How do you decide what's a dealbreaker for you in a relationship?
August 16, 2017 6:49 AM   Subscribe

I have dated several people who were essentially great matches for me, but in each case, something ended up feeling like a dealbreaker for me when it came time to consider marriage. I would like to get married eventually. How can I best decide when something should or shouldn't be a dealbreaker? A couple of example inside.

As one example, one ex-boyfriend was one of the kindest people I've ever known, smart, funny, talented at his work in a way I truly admired, very attractive, and from the beginning, we had a connection that felt unusually deep. Just spending time together made us both very happy. When we had disagreements, we were able to talk openly and honestly without hurting each other. We shared goals; we were in love. In short, it was great. There were differences that didn't bother me (he was a regular pot smoker, for example). But early in the relationship I learned that he had cheated on his ex when he had been married in his twenties, and it never stopped bothering me. We also had wildly different schedules (he worked at a creative job and could start late, and his natural inclination was to stay up until 3 or 4. I have insomnia and sleep even worse if I don't go to bed very early. We struggled and couldn't meet in the middle). Eventually, at a point when my insomnia was particularly bad and he was asking me to move in with him, I ended things.

In another case, a dealbreaker was the fact that an otherwise great person had a susceptibility to people taking advantage of him, and was working for someone at a failing tech startup that paid him barely more than equity (for years!) when he could have easily worked elsewhere. He had no savings and nothing saved for retirement (and no prospect of this on the near horizon) in his late thirties.

There are many more examples. In one case, I dated someone who didn't have major flaws from my perspective, but the dealbreaker was that I felt I didn't love him enough. I have had long relationships and lived with partners, but haven't been able to commit to marriage. Each time I broke up with someone, the reason seemed reasonable to me. But obviously no one is perfect (or perfect for me). So how should I decide that something is truly a dealbreaker?
posted by pinochiette to Human Relations (21 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Don't settle. You know what you want and what you're looking for. You just haven't found them yet. But you will as long as you don't waste time with someone you know isn't right for you.
posted by lunastellasol at 6:55 AM on August 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

As someone who has both been the person with the dealbreaker characteristics, and ended relationships with others because of things I saw as dealbreakers: you do far more harm to yourself and your partner by staying in a relationship when you're unhappy than you do by splitting and letting both of you seek situations you're happier in.

As to "what is a dealbreaker?" I imagine that's highly subjective. A big question I ask myself is "Can I love this person as she is today, not only as I want her to be or hope she might be? Does it seem like she loves me as I am?" You can only change yourself, so wanting someone else to change in significant ways they don't seem independently motivated to pursue regardless of the relationship is a pretty hard 'no' for me. Yours might be different.

The "I don't love him enough" reason/feeling is a hard one, since that's as subjective as it comes. Part of me says you may be looking for reasons to reject people and/or seeking some level of perfection that isn't realistically attainable, and maybe you should investigate that with a therapist/etc, but it could also just be that you weren't feeling it, which is a perfectly legit reason to move on!
posted by Alterscape at 7:07 AM on August 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

If you were struggling with a Seinfeld-ian pickiness about minor issues, that would be a problem, but things like wildly incompatible circadian rhythms or values around money and savings are legitimate deal-breakers and extremely difficult for people to change. From what you've written, it sounds like you are in tune with your own needs and pragmatic about recognizing deep incompatibilities with romantic partners. It's a good thing!
posted by merriment at 7:09 AM on August 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

I don't know that there is any simple principle for differentiating deal-breakers from the kind of flaws that no person and no relationship can ever be totally free of. The only real guide to making that distinction is your own feelings. Occasionally, discerning those feelings clearly can be difficult, and therapy or counseling can help a lot with that. But another thing that may help is to reframe how you think about the question: rather than trying to figure out whether some imperfection is or is not a deal-breaker, maybe try to figure out whether it is or is not an acceptable price for the happiness the relationship brings you.

Given that nobody is perfect, not even the person who is "perfect" for you, that person, when you find them, will have faults. Learning to accept those faults (not to be happy with them, but merely to accept them) is the cost of having that relationship with that person. When you discover the specific thing that bothers you, you should ask whether you're prepared to learn how to roll with it. Keep the focus on that, the requirement for you to accept it. Whatever it is. Because there's no objective measure of whether or not something is a deal breaker...only whether it's a deal breaker for you. You're the only authority.
posted by Ipsifendus at 7:09 AM on August 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure anything needs to be a hard-and-fast dealbreaker. Like, I have trouble with people who picky eaters. If I went on a first date with someone and they were an obviously picky eater, that might well be reason enough to not go on a second date with them. But I'm actually going to marry a fairly picky eater in a couple of months, because he feels like the right guy to me in a million other ways. I still find the picky eating irritating sometimes, but it's not a dealbreaker.

Big lifestyle stuff like attitudes about money and where/when you want to live your life is probably the most likely to be a non-negotiable dealbreaker; probably the easiest way to suss that kind of stuff out is to talk about your hopes and dreams for the future (not necessarily with that person, even just for yourself) and see if your lives are compatible.
posted by mskyle at 7:12 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Things that I used to consider dealbreakers ended up not being dealbreakers, and things I never thought would be a dealbreaker ended up being dealbreakers. Sure, there are some things that will ALWAYS be dealbreakers, but in a lot of cases it matters less about defining what your deal breakers are and matters more just focusing on whether you're happy in the relationship, whether it is "working", etc. I say this because sometimes relationships just aren't working and don't feel right, but there isn't a specific defineable reason why. A lot of people seem to feel that you have to have a specific reason/cause for ending a relationship (ie. dealbreakers), when really if itdoesn't feel right and if you aren't happy it is reason enough to end it.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:19 AM on August 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

There really are very few rules of thumb for this. Generally speaking, your deal breakers will depend on what you know you want and need out of a relationship. For example, not living with a smoker if you have a health issue where that would adversely impact you. However, nobody is perfect and stuff can be worked out as long as both people are willing to compromise. So my main deal breaker is finding myself in a relationship where I have to do most or all of the compromising. The best relationships that I have been in were those where both of us viewed each other as partners (and not subordinates) and worked on meeting each other half way. No one should have to do all of the bending to suit someone else.
posted by jazzbaby at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is an area where you get to make the rules, and in fact you have to make the rules. A dealbreaker is something you can't work around, so perhaps a fundamental disagreement about how the relationship should work, how to interact with and see the world, the things you are doing with your life.

Does the relationship offer you solace from the world? Does the person you are seeing help you want to be your best self? Do they reinforce your good habits, and the things you need to do for self-care?

With their habits that annoy you, is it something that you can work with, or is it something that is always bothering you and that you feel gets in the way of the relationship you want to have?

It's okay to have dealbreakers that other people think are odd. I've personally found that any time I've compromised on something that I think is a big deal, it comes back to bite me. I've also found that it's much, much better to be single than to be with the wrong person, though it's also much easier to meet someone nice if you're not dumping a ton of energy into a bad relationship.

You're doing fine.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:03 AM on August 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

If you’re happier alone than dealing with someone’s issues, then obviously those issues are dealbreakers.

If it’s more that you’re happier with them than alone, but are hoping to find someone you’re more compatible with, that’s trickier, and you need to decide exactly which faults you can live with. You might also want to consider outside-the-box relationships- for example, having a serious partner but not living together/ sharing finances, etc.
posted by metasarah at 8:20 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

So how should I decide that something is truly a dealbreaker?

When it affects how you feel about yourself.

When it starts to overshadow other good elements of the relationship.

When you start to long for a partner that does not have that quality, or view others as more "right" for you, because they don't have the quality.

When the prospect of a lifetime with that person makes you sad / makes you feel like you're settling or sacrificing yourself.

When you spend way too much time justifying your tolerance of the dealbreaker element by comparing it to his other "good" qualities.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:23 AM on August 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

There's really good research about who stays together and who's happy. He cheated on his wife? Very bad. But what were the circumstances and what did he do after. And how can you negotiate a situation where he will treat you better. You're prioritizing flawlessness over marriage. Nothing wrong with that. But if marriage/children are a high priority, you might want to work on how to be in a marriage with a flawed person, and make it work.

Find out if the person you're dating shares your values. Having a stable financial life, being faithful, and a lot more. Look deeper and make sure the person is honest, not just telling you what you want to hear, but really shares a lot of your core values, has similar goals, also treats you well, and you treat him well. If that's not there, move on. The chemistry, passion, fireworks? It's rare for that to last. If you have a strong marriage, you can get a love that is based on sharing experiences, supporting each other, good and bad times, and kids if you want them. I bring up kids because it's time-limited for women. If kids aren't an issue for you, never mind.
posted by theora55 at 8:51 AM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

It may be interesting (and possibly affirming) for you to watch and read about Dan Savage's five-minute talk on the "price of admission" in relationships: "There is no settling down without some settling for. There is no long-term relationship not just putting up with your partner’s flaws, but accepting them and then pretending they aren’t there. We like to call it in my house 'paying the price of admission.'"(2011)

I don't bring it up because I think you're being too picky; rather, I think you have been making the right call in your relationships. I agree that sleep and finances and commitment are huge, important lifestyle features/values that you should share with the person with whom you spend your life and so those seem like reasonable deal breakers.
posted by juliplease at 9:07 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sleep and finances are HUGE. The cheating thing... hard to tell without knowing a lot more about the circumstances, but you're not being unreasonable to have concerns about it.
Especially when it comes to a "possibly leading to marriage" decision, it seems like you're making reasonable if difficult decisions. Being married is incredibly hard work. If you don't love the person so much that it obliterates the friction caused by areas where you're less compatible, it's going to be that much harder.
As someone who's not in sync with her partner's circadian rhythms, it was not a big deal until we had kids together and now the impact is magnified. Kids get up EARLY. ALWAYS. It's annoying.
posted by dotparker at 9:23 AM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

While everyone is absolutely right to tell you that dealbreakers are totally subjective, I think it's possible to give you some general guidance. I feel like the question to ask yourself when you're trying to decide if something is a dealbreaker or not goes something like this: "If this thing never changed, would I still be thrilled to have this person as a life partner, with all that entails?" Note that the criterion isn't just that you need to be OK with being partnered to them given their faults, you should be thrilled about the prospect. When it comes to choosing someone to make the rest of your life with, you should settle for nothing less.

Sometimes it can take a little while to find a good answer to that question; you're allowed to mull it over for days, weeks, even months. You're allowed to talk to your partner about it, you're allowed to work on it with them and see if maybe whatever the problem is can be fixed, but at some point you have to ask yourself if you'd be overjoyed to spend your life with this person, even if the issue never gets better. If not, it's time to say goodbye and keep searching.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:32 AM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

A thing is a dealbreaker when I would rather deal with being single and the difficulties that come with it, than be in a relationship with that person and difficulties that come with the relationship. So it's totally subjective and depends on a healthy sense of self worth and autonomy.

For me, it was never one of my life goals to get married, so it wasn't an idea I needed to consider giving up, but it is one potential downside of having stringent requirements: that you may never find somebody who satisfies them.

I don't think anyone can tell you definitive lines for dealbreakers. (Smoking pot more than a few times a year would definitely be a dealbreaker for me.) But what you're really asking is: how well-matched of a partner can you expect to find? And I think that depends on a lot of things, including luck. In the end, it either feels right or it doesn't.
posted by ethidda at 11:20 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I wonder if "dealbreaker" is the framing that makes the most sense here? While the "unmotivated to seek out a good job" thing is sort of a dealbreaker, something like "I'm not in love with you" isn't so much an objective dealbreaker to me as it is simply something that clearly needs to happen for you to marry someone. That is, a dealbreaker is an objective fact about someone -- like "smoker," "owns a very large dog," or "works in a profession requiring 75% travel" that some people will automatically rule out a partner over, while others won't mind and even might actively enjoy (i.e. a fellow-large-dog-lover). "I'm not in love with you" is very much about your feelings toward someone, and hopefully should be a "dealbreaker" for everyone because not many people go out there hoping to marry someone they aren't in love with and don't want to marry.

In any case, I have had friends with utterly ridiculous dealbreakers like a specific hair color or -- in one particularly memorable case -- a friend who literally broke up with a guy over the fact that he didn't know what Q-tips were called (I am not kidding). Super incompatible schedules, issues with trust, and very mismatched professional ambitions are pretty typical things that are going to cause relationship issues. The only one here I might wonder about is the cheating in a prior relationship -- I can't tell if this upset you because you had just decided it was bad, or if there were ongoing trust issues/he brushed it off and acted like the cheating was no big deal/etc. But overall I would not say you have an extremely low tolerance for the flaws of others, it sounds like you just haven't met someone you are marriage-level compatible with.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:33 PM on August 16, 2017

Previous posters have covered most of what I would say, but I did want to chime in on the chemistry point.

Fireworks, feeling twitterpated, those things fade, sure, and if that's how you define chemistry with regard to relationships, then I guess you can say chemistry fades. But when I decided to get married to my ex, I thought this meant that having sex that was mostly ok but not that exciting by the time we got engaged (at 2.5 years into the relationship) was what people meant by chemistry fading, that finding the tastes and smells of my partner's body acceptable but not intoxicating was a thing I could settle for. We divorced for reasons unrelated to those things, but now that I am with someone (for 6 years) with whom even the most mundane sex is still better than nearly all the other sex I've had, and whose sweat and skin smell amazing to me all the time...holy shit, I do not think chemistry should fade, and I would never settle for anything less ever again. The giddiness in the beginning has faded and the frequency of sex is reduced, but if sex is at all important to you, please don't think that chemistry by this definition has to fade.
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 3:04 PM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's all in the gut. Something leaves you uneasy in a way you're not willing to deal with. Tuning in to that gut instinct can be a challenge for some people, but it sounds like you can do that, so just embrace that. Nobody is perfect, but the idea is to find someone whose "imperfection" jives with yours. That "jiving with" might be that it is the same as yours. (My partner and I are both perhaps overly cautious, but that works for us and only rarely creates problems.) It might be that it complements you; maybe they have an excess in an area where you wish you had more skills or inclinations. (May we all be bedeviled with partners whose weakness is "excessive" cleaning!) Or maybe it is just something that bothers other people but not you. But your question sounds a little like, should my deal breakers not be deal breakers? And I think that's not a route that honors yourself and what you want out of a relationship.
posted by salvia at 4:46 PM on August 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

For me a deal breaker is anything that I can't accept and can't stop thinking about, to the detriment of my enjoyment of the relationship. In different relationships it's been excessive pot smoking, different approaches to money, different life goals, intellectual mismatch, broken trust. When you're wishing your partner would just be different in that one important way, that's often a deal breaker.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 5:00 PM on August 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you'd rather be alone than pay the price of admission with that person, that sounds reasonable to me as a dealbreaker.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:28 PM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really don't think any of us can adequately answer that question.
posted by lecorbeau at 2:06 PM on August 22, 2017

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