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How to Break Up Like a Catholic

The dating conversation usually centers on the virtue of chastity. But charity is equally important.

When Catholics think about dating virtuously, they usually think of chastity: the virtue that governs sexual desire. This is important, but other virtues are important, too. In particular, the virtue of charity is crucial to holy dating.

The Catechism says, “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (1822). It is best summed up by Jesus’ words: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Matt. 7:12).

Charity is crucial to any human relationship, but it might be particularly tested in dating relationships, where both people must strike a balance between asking the question, “Would this person make a good spouse for me?” and remembering that, regardless, he is made in the image of God and is therefore worthy of love and respect.

Here are two common dating scenarios that particularly call for charity, with some tips on how to navigate them (mostly learned from my own hard-won experience).

1. Don’t “Kiss and Tell”: Refraining from Gossip

It can be tempting to vent about your ex-girlfriend’s flaws unnecessarily or to spill the details about why you declined to go out with a guy a second time. Christians should exercise great caution here.

The Catechism tells us that someone becomes guilty of the sin of detraction “who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (2477). Detraction is sinful because we should generally try to protect another person’s reputation unless there is a grave reason to reveal his flaws.

This certainly includes protecting a person’s reputation in the eyes of others who might consider dating him. After all, he may improve in the exact area that you found so lacking, or what you perceived as a fatal flaw might not bother someone else who meets him with no preconceptions. Especially in close-knit Catholic communities, it’s important not to ruin someone’s chances of dating others in the community. (Catholic marriage rates are plummeting, so vocations and families could be at stake!)

There are legitimate reasons to talk over your dating life with a trusted confidant, but that person should ideally be someone who is already married, so he isn’t a candidate for dating the same person and has wisdom to share. Even so, consider carefully what details you need to share—is it even necessary to “name names”? And consider your motive: do you truly want insight to make a better decision about the next step of your dating life (which might be a valid reason for revealing another’s faults), or is it to find pleasure in speaking about someone’s flaws?

There might come a time when charity compels you to reveal a fault: for example, if a man has a proven history of being dangerous to women, warning another woman to avoid him would be perfectly justified. But this is a grave concern, not simply a personality quirk or ordinary flaw.

2. Ending Things Kindly

Only a very few people are privileged to marry the first person they date and completely avoid breakups. Most people will have to break the news to someone that the relationship won’t continue, whether after a single date or in a more serious phase.

This is difficult to do well. Often, it’s tempting either to lose your temper and insult the person unnecessarily, or to avoid direct communication because it’s difficult. (“Ghosting” is not holy!)

Both of these temptations ultimately stem from concern for ourselves rather than for the other. We want the satisfaction of telling someone off, or we want to avoid the discomfort of witnessing someone’s pain and knowing that we caused it. Charity reframes the whole situation, asking, “How would I want to be treated if I were in his shoes?”

Based on my experience (I was on the receiving end of several breakups before marrying my husband), there are two things that charity requires us to provide to the other, to the best of our ability, when ending a relationship: closure and respect.

Closure means providing enough information about why the breakup is happening so that the person can accept the facts and heal from the disappointment as quickly and completely as possible. Respect means avoiding any statements that unnecessarily insult the other person. While these sometimes seem to conflict, prayerful reflection before the conversation can help immensely. Pinpoint exactly why you are ending the relationship, in simple terms, and then find the respectful way to state that.

How much detail to provide about why you’re ending the relationship might look different depending on the stage of the relationship.

If you’re engaged or close, you probably have a serious, concrete reason for ending things, and you might need to state the case clearly, with several examples. For instance, “I feel that we’re not in the same place in our spiritual life. We haven’t come to a complete agreement about the Church’s teaching on contraception, and often on Sundays I feel as if I’m dragging you to Mass against your will.” Respect can still be preserved by avoiding phrasing your observations as self-centered accusations: “You’re not devout enough for me.”

If you’ve only been on a few dates and don’t know the person as deeply, it’s better to err on the side of simplicity, then provide more detail only if asked. Let’s say you can’t stand the way his nose looks. Closure means telling him, “I just don’t feel attracted to you,” and respect means not saying, “Because I hate your ugly nose.”

One final note: Stringing someone along when you know that the relationship isn’t headed toward a happy, holy marriage is never the charitable thing to do. If you know you need to end it, do so as soon as you can do it well.

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