Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Planning to Fail: Surviving the January Breakup Phenomenon

January can be a huge month for relationship breakups. Ironically, because it’s also a popular time for couples to get engaged, when a couple that has been together a long time watches couples who have been together a matter of months take the plunge, that can lead to a lot of soul-searching:

So what’s wrong with us?”

It’s also a month in which there’s a good bit of family time, and that can lead some singles to think, “Our relationship is okay, but I’m not sure it’s worth the hassle that will follow from trying to be a part of this family.”

Another factor is the traditional, take-stock-of-your-life and set-new-resolutions practice so typical with the dawn of a new year. It’s not uncommon to hear someone in a long relationship say,

He has until the end of the year to make up his mind. If he can’t by then, I’m moving on.”

My son has had one official girlfriend his entire life—they got together his freshman year in college and have been together, as of this writing, over 4 years. Because he’s had just one long relationship, I have never counseled or prayed Graham through a breakup. But I do remember talking to him at the start of the relationship, laying out the three things that had to be true if his relationship would end up honoring God.

The three break-up goals.
“Graham,” I said, “this should be your goal. If it becomes clear the relationship shouldn’t progress to marriage, I would hope that your girlfriend would, at the end, feel three things to be true: First, she should feel better about herself, having found that hanging around you built up her sense of self-worth and her understanding of who she is in God’s eyes; Second, she should feel better about men in general, and third, she should feel closer to God. If these three things are true, the relationship will have accomplished much good, even with the pain of a breakup.” These are the same three goals I’d give every single person.

Let’s take the “make sure your ex feels better about himself/herself” as an example. Your goal here is to try to set the bar higher for the next person who follows. Men, if you’re a jerk to your girlfriend, and the guy before you was a jerk, and the guy after you treats her like a jerk, she’s going to start thinking:

All guys are jerks, but I want to be married so I’m going to go ahead and marry this jerk.”

You’ve just contributed to her making a poor marriage choice; you’ve set her up for a subpar marriage. In that sense, your dating her did long-term (indeed, lifelong) damage.

But if you set the bar higher rather than lower—if you make her see that some guys can be kind and supportive and encouraging, even if it doesn’t work out with you, she’s going to hold out for another guy like you, because she knows guys like you really do exist. And if she feels better, not worse, about herself, she’ll have the personal strength to hold out for nothing less.

Plan to fail for the sake of your future marriage.
In a sense, you have to “plan to fail” when dating. You don’t want to fail or you wouldn’t be in the relationship to begin with, but, like NASA before a flight, you have to recognize the very real possibility that the relationship might hit some rocky moments and even crash. And if it does, what are you going to do?

If you come to that point and know that, because of the time you’ve spent together, the person you are dating is closer to God, stronger in their core as a person, and feel better about the opposite sex, you’ve given them a gift. It might, at first, feel like a painful gift, but years from now they’ll look back on it with gratitude.

If there’s been sexual sin and consequent guilt and shame; if there’s a sense that you “used this person”—to get over someone else, to cure your own loneliness, to just pass the time until someone “better” came along—you can expect bitterness and resentment.

So, at the start of the relationship, keep these three things in mind for a “successful” ending…

You want the person you’re dating to:
  • feel better about themselves.
  • feel better about the opposite sex in general.
  • feel closer to God.
If these three things exist because of your relationship, a breakup needn’t be a calamity—it can be a stepping stone to a very successful marriage down the road.

This article is adapted from The Sacred Search: What if It’s Not About Who You Marry, but Why? by Gary Thomas. He is also the author of the bestseller, Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy?

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