony.

Check out the Boone Center for the Family website (www.boonecenter.pepperdine.edu) for resources on ministering to singles including a blog, an eBook chapter and a Quick Reference Guide.

My father married at 23. My mother and my older sister married at 21. Growing up, I expected that my life would follow a similar course. I was painfully wrong.

I spent a dozen post-college years as a single person in the church. It was a mixed bag. On the good end, I remember my pastor asking me to review the transcript for his singleness sermon. I felt seen, recognized, included and respected. On the bad end, I remember many assurances from fellow congregants that God would bring me a special someone soon. I met my husband more than a decade after those assurances. Perhaps that was “soon” to God, but it sure didn’t feel soon to me!

While many people may relate to my experience, there is no “typical” single. There is great variety. Though I deeply longed for a spouse, not everyone desires marriage. Some have never been married, whereas others are single again through divorce or death. Experiences differ by age and gender. Ministering to such a diverse, growing group of people can be challenging; it is critical not to make assumptions about any one single person.

One thing that’s clear from the data, however, is that singles want to find help and refuge in their church as they navigate unpartnered life—so it’s important that churches be ready to receive and relate to singles. Yet the data also suggest that pastors feel ill-equipped to address the challenges of singleness.

Where to begin this daunting task?

Understanding what it’s like to be single is a good place to start. For singles who want to be married, the missing spouse is a type of ambiguous loss.* The longed-for partner, though physically absent, is alive in the minds of the hopeful, much as a spouse who is missing would be. It is difficult for singles to name, and thus hard to grieve, what is lost. This is partly because the partner could be found tomorrow—or never.

Because people often attend church with family, singles may feel the pain of ambiguous loss there more acutely than other places—such as the workplace, the gym or the grocery store—where people tend not to be with their families. Yet church can also be a place where that pain is endured and ultimately healed. Ambiguous loss can cause a single person to become frozen in one of the stages of grief or to rapidly cycle through them all. Corporate songs of lament became a refuge for me during my single years. I could bring my pain before God while surrounded by the Body of Christ.

Singles may wrestle with questions of identity and safety. Why am I single? Is my singleness temporary or permanent? What can I do to find a spouse? How do people perceive me? These questions are challenging because there is often no clear answer. But this lack of clarity offers an opportunity to seek identity and safety not in answers, but in Christ. As such, it is important not to rush to the rescue with clichés like “You’re so great, I’m sure God will have someone for you soon,” “It will happen when you least expect it” or “When you’re satisfied and content God will bring someone into your life.” Although well-meaning, these responses sometimes short circuit an uncomfortable process through which God is working. They can also alienate singles who feel missed, dismissed or generally not taken seriously. And, finally, they may communicate falsehoods. The single person doesn’t know—and will never know—if God will bring them a spouse. And neither do you.

Better to say you don’t know why God has allowed them to remain single, or when or if God might have a spouse for them. As unpleasant as these answers may be, they are honest and take pain seriously. Rather than dismissing the other person’s pain, they draw you into it. Compassion means “to suffer with.”

It isn’t wrong to offer encouragement, but make sure it is rooted in biblical truth more than in statistical probabilities inferred from the experience of previous generations. You can encourage singles— or anyone, in fact—to find comfort in the lives of people like Joseph, Job and Paul, who lived in daily uncertainty, not knowing the outcome of their struggles.

When praying for a single person who hopes to marry, it is better to pray that God would provide a spouse. Praying for a spouse as though certain that person exists, on the other hand, can heighten the feeling of ambiguous loss.

If you are married, fostering true friendship with singles, sharing the joys and sorrows of your life and marriage, will help them feel like they are more than a ministry project. And these genuine relationships will make it easier to include relevant, singles-oriented sermon illustrations! On an even more practical note, having many single friends can position you to be a helpful matchmaker. And if you’re genuinely acting as an interested friend, you’ll be able to discern whether your friends would appreciate offers to set them up or whether you’re better off keeping your suggestions to yourself.

Seek communal ways to celebrate the significant events of your single friends’ lives. Promotions, professional advancements, hobby achievements and sporting events are good opportunities to rally around the single person who is not celebrated within a marriage and family.

Don’t allow singles without children to be invisible on Mother’s and Father’s Days. Many singles who long for marriage also long for children of their own. Of course, singles can adopt children, though many will not, given the demands of single parenting. Recognizing singleness as a type of infertility can be powerful and poignant.

Involving singles in church leadership can also help singles be seen and find belonging. My own ambiguous loss as a longtime single makes me especially thankful for how God has positioned me now: helping church leaders minister to singles through the RelateStrong Leadership Series at the Boone Center for the Family.

*My thanks to Dr. Pauline Boss for her groundbreaking work on the theory of ambiguous loss.


When people don’t live in the same household, connecting with family and friends requires more effort. Overall, a robust majority of respondents is in weekly contact with loved ones outside their household, with practicing Christians more likely across the board to be in touch (88% vs. 82% all adults).

In Touch at Least Once a Week

Outside the family unit, practicing Christians are more likely to be in touch weekly with a close friend (75% vs. 67% all). Weekly worship services and other regularly scheduled church activities likely facilitate some of these more frequent interactions.

Among those with a counselor or therapist, 26 percent of all adults and 29 percent of practicing Christians are in touch with their counselor once a week or more, but the most common frequency of contact is monthly (34% practicing Christians vs. 29% all). Although practicing Christians are far more likely to be in weekly contact with their pastor or priest (71%), a sizeable proportion of those in the general population who have a pastor (43%) also reports weekly contact.

A Church Family For Young Adults (& Everyone Else)

A Q&A with Katelyn Beaty

Katelyn Beaty is author of A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World. She speaks regularly on professional work, singleness and women’s issues. Learn more at KatelynBeaty.com.


As anyone in a relationship can testify, having one does not necessarily equal relational happiness—but it’s a necessary start!

On the whole, emotional satisfaction is positive overall, but practicing Christians tend to report higher emotional satisfaction than the general population. They are more likely to generally feel loved (84% vs. 73% all), satisfied with their relationships (77% vs. 69%), satisfied with life (76% vs. 63%) and happy to be themselves (82% vs. 70%). They are also more likely to say that feelings of loneliness are infrequent (61% vs. 55%).

Nevertheless, asymmetries in relationship satisfaction exist between subgroups, even among practicing Christians. Most notably, married people tend to be happier than singles and parents are generally more satisfied than those who don’t have children.

Feelings Inventory Married vs Single

More than 20 years ago, Paige Benton Brown characterized the bulk of what had been written in Christian circles about singleness as stemming from a pervasive attitude that singles “bear the cross of ‘Plan B’ for the Christian life.”6 Brown, by contrast, sought to place her identity in her redemptive status rather than her marital status, and to celebrate her singleness at the time as God’s best for her. Brown also noted that the range of human relationships extends beyond the marriage relationship, and that “Christian growth mandates relational richness.”

Although Brown’s essay encouraged a paradigm realignment for singleness, old mindsets change slowly; a comparison of the responses of single practicing Christians to their married counterparts indicates there is still room for churches’ growth in meeting their felt needs. Single practicing Christians are more likely than married practicing Christians to admit they are dissatisfied with their relationships (13% vs. 4%), and to say depression (38% vs. 29%), loneliness (36% vs. 24%) and grief (30% vs. 22%) affect their most important relationships. Singles are also less likely to have a positive experience with a church as a help source when they turned to a church leader during a difficult situation (77% vs. 87%). Curiously, single practicing Christians are more likely than their married counterparts to attend a church where they never hear leaders talk about marriage (20% vs. 8%), singleness (52% vs. 43%) or parenting (24% vs. 16%). When their church leaders address difficult or sensitive issues, such as addiction or sexual intimacy, singles are less likely to find the church’s efforts to be helpful (49% vs. 68%). Overall, single practicing Christians are less optimistic in their expectations of the Church being a source of help for navigating relational difficulties (78% vs. 84%).

That being said, they are just as likely as married practicing Christians to say they would prefer to go to a pastor or priest in a time of personal crisis, with two in five placing a pastor / priest in their top three sources of help (39% vs. 38% of married practicing Christians). This signals a meaningful opportunity for churches: If singles know relational help is available to unmarried people, they are likely to take advantage of it.

Churches sometimes unconsciously (or even consciously) communicate a hierarchy that puts “married with children” at the pinnacle of value. That’s unfortunate, because practicing Christians without children (78%) are already less likely than practicing Christian parents to report an abiding sense of being loved (87%) and to be satisfied with their relationships (71% vs. 79%). They are more likely to frequently feel lonely than those with children (20% vs. 11%), and to say that depression (38% vs. 31%), loneliness (34% vs. 26%) and anxiety (42% vs. 34%) affect their most important relationships. Childless practicing Christians are also less likely to include a pastor or priest among the top three most preferred people to turn to for help with a personal crisis (34% vs. 41%) and less likely to hold an optimistic overall expectation of a church being a source of help for relationship struggles (77% vs. 83%).

If they have actually experienced a church’s help, however, practicing Christians without children are equally likely to have had a positive experience as practicing Christians with children. Again, this signifies an open door for churches that are prepared to give relationship guidance to people who are hungry for help, but may not look like a church’s “ideal” nuclear family.

Practicing Christian parents enjoy numerous positives, including (perhaps unexpectedly) less relational strain: Those without kids are more likely to acknowledge marriage problems affect their most important relationships (33% vs. 24% of practicing Christian parents).

There is encouraging news: Both single practicing Christians and childless practicing Christians have consistently higher rates of emotional and relational satisfaction than their counterparts in the general population. Singles who are practicing Christians are more likely than other singles to feel loved (76% vs. 63%), satisfied with their relationships (65% vs. 58%) and satisfied with life (66% vs. 51%). Similarly, those without children who are practicing Christians are also more likely than their counterparts to feel loved (78% vs. 66%), satisfied with their relationships (71% vs. 61%) and satisfied with life (70% vs. 55%).

This may indicate that churches are taking to heart reminders of the early Church’s emphasis on community fellowship or affirmation of singleness and are moving in the right direction. Teaching on belonging to a spiritual family and dedicating one’s life to a missional vocation may likewise buffer practicing Christians from some of the negative aspects of being childless.

When it comes to frequent feelings of loneliness, however, singles and the childless in both groups respond similarly (16% practicing Christian singles vs. 19% all U.S. singles, 20% childless practicing Christians vs. 18% all U.S. adults without children), which signals an area for Christian communities to address. The weekly rhythms of church life are one solution, as there is a strong correlation between frequent contact with loved ones and being satisfied relationally. Practicing Christians who say they are usually or always satisfied with their relationships are significantly more likely to have weekly contact with loved ones (89%) than those who say they’re dissatisfied with their relationships (81%).

Yet, according to social neuroscientist Dr. John Cacioppo, “To end loneliness, you need other people—plus something else. You also need . . . to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you. . . . Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”7 Beyond providing opportunity for human contact, churches are places of shared meaning. Churches can and should be places where the gospel is embodied, where the grace of God overshadows whether one is married or single, a parent or childless, or any other relational distinction.

With that in mind, let’s take stock of the relationships people say are most in need.

Visualizing the Issues


It can be hard to tell from the outside what relational and emotional burdens people are carrying around with them to work, to school, to the grocery store—and to church. So Barna researchers asked! This special data visualization section is a dive into the relational deep end, where many people are tiring out, treading water or looking for a life preserver.

Across the nation, more than half of all adults and practicing Christians report at least one relational or emotional health issue—like marital or parenting problems, depression, addiction or loneliness—that impacts their most significant relationships. Half of those say they are struggling with not just one but two or more such problems.


What are the specific issues at work in people’s everyday lives? In consultation with pastors and mental health clinicians, we offered survey participants a list of common problems and asked them to rate the impact of each one on their most important relationships. Here are the percentages of U.S. adults and practicing Christians who are caught in the current of relational upheaval.

Visualizing the Issues - Rising Challenges



People who are struggling with even one of these eight issues in their relationships report lower satisfaction in their relationships and with life in general. For example, just twothirds of these practicing Christians (67%) are satisfied with their relationships, compared to nine out of 10 who aren’t contending with the relational impact of any of these challenges.

Visualizing the Issue - Ebbing Satisfaction


The next few pages take an up-close look at each of these relational or emotional challenges. Here’s what you’ll find for each one:

  • A demographic profile of people who are facing that particular issue. This can help you know who in your community is most likely to need help.
  • A bar chart that shows how their struggle may be impacting their overall satisfaction and sense of well-being.
  • A wheel image, like the one on the opposite page, to help you visualize how dealing with that issue ripples into other areas of life. This vividly demonstrates one of this study’s most important takeaways: Relational and emotional problems often go hand in hand. A person who is struggling with compulsive pornography use, for example, is more likely also to face marital problems.

Understanding the real issues people are dealing with is the first step toward restoration.

Marital Problems Unwanted Singleness

Parenting Issues Problems with Sexual Intimacy

Addiction Anxiety or Depression

Pornography Loneliness



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