How to break up and still get along: some tips

Broken heart

Disclaimer #1: I’ll say up front that I can’t claim credit for any of the practices or attitudes I’m going to recommend: all I did was take what others had taught me and applied it.

Disclaimer #2: I am not presenting this as a 10-point guide to a painless breakup. There are no guarantees; these are just things that worked for my former girlfriend and I, and I hope they’ll work for you too.

That said, here’s the short story: about ten months ago, while I was at Dodger Stadium with a lovely young lady I’d been seeing for a few weeks, I asked her to be my girlfriend. Four months ago, as we sat down for coffee, she looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t think we’re going to work out.” When she’d given her reasons, I couldn’t help but agree. We agreed to still be friends, walked out, and that was that.

Today, we’re as amiable as though nothing ever happened, if not more so. Aside from mutually giving some space for the first month or so after the breakup, we haven’t avoided each other; neither of us have quit the Bible study we both attend, glared daggers, or badmouthed each other. We still respect and admire each other.

Nathan, why are you saying this?

The only reason I think anything in this post is worth sharing is because a lot of people have been surprised by this story—surprised that the two of us even still speak to each other, still more remain friends. Some have expressed regret that their own relationships didn’t turn our like this; others have asked me how we did it.

Our friendship is what it is today because of certain attitudes we took into our relationship. We broke up well because we dated well. I hope these will help you too:

1. Our purpose was clear

When I asked her to be my girlfriend and she accepted, we agreed that the reason we were doing was to figure out, over time, with prayer, whether we should get married or not. We understood that this exploration, and no more, was what we were committing to at this stage. We agreed that “success” meant reaching a definite answer, whether that was yes or no. We certainly knew that “no” would be painful, but we also knew that “no” would be much better than saying “yes” when we shouldn’t have.

I really think this is the only good reason to enter this kind of relationship, but if you think differently, at least make sure you’re on the same page as your S.O. Being clear on your purpose will save you from being surprised later.

2. We both knew what we needed

To start with, it wasn’t each other. I’m convinced this is one of the biggest things that stifles relationships (and leads to awful breakups).

We also both knew that we were complete single people in Christ and we didn’t need to find “our better half” or “soul-mate.” We did know, however, that if we were to marry, we would need to agree on:

  • spiritual values
  • family style
  • expected lifestyle
  • careers
  • gender roles

We also both knew that each of our future spouses would need to have strong faith, godly character, and interests we could share. This doesn’t mean we fully articulated all of these to each other at the outset, but we each knew for ourselves and knew we’d discuss them at some point.

3. We both knew what we wanted

And we knew this was different from what we needed. I might have wanted a fellow literati who’d obsess over John Milton and Beowulf with me, but I knew this wasn’t crucial. She might have wanted a man who shared her love for Disney, but she knew it wasn’t a deal-breaker.

The other great things about our wants was that we were both open to them changing. Dating a real person can really make you change what you want (I mean that in a good way).

I’d especially caution: don’t let your “wants” grow into a six-page list that maybe three people on earth could fulfill. At least, if you do that, don’t wonder years later why you’re still single.

4. We weren’t the world to each other

Neither of us staked our hopes, dreams, or self-worth on the other. Six months in, we weren’t writing out our names together or planning our wedding (at least I can vouch I wasn’t). We both had an established identity apart from each other, rooted in Christ.

In this sense, it’s essential not to need each other. If her approval had made the difference between my life being whole or hell, I never could have let go of her. If her self-worth had hung on my affection, she never could have let go of me. If you feel you need someone to complete you, I suggest you read the Gospel of John and pray, because you need an identity, and it has to be much bigger than another person.

5. We knew it wasn’t personal

—in a certain sense. We both knew this relationship was one part experiment, one part adventure to see whether we were a good fit for marriage. There are a lot of factors to that, some of which are always beyond our control. We both knew that, if we weren’t a good fit, it was nothing personal.

This left no room for any bitterness or lasting hurt if one of us broke off the relationship while the other wanted to keep it. We both realized that, if one person doesn’t want it, it’s not a good fit. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) marry someone who doesn’t want to marry you. (If you married someone who wanted to marry you, and they feel they no longer want to be married to you, or vice versa, that’s a completely different issue).

Side-note: if someone breaks up with you because of some character flaw that you have, don’t get mad at them or say that’s not fair. Instead, own it! This is someone you’ve let see into your life in a very intimate way, and now they’re telling you: this is what they’ve seen. Take that seriously and work on it.

6. We committed to honor

We committed to treat one another, by God’s strength and grace, with respect and honor, as members together of Christ’s family. This included being up-front and honest, not false or double-dealing. This included making sure (in time, appropriately) the other person knew things about us that might make them say “no.” This meant not taking advantage of each other. This meant relating with kindness, understanding, and patience.

7. We dated human beings

—as opposed to our idealized, daydream versions of each other. What I mean is that we listened to each other and ditched our preconceived notions of what the other would be. I stress this because, when you’re talking about family and life aspirations with someone you’re thinking of marrying, it’s deceptively easy to hear what you want to hear. Study your significant other and find out who they really are.

This also meant we realized the other person might hurt us. It was a risk we chose to take, and we were ready to meet that with God’s grace, not with bitterness, indignation, or acrimony.

Any breakup is bound to be painful if the relationship meant anything—but hopefully, if your hearts are in the right place, it doesn’t have to be bitter.

For more on dating gracefully and with purpose, I’d highly recommend Lisa Anderson’s The Dating Manifesto: A Drama-Free Plan for Pursuing Marriage with Purpose, as well as The Sacred Search by Gary Thomas.

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