It’s a sobering thought, but it’s true: once a romantic relationship gets started between two believers there are only one of two options—you’re going to get married or you’re going to break up. Breakups are of course far more common, and January in particular is a huge month for relationship breakups so what are the hallmarks of a God-honoring break-up?
First, let’s look at why so many couples breakup in January.
The first reason is a little ironic: in addition to being a popular month for breakups, December and January are also very popular months for couples to get engaged. That’s what can fuel other breakups. Couple A has been dating for 3 years and they notice that Couple B who have been dating for 9 months just got engaged over Christmas. They start to think, “What’s wrong with us?” and conclude that maybe the match just isn’t going anywhere.
Another reason is January’s proximity to November and December—two months in which there’s a good bit of family time. Getting to know someone’s family can reveal a lot of things—not all of them good—and it can make us re-evaluate our own situation in life.
Another factor behind January breakups 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.”
December 31 is a very convenient “red line.”
Because most Christians will go through several breakups and (hopefully) just one marriage, it’s not fatalistic to “plan to fail.” In fact, it’s wise. NASA plans for possible failures before every space launch because in the high-stakes world of rocket science—which is basically spitting in the face of gravity with an amazing amount of arrogance—you have to assume that something is likely to go wrong.
Odds are that, at least one time in your life, a relationship will need to be ended. Going into the relationship with that thought can help you end it wisely. We are always called to love, and sometimes love means learning how to conduct a relationship so that when it ends it has still been honoring to God. Yeah, tears will still be shed. Some hearts may be broken. But love calls us to a high standard.
Here’s what I said to one young man before he started dating his girlfriend: “This is the goal that love calls you to. If it becomes clear that this 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. 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.”
You see, by planning to fail in this fashion, you can succeed even if the relationship needs to end.
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. If she feels better, not worse, about herself, she’ll have the personal strength to hold out for nothing less.
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.
I have an ex-girlfriend that Lisa and I have financially supported for years. She and her husband have been faithful missionaries in some countries that are in desperate need of the Gospel. I have other ex-girlfriends that Lisa probably wouldn’t want me to mention, much less meet. The difference in every case was how healthy the relationship was. A healthy relationship can still lead to a painful break-up, but if the relationship honored God, you can still (eventually—it may take a while) look each other in the face and wish each other well.
People often ask me about the “mechanics” of breaking up—what should they say, how do they say it? But the mechanics of the breakup depend mostly on the months prior to the actual breakup. You can’t “fix” a dysfunctional, God-dishonoring relationship with a well-executed breakup.
For example: 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” comes along—you can expect bitterness and resentment. The reality is, some people will give their bodies in hopes that they can keep someone. They may think it will make you feel a little more obligated to make things work. That’s not wise, but if you use that weakness for your own pleasure, that’s cruel. These spiritual realities are rarely verbalized–sometimes they’re not even consciously realized—but they are there, and they will greatly impact the tone of the breakup.
On the other hand, if you “plan to fail” but end up getting married, you’ve helped your future spouse grow! You’ve increased their sense of self, which is important for a successful marriage, you’ve helped them overcome prejudice against the other gender, and you’ve been a catalyst in their relationship with God. In such a case “planning to fail” set you up for a more excellent marriage with this person.
So, at the start of the relationship, keep these three things in mind: you want the person you’re dating to feel better about themselves, better about the opposite sex in general, and closer to God. Remind yourself of these goals. Don’t accept anything less than these three goals. Plan your dates and conduct your relationship accordingly.
If you achieve these three things, a breakup needn’t be a calamity—it can be a stepping stone to a very successful marriage.