Relationships in the modern age are seemingly complex. Navigating dating apps to defining the relationship can leave many full of self-doubt, frustration and tons of questions. How do you know you’ve found the one? How do you break up with someone without causing further damage?
This article is part of our Quarterlife series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
To answer these questions, we asked Dr. Dharius Daniels, pastor of Change Church and all-around relationship expert. Daniels’s book Relational Intelligence examines the role relationships play in our spiritual, physical, financial, emotional and professional lives.
We spoke with Daniels about why relationships today seem difficult, how we can make them healthier, and how we can handle them when they don’t live up to our hopes.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
When you look at the landscape of the common mistakes you see young people making in relationships today, are there any common themes you see an extra amount of in our culture?
I think in every generation you’ll see patterns and trends. One of those is an underestimation of the power of emotional attachments. There is this assumption that you can casually date without making emotional attachments. What you’re really doing is rolling the dice with your heart and the impact that some of these relationships have on you emotionally, professionally or spiritually.
I think short-term dating is another trend. When it comes to long-term relationships like marriage, you are more than just people who date, you’re life partners. I think obviously, everybody that you date you probably aren’t going to marry, yet at the same time, I think there’s some danger to being shortsighted in your dating.
There’s not really a blueprint in our society right now for how to date without creating potentially unhealthy emotional attachments. What does that practically look like? And how do you know if you’ve found the one?
Use dating for data. I think when we look at the average dating experience, I don’t know how much data people are gathering. Dating shouldn’t feel like an interview or interrogation, but upon the initial stages of conversation, if people were more intentional about getting some data, then they would be able to make a more informed decision about whether or not they feel emotionally safe with that person.
I do think sometimes discernment comes through experimentation. It takes knowing what’s not the one to have a clear picture of who the one actually is. But here are three things that I think are really important: Is it healthy? Is it helpful? And is it holy? By that I mean does the quality of my life improve or does it get worse as a result of this relationship? Other than that, I don’t know. It gets tricky.
Is there such a thing as two people who are right for each other in every way, but either their career or passion in life makes the relationship “not meant to be”?
I think everyone has to be clear on what are “my non-negotiables” and what are “my preferences.” Because I don’t think any two people are going to align in every way. Especially in the context of marriage, nothing would be sanctifying about it if that was the case. Marriage forces you to grow in a way that’s unique. Part of the growth comes from these differences and these tension points and you having to lay down some preferences and make adjustments and consider someone else before you consider yourself.
So I don’t think you align in every way, yet at the same time, I do think that there have to be some areas where there is alignment. I think to some degree a person has to sort through and ask themselves, “Do these two or three areas weigh more or matter more to me than the 12 areas where I feel like we’re in harmony?”
You’ve said before that you believe in breakups. Speaking for myself, I was raised with a fear of breaking up and I never got very good at breaking up with people. From your personal experience, when it’s time to break up, is there a better way to go about that?
One of the reasons I said I believe in breakups is I broke up with somebody in college that I thought I was going to be in a long-term relationship with. But months after that breakup, I met my wife. [There are] necessary endings sometimes. I didn’t know I was going to meet my wife.
Sometimes breakups aren’t really you doing anything; sometimes breakups are acknowledging that the relationship is broken. It’s two people facing the facts that this isn’t what we thought it was and it’s not going to be what we thought it was going to be. I feel like they are necessary from time to time.
I think the way we should go about doing it should really line up with the golden rule. The idea of doing unto others what I would have them do unto me. If someone’s going to end the relationship with me, I would think through how would I want that done? I feel like it’s important to try to do your best to deliver it in that way, because if you’re breaking up, you want to see yourself as releasing them and you into God’s next for you both. And you want to do it in a way where you minimize the trauma.
When I use that word trauma, pain, anything like that that could create bitterness or resentment or lower self-esteem, I think if a person has ever been on the other end of a breakup, it does cause some self-reflection. There are cases where someone’s done something wrong and you want to separate the behavior from the person in those kind of cases, but on the flip side, there are times where it’s just not working. You can minimize the trauma by not necessarily making the breakup seem as if this is happening because you’re inferior in some way, or you are not enough in some way, as opposed to this simply wasn’t meant to be. I do think that we’ve got a responsibility, even if we aren’t successful at it, to be conscious of how you do it because it is going to have an impact on someone else.
What would you say to somebody who has been the one who was dumped and is experiencing self-doubt and loneliness from the breakup?
First, most people have been dumped, even those that wanted it. But I think sometimes the pain is exacerbated because you feel unique, like you’re the only one. And secondly, I really believe that sometimes when there’s a breakup, the issue is not your value. Sometimes the issue is someone else’s values, but there’s nothing wrong with your value. There are also instances where it’s not an issue of value and values, it’s an issue of this simply isn’t meant to be. But I don’t think you should keep revisiting things you can’t revise.