We didn’t even go into the coffee shop because our silent walk there had erased any appetite for a beverage either one could have had. She hadn’t spoken to me for a full week, so I knew prognosis was not going to be good. I knew that after today — after this conversation — our relationship wouldn’t be the same as before.
We sat in the cold metal chairs beneath an overcast sky as — I haven’t the slightest idea as to what she actually said — she told me that there was no more hope for a romance between us. We could be friends, but…
It was as if all the dominoes inside of me that had been lining up over the past two years had been flicked and were beginning their spiral tumble. They weren’t all down yet, but the pieces had begun their descent.
It’s almost the same as going into physical shock: Your brain somehow prevents the pain from setting in right away, despite what you already cognitively know. Though there seemed to be a physical weight on me after the succinct conversation, I somehow made it back to campus and we parted ways in the courtyard.
I took the elevator up to my dorm room, still stunned. Still wishing that her week of silence had really meant something else, as thin a hope as that may have been.
Now, this is the part that has always stuck with me: I entered my room and couldn’t do anything. I fell onto my bed in a half-sit/half-lie amidst the mess of pillows and blankets and didn’t move. I didn’t text or call anyone. Didn’t open my laptop. Didn’t read. Didn’t cry. Just sat/lay there for over an hour unable to think of what I should possibly do.
Breakups are hard.
It’s easy to observe someone else’s relational collapse and perhaps feel a pang of sympathy followed by moving on with your day (perhaps that’s just apathetic me), but from within, as I can attest, they are crushing. They are suffocating and shocking. I can’t even imagine the deep wells which are demolished within people who undergo a divorce or an affair.
Nevertheless, in a season of rupture, words of wisdom, advice and encouragement are needed. So, here are some of the best I’ve accrued over the years.
World’s Second Best Spouse
A number of days after my motionless hour, I met with a deeply southern professor at the school. He’s the one everyone went to for their romantic advice, and there’s a reason. He was simply bursting with experience and wisdom. I told him my situation, and in his thick yet snappy southern drawl, he replied,
“Nahw Ethan! Cecilia may be thee second best wahfe for you. But when it comes to something as serious as marriage, we don’t want number two nahw, do we? We want number one! So if the door is closing with Cecilia, that just means that, at best, she was thee second best for you!”
Open your hand, even after the wedding
While his sentiments were accurate, the execution was still painful. I really liked Cecilia a lot and for all intents and purposes, she seemed like my #1 option! I thought I knew her pretty well after two years.
What my professor said next was something I’ll never forget as far as thinking about my marriage. He pulled a pencil out of his shirt pocket and held it in an open palm.
“Nahw Ethan, this is Cecilia. And what you want to do right now (he closed his grip on the pencil) is hold her tight and refuse to let her go…But what you need is to learn how to keep your palm open before the Lord. And if He wants…”
He used his other hand to lift the pencil off his palm.
“He will either keep her there, or He will remove her from your hand. He will do what He wants either way, but it’s easier for you if you’re already holding her in an open hand.”
What he said next is the part that blew me away.
“I married my wife Sweet Sue decades ago, and when I married her, I thought that, Yes! She was mine!
But Ethan, just fahve years ago, Sweet Sue got cancer. In that season, God told me that even though she was my wahfe, I had to continue to hold her in an open hand because he may take her out of it.”
I was floored.
The last thing I wanted was to think about getting married and then having God take her out of my hand. Fortunately, his wahfe had recovered and is still alive and well today. God allowed him to keep her for a few more years. But what that taught me is that marriage is not the finish line. There is no time in this life that we get to close our fists on what we want (or what we have) and hold onto them for eternity.
On letting go
In the case of Cecilia, she used language which lacked black and whites and was very gray. She left me hopeful that the time wasn’t “now,” but maybe “later.” What that means is that I spent the next three months refusing to actually move on from her and violently held onto hope that “later” would come.
If you find yourself in a situation where the person hasn’t closed the door completely but has essentially hinted that there may be hope in the future, you need to shoot them straight. Just yesterday I was on the phone with a friend in Cape Cod who had just been dumped by a very serious girlfriend. When she made the cut, however, it was not clean.
“I’m sad, but I’m still hopeful,” he told me on the phone. “She didn’t say it’s over for good, but she just needs some space.”
For his sake, I hope she’s telling the truth. Also for his sake, I hope that whatever her decision is, she tells him sooner than later. My advice to him was this:
“Don’t wait forever for her. Set an ultimatum. She won’t know anymore in December that she will in June as long as you two are separated and not talking. Force her to do the respectful thing and be straight with you sooner rather than later. It’s not fair of her to expect you to just wait indefinitely while she sorts through things. Eventually, she’ll realize that she likes you or she doesn’t, and when she does, she needs to be up front. For your sake.”
I’ve been on the receiving end of that conversation more often than I’d like to admit. People will use all sorts of softeners to reduce the impact, but often these do more harm than good. I think it’s only human to be infatuated with someone and cling to a hope that they’ll change their mind. This may be the first step in the grieving process (denial?) but we can’t stay here forever.
If the person dumping you is using ambiguous language, set an ultimatum. Let them know that you’ll give them space to sort through things, but you won’t wait forever. Force them to be the bigger person.
Conversely, if you’re the dumper rather than the dumpee, be straight. Don’t dance around the issue and don’t avoid the difficult and honest conversations. It stings in the present but is healthier in the long run.
Yes. Breaking up sucks for everyone involved. It’s a sort of pain which is deep and lasting and can lead to all sorts of insecurities and festering wounds if not properly treated and cared for.
No. Breakups are not the end of the world. In the words of this shark,
You will move on and there will be other people on the land. Read my other post on How to Get Over Anyone, and it may be helpful as well.
Hope that helps!