Saint Patrick’s Day is a beloved holiday celebrated by millions, but for me it holds a different significance. This coming Saturday marks the twentieth anniversary of my most significant breakup. It was not my most painful breakup. It was not even my most traumatic. However, it marked the end of the worst relationship I have ever experienced.
For months, through tons of his mind games and breakup threats, I desperately fought to keep him. Those other pathetic girls I silently judged… I had become one… and it felt terrible. He emotionally pounded me into the ground like a railroad spike – and, from day to day, I never knew what to expect. In my naivety, and ignoring what the wise adults in my life had to say, I kept fighting for us.
At the time, I did not pay attention to the fact that it was March 17th. All I could concentrate on was the fact that our relationship (if you could even call it that) was actually over this time. In the month leading up to our breakup, he changed significantly; so, by the time he asked, “Do you think we should end this?” I was finally ready to surrender. Whatever will I had to fight for this sickly relationship broke and I thank God, even twenty years later, for prying open my hands and my heart.
It is so easy to know what to do years later. For example, if I could go back in time, I would call Peter Pan’s bluff and break up with him the first time he played this childish game. When he said (of a mutual friend), “I am just afraid my feelings for her may come back the next time I see her,” I would smile and say, “You know what, buddy, you are right. Let’s not take that chance.” When he got angry with someone else and decided to take it out on me with an impassioned, “It’s over!” I would surely agree as I have no interest in being anyone’s emotional punching bag. Today’s Heather would not permit herself to be his taxi service and she surely would not allow him to guilt her for years (yes, years) for dating other guys.
Yes, this relationship completely consumed me in a very unhealthy way. At the time, I thought it was love; but, after finally shaking loose of the ties, I realized what I thought was love… was actually fear… and emotional bondage. Somehow, I allowed him to take over – to torture my tender heart – and I comforted myself by saying, “Sometimes love is hard,” and “I am willing to fight for us.” It sounded romantic at the time, but if I could give that inexperienced, heartsick girl a bit of advice, it would be simple:
This guy does not love you. This guy is not interested in protecting you. This guy hurts you repeatedly and then makes his mistakes seem like your fault. When you listen to him, you feel crazy. Trust God for a loving mate when the time is right, but please stop wasting your time with this boy. Surely, living single forever is far better than committing to a bad relationship.
At the time, it was hard to imagine life beyond this relationship. Who was I if not his girlfriend? But, much to my amazement, life continued without missing a beat. New relationships came and went. I made mistakes and I learned lessons. Eventually, the pain of my broken heart was nothing more than a distant memory.
However, the damage done during that relationship lived on for years – even years into my marriage. When I looked in the mirror, I heard this boy’s negative comments about my appearance. When I made a mistake, I heard his “joking” insults about my abilities. Sadly, the consequences of a toxic relationship outlasts the relationship itself. Sometimes, the aftermath lasts a lifetime, which is why if you are in a bad relationship, we beg you (yes, beg) to get out now. You do not need a person to make you worthwhile.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:14, ESV)
But, How Do I Let Go?
If you have not fully decided if you should break off your relationship yet, consider the following questions:
- Are we moving forward? Can I see a future with this person? Are we naturally moving from one step to another, or are we in a constant holding pattern? Healthy relationships keep moving forward and growing. If you are no closer to engagement than you were two years ago, and there is not a mutually agreed upon reason (e.g., finishing college, saving a certain amount of money, etc.), it is important to look at your relationship as objectively as possible and figure out why nothing is happening.
- Am I proud to be with this person (and is this person proud to be with me)? If you are embarrassed by your significant other, to the point you try to keep him or her from your friends and family, it is time to evaluate why you are together. Would you want to find out your spouse married you in spite of being humiliated by your clothes, habits, or worse – something you cannot change like your ethnicity, family background, or chronic health problems? If there is something about your boyfriend or girlfriend you simply cannot get past, the kindest move you can make is to let the relationship go sooner rather than later.
- Am I frequently daydreaming about other people – real or imagined? If so, you are likely settling. There is something to be said for contentment. No one is ever going to be perfect for you. However, if you are chronically unhappy in your dating relationship, marriage will only intensify those feelings. A sub-question to consider is, “Am I unhappy in general? Is my unhappiness in this relationship just a symptom of my overall unhappiness?” If so, we recommend taking a break from dating altogether and devoting time to personal healing and growth. No relationship will ever make us happy. But, unhappiness can cause us to sabotage good relationships.
- Do I trust him or her? Perhaps this question should top this list of questions. If he or she has given you reasons for suspicion, or you find yourself constantly wondering if he or she is being honest, do not ignore it. Unless you are a chronically suspicious person, there is probably a reason you are uneasy. Couples who cannot trust each other will never fully relax with each other. Marriage is hard enough without adding debilitating apprehension to the mix.
- Am I (or are we) trying to make this relationship happen? Eric and I are the first to admit that marriage is work. Even when we were dating, we had struggles, disagreements, and some good old-fashioned arguments. However, we did not feel like we were forcing our relationship to happen. Being together was natural; and, even though he is nothing like my family of origin, Eric felt like home to me. Sometimes, a relationship is not a good fit, and that is okay. The realization hurts for a while, but staying with someone to avoid the pain of breaking up is only asking for more pain in the long term. If you had the choice, would you experience excruciating pain for thirty seconds, or would you live in moderate pain for the rest of your life?
A Simplified Approach to Breaking Up
If you have decided to break up, or if you have noticed significant problems in your relationship but are not ready to let go, take a look at the steps below. The longer a couple is together, the harder it is to break the ties, which is precisely why the approach below is especially helpful for couples who have been together for a long time.
- Step 1: Take time apart for two weeks. You are not breaking up forever at this point, but you are committing to two full weeks without any contact at all (no calls, no texting, no visiting, no watching them without their knowing [yes, I needed to say that…]).
- By the end of this time, you will be able to look at your relationship more objectively. Your relationship should fall into one of two categories (A or B).
- Step 2: After the two weeks of non-communication and reflection, which question (A or B) is more pertinent to you?
- A – What has to change before this relationship can work?
- B – Is there anything to change – or, is it simply a poor match?
- If A, continue to Step 4.
- If B, continue to Step 3.
- Step 3:
- Write down your reasons for ending the relationship and read them several times.
- Use this paper to remind you of your reasons should you begin to feel weak in the days and weeks ahead.
- Post it next to your bed or on your bathroom mirror so you can read it every day (out loud is best – yes, I know that can feel weird… do it anyway).
- When ready, kindly, but firmly, explain why you believe it is time to move on and prepare for pushback. Have answers ready.
- Once you talk, let the relationship go fully – removing ties on social media, giving back items you have at each other’s homes, etc. It may seem harsh, and it is surely difficult, but a clean break is the kindest and healthiest way to handle the break-up long-term.
- Step 4: At this step, you put your significant other in God’s hands, and pray for God to repair the broken pieces. During this season, do not date him or her. Also, do not play the “we are just friends” card as a way of dating… without officially Use this as a time for prayer and healing. Also, ask the Lord to reveal areas in your own life which need growth. Stay on this step no longer than six months.
- Step 5: If he or she has made little or no progress in six months, let the relationship permanently go. No matter how in love you feel, or how lonely, you do not want to be with someone who refuses to address his or her liabilities. Marriage brings hundreds of opportunities for self-reflection and growth. God has better for you than someone who refuses to admit faults and is too proud or lazy to change.
- Step 6: Confront your excuses:
- “But we have been together for so long!” Yes, and there are many unresolved problems he or she is unwilling to face, which is why I need to let go.
- “But I love him (or her)!” Yes, and it is possible to love someone whom I should not marry. Since I love someone who is unwilling or unable to love me in return (as evidenced by facing pain and being willing to change), it is especially important to move on with my life.
- “But if he (or she) does not have me, he (or she) does not have anyone!” At this point, we have been apart for six months. That is enough time to prove we can live without each other.
(Note: the above steps were largely from the work of a former marriage and family professor, Dr. Philip Captain – slightly altered for the needs of our readers.)
Not Easy, but Worth It
Even though the process of breaking up can be simplified, that does not mean it is easy on the heart. It takes time and God’s grace to heal our wounds.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, ESV)
When we receive emails from readers who are in anguish over a breakup or struggling with the decision to break up, my heart aches right along with them. It takes me back to that place I was twenty years ago – the fight, the tears, and finally, the release.
From this side of the heartache, I am waving to you. There is life after broken relationships. There is life after toxic relationships. There is life after mutual breakups. There is abundant life on this side of the pain. Take one day at a time. Ask God for the grace to get you through one more day, the strength to avoid texting him or her one more time, and His peace which surpasses our human understanding (Philippians 4:4-7, ESV).
If you are struggling with a breakup, (or trying to decide if you should end your dating relationship), feel free to contact us. We are happy to offer you encouragement and advice.
If you have a friend who needs to read this article, please share it with them.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28, ESV)
Have you been wrestling with the decision to break off your relationship?