When two young people date for a prolonged period, they often naturally take a place at the centre of the group. By virtue of being so close to each other, they assume a kind of core role around which others orbit. The alternative is that they become aloof and detached, only interested in each other - and in many ways that can be better news for the dynamics of the group in the long term. Because the problem with the former scenario is that if the couple breaks up - destroying that all-important wedding sermon dream - the impact on the shape and functionality of the youth group can be catastrophic.
Bethan and Lee were the two most popular young people in our youth group. They’d never quite found themselves single at the same time, even though the attraction between them was strong. But eventually, inevitably, they became an item, and everyone was thrilled. Though they were hardly Montagues and Capulets, they came from two different friendship groups, and their decision to date created a sort of peacetime alliance between two sections of the group. Social occasions were suddenly shared; it even became easier to get the group to divide into non-predictable discussion groups. It was great for the cohesion and dynamics of the group, for a while.
Then, disaster struck. While we were all away at a summer festival, Lee was spotted cheating on Bethan. Halfway through our biggest event of the year, the group was cleaved in half along gender lines, like Grease Megamix at some terrible party. The boys got behind Lee because “he only kissed her”, and the girls rallied behind Bethan, who cried for most of the next three days. I’d like to claim that I found Solomon-like wisdom at this point, but the truth is that, it ruined the rest of the week. A relational bomb had been detonated at the heart of our youth group.
I don’t know if I could have dealt with that event better; emotions ran high, and Lee had (as he’d freely admit a decade later) been an idiot. But on reflection, I think there are a few things I might have done differently in the weeks following that incident, and a few preventative steps I could have taken too. So here are just a handful of thoughts on how we might protect a youth group against the damaging effects of a breakup in its midst.
Create an atmosphere of reconciliation
If you’re a youth group that regularly practises forgiveness and reconciliation, then you’ll find it a lot easier to recover from a major relationship breakdown of any kind. There’s an awful lot of practical wisdom behind Jesus’ command in Matthew 5: 22-24 to “first go and be reconciled” to your brother before offering a gift at the altar. When broken relationships are left unresolved, they fester. So be a group that is characterised as one which works together to fix relational problems. Say sorry from the front when you make mistakes. Get people together to shake hands and make up when they’ve had an argument. Talk about reconciliation as a key value of the kingdom. Set in this context, a romantic breakup should have a less catastrophic effect on group dynamics.
Acknowledge relationships are a big deal
It’s easy to laugh off a relationship between two 14-year-olds where they barely speak to each other or do more than awkwardly hold hands, but we mustn’t. If I think back to being that 14-year-old, those small early romances were all-consuming at the time. If we treat these relationships flippantly, as if they’re a childish irrelevance, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re not called upon as a sympathetic ear when things go wrong. Instead, while keeping them in perspective, we should respectfully acknowledge how important and weighty these relationships feel both when they’re going well, and when they break apart.
Never take a side
This applies both during and after a romantic relationship: the impartiality of the youth worker is vital. If your group fragments, and the young people perceive you as being more strongly affiliated with one of the broken pieces, then they could reject the group as a whole. If you meet with one half of an ex-couple, then make sure you make an effort to connect with the other, even if one is very clearly ‘in the wrong’. That said, it’s usually not a good idea to address a broken relationship ‘from the front’; relationships are private and personal, and it’s not appropriate to talk about them as if they’re public property.
When a couple breaks up the impact on the shape and functionality of a group can be catastrophic
Allow things to take time
Finally, while it might be frustrating, you need to allow time for the wounds in individuals, and in your group dynamics, to heal. Don’t rush or push this - especially if a relationship has been fairly lengthy or a break particularly painful; you may just have to suffer having some of your own plans being frustrated. Don’t end up getting annoyed because a young person isn’t ‘over it’ yet. Young people will remember you for life if you counsel them with kindness and understanding when this kind of issue occurs, but they’ll remember you even more if you get it badly wrong.