I still remember the feeling of the sticky-hot summer air on my skin as we strolled along the river walk. The summer before my senior year of college, I had flown to visit my long-distance boyfriend. On my first night there, we stayed up talking late into the night in his parents’ living room.
And we broke up.
The breakup wasn’t my idea, nor was it my desire. The next day, as we walked along the river, I felt as if my dreams were moving away from me as fast as the flowing water. I tried to talk him out of it and convince him we could still make it work.
“My heart just doesn’t jump through hoops when I’m around you,” he finally said as we ate Mexican food.
The look on my face seemed to make him regret his words. He looked away. Then came the tears, which left our server in no doubt about what had gone down. The rest of the visit was survival, until I could fly home. A good friend picked me up at the airport and let me cry over the whole awful thing.
Up until that point, I hadn’t dated much. In fact, he was my first real boyfriend. Much of our relationship was over email and through phone conversations. And in the year we spent communicating, with the occasional visit, I decided he was perfect for me. Polite to a fault, a leader in his campus ministry and headed for a lucrative career, he embodied everything I’d been hoping for in a boyfriend.
When the relationship ended, and he decided that he didn’t want to correspond with me at all, not only did I lose a good friend, I also lost the dream of what I envisioned my future to be. I was crushed. And I felt like I’d failed.
In the decade that followed, a few more men came along. A few relationships had promising starts, and once again I let my mind wander down that road of what could be. And though subsequent breakups were not as painful as that first one, similar feelings of failure accompanied each one. What had we done wrong? Why didn’t it work out? Had I made a big mistake in letting him go? Was it all a big waste of time?
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
When a relationship ends, I think it’s natural to feel like you failed. There’s no way around it — breakups stink. The parties involved can feel like they’re back at square one or like they couldn’t cut it in a relationship. I certainly felt that way.
About 10 years after I broke up with my college boyfriend, I married my husband, Kevin. And — at the risk of sounding cliché — all those past breakups finally made sense. God had redirected each of those relationships so that I would be available for the right one. In fact, a few years after I married Kevin, I actually felt very thankful for how those past relationships had shaped me. Here are a few of the ways my failed relationships led to future success:
They taught me how to navigate differences.
Whether differences in personality, fashion sense or hobbies, I discovered many ways I was different from those I dated. One was obsessed with military history, another knew how to build and sustain fish farms — neither of these were things I was necessarily into. I quickly discovered that you don’t have to have everything in common to build a quality relationship.
In fact, I began to enjoy learning about what the other person was passionate about, a practice that served me well when I got married and found out … gasp … Kevin and I are different! He can play board games for hours and only reads when he has to; I read all day for my job and prefer watching movies to relax. We also have different ways of dealing with things based on our personalities and upbringings. When I married Kevin, our differences weren’t such a shock because I’d been exposed to the phenomenon in past relationships.
They showed me how to steward another person.
Stewardship is a topic that is usually discussed in the realm of money or time. But relationships that ended showed me that I could be a steward of people too. I only dated Christian men, and so I felt a certain responsibility to them as my Christian brothers. I wanted to be a godly influence in their lives. One part of that was conducting our relationship with sexual purity. But stewardship also involved noticing how God had created these men and finding ways to honor that instead of impede it.
I remember one conversation when my boyfriend and I talked about our shared desire that wherever our relationship led, we would both be better, more godly people because of it. To that end, we attended church together and took time to discuss what each of us was learning from God’s Word. God honored our desire to grow closer to Him through our relationship and used us in one another’s lives in that season.
As a wife, I have a similar responsibility to be a good steward of my husband — his gifts and personality. As I pay attention to how God has designed Kevin, I can nurture his passions and abilities, enabling him to better complete the things God is calling him to. Kevin is a dreamer, and when he brings up a big idea, I sometimes see the hurdles involved. While there is a time for us to troubleshoot potential challenges, I’ve learned to just listen to his ideas and dream big with him. Not every idea comes to fruition, but a few have gone on to be major successes.
Speaking of the godly wife, Proverbs 31:12 says, “She does [her husband] good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” That is something I’m still learning to do well, but I cut my teeth on showing kindness and respect in relationships that ultimately failed.
They taught me to have grace.
In my handful of relationships — some official, some unofficial — I heard some confessions. Growing up in a Christian home and then attending Bible college, I was a bit sheltered and naïve. The first few times someone confessed past sin to me, it rocked my world. One time, when I talked to my mom about a particular instance, she replied, “Well, has he repented and received God’s forgiveness? That’s what’s important.”
And she was right. As these men told me about some things they’d done that they weren’t proud of, I learned that a heart that is sensitive to the Lord’s correction and is free of shame is more important than a perfect track record (which none of us has anyway). That lesson has served me well in many areas of my life, including my marriage.
They acted as signposts for the right relationship.
Each time I got to know someone, I noticed things I liked. I admired how one was generous to his friends and neighbors. I appreciated how another was kind and seemed to always include everyone. I noticed how another treated his mom and sister with respect. As I was able to see the good qualities of those I dated, I was taking mental notes on what was valuable to me in a relationship.
And, of course, I also noticed things I didn’t like: the annoying habits or quirks, and how I felt more comfortable, or more myself, around some men than others. I realized I needed to end up with someone with whom I could totally be myself. Several times, I realized the relationship was not a fit when spending time with the person drained me instead of making me feel recharged.
When I met Kevin, he was different from any other guy I had dated. I felt comfortable around him, we shared many common interests and we genuinely enjoyed being together. As our relationship unfolded, I remembered some of the qualities I had appreciated in other guys, because I began to notice them in Kevin. He was kind, respectful and generous. Mental notes I’d taken during past relationships confirmed that I had finally met the right guy for me.
When It Ends Before It Starts
I realize that some reading this article may have less dating experience than I do. I’ve talked to several women recently who told me they’ve never had a boyfriend. And I’ve known men who are in the same boat. That circumstance brings its own kind of feelings of failure.
Apart from the long-distance relationship in college, I didn’t have my first official boyfriend until my late 20s. My next boyfriend was my husband. The lack of an active dating life doesn’t equal failure, either. In Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel “Little Women,” Amy March quips: “You don’t need scores of suitors. You need only one … if he’s the right one.” And I’ve found that to be true.
All of the lessons above you can easily learn by observing friends of the opposite gender and not being afraid to get into people’s lives. And there are plenty of things to be learned from not dating, such as how to depend on the Lord more exclusively and find community apart from a romantic relationship.
From Failure to Success
Several years after I married Kevin, I was reflecting on some of those relationships that had left me feeling like a failure. I thought of those men I had known who had eventually faded out of my life, and I was grateful. Grateful that God had blessed me with some solid Christian guys to encourage me that good men are out there. Grateful for how those relationships stretched and shaped me into the woman and wife I have become. And grateful that those relationships had failed.
When I sat in that Mexican restaurant, tears dripping into my enchiladas, I could never have imagined how God would use that breakup to completely redirect my life and plans. After my senior year, I moved to Colorado to take my dream job. And eight years after that I met a handsome guy working in a coffee shop who shared so many of my dreams for life.
When I told Kevin the sad story of that first breakup, he looked at me and smiled. “My heart jumps through hoops when I’m around you,” he said. Years before, God already knew that moment was coming. My failed relationship hadn’t been a failure after all.
Copyright 2018 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.