February 1, 2013
Rebounding from
Broken Dreams
Starting Over When
a Relationship Fails
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This article is excerpted from my book Marry a Friend: Finding Someone to Marry Who Is Truly Right for You.     

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ďIíVE SPENT TWO WEEKS CRYING over losing him.Ē

So Louise described to me her reaction to being shelved by Harold. Louise is not a self-pitying person, but a mature, vivacious individual. Yet she was much less prepared for what happened than she thought. She had let her hopes get too high about a future with Harold, and not without good reason. He had said he was open to the possibility of a serious relationship. But after several months, he decided that their differences on certain spiritual issues were too great. They would do best to forgo getting serious but stay friends.

Friends? Small comfort to someone who had marriage in mind.

Many people falsely imagine they are invulnerable to the hurt of rejection. I remember thinking as a new Christian that believers must be fairly well insulated against major heartbreak. I was to find in time that my humanity remained well intact. You may have likewise imagined that your spiritual perspective or life philosophy would protect you from the pain of rejection, but then were devastated when it actually occurred. Itís something even the most stouthearted among us discovers: rejection cuts deep.

Letís look at why rejection hits us so hard, but most importantly, at how we can better prepare for it--and even benefit from it. We come here to a matter that isnít as pleasant to think about or anticipate as others related to seeking marriage. Yet itís an area of experience thatís essential to understand and be ready for if you are to realize your goal of finding a lifetime companion. The fact is that you will probably go through at least one episode of rejection or disappointment on the way to meeting the person you marry.

I originally considered titling this chapter in Marry a Friend ďAccepting the Inevitability of Rejection.Ē I decided against that because itís too negative and connotes a sense of fatalism about rejection that I donít mean to imply. I wrote that book to boost your hopes, not diminish them!

Still, that title does capture something of what I want to say. If you are to stay strongly hopeful about finding a partner, you have to be steeled for the sort of experiences that too easily squash your dreams. Far too often, a single occasion of rejection is enough to do it. For many, too, the mere fear of the possibility of rejection keeps them from moving off square one. In either case, the reaction is much more extreme than warranted. Indeed, rejection, rightly understood and handled, can take you closer to your goal of marriage rather than further away. Itís not the ultimate catastrophe we make it out to be.

The truth is I donít know any happily married person who didnít suffer at least one major disappointment before finding the person who was right for her or him. Most went through several unhappy episodes prior to meeting their spouse. Itís not that this absolutely has to be the case. Yet it doesnít seem that God exempts many of us from this pattern.

None of these people will deny that the pain of these disappointments was considerable. Yet most will also admit now that even their most difficult relationship experiences of the past brought them certain benefits. These incidents not only helped prepare them for the realities of marriage, but sometimes in ironic ways brought them closer to meeting the person who became their lifemate.

Seeing Rejectionís Positive Side

With the right perspective, itís possible not just to survive rejection or the unhappy ending of a relationship but to actually benefit from the experience. It all has to do with your perception. Typically, when disappointment occurs in romance, we are prone to three unfortunate conclusions:

ďI am unlovable.Ē I donít have the right qualities for someone to love me in a marriage-quality way.

ďGod doesnít want me to be married.Ē He has shown me through this closed door that he wills for me to stay single.

ďI wonít be able to love again.Ē The one person whom I truly loved is not available. It wouldnít be genuine to expect I could feel this same intensity of love for another person.

Each of these conclusions is unnecessary and tragic: unnecessary, in that it doesnít likely reflect the reality of our life as God sees it; tragic, in that if it persists, it too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Letís look more closely at why these assumptions are so detrimental.

I Am Unlovable

We are instinctively prone as humans to reason from the specific to the general. When the emotional intensity of an experience is great, we tend to view the rest of our life through the eyes of this one experience. Yet the conclusions we draw can be most misleading.

It isnít exaggerating to say that the death of expectations for a relationship can be as heartbreaking as the physical death of a loved one, especially when youíve placed great hope in these anticipations being realized. In Coming Apart, family therapist Daphne Rose Kingma suggests that the ending of a relationship of short duration can be even more painful than the demise of a long-term one, for youíve had less chance to see the otherís imperfections and thus to have some basis for seeing value in the breakup.* Of course, the failure of a relationship even to get off the ground can be devastating if your hopes have run high. The rejection of a single date can crush you.

In the wake of any such experience of loss, grief you suffer must be felt and worked through. Itís normal to feel at a low point then and to dwell on your disappointment. At this time, though, while not denying your feelings of disappointment, you should make every effort to remind yourself that this relationship was but one among an almost infinite variety of possible others for you, and that it doesnít have to mirror your future. In the immensely complex world of romantic relationships, where the chemistry doesnít take in one case, it takes wonderfully and surprisingly in another. There are so many intangible and unpredictable factors involved in what draws two people together that you never have a basis for concluding that all hope for finding a good relationship is gone.

Beyond this is the very important fact that you can often learn valuable lessons from a failed relationship that will improve your prospects for finding an enduring one. I say this cautiously, for it isnít always true that you can learn clear lessons from past failures, and you must be careful not to self-flagellate in the process. My advice is to look only for very obvious lessons that are there.

In my own case, for instance, I learned through two difficult experiences as a young single that women found me insensitive when I spoke too soon about my thoughts on Godís will for us. I told them early in the relationship that I thought he wanted us to be married. As I came to understand how presumptuous I was in doing this, I determined to change the pattern. It allowed for a much more relaxed and spontaneous relationship with Evie.

Let me caution you, though, to avoid resolutely the thought that things might have turned out better if you had acted differently. There simply is no way to know this. Here you need to rest fully in the grace and protective hand of God, and trust that he has your very best in mind in what youíve gone through. Even if you had done everything perfectly, the breakup might still have occurred. As painfully academic as the thought may seem at this time, the day may come when you thank God from your heart that things transpired as they did. When youíve met the right person, the relationship will work in spite of many weaknesses and imperfections on your part.

In any case, donít fall into the trap of predicting your future on the basis of your past. Your past experience in relationships in no way proves what your future will be. Someone else may respond to you very differently. Donít write history before it happens!

God Doesnít Want Me to Be Married

When we suffer romantic disappointment, we tend to reason outward from that one experience to what broader message God might be giving us about our life in general. Too often the conclusion is negative: God is showing me through this roadblock that I should stop pinning my hopes on getting married and should face the reality that he wants me to stay single.

Seldom, though, is this conclusion justified. When St. Paul addresses how to set your heart concerning marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, he simply says that you should plan on getting married if your need is strong. Obviously, he realized some of his readers didnít immediately have a prospective spouse, and that some had been rebuffed in their efforts to find one. Yet never does he remotely suggest that the lack of present opportunity, nor any number of failures, should be taken as Godís telling you not to plan on getting married.

Quite the contrary, he even says that widows should look toward getting married again if their need for marriage remains strong (1 Cor 7:8-9, 1 Tim 5:14-15). I doubt that anyone is more inclined to conclude God doesnít want them married than one who has suffered the death of a spouse. Yet Paul allows no room for such a fatalistic assumption. Underneath it all, his attitude is supremely optimistic.

Why, then, does God allow us to experience disappointment in relationships if the reason isnít to show us we should stay single?

One very important reason is to keep us from entanglements that wouldnít be good for us. In his infinite knowledge of the future, God sees much more clearly than we possibly can whether a particular relationship would result in a healthy marriage and contribute to his best intentions for our life. ďThere is a way that seems right . . . but in the end it leads to deathĒ (Prov 14:12). Sometimes the only way God can protect us from the romantic equivalent of driving off a cliff is by bringing about the breakup of a relationship we cherish. Only with time and hindsight do we appreciate his wisdom.

Another reason is to teach us lessons about life and relationships that can only be learned through experience. Also, difficulties build tenacity and resilience into us that can only be acquired through experience. Such events bring us back more fully to trusting him to meet our deepest needs.

Finally, but not least significantly, a more mystical factor is involved that can often be demonstrated but never fully explained. There seems to be a law in human life that a certain number of failures are sometimes required to bring about a success. To say it differently, success sometimes comes only through a number of earnest attempts. Itís the principle of seed bearing talked about so frequently in Scripture. Some seeds take root while others donít, for reasons we never fully understand. Yet the greater the number sown, the greater the likelihood of a rich harvest. Thus Ecclesiastes:

As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a motherís womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well. (Eccles 11:5-6)

When disappointment comes in romance, out tendency is to think that failure once means failure forever. We see the lots cast against us, and imagine ourselves living an isolated, lonely life. Yet the principle of seed bearing suggests that an experience of failure may indicate that weíre now in line for a success as much as anything. Success isnít less likely now, but more so! If weíll simply keep casting the seeds, eventually one will take root.

Itís fair to think of this, too, as a principle of compensation. Failure with one try is compensated for by success at another. All of this adds up to one important point: There is purpose in trying again when you experience disappointment or rejection in a relationship. You must not close the door in this or any area of your life before God is ready to do so.

I Wonít Be Able to Love Again

Even if you accept that you might be successful in another effort, though, you may find it hard to imagine that your feelings of love can redirect to someone else. Hasnít God so created us that weíre capable of experiencing full-fledged romantic love for only one person in a lifetime?

As pervasive and deep-seated as this notion is, it hits wide of the mark of reality. In fact, God has so constructed the human psyche that any individual can experience the feeling of romantic love toward a potentially large number of people. He has put within each of us an extreme measure of resilience. Itís to this end that Paul tells the widow she ďis free to marry anyone she wishesĒ (1 Cor 7:39, emphasis added). Clearly underlying this statement is the assumption that the widow will be able to love again. If this is true for someone whose spouse has died, it certainly can be true for one who has suffered a broken relationship.

Itís noteworthy that Boaz is Ruthís second husband, her first having died in Moab . Ruth is once again able to invest her romantic energy in a relationship. Itís in the book of Ruth, too, that God is described as ďa restorer of lifeĒ (Ruth 4:15 RSV). This is a vital concept of God to keep in mind in the face of disappointment. He is a God who heals, and a significant part of his healing work involves enabling rejected individuals to find new directions for their affection. Thus, the psalmistís remarkable description: ďA father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in familiesĒ (Ps 68:5-6). And: ďHe gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of childrenĒ (Ps 113:9 RSV).

This isnít meant to minimize the pain we may experience in rejection. But it is to say that light is at the end of tunnel. Over time, we can overcome the pain and redirect our romantic affection.

I experienced these feelings of rejection strongly when a church friend told me politely but firmly that she wasnít interested in dating me. I had let my hopes for a relationship with her get out of hand and now felt quite deflated. I confided in a pastor, who advised me that, while I shouldnít ignore my feelings of disappointment, I should move as quickly as possible to find a new place for my affection.

He expressed the point in symbolic terms: ďIf you have a glass filled with dirty water, there are two ways to get it out of the glass. You can dump it out, in which case the dirty water is quickly gone but the glass is left empty. Or you can take a pitcher of clean, cool water and begin pouring it into the glass. Gradually, the fresh water will displace the dirty.Ē

He went on to explain that the empty glass represents the unhealthy way of dealing with a broken relationship: bailing out of life, turning off your emotions, turning a hard heart to the possibility of new relationships. Pouring fresh water in the glass represents the healthy approach: You admit your feelings of regret, which are only too real, while at the same time taking steps to build new social contacts. Gradually, the new life that comes from them will take the place of the anguish that now seems so overpowering.

His advice proved sound. Within a week, I found the courage to ask out another woman in our churchís college group, and the experience rejuvenated me. My hurt feelings continued to gnaw at me for some time. But new friendships, and eventually marriage itself, brought substantial healing. Even today, itís possible to jog myself back into the feelings of that hoped-for relationship of more than forty years ago. But I can also say with gratitude that Iím glad now it didnít work out.

Symbols are important to us, and I believe you will find the metaphor of the pitcher and the glass a helpful one to keep in mind in the face of disappointment in relationships or any other area. God has built great resilience into each of us. We are much more capable of rebounding from rejection and failure than we may realize. Yet an important process is involved, and this analogy describes it as well as any elaborate explanation could. Donít let the inertia of life overtake you when things donít turn out as you had hoped. Break that inertia, seek new relationships and new outlets for your energy, and let the cool, fresh water fill the glass.

Rejection, while always an unpleasant experience, doesnít have to be a catastrophic one. Indeed, when rightly handled, it can be a positive step toward your goal of finding a lasting relationship. ďAnd we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposeĒ (Rom 8:28). ďAll thingsĒ includes rejections and unwanted endings to relationships. Even in these he is working out a plan that has your very best in mind. Dwell on that as you seek his courage to move forward.

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