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Why Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

When romance goes sour, the healing can take a while. Even for a guy.

James is drop-dead gorgeous: I’ll testify to that myself. And that’s just the beginning. He’s smart, friendly, considerate, thoughtful, manly and even gainfully employed. As far as I can tell, he’s been on the fast track for success his whole life long. He comes from a large, strong, closely-knit family and was raised on a lot of hearty southern meals — I’m willing to bet he eats more country ham and grits in a month than I have in my whole life. He was on the baseball and debate teams in high school and graduated near, if not at the very top, of his class. College followed the same pattern, though this time he stuck to intramural sports so he could devote his full efforts to student government. He got good grades and was liked by everyone in every conceivable social permutation on campus. He was practically the school mascot. He’s an all-around winning guy.

So it’s not even remotely surprising that when he and Cindy met at the beginning of their shared freshman year of college, the two of them and just about everyone else instantly saw a match made in heaven. Cindy is both beautiful and popular without being obnoxious about it — a rare quality in anyone — and did all the appropriate high school and college things befitting a girl of her quality. As far as I know, she and James took one look at each other sometime during freshman prologue and that was that. They were together all the way through their university careers, not just a couple but an institution, an icon, one word: jamesandcindy. They were the kind of perfect couple that doesn’t make you nauseated but inspires you to hope for something similar.

I became acutely aware of the particulars of James and Cindy’s story when my very dear friend Lily recently fell in love with James. Now before you heap ashes on Lily’s head, permit me to offer an explanation. Lily is an honorable, moral girl (not to mention adorable, charming and eminently worthy of his love) so she wouldn’t have even permitted herself to fall in love with him unless he had been available for the taking. The fact is, he is available for the taking — and has been for nearly four years now. This is where his story takes a turn for the worse.

I’m not really sure why James and Cindy broke up. Perhaps neither of them knows for sure either. I think they just weren’t right for each other, public opinion to the contrary, and it took them a long time to figure it out. Cindy would probably agree with that, since she’s married to someone else now. She and James graduated from college, and things started to turn sour, and she realized they weren’t meant to be, and next thing James knew it was over. They split. The common wisdom is that it takes half the length of the relationship to recover, so by my calculation James should have been over her two years ago. But he is still so not over her that he hasn’t dated, not even casually, in the entire interim. (Thus the source of Lily’s frustrations.)

At this point I must divulge an embarrassing, though predictable, detail. James and Cindy were sleeping together. It’s no great surprise, is it? Four years is a long time to date without crossing the line of total intimacy. While together, they certainly believed that they were on the road to marriage and had good monogamous intentions all along. But it looks to me like they used their good intentions the wrong way — as an excuse to get sexually involved before the time for marriage had arrived. The early involvement didn’t do them any favors, either; I would guess that’s what prevented them from seeing any sooner that they didn’t belong together. There’s a good reason why marital intimacy is reserved for marriage, so that the couple can be sure that marriage is the right expression of their love. I have no doubts that James, at least, loved Cindy with single-minded devotion (and, it appears, still does in spite of himself). The cold hard truth in this case, though, is that his love just wasn’t enough because marriage just wasn’t the right answer. It wasn’t enough to keep the two of them together and it wasn’t enough to justify their sexual involvement.

James’s devastation over the loss of Cindy has both troubled and fascinated me. What is at work here is not a case of obsession — he is by all accounts an emotionally stable individual and has not pestered Cindy since their break-up — or an unduly guilty conscience. It’s a crisis over a false marriage. James thought he’d found in Cindy his bride-to-be, his future wife, the mother of his children, a life-long companion to grow old with. He had no reason to doubt that she would be his forever, and so he gave that much of himself to her accordingly, body and soul and spirit. But she gave it all back. Worse yet, he had no bargaining power to make her stay. There is no moral imperative for a run-of-the-mill college couple to stick it out in hard times, regardless of the state of sexual intimacy or previous commitment. James was denied the dignity of mourning the loss of a real marriage, with a real and final end like in a divorce. All he got was a meaningless little break-up, friends baffled at his inability even now to recover, and his beloved in someone else’s bed for the rest of her life.

The generic assessment would go something like this. Everyone’s heart probably goes out to James’s plight. But it’s time for him to let go of his pain and move on. (Lily certainly thinks so.) He needs to relinquish his hopes of having Cindy — after all, she’s married to someone else now — and clear his head of all his illusions about their relationship. He did everything he could, after all, and it’s not his fault that it fell apart. If anything, he should be glad that he got out while he could and accept the fact that he is whole and healthy without her. His reaction has been altogether too extreme. Right?


I concede that on a fiercely practical level, there’s something to be said for the foregoing advice. He really isn’t ever going to get Cindy back, and he is going to end up married to someone else. Fair enough. But more seriously, I appreciate and even approve of the depth of James’s pain over losing her. He is the one who really understood what was at stake in their romance. It wasn’t an arrangement designed to be temporary or merely preparatory for something else. He saw, and felt in his heart of hearts, the profound spiritual implications of his intimacy with Cindy. It was a sacrifice of himself to her that required incredible trust. He willingly blended his identity with hers; he was a willing accomplice to that single word, jamesandcindy. The emotional paralysis that has been his fate ever since is proof positive of the gravity of marital love, even outside of marriage. He grasped the true meaning of sexual unity. Tragically, Cindy didn’t.

Let’s digress just a moment and examine this matter of being “whole.” I hear the idea tossed around a lot these days, among all sorts of people regardless of religious or political or moral affiliation, that each individual person is “whole” and needs to come to some sort of realization about that “wholeness” before a “healthy relationship” with another person is possible. In one sense, it’s good to remind people that marriage is not pre-paradisal salvation and that it shouldn’t be turned into an idol. It’s pretty easy, maybe easier, though, to slide into the opposite error, portraying it as an extra-special contract between two super secure, confident, fully-informed individuals. From a secular perspective, I suppose it’s a way of affirming the value of each distinct person and avoiding disparagement of the unmarried — not an altogether bad motive. From a religious perspective, it’s a way of encouraging spiritual growth and fostering hope among the single, also an honorable goal. My objection is that despite the commendable intentions on either end of the spectrum, I think they’re fundamentally wrong.

What if — grant me the benefit of the doubt for a moment — what if you really aren’t complete until marriage, if that is God’s intent for you? (There is a long and rich tradition of consecrated celibacy, which I by no means wish to diminish, but that is not the subject of this particular thought-experiment.) Suppose that your single life all the way up until you exchange those vows at the altar is not a way of perfecting you or helping you to heal yourself or making you get your emotional baggage in order before someone else hitches on to share it as long as you both shall live. Maybe it’s the Advent season of your personal life, as you wait in patient anticipation for that divinely selected spouse. Maybe all those frantic searches for “wholeness” in all the varied forms they take are just plain misguided. That “whole” identity might just be found in one thing, in the new unit of existence created by God, the unit called marriage. Even though you’re an image of God yourself, that image is going to be profoundly shaped and changed forever by joining with another image of God. The two images become one flesh, one whole. And if that is God’s will for you, it brings you closer to Him as well.

That’s pretty heady stuff. I don’t know for sure myself, but I’m willing to bet that marriage is more than anyone bargains for.

A quick closing word for James. (Just in case, by some horrible accident of fate, he comes across this article and recognizes himself in it, I offer this as an olive branch and a plea for forgiveness). I respect and admire the depth of your love. I think you intuitively know something of which the rest of us need convincing — that if we love with our bodies, our hearts can’t help but follow. But it is exactly on account of this enormous capacity and intuition for love that I beg you to consider directing it to someone else, someone who will return it with an equally faithful and loving heart. Don’t cautiously keep it to yourself any longer. Your calling is elsewhere. And if I may make a suggestion … you have Lily’s phone number. Please give her a call!

Copyright 1999 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Sarah E. Hinlicky

Sarah E. Hinlicky was born in St. Louis, but has spent most of her life in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. She graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne College with a B.A. and departmental honors in Theology and Philosophy in 1998. When she wrote for Boundless, she was a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the monthly journal First Things.

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