If you’ve ever been through a breakup, you know it can be one of the more painful experiences in life. Modern psychology tells us that the end of a significant relationship can even trigger emotional distress similar to that caused by the death of a loved one. It’s not fun to say the least and unless you are one of the small minority that marry their first boyfriend/girlfriend or never date at all, you will go through a break up or two at some point. I’ve been happily married for almost 6 years now and my wife and I both had gone through a number of serious relationships and break ups before we met. When we got engaged, we said to each other something that we repeat each time a friend goes through a break up: I’m so glad we don’t have to go through that anymore.
Yet despite the pain I experienced from various break ups in my past, I find myself mysteriously thankful for them as I get older and tackle more of life’s challenges. So many of the hard lessons about communication, honesty, self-reflection, discernment, endings, and new beginnings that shape me and make me a better man to this day, were filtered and condensed through the experience of break ups. In this post (and in part 2) I will attempt to refine some of what I know now that I wish I had known as a younger man. Specifically, this week, I will focus on the process of discerning and deciding to break up with someone you love. In a few weeks, I will post a follow up part 2 which will focus on the “how to” of actually going through a break up for both parties.
Writing this, I’m assuming two things about the relationship in question. First, I’ll assume that you are not married to the person. This post is meant for those in a dating relationship. If you are considering or feeling like leaving your spouse, blogs will not really give you what you need. You and/or your spouse should talk to a licensed and experienced professional marriage and family counselor and (not or) a priest. Second, I’ll assume that you are dating with the goal of finding someone to marry and raise a family with. Even for those young readers for whom marriage is at least five or ten years in the future, the basic standard for Christian dating is to discern and prepare yourself for marriage. Also, though I’m writing from a man’s perspective, I hope that women will find something helpful here as well.
Without further ado, here we go:
Should I break up with this person?
Unfortunately there is no comprehensive, authoritative list of valid reasons to dump somebody (although some lists can be helpful). Whether to stay with (and maybe marry) someone or to break up with them is one of the big and complex questions of life. There is no simple formula. It requires a major, honest evaluation of yourself, your partner, and your relationship. And for Christians, we don’t just make major life decisions based on what we think is best or what we want (because let’s be honest, who really knows what’s best for yourself or what you really want?). We know that major life decisions should be placed in God’s hands because He actually does know what’s best for us and knows what we really want. This is why when you marry someone it’s called a calling (or vocation). And when deciding to leave a relationship, we should also ask what God is calling us to do. This means discernment: reflection, discussion, and consistent prayer over the course of weeks or months. This is not a decision to make quickly. Unless of course, your partner has committed major offenses such as cheating on you or abusing you physically or emotionally, in which case, you may dump them right away and keep your distance. Also, if you haven’t dated for very long, you may be able to discern more quickly, but for most of us, most of the time, this decision is something to think about long and hard, to discuss with a few trusted confidants (like 1 to 3, not 10), and bring before the Lord consistently. It may take time but you will gradually notice the Lord moving your heart and (not or) mind toward clarity. If you would like more guidance on prayerfully discerning God’s will, I recommend Timothy Gallagher’s book “Discerning the Will of God” and Warren Sazama’s article on “Ignatian Principles for Making Prayerful Decisions.”
As you pray and reflect, here are some clarifying questions that can help.
If you can’t give a resounding “yes” to the following, then you should consider breaking up with your partner:
Are we leading each other to holiness?
Am I excited to be married to this person?
The longer we are together, am I more or less excited to be married to them?
Will this person be an amazing mother/father to our children?
Will this person be an amazing husband/wife to me?
Do we treat each other well?
Can each of us be the emotional anchor of the relationship if/when the other is going through hard times?
Are each of us willing to change and become better for the sake of the other?
For the following questions, most couples, even couples that should break up, will answer yes. If the answer is no, then there’s a definite problem somewhere you need to address.
Do I really love this person?
Am I excited (other than perhaps some normal first-time nervousness) to have sex with this person (after marriage, of course)?
The following questions are meant to help you evaluate yourself:
What sort of person are you?
Are you often scared of commitment and intimacy? Are you running away from something good because you are afraid?
Are you someone who always will try to make it work even in a bad or hopeless situation? Are you staying with this person because you are afraid of starting over? Of confrontation? Of hurting someone you love? Of being the bad guy?
Can I love this person as they are (not as I’d like them to be) with all their flaws?
The following questions are stupid and have no bearing at all whether or not you should break up or stay with someone. They are common questions and I’ve asked each of them myself but make no mistake, they are stupid. Push them out of your head as soon as they appear. They are poison to discernment because they are based in fear and/or pride. Do not dwell on them. Do not indulge them. They are not of God:
Shouldn’t I just stay with them so I don’t hurt them?
Aren’t I too old to find someone new?
Will I ever find someone else who loves me?
Aren’t I supposed to be married by now like all my friends?
Don’t we have to get married at this point since we’ve been together for _______ amount of time?
Don’t we have to get married at this point because . . .?
What if I never love again like I love them?
What if I never find someone again who is as ______ as they are?
Should I talk with my partner about my doubts?
It depends. Are the things that you are unsatisfied with in your relationship concrete and addressable? Are they issues that, if resolved, would substantially relieve your doubts about the relationship? Do you have faith that you and your partner could maturely and effectively address them if you talked about them? If yes, then by all means you should bring up the issues and discuss them. If not, then there’s no need to drag out a failing relationship with conversations that won’t ultimately change anything. Also, it’s possible that your partner’s flaws aren’t the cause of your doubts about the relationship. After college but before I’d met my wife, I dated a lovely, holy, virtuous, and generous Catholic woman for almost three years. Like all of us, she had some flaws but none of them were deal breakers for me. We had a good relationship and we probably would have made a good team as husband and wife, but the longer we were together, the less I wanted to marry her or get married at all. After a painful discernment process of several months I felt that the Lord very clearly was not calling me to marry her. When I broke things off, she was hurt and caught entirely off guard. She thought that I should have discussed it more with her, given her some warning, or given us a chance to fix things. But I didn’t really see anything to fix. I didn’t want to give her an ultimatum to change because I didn’t want her to change. I liked her. I loved her. She was wonderful the way she was. She just wasn’t the girl I was called to marry (she’s now happily married btw).
You are Not a Bad Person
Finally, remember that it’s ok to break off a relationship. In fact, if you have decided that you shouldn’t be with your partner anymore, it is the loving thing to let them go and get on with their life. By avoiding it, you only hurt them more. This is true even if you are still in love with your partner. Even if you’ve been together for a long time, you don’t owe them an engagement, or marriage. Even if you’ve crossed some lines that should have been reserved for marriage (ie. even if you’ve had sex). Even if you’ve talked about marriage and kids and told each other that you would get married and have kids one day. Even if you live together. Even if you are very close with their family (I know a girl who’s ex-boyfriend is the Godfather of her niece). Even if you are engaged, it is ok to break up with them. In fact, if you’ve honestly discerned that this is what God is calling you to, then you have a duty to yourself, to God, and your partner, to break the relationship off. You are not a bad person for considering it and it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them. In fact, to break off a relationship often takes virtue: patience, self-reflection, humility, courage, and yes, love.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree/disagree? Share your wisdom and your stories? What have you learned from break ups? What do you know now that you wish you had known then?
Mike Tenney has spent the past 15 years speaking, teaching, and leading
worship and retreats for youth and young adults of various backgrounds and faiths. Mike has been a featured musician and speaker for many events including Catholic Undergrounds, Life Teen XLT's, Theology on Taps, Christ in the City, and the CFC Youth Conference. He teaches Theology at St. Vincent Pallotti High School and directs the Modern Worship Band at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, MD. He is also the director of liturgical music for Encounter the Gospel of Life Service Camp. You can find more about Mike and his ministry including online talks at www.MikeTenneyMusic.com