Breaking Up without Going to Pieces: When Dating Doesn’t End in Marriage


It feels good to invest in a relationship. To care. To want to share. To want to give.

If your dating relationship feels joyous and healthy, if both of you feel the Lord’s approval of your decision to marry, then the relationship “works,” and you marry. If it doesn’t work, you don’t marry. There is no third alternative.

However, many people assume there is a third alternative and try to keep the relationship alive when all signs of vitality have ceased. Both in my church callings and in my profession as a clinical psychologist, I have worked with people who cannot accept breaking up as a healthy part of the selection process of courtship. Instead, they see it as a time to punish themselves, to feel hurt, or even to try to hurt others.

The Lord has given us some important guidelines for relationships—and they apply to all relationships, including dating. We’re counseled to treat all people charitably and kindly, to forgive, and to love not only God and others but also ourselves.

By developing and exercising compassion, a person can—without unpleasantness or emotional devastation—end a dating relationship that needs to end, and turn the experience into an important step toward developing another relationship that does result in marriage.

Sometimes it’s better for two people not to marry each other. They would both be happier married to other people—it’s that simple. Perhaps they’ve formed a relationship for the wrong reasons. But even when the motives are right, a relationship still might not have that “spark” that impels both toward marriage. In such cases, breaking up is often the kindest alternative.

Breaking up may sometimes be a difficult and grieving process, but it doesn’t have to be dreadful. People can break up a dating relationship without going to pieces.

The biggest factor in determining the outcome of a relationship is following the inspiration of the Lord. If your association seems to pull you away from God, away from righteousness, away from prayer and scriptures, you need to evaluate its influence. Sometimes, too, people will want so badly for a courtship to work that they can’t hear the Lord’s messages because of their own desires.

Also important for a relationship to develop into a healthy marriage are communication and genuine interest in each other. One young man tried hard to fall in love with a young woman who had served in his mission. They both loved their mission experiences and the people of the country, but there was no “magic” in their relationship. They could talk about the Church and their missions, but not deeply about themselves.

The fellow hated to give up what he thought was a storybook situation, but he finally realized that the relationship wasn’t sufficient for marriage. He broke up with her and later met a young woman in a college class. They found they could talk for hours and not lose interest in each other. She was the one he married.

Probably one of the most ominous indications of a troubled dating relationship is that you begin to feel obligated. Of course, even excellent relationships are not free of obligation. But feeling obligated, feeling bound, is more than making the adjustments needed for a relationship to work. Things you should freely want to do for the other person become tasks you do only because you are expected to do them. You begin to resent the other person, and you want to put distance between you. The relationship is no longer enjoyable and comfortable. It’s being Serious, with a capital letter. Conversations are “heavy,” with much frustration, anxious searching of your feelings, and perhaps a series of phone calls that start out, “I have to talk to you!”

And then you begin to test each other. A fellow might say to himself, “If she really likes me, she’ll be glad to go with me, even if I’m calling half an hour before the party.” Or, “If he loves me, he will do what I want.” So you start trying to manipulate each other; and in your insecurity, you try to control each other’s responses. “Do you enjoy being with me as much as I enjoy being with you?”

Another symptom of deep problems in a dating relationship is an inability to communicate on the same level. Sometimes you’ll feel you have a great deal to say but can’t talk because you feel the other person won’t understand, or will misunderstand. You become afraid to say what you honestly feel and think. Similarly, a couple’s physical attraction to one another may mask an inability to communicate. Some couples may know how to kiss but don’t know how to talk to each other. For them, the physical aspect of their relationship is something they fall back on to avoid developing caring and communication.

Some people also use physical affection as a measure of the progress of the relationship—and that’s a false and irrelevant measurement. A girl might think, “If he holds my hand, it means he likes me.” Or, “If he puts his arm around me, that means he likes me more.” But those gestures might mean nothing of the sort. In fact, a too-quick development of such gestures may lead to inappropriate expressions of affection and thus damage a healthy relationship. If a courtship is based largely on physical affection, you probably need to evaluate its stability.

Still another indication of a troubled relationship is a feeling of emotional starvation, of being emotionally drained. This could be because of a lack of appropriate affection in the relationship, or perhaps because one person is “using” another in an unhealthy way.

One person in a dating relationship might “use” another in the way fellows used an extremely attractive young woman who was in my campus ward when I was a bishop. On dates she felt more like a boutonniere than a person—she was someone men “wore” but not someone they wanted to understand and cherish. Another young woman in the ward found that after she was chosen as homecoming queen, the quality of her dates declined dramatically; men were no longer interested in her as a person but only as a status symbol. In both cases, these young women found it difficult to establish genuine, deep relationships.

Sometimes a person enters a relationship with the mistaken notion (I call it a “rescue complex”) that he or she can “save” the other. An extreme example of this was one woman who married a man because he threatened suicide if she didn’t marry him. That marriage ended in divorce.

A more common situation might be for a man to see a woman who’s been jilted and to say to himself, “She’s so sweet and wounded, and I’m going to heal her broken heart.” Or a woman with strong, warm mothering instincts may meet a misfit fellow who’s in the middle of an identity crisis and vow to save him from himself. In the process, she deliberately blinds herself to all of the differences in their values.

What’s wrong with relationships like these is that they put unfair responsibility and demands on one person to make the relationship work. They don’t allow for a healthy role-shifting in which both partners can look to each other for support and strength.

Another wrong reason for developing or perpetuating a relationship is to avoid causing problems in a family or social network. Sometimes a dating couple builds up such a comfortable social network that their relationship is the worst part of what otherwise is a very pleasant situation. In this case they need to recognize that even if their parents or friends hope they’ll marry, it’s the couple’s relationship that ultimately matters.

Some couples may argue that they received a spiritual confirmation of their relationship. Why, then, didn’t it work out? It’s possible, of course, that you wanted so badly for it to work out that you misinterpreted spiritual feelings and, in essence, put words in God’s mouth. But there’s another possibility: People change. Though the dating relationship was right at one time, it isn’t anymore. The spiritual confirmation could have been an assurance of the relationship’s capacity, its possibility, its potential. But it wasn’t a guarantee of ultimate fruit.

Once you’ve decided the relationship is not going to work out, how do you kindly let someone know you’re serious about ending the dating relationship?

The most important thing is to communicate, compassionately, clearly what you mean. Often one person will want the other to get the message without its being clearly stated, which may mean that the person who wants to break up isn’t facing his real feelings. When you’ve cared deeply enough to date seriously, of course you shouldn’t want to hurt the other person. But that’s no reason for giving an unclear or indefinite message. Otherwise, the other person may accept only a change in the relationship, still hoping for eventual marriage.

It isn’t compassionate to try to sever a relationship slowly if you’ve already made up your mind. The other person won’t gradually get the message by your disinterest. If you’re trying to break up slowly, it’s possible that you’re mistaking your desire to not hurt the person for an excuse to be dishonest about your own feelings.

Since relationships can’t change from romance to friendship in a day or a week, it may be unrealistic and even hurtful for the two of you to spend much time together once the decision has been made. The person who initiated the break-up may be thinking, “Isn’t it civilized and nice that we can be friends?” But the other will be secretly hoping for the friendship to develop back into a romance. And if the romance can never be revived, feelings will be hurt even more deeply.

Almost always, one of you will be hurt more than the other when the relationship breaks up. If you’ve been hurt in a relationship, you may think it’s understandable that you defend yourself by denigrating or criticizing the other person. Actually, it’s a way of running from reality, and it’s a childish and defensive gesture. Whatever has not worked out, the Lord requires that we forgive all people—and this commandment is as true in a dating relationship as in any other. Bitterness is never the right solution.

People can tell you plenty of superficial ways to get over a broken relationship. They might suggest taking up golf, getting yourself back into social circulation, or looking critically at the ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. But the grief of an ended relationship can be as real and as intense as grief following the death of someone you’ve loved. So it’s important to let yourself work through the grief process.

You may have to be willing to mourn, to let yourself down into your feelings. Grieving can be a way of accepting the end, of letting the separation come. But you have to realize that those feelings will pass, and that no matter how much it hurts, you’re going to live through it. Racing out and involving yourself frenetically in other activities won’t block it out of your mind.

At the same time, you mustn’t perform an endless postmortem on the relationship. By continually asking yourself what you did wrong or what would have happened if you’d done things differently, you keep your wounded feelings alive. Similarly, indulging yourself in what I call a “pity party” is a cruel way of hurting yourself. It won’t help to deliberately humiliate yourself with a list of your failures, as though reliving your real or imagined failures can keep them from happening again.

One college student worked through the grief of a broken relationship by listening to music in the living room of his apartment after his roommates went to bed. He listened to the same album over and over, every night, and allowed himself to mourn.

Finally one day he looked in the mirror and said to himself, “It’s dead. It’s over. It’s never going to work. And I’m not going to try to make it work anymore. I’m not going to go on believing it’s going to work. It is done. I still have feelings for her, but I am going to go on living.”

For about three days he had to repeat that to himself. He’d be driving in his car and start to mourn again, and he’d look in his rear-view mirror and say, “It’s over.” And for him, it was over.

Remember, the Lord can give you solace in your pain. His peace can come through your family, your friends, service, prayer, fasting, scripture reading. You may find considerable relief and insight from writing in your personal journal about the relationship. And perhaps a loving Church leader can help you work through this difficult time.

It’s important that you not try to build happiness on the pretended misery of the person you have left behind. Some people carry this to a tragic extreme by not only dating but actually marrying someone else in an effort to make a former boyfriend or girlfriend miserable or jealous. They’re thinking, “I’ll show her,” or “I’ll show him,” without giving serious thought to the feelings of the person they’re actually marrying.

This was the case with a young private I knew in the Army. He had fallen in love with a girl, but her father wouldn’t let her marry him, and she wouldn’t run away with him to get married. So the fellow married another girl—one he didn’t love and wasn’t happy with. Joining the Army and seeking assignments where he couldn’t take a family with him were his ways of running away from the rebound marriage.

While you may learn valuable lessons from failed relationships, it’s not necessary to impute further meaning to the break-up. That is, I don’t believe the Lord intends you to be hurt again and again for the sake of “learning experiences.” I believe that He wants you to know the joy that comes from understanding, trusting, and loving someone in an honest, giving relationship. Hopefully, you can learn what is valuable from the experience without punishing yourself or seeing the experience as punishment.

While you might be able to look to past relationships for lessons about life, others, or yourself, don’t overlook the positive aspect of learning to better appreciate the depth and quality of a relationship you hope to make eternal. A man who thinks he wants a wife who plays the piano may find that while musical skills are important, what he really wants is a wife with whom he can share and enjoy life—someone he can talk to. Personal qualities are much more important than skills.

It helps not to look at dating as an end in itself. Some people become quite adept at dating skills, but have never considered and prepared themselves for the intimate and hopefully eternal commitments of marriage.

You may find that the best preparation you can make for marriage is to learn to love God and to love yourself. When you have a secure, spiritual knowledge of yourself as a child of God, you will find a sense of personal confidence and identity that makes a good relationship possible.

Like some people, you may find that you need to learn to be more honest and vulnerable in a relationship, and that you need to learn to believe in your own lovableness. As you develop those abilities, the love in your relationship can be sustained by a mutual conviction that you are loved by each other.

Then you can know the delight of being trusted with one another’s ideas and feelings. And you can know the joyous, awesome capacity to give that comes with loving.

Gawain Wells, a clinical psychologist and father of six children, teaches Sunday School in his Provo, Utah, ward.