Breaking Up is Hard To Do

I don’t blame you if you wonder whatever possessed me to write an article about breaking up. But someone asked me to.  So here it goes.

Nobody wants to get into a relationship that’s going to end in a breakup. But it happens. So how can we minimize the hurt involved or is it even possible to minimize the hurt? Of course, I’m not talking here about divorce, the ultimate heartbreak, but rather the break-up of a courtship or an engagement.

Part of the glory of a relationship in the first place is that you are putting yourself (and your heart) at risk. So it is important to keep your heart guarded until you know where this is going. Don’t be too hasty in giving it away. Remind your heart that you are simply in a courtship, or simply dating, or whatever you want to call it. Until you are engaged, you should play it safe.

Even if you play it safe, both parties are still going to be vulnerable. That is simply a given. But you can exercise wisdom as you go, and protect your emotional commitment as much as possible. One of the ways to do this is to keep the physical relationship out of it until there is an engagement. Then you still want to go slowly and maintain a pure code of conduct.

If a young man has initiated a courtship, and he has gone to the trouble of calling Dad, we can all safely assume that he knows what he is doing. On the other hand, perhaps that is not an entirely safe assumption. We would hope that before he had entered into a courtship,  he had been fairly sure that this was the girl for him. This means that the whole thing is a whole lot riskier for the guy, and that is how it should be. He’s the one sticking his neck out. He’s the one who may get a pink slip from Dad that says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

When a girl, on the other hand, enters into a courtship, she is agreeing that she is willing to be won over. The young man is courting her. He is trying to win her. She is willing to be won. But she hasn’t promised anything. And a wise father will be over-seeing this process, making sure that during the courtship the young man is not misbehaving in any way, but treating his daughter with honor, respect, and courtesy.

My money is on the dad who gives the young man a couple of months for the courtship proceedings. That prevents the never-ending courtship, protects the daughter from too much emotional vulnerability, and gives the young man a nice hard deadline. Doug always called this the “fish or cut bait” talk, and he suggests that talk happen a couple months into the courtship.

But sometimes a couple of months, or a couple of weeks, may reveal that this is not to be. The girl decides it’s not working. Or, and this is not as nice, the man decides it’s not all he thought it would be. And no matter what kind of “procedure” you may follow, breaking up is always hard to do. Somebody always gets hurt. Somebody was too invested to walk away painlessly.

I remember one dad doing the breaking up on behalf of his daughter, and even he said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. So I have no tips on how to make it into a party. It’s just not gonna be.

But here are a few suggestions anyway. If your behavior has been above reproach, then you can hold your head up and walk away, thanking God that He truly does rule the earth and will work this for your good. It is safe to assume that God is protecting you, so feel grateful. Gratitude will help subdue the disappointment.

Then I would encourage you to watch what you say to others. Don’t bad mouth the breaker-upper.  And this sounds very trite, but get over it. Press on. Do the next thing. Don’t let your thoughts dwell on it. Change the subject. And expect that the actual recovery time might take a week or two. That’s normal. This is what all the country songs ever written (pretty much) are about, so don’t feel like you are the one and only human being to ever experience this kind of thing. Happens every day of the week. And don’t turn the sadness into a long, drawn-out drama. Don’t indulge yourself by having a never-ending pity party. That is not going to help.

If you are the one doing the breaking up, then do it with courtesy and kindness, as soon as possible, and then watch how you talk about it afterward. You want to honor the guy who honored you. It’s a compliment, after all, to have someone interested in you. The big goal here is to not set yourself up to have regrets about your own behavior.

But what if the relationship itself was not a God-honoring one in the first place, and then it broke up. You thought you were going to marry the guy, so you confided more than you wish you had, you got closer than you should have, and now you are embarrassed and ashamed of the whole thing. Take the hit. Learn the lesson. Grow up. Receive the forgiveness you need and quit beating yourself up. Sometimes we learn things the hard way.

A broken relationship can be looked on as a beginning instead of an end. God has something else in store for you. Trust Him and don’t live in the past. Do you need to change churches so you won’t see him? I doubt it. In fact, the sooner you can see him in public and simply be polite the better. You don’t need to be chums. Neither do you need to duck into the broom closet to avoid seeing him. Just get it over with, and let him see that you are alive and well. The first time will be the worst. And then let it all go. Let him go. If he latches on to someone else, don’t let it get to you. He’s not going to be your husband, so the sooner you quit thinking about someone else’s future husband, the better.

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14 thoughts on “Breaking Up is Hard To Do

  1. This is well-written advice. It’s so important to see the things that happen in our lives as chances to learn to live better in the future.

    As a little aside, I don’t understand why people always say that country songs are about breaking up! I think there’s at least as many, if not more among pop songs or any other genre, for that matter including opera! And there are many touching country songs about marriage or family or falling in love or just living a good life.

  2. Another thing I think helps is if the courtship isn’t made a matter of general public knowledge. There’s no need for public announcements or Facebook status changes till somebody puts something sparkly on somebody’s finger. Of course you’ll want prayer, so close friends and family should know, but there will be time for the whole world to rejoice with you when there’s something really to rejoice about. And if it doesn’t work out, you’ve spared yourself the awkwardness of having to explain it to hundreds of people.

    Sense and Sensibility is a great morality tale on how and how not to do a courtship: First, everybody just knows that Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, yet the one person who really ought to know exactly what’s going on, Mrs. Dashwood, avers she cannot force a confidence on the subject from her own daughter. In the meantime, Marianne has done anything but guard her heart, and goes absolutely to pieces in the aftermath of the relationship. Second, we have Edward and Lucy’s engagement, foolishly entered into when Edward was not really free to marry her, and ridiculously prolonged for five years. And third we have Elinor’s sensible example of guarding her heart as best she can (though she suffers because of Edward’s second bout of foolishness) and resisting conversation about Edward outside of her small family circle.

    The Heiress, a film based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square is another portrayal of how not to conduct a courtship. In this case, I recommend the movie over the book (just make sure it’s the 1949 version with Olivia de Haviland, not the 1997 version with Jennifer Jason Leigh, also called Washington Square). I like to refer to it as How Not to Be Free from Bitterness, Run a Courtship, Be a Father, or Do Pretty Much Anything Else those Wilson People Teach, but I suppose that’s a bit too long to put on a theater marquee. 😉

  3. Oh Valerie, you are such a wit. I hope to meet you one day. I will check out The Heiress.

    Amanda, you are right, but generally, pop songs are about hooking up, having crushes, or moving on without the “jerk”. Country tends to be a little more “tears in my beer”, you done me wrong, broken-hearted blues…just generalizations with many exceptions.

    Thank you, Nancy. Elisabeth Elliott’s Passion and Purity is a very good read on the subject.

  4. Mrs. Wilson, thank you for this article. I hope that I won’t need to use it, but one never knows.

    Sometime, will you perhaps write more about practical ways to guard one’s heart? Although most people mention physical boundaries, those are fairly straightforward: there is a clear difference between touching and not touching, and he knows it as well as I. I am presently in a slightly ambiguous state between friendship and courtship (he’s stated his interest but no actual commitment yet), and thus I could use any advice you can give on heart-guarding.

  5. My husband and I have been talking about this topic lately (not that we have any reason, just educating ourselves). I agree with EM and would like more to read about this. I have found your and your husband’s books helpful, but feel we need more encouragement and advice as there are not many in our area that practice courtship; if they do, they all have various ideas and we are just not certain about much.

  6. This doesn’t apply to me right now, but I always enjoy reading your sturdy common sense. :) And I hadn’t heard of the “time limit” for the courtship before – it’s never been needed in my family, but I’ve seen instances where it would’ve saved a bit of heartbreak.

  7. I have really enjoyed your recent posts. This particular post is great advice Nancy, thank you for taking the time to give it. Had I heard and received this advice in my youth, I would have been much better off. “Get over it!” I love it!
    Unfortunately, we do allow ourselves to get so bent out of shape about offenses, mistakes and bumps. Allow being the key word. It seems this advice could be spread across all relationships, and many of their issues. I made a mistake? Someone made a mistake against me? Go figure. Get past it, learn from it, grow up, and move on. It does not sound trite, but true, a matter of fact, and wise as well.
    Sadly, there is something sick in us at times that just doesn’t want to hear this counsel. We want to slather on the pity party, or the resentment. I am fond of telling my girls “A sad heart won’t change our circumstances, it will only steal our joy and make the circumstances harder to live with.
    Great words! I have always said your correction is like being hugged and hit all at the same time. (Way more hug then hit though.) : )

  8. Hi there,
    I wonder if there is a post somewhere (or somewhere in the future?) abt. the courtship models and how they apply to the many (if not a majority?) of Christian men and women in our day who do not have the blessing of Christian parents, or possibly have never had a father around for this sort of thing.

    I am friends with godly widowed women and godly divorced women who have an extreme challenge when it comes to guiding their children through these waters. Also, there are godly men out there who are not part of a church community that practices this model of dating as a norm, leaving them in a bit of a quandry, too. One such young man talked w/my husband and I recently about this. He said he finds all the courtship reading he’s done to be sound, biblical…and impractical unless one lives in one of the communities from which those books came. I’m not saying I whole-heartedly agree with him, but I do see his point.

    This friend of ours is learning that many Christian women have no father in the picture, or that the father/mother are not guiding their daughters in these things. Obviously these are questions with complex familial/cultural/ecclesiastical contexts…a real litmus test for where we are (broadly) as the church in our day.

    My question is simply what is such a man to do? What is such a woman to do? Is there a helpful, practical book out there that addresses the godly pursuit of matrimony for those many who live in a messier part of Christendom? (Besides Getting Serious About Getting Married. Helpful, but again, only so much.)

    I’d appreciate feedback from anyone with insight into this issue. Thank you!

  9. Great advice! This mom of 9 daughters (oldest = 18) is printing this one for her daughters’ prayer journals.

  10. You say that the young man should be pretty sure about the girl before he enters into a courtship, but many families make it almost impossible for the man to get to know the girl enough BEFORE a courtship to feel as certain as you suggest. Some families even make it difficult AFTER!

    ‘Courtship’ can be a whole lot better than ‘dating’ but you’ll find about as many definitions of the process as people out there. And although we might argue for it being a more ‘Biblical’ approach, there’s really no courtship model set out in Scripture.

    As Valerie has already raised some Jane Austen examples, it’s worth noting that her heroines don’t really experience any formal courtship process, just a growing interest that was overseen/watched by the parents (for better or worse).

    In churches where there are numbers of young folk able to get to know each other and their families in day to day circumstances the problems may be quite different to those experienced by young folk who must hunt further afield, where they cannot make those ongoing observations, and you end up discovering that folk aren’t always what they seem.

    How much our young folk need our ongoing prayers, love and encouragement. Real life is messy stuff.

  11. This is good. I spent far too long reeling over breakups in the past of ungodly relationships. Usually the sharp pain came from being physically involved and getting too emotional/romantic, or dragging a pointless relationship on for years with no goal. After I became a Christian, the pain came from “he is a godly man, but I just don’t know if I want to marry HIM.” I struggled with breaking off a so-so relationship, ie. should I just give it more time to see if my feelings change? But with breakups, hope deferred is always painful, but there are ways to minimize that pain.

    I think your section on keeping your emotions at bay should be emphasized. You should be able to walk away from an ended relationship (in terms of pre-engagement) without your entire world falling apart. If it does, you could have been acting too married, or sharing thoughts best reserved for husband/wife. I can’t speak on broken engagements though because I haven’t experienced that. I imagine it would cut much deeper. Like a previous poster said, it usually works to get to know one another well before the fact, in community, treat each other in a biblically friendly & pure way and then enter into some sort of exclusivity on the path to marriage, if you are interested in him/her in that way. Ask around. Do you two make a good fit? Are there any character flaws that someone finds concerning? And again like you said, keeping physical affection harnessed until there is real commitment. At any time, my now-husband could have ended the relationship if he wanted, and I couldn’t fault him for that. Even with commitment, affection should be “sparse and reserved” as my pastor’s wife advised me :) I’m not advocating for cold interaction, but just realizing that the best is yet to come!! (in marriage)! :) I also had no claim on my husband being “mine” until we walked away from that altar. I did not know he was “the one” until we said I do. So, that was good motivation to keep the deep intimate conversations and physical expressions to a minimum. I am thankful for that.

  12. Good advice but in reality this is hard to make work unless both sets of parents think the same. We raised our son with courtship ideas and when he was 20 he “thought” he was in love. There is no way we would have pursued the one month “fish or cut bait” idea as we did not think this was the right girl. However, he took some time to figure this out. The result was one hurt girl but I rather that than a mistake. BTW, the father was not very involved. We did what we could but ultimately, this relationship did not work out. It takes lots and lots of maturity and a partner with similar thinking parents to really make this work.

  13. Thanks for the wisdom, yet again!

    Related to this. . .

    My mom heard anguish in my voice when she called to me in the basement. She asked what was the matter and, upon my response, went into her “it could be worse” talks. To no avail. “It’s still sad!” I sobbed. “Could you let me cry?”

    I sat at the computer and realized I’d left the tabs open from Google Reader. And read a post about breaking up, of all things (with no boyfriends nor suitors in my 27-year history).

    In the providence of God, there was help. A cut and a compress.

    And the words “Do the next thing” even. The exact title (I think) to an Elisabeth Elliot essay I “happened” to reread either the day before the diagnosis suggestion or one of the corresponding medical exams. Today, a few weeks later, the diagnosis confirmed. The day following the Elliot essay the “irony” of my reading the night before had struck me. And here now, a reminder of God’s sovereign love and guidance. . .in the very same words! Words I’d been thinking of Elliot saying after dinner tonight, as I thought to do the next thing only to soon crumple up on my bed in tears.

    Today, a bad diagnosis and appointments 5-8 (or some higher number) since last week. Tomorrow, literally, my “firing date” at work for other health reasons. Today, a job specialist saying there must be jobs I could do, though too “unique” for her to have names like “receptionist” or “mechanic.” Tomorrow, metaphorically, figuring out how to fund life if no such fulltime job comes, and perhaps figuring out marriage and conception/parenting issues with my health challenges. But God holds tomorrow in His always sufficient hands. So I am off to . . . do the next thing!

    Hoping not to share so much of my life again soon in a space like this,
    but wanting to share how God used this post in the midst of a health diagnosis,
    I am,
    with much gratitude,
    Lindsay

  14. That was honestly a good read…
    yeah, I do not know if and when I`ll use some things you said there (by God`s grace, never ;))… but I`ll keep them in mind. I definitely wanna walk away with my head held high if I need to.

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