Mailbag - Dealing with a Break-Up, Shards from an Emotionally Toxic Marriage, & Isolated Communion

"When it comes to the hot topic of dating and relationships, one of the things I've noticed is that the area of break-ups seems to get overlooked. This is unfortunate because I feel like for every dating relationship that eventually leads to marriage, there are twice as many relationships that end in a break-up. So my question for you is what advice would you share in order to help dating couples who do break up be able to do so in an emotionally and spiritually healthy manner?"

Anonymous / Sacramento (CA) 

It's so true. Break-ups aren't discussed much although break-up realities are more prevalent than their counterpart. 

Here are a few things I'd recommend for consideration for couples who break-up:

  1. Believe the right things about break-up. Most people who break-up feel like the whole relationship was a failure since the dating relationship didn't result in marriage. Though understandable, a break-up doesn't necessarily demand such a conclusion. In fact, breaking up could be and should be considered a success if it was ultimately the best decision for both parties. Sure, the emotions may tarry in agreeing with said logic, but it's a real logic nonetheless. Consider the contrasting scenario: Engagement & wedding photos can give the impression of "success" while the ongoing marriage is fraught with major issues. The point: Break-ups don't have to be considered a failure. They can absolutely be successes. 
  2. Honor the good times. Grieve the bad times. People who break-up can either too quickly dump all the memories in the trashcan or memorialize them as lofty romantic achievements to never be attained again. But neither actions deal with actual reality. The reality of  every relationship is that there are some good times and some bad times. It's okay to look back and say, "I had some great memories." It's also healthy to look back and pinpoint scenarious that were really hurtful. 
  3. Protect the Ex by surrounding oneself with the right people. No matter what the other person may have done, he or she is still a human being made in the image of God. There is no good in one individual slandering the other person in the name of venting and transparency. Yet at the same time, an individual will need "out loud" time to process, release bottled up emotions, and receive comfort. Surrounding oneself with wise people will be the one of the best things one can do upon a break-up. The worst thing one could do? Just go around and tell everything to any listening ear. 
  4. Be unapologetically clear. From my observation, I've noticed that couples fare better post break-up when each individual is able to process precisely why the relationship no longer worked out. This makes sense. We can only grieve, hurt, but heal when we can properly identify the narrative, mistakes, or said incomptability. But this means, that when one person gives an ambiguous reasoning  because he or she doesn't want to be mean, he or she is actually being really mean in the long-run. No, it doesn't have to be, "I don't like you because you're annoying and honestly I think I can do better" but it also doesn't have to be, "I just can't do this anymore, I'm sorry." There's a helpful middleground somewhere. Find it and share it. 
  5. Give the other person space. After the break-up, there will be a temption on both sides to demonstrate that they haven't "lost." They will post up pictures of themselves having a blast with their friends, or trying out some new coffee after a Saturday morning hike. But in the end, it's to save-face and it's self-centered. Even if the other person seems to be doing fine, an individual can apply the whole "love thy neighbor" principle to a break-up as well. 
  6. Be patient with yourself. People often talk about an emotional cycle after a break-up (ex. denial, sadness, anger, etc.) but I wonder if it's more accurate to describe it as cycles. Processing and healing up from a break-up can take a lot of time. Things won't be normal again for a while, and that's okay. It will suck for a while, but one morning you'll wake up and feel somewhat normal again, so give yourself grace. 

"What is a Christian daughter to do when she sees her Christian mother and father have an emotionally toxic marriage? The daughter sees their efforts to be the best father and mother they can be to their kids & she sees the potential they have to be a good husband and wife...but the cycle of fighting, crying because of the new emotional wounds made, not talking, making up for the sake of their kids, being good, then back to is exhausting for the kids, but it must be even more emotionally taxing for their parents. That daughter tells her friends all the time to notice the red flags of an emotionally abusive relationship, and she can't help but see it in her parents' relationship too. But the d word (divorce) is so taboo in the Christian community, especially in the older generation, and so that daughter's question is this: Of course in physically abusive relationships, people are encouraged to get out of those relationships, but how about emotionally abusive ones? When husband and wife are married, when is enough? Is there even a threshold or as Christians, are we expected and called to keep trying to love the person we decided to marry like Christ until the end of time? Because this daughter is tired. And she doesn't know what advice or words of comfort to give anymore to her aching and hurting parents."

Anonymous / Fullerton (CA)

Thanks for your courage in asking this question. I can almost feel your frustration and heartache with each read sentence. 

While I cannot do anything close to justice to this question in a mailbag piece, particularly because I don't know the precise details and dynamics of her parent's marriage, here is an attempt to be as helpful as possible through a limited platform, with an even more limited perspective of the marriage relationship. 

To answer your question - yes, I believe Christians are called to keep loving one's spouse even in the context of an "emotionally toxic marriage." However, the precise implications and applications of love must be carefully considered, discerned, and applied. 

To give an analogy, we know that Jesus loves the church. The Bible uses the metaphor of the bride to describe the relationship between Jesus and the church. However, though Jesus loves his wife by dying for her on the cross, Jesus also loves the church through sanctification (Eph 5:26), confrontation (Revelation 2-3), trials (1 Peter 1:6-8), etc. Jesus' sacrificial, never ending love for the church takes many forms. Love has different edges, some are smooth, and others are sharp. 

In the same way, while a married couple with an emotionally toxic marriage can and should love each other, it may be that they need to love each other holistically.

So while husband and wife will need to love each other by making up for the children, they'll also need to love each other by making up for one another. 

While the spouses will need to love each other by comforting each other, they may also need to love each other by initiating therapy sessions with a licensed professional in order to actually work on their marriage. 

While the spouses will need to love each other by communicating with each other, one spouse may need to love the other spouse by creating some distance at appropriate times for reflection and if/when necessary, even stay at a relative's house for a few days to create safer processing space. 

While the spouses should love each other by protecting each other, in the event of an emotionally abusive situation, a spouse may need to love the other spouse by contacting the authorities signaling that their behavior is unacceptable, unsafe, and will no longer be tolerated. (I could be off base here, but according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, emotional abuse appears to be qualified as a form of domestic violence. While I'm not entirely sure what this means legally, and while the term "emotional abuse" may be wide ranging, it may be worth asking around and researching.) 

While some of these forms of love may not be the most preferred forms of love from the perspective of the recipient, it may end up being the best thing for the individual, and ultimately, their marriage. 

In light of this, here are a few thoughts: 

1. Pursuit of divorce. I believe God, as the author of marriage, has the right to set the nature, terms, and parameters of a marriage. God appears to communicate to us through the Bible that divorce is not God's desire or intention. However, the Bible also seems to hint that divorce may be permissible (though debated) in certain cases. While these cases may vary in form, I think it would be wise for a spouse to loop in wise counsel (professional counselor, family, and church leaders) so that one can reach a sound conclusion on the matter in one's own specific marriage context. 

2. Need for boundaries. The advice given to the daughter could/should be that while she can pray for her parents, grieve and mourn at her parent's marriage, she must believe that it is not her responsibility to fix her parent's marriage. This is because while she's a close bystander of the marriage, it is not her marriage, and therefore she should not have to bear the emotional burden of a marriage that is not hers. I am not saying the creation of this psychological boundary will be easy or make everything instantly better for her, but I am saying that the well-being of her parent's marriage is not her burden to bear and she must therefore be reminded of this again, and again, and again. 

3. Accountabilty from the church community. This is where the church can be the family of God and step in. I don't necessarily mean the pastor. In fact, I don't even think that's the best first option. If the married couple has friends in the church, or a close community of some sort, they should wisely step in and be a resource for the couple. Furthermore, that daughter will need godly counsel and wise leadership as well. 

Thanks for the question anonymous. I prayed a prayer for the family as I wrote this out. Though I have no idea who they are, I know God does and He's always on the move. 

"Is it appropriate for me to have communion at home with my family or even by myself?"

Andrew Kim / Yorba Linda (CA)

While I don't think it's a sin to do communion with your family or by yourself, I hesitate to say it's "appropriate." 

This is because communion, or the Lord's table, appears to be given to a covenant people (early representing disciples) for what becomes a corporate or ecclesiastical expression for God's covenant community. In other words, it's something given to the church, for the church (emphasis on the corporate nature of the church). 

Sure, our salvation does not annhilate our individuality or biologically family markers, and that's not my argument. My argument is that the template for communion-taking appears to supersede individuality and family ties, to that of an assembly of believers. 

Now, you may be saying, "But what about reading the Bible, prayer, and fasting? Aren't these technically given for a corporate context? But we're encouraged to read the Bible on our own." Sure, but we can also find places in the Bible where meditation of Scripture, prayer, and fasting are done in isolation and desolation, but we can't find places in the Bible where someone takes communion in the same way. We can find people who took communion inappropriately (Corinth), but even that was in an ecclesiastical context. 

You're right, I am giving an argument from silence, and that's why I don't call it a sin, but that's why I also hesitate to say it's "appropriate." It seems like communion is most appropriate in the context of a local gathering of believers. 

Thanks for the great question Andrew!