I think a common misconception, in the Christian world, about dating is that if you do it right, you end up married.
You’ve been seeking God, He gives you the green light to date. You pray about whether you should date a specific person. You start dating. The goal is marriage. So a successful dating experience means you end up married.
It makes sense. It’s a logical argument. If the goal of dating is marriage, it is logical to say that a successful dating experience means you end up married. The problem is, one of the premises is false. The goal of dating is not marriage. The goal of dating is to determine whether you should be married to one another. As such, a successful dating experience either ends in marriage OR it ends in a decision that you should not be married to one another and a dissolution of the dating relationship.
I bring up this point because I worry that this misconception regarding the goal of dating has created some unhealthy attitudes in the church towards dating couples.
The first unhealthy attitude this engenders is the attitude that dating equals engagement without a ring. The assumption that dating will always end in marriage means that we take liberties we shouldn’t take. We start talking to either member (or both) of the couple about wedding plans and baby plans and how they’re going to rearrange their lives around each other. When we do this, we encourage the couple to skip right to marriage. But dating isn’t the time for that. They haven’t decided to marry one another yet. They’re in the process of deciding whether they should marry one another. We need to recognize this and encourage dating couples to spend the time they need in this important season of their life–and to use that time wisely instead of jumping ahead to the next season.
The second unhealthy attitude this misconception about the goal of dating engenders is the attitude that breaking up means a failed relationship. We presume that somewhere along the way, one or both of the parties involved did something wrong. If the decision to no longer date was mutual, we wonder if the couple rushed into dating without thinking it through properly. If the decision to no longer date was one sided, we jump to comfort the “dumped” by bashing the “dumper”. The problem is that neither of these is helpful or holy.
It is possible to date in a way that honors God–and still break up. And that breakup can be a good thing.
Sometimes, the breakup is an easy one–both individuals agree that they are not suited to one another and should not be married. They end the dating relationship amicably and with little awkwardness or pain. This breakup is a good thing. In this case, the church can rejoice with their brother and sister in the conclusion of a successful dating relationship. We don’t need to sweep this dating period under the rug as though it was somehow shameful. Instead, we should rejoice and celebrate this sorts of breakups.
Of course, the easy breakup is not the only kind of breakup. I’d daresay it’s far from the norm. Instead, I think it’s quite common that a breakup involves one person deciding not to pursue marriage when the other was just fine with continuing along the course to marriage. This breakup, too, is a good thing.
It’s harder for us to see the good in this kind of breakup. It’s hard for those involved in the breakup to see the good in this kind of breakup. But it is good. Even if only one of the two felt that they should not pursue marriage, this is good. Because if the one had denied that issue and pursued marriage nonetheless, it would not have caused the issue to become less–it would only have bound both individuals to one another in a covenant of marriage that God has commanded them to hold sacred. That issue would still be an issue, but now the two are “stuck with one another”, so to speak.
It’s harder for us to know how to deal with this kind of breakup, as well. After all, this type of breakup involves pain. Our gut reaction is to see this pain and to rush to comfort it, generally by justifying the one who is hurting and bashing the one who is not. And so we tell the hurting “dumpee” that this is so unfair, that the “dumper” was so wrong, that God has something better for the “dumpee” (with the undertone that the “dumper” obviously wasn’t that great.)
The problem with this reaction is that, well, it just isn’t always the truth. Yes, sometimes the reasons one party gives for ending the relationship don’t seem that important to others. Sometimes the party who ended the relationship carried out the relationship or the end of the relationship in a way that was unholy and hurtful. Sometimes the person who ended the relationship really wasn’t that much of a catch in the first place.
But sometimes the reasons were valid, the relationship (and the “dumping”) carried out in a loving way, and the person who ended the relationship really is an exceptional person.
And sometimes the “fault” in the breakup was shared by both persons, even if one of them was responsible for the end of the relationship. Maybe the person who ended the relationship isn’t the cause of the pain.
Breakups are hard. They’re painful. And our tendency is to assign blame. We want to say that because you hurt, someone must have hurt you. But we can experience pain without it being someone else’s fault (or even our own). Pain is simply a part of life in this fallen world in which we live.
So how should we (as a church) respond to a painful breakup? I don’t have all the answers. But I think we should acknowledge the pain that both parties are experiencing and weep with them, without casting blame. We should encourage both parties to rest in the sovereignty of God. However, we should be wary of presuming to speak for God’s purpose in the breakup. Yes, God has a purpose in it–but the purpose is rarely simple. It may take months or years to even get a glimpse of the purpose behind the breakup. So we weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice, knowing that in it all, God has a purpose and His purpose is good.
Thus far, I’ve spoken to the church about how to deal with breakups. But what about the man or woman who has experienced a breakup? What are they to do?
I’ve officially decided that this is a big hole in the Christian literature. We have a hundred bazillion books about how to do dating right–but we don’t have anything that tells us how to breakup or heal from a breakup right.
What’s more, I don’t have much wisdom in this area. I’m wading through this just as you are–and I don’t have a lot of others who’ve gone before me to fall back on.
So all I can say, from this stage of the journey, is to trust God and seek Him first. It’s okay to mourn what you’ve lost (and both parties experience loss in a breakup–even if it was “one-sided”)–but never lose sight of the One you’ll never lose. Romans 8:38-39 says “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Christ is the treasure. Treasure Him, even as you mourn the loss of a lesser treasure.
Don’t let bitterness take root. Choose to see God’s providence and goodness, even in your pain. Don’t become angry at God. When He causes pain or allow pain, it is ultimately for our joy. We must not forget that. What’s more, don’t let yourself become bitter towards the other person. This will profit you nothing. Instead, forgive where forgiveness is needed and choose to continue to honor the other person as a brother or sister in Christ. This means being careful to guard what they entrusted to you during your time of dating. This means speaking good of them to others. This means being careful to preserve their heart and reputation in whatever dealings you have with them and others after your breakup.
Like I said, I’m not an expert at dating–and I’m certainly no expert at breaking up. But I can encourage us all to choose, in whatever state we are (whether single, dating, engaged, married, or broken up), to seek God first, to delight in Him, to find Him as our hope and consolation.