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Disengaging

I recently discovered that my ex-fiancée got married. Her wedding planner’s website showed photos of the new couple at the places we used to frequent. She chose the same restaurant for the rehearsal dinner, the same church and the same reception hall we’d booked.

“Did she use the same dress?” I wondered.

When I ended my engagement four years ago, I felt foolish and alone. I had felt so certain she was “the one.” She was God’s will, wasn’t she? I went two weeks without prayer to spite God for supposedly deceiving me. Many of my friends and family were unhelpful, reacting to the situation no more than one does to a long dating romance: “You’ll get over her soon.” “I never liked her anyway.” “There are other girls out there.”

Turning to the relationships section at Barnes & Noble, I came across books about the aftermath of a dating break-up and divorce recovery. However, I never found a book for broken engagements. A Google search only retrieved articles about what to do with the ring. (Return it to the guy unless it’s an heirloom on the lady’s side.)

I wanted to talk to someone who’d been in my situation, but I didn’t know anyone who had ended an engagement. During my years of grad school and ministry since then, I have met several people who’ve undergone the emotional and spiritual process of recovering from broken engagements—what I call “disengaging.”

Disengagement feels a lot like divorce. It’s not divorce, but it’s also more than the end of a dating relationship. When engagement doesn’t end in marriage, it’s hard to admit that the person who said, “Yes” is now saying, “No.” Broken promises, disrupted life plans and embarrassment abound. Disengaging is never easy. If you or a friend are in the midst of it, these ideas might help.

1. Seek community. In your loneliness, it’s easy to become self-focused and wallow in misery. Invite friends and close family over for dinner, watch a game, go shopping, pray and weep together, and have a good laugh (but not at your ex’s expense). Your relationships with family, friends and your church family are going to carry you. People might say a lot of unhelpful or hurtful things about your ex to try to make you feel better, but remember: they’re only being stupid because they love you! Avoid gossip, especially with mutual friends, and your support network will be a great comfort.

2. Seek counsel. It’s okay to admit that you need help. Your friends will not have all the answers. Consider speaking with a psychologist, social worker or pastoral counselor if you need additional guidance and support. These people are trained to help you sort out the marbles rattling around in your head. Mostly, they’re good listeners, and they can help you voice what needs said.

3. Confess your sin; forgive your ex’s. We are fallible human beings, and we all screw up. Follow the pattern of Scripture by admitting your injury to the other person and forgiving the grievances you have against him or her (Matthew 18:15, James 5:16). Avoid general apologies without giving thoughtful consideration for what you are sorry. Specific sins can be covered by specific words of forgiveness. Don’t act on the impulse to discuss the issues right away. An offended person often needs time to prepare for your confession. But reconciliation is essential for Christians even if restoration of the relationship is not possible. Grudges, bitterness and shame chain you to people in a destructive way, but mutual consolation can overcome them.

4. Don’t “rebound.” You’re vulnerable when you’re disengaging, and it’s easy to fall for close friends of the opposite sex or the flirty barista at your favorite café. You need time to heal before beginning another relationship. I read once that we need an average recovery time of half the relationship length in order to grieve a lost romance. For example, if you dated a year, be single for six months. Even more so for disengaging! Don’t rush into things until you’re really “over” your ex. One of my good female friends proved her friendship when she turned me down a month after my breakup:

“You’re not ready to date, Chris.”

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“Yes, I am. It’s been a month since my breakup.”

“You’re not over her. I’m not going to be your rebound.” Looking back, I see the shrewdness of my friend’s assessment, and because we never dated our friendship was able to continue.

5. Develop yourself and your talents. You can’t change people, but we often change ourselves to woo our partners. While meeting halfway can be healthy compromise, it can also shortchange the development of personal interests and talents. We lose a little bit of ourselves when we’re in love. Get some of that back. Redeem your singleness by doing the things you missed when you were together. Rent the DVDs your ex would never watch. Cleanse the wardrobe of the selections he or she made for you. Audit a class at a local community college. Join an athletic club and turn stress into productive energy.

6. If it’s over, let it be over. “Let’s just be friends.” What a cliché! If you are honest, how many people you know remained friends after their breakups? Not many. If an uncertain “friendship” continues, it can be a target for jealousy when you have a new partner. Don’t make your new love compete with history for your affections. Continued contact with your ex also makes it more likely that you will “rebound” with your ex out of loneliness. My ex and I got in the habit of late-night long distance phone conversations for weeks after our breakup. It only drew out the disengaging process and discouraged us until we cut off ties completely.

7. Seek the Lord in prayer and the Word. It’s human to try to solve our problems solo, including the heartache that comes from a breakup. However, only the love and mercy of Christ can truly heal you during your disengagement. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3, TNIV). Pour out your heart to God in prayer and cling to the promises He gives you in his Word. “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, TNIV). Be certain that Jesus’ life-giving Spirit will help you recover and prepare your heart to love again in the proper time.

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