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Relationship Deal Breakers — When To Stick To Them & When To Let Go

There’s a long list of somewhat universal relationship deal breakers out there: dishonesty or infidelity, for example. But, just as often, deal breakers are more nuanced, unique to each individual. “We all come to the table with varying needs, experiences, and childhoods that make some deal breakers [specific] to us,” explains Raina Wadhawan, a licensed psychotherapist in New York.

Sometimes, deal breakers are straightforward. A friend of mine in her early 20s knows, for example, that she wants to be a mother. While it might be uncomfortable, it’s something she brings up early on in a dating situation. For her, no matter how much she might connect with someone, if they don’t see kids in their future, she knows there’s no moving forward in the relationship.

Other times, deal breakers are more vague. I, for example, always knew that I wanted to find a true companion in the person I chose to spend the rest of my life with — someone who liked to do the things I liked to do, someone who would be there with me through it all, someone to laugh with; a lover, yes, but also a friend. Did I know what that looked like exactly on paper? No. But when I met my husband, I knew we had the “it” factor that other relationships had missed.

Sometimes, deal breakers evolve. In your teenage years and even in your 20s, certain things are “turn-offs,” and as you grow, other things stand out as non-negotiables. That’s why experts caution not to over-identify with a deal breaker or become rigid about it. Doing so could pigeonhole you into parameters that could change as you evolve. Rather, it’s best to let your outlook on relationships change and grow as you do, accepting deal breakers in relationships as more fluid than static.

Ahead, take a look at the psychology of how deal breakers develop and play out in relationships — and how to ID yours if you’re not sure.

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How Family Dynamics Play A Role — For Better Or Worse

You start developing your personal deal breakers at a young age, before you even know you’re doing it. For example, ask someone about deal breakers in their own relationships and they’re often brought back to being a kid, looking at their parents’ marriage, noticing a model that they looked up to or wanted to avoid.

Jordan Susko, a married woman in Mendham, New Jersey, says that it was her father’s challenges with monogamy that prompted her focus on trust and loyalty. “I saw my parents’ marriage fall apart at a young age and I think that had a really significant impact on me and what I thought a relationship needed to be successful.” She adds: “Trust and loyalty are so foundational to any relationship. I believe if either of those is lacking, the relationship can’t be successful.”

Jennifer Jenkins, a wife and mother in San Antonio, Texas, says that her biggest relationship deal breaker is someone who’s unkind, echoing something she saw as a child, too. “My parents were a classic narcissist and caregiver relationship and, for years, I saw my mom — the kindest, most loving person — treated horribly,” she says. “I’ve only dated two men in my life, because I never wanted to be in a relationship like the one modeled for me, and I found someone with the gentle, loving heart I need.”

This can be the way deal breakers go: Sometimes you need to be confronted with red flags in order to identify them. But sometimes, being confronted with positive family dynamics can lead us to deal breakers, too. Erika Mullin, a wife and mother in Long Island, New York, notes that selfishness is a deal breaker for her. “Growing up with a father who is the polar opposite of a selfish person impacted me tremendously. He is the most selfless person I know and he has always, always instilled in my sisters and me to do the right thing no matter what — whether or not the outcome benefited us. I’ve always carried that with me,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s what led me to finding my husband. Besides my father, [my husband’s] as selfless as they come.”

How Deal Breakers Grow & Evolve

Often, deal breakers aren’t as simple as seeing something and rejecting it or seeing something you do want. Sometimes, it takes time and growth to figure out what you truly prioritize in a relationship.

For example, sometimes deal breakers can seem superficial: You only want to date someone tall or you don’t like people who wear certain things. But sometimes they have deeper meaning. “If you consistently find that you are turned off by a seemingly shallow characteristic, perhaps you associate that characteristic with certain personality types,” says Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Newton, Massachusetts. (For example, maybe you assume someone who only wears designer clothes is shallow.) “The next step is to determine if those characteristics are in fact associated with what you have in your mind or if you made a mistake in assuming they’re related.”

It’s important to note that superficial deal breakers may also be a sign that you are trying to avoid a relationship, explains Chait. “If you find yourself avoiding dating people due to what you think may be silly deal breakers, stop and evaluate the relationships,” she says. “Ask yourself if there is another reason why this person may not be right for you, or if you prefer being single. Ask yourself what the worst that could happen is if you do date someone with these deal breakers. Sometimes that helps uncover your true fear or can help identify that the worst case is actually not that bad.”

In her early 20s, Sarah Clark, a 28-year-old in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is in a two-and-a-half-year committed relationship with her girlfriend, says her deal breakers were very superficial (“brown hair and light eyes, had to have a good job, take me out on nice dates”). “I didn’t know enough about myself to hold deep-rooted beliefs and values.”

Wadhawan explains that as people grow and develop, their views and perception also change. “This might mean what was once acceptable no longer is and what was unacceptable is no longer a deal breaker,” she says. “With time and growth, we gain experience that forms our opinions on others and ourselves.”

That’s why Chait says that when thinking about deal breakers, it’s important to identify what your must-haves in a relationship are, such as wanting children. “Once you have your must-haves, then you can think about your would-be-nice-but-not-necessary characteristics,” she explains. “With those in mind, you can then evaluate any date to see if they have what you want despite also having a seemingly silly deal breaker.”

Ultimately, Clark discovered one of her biggest deal breakers is someone who is not willing to grow, heal, and work on themselves. “I have childhood trauma (as most of us do) and I’m actively working and healing through it,” she notes, adding that growing up, she didn’t have parents with healthy coping patterns. “For the longest time I adopted those [negative] behaviors and patterns without any regard for how they affected myself and others around me.” Today, she is growing and healing through self-care practices such as journaling and meditation and always learning and researching ways to grow. “If I didn’t have a partner who is willing to grow and heal with me and be aware of their triggers and traumas, then it wouldn’t work.”

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Looking back, she notes that it seems as though the root of past breakups was because of someone’s unwillingness to grow. “I don’t think I realized it at the time or made that connection because I, too, was trying to figure out my own growth and healing, but now looking back I can easily see it didn’t work because they weren’t open to seeing another perspective other than their own and their unwillingness to grow and evolve.”

Clark isn’t alone in the zig-zaggy path to figuring out her non-negotiables. For Charity Litzenberg, a married woman in Nashville, Tennessee, growing up in a household with messages of perfectionism (and, with that, a lot of shame) led her to — eventually — prioritize authenticity and trustworthiness in relationships, but not without some snags along the way. “I grew up in a perfectionist household with a lot of unspoken messages that led to a lot of secrecy due to shame and hiding what was really going on in order to appear perfect,” she says. “This taught me to be inauthentic, to not trust anyone or myself, and also subconsciously made me attract other people who dealt with these issues as well.”

She was in an on-and-off-again relationship for eight years with a man who wanted to be genuine but “didn’t love himself and needed to appear perfect and charming more than he wanted anything else.” Although she says she genuinely loved him, she was finally able to see “what was authentic instead of what was being presented.” She wound up dating a few more people whose charming facades faded before she “finally stopped attracting and being attracted to just charm and nice words.” Then, she landed on her authentic, trustworthy, and “also charmingly genuine” husband.

For Litzenberg, a healing journey (setting boundaries and prioritizing non-manipulative communication and people in her life) helped her understand that she was worthy of authenticity from herself and from everyone in her life. “This made a lot of my relationships go away.” Once she started setting boundaries and not letting herself be manipulated, several friendships she considered to be very close friendships faded. “One friend in particular was used to me coming 100% of the way and when I started requiring more effort on her part, or asking for things on my terms, she was uncomfortable, confused, and even (unconsciously) tried to make me feel selfish,” she says. “It was hard for me to not continue to let myself be the ‘rescuer’ in this friendship. Instead of compromising myself, I stuck to my boundaries and continued to ask for her to meet me where I needed her to and unfortunately she eventually just stopped communicating altogether.”

Identifying Deal Breakers In All Areas Of Life

Figuring out your deal breakers can be an important piece of self-growth, self-discovery, and putting yourself on the right path to finding a fulfilling and happy relationship. If you’re not sure what your deal breakers are, though, you’re not alone. And there are ways to hone in on them.

For one, look internally. “Examine the deal breakers you have for your own behavior,” Wadhawan suggests. Ask yourself this: What behavior will you not engage in? Depending on your answer, you might also not be OK with a partner engaging in such behavior.

Also, consider creating a list of the people you’re closest to as well as the qualities and traits you’re drawn to in them, suggests Wadhawan. “Failure to show these qualities or traits might be a deal breaker for you.”

After all, as you go through life and relationships, you may realize that what’s a deal breaker for a romantic relationship is also a deal breaker for a friendship or a relationship with a family member. They tend to permeate different areas of life.

“As I got older I learned what really matters in a relationship — honesty, support, trust, kindness,” Mullin says. “Whether it’s with a partner, husband, sister, or friend, things that I might have considered deal breakers when I was younger just don’t hold a candle to what’s important to me today, especially now as a mother and a wife.”

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