Every relationship is a matter of compromise. Nobody gets 100% of what they want in a partner; you get anywhere from 60% – 90% and round up because they’re just that worth it. But while some things on our dating wish-list are “It would be nice if,” others are “must haves” and still more are “absolutely must not”. But handling dealbreakers often isn’t as black or white as we might like… especially when someone we are interested in has dealbreakers that exclude us.
When it comes to dating dealbreakers, it can be hard to know how to handle them. Are your dealbreakers too finicky? When is another person’s dealbreaker unreasonable? Let’s talk a little about which dating hurdles can be overcome (and how) and which are completely insurmountable.
What’s A Dealbreaker, Really?
There’s a certain tendency to look at dealbreakers as silly, almost arbitrary restrictions that people (usually women, because hey there, sexist double standards!) place on their love lives. We hear “dealbreaker” and we’re more likely to think of Tina Fey in 30 Rock than we are about reasons why we wouldn’t want to date someone.
It’s often taken as the sign of someone who’s overly fussy or unreasonably limiting their dating opportunities for finicky and ridiculous reasons. But the truth is: most of us have dealbreakers in our list of what we think our ideal partner should be, even if we’re not actively aware of it. Men may make jokes about women having too high expectations for a potential boyfriend, but don’t blink twice at the idea of not dating a woman because her breasts are the wrong size or because she wouldn’t have sex as soon as they would like. Whenever someone bemoans their singlehood and mentions that they’ll “take anyone”, it usually comes with the silent assumption of “…that I’m actually attracted to.” It’s taken as a given that you wouldn’t want to date someone who actively repulsed you… which is a dealbreaker.
Every relationship comes with a price of entry, because nobody’s perfect.
That price is the thing that you will have to accept in exchange for being with that person. Sometimes that price is relatively low, an inconvenience that is easily overlooked. Other times that price is considerably greater and requires more consideration on a person’s part – is this something that you’re willing to give up or put up with if it means being able to be with them? And on occasion, that price is too great for you to be willing to pay it, no matter how you may feel about somebody.
That price is your particular dealbreaker. And everyone has them.
All Dealbreakers are Legitimate
If you’ve spent some time in online dating, you’ll have run across people who spell out exactly what they will and won’t accept in a date. If their dealbreakers exclude you, then you may very well feel annoyed, even a touch insulted. After all, you know you’re an awesome person. Surely they shouldn’t rule you out just because of that one silly thing, no?
And to be fair, finding out that somebody doesn’t want to date you because of something out of your control – your height, for example – can feel insulting on a personal level. But as with boundaries, what we will and won’t accept in a romantic partner is an entirely personal decision. Other people don’t get to decide whether or not your dealbreakers are or aren’t legitimate.
And while many dealbreakers may feel random or overly finicky to you (or yours to them), there’s almost always a reason behind them. Someone may see smoking as a dealbreaker because they watched a loved one die of lung cancer; no amount of “but I’ll smoke outside of the house,” or “I’ll vape so you don’t smell it on me” is going to chase away the spectre of Uncle Jim wasting away in a hospital bed. You may automatically nix dog lovers because no matter how much they promise to clean their place and groom Fido, any trace amount of dog dander sets off your allergies.
Even things that you think should be simple or an easy compromise can be much more complicated for the other person. Take religion, for example. On the surface, it seems like an easy fix: you do your thing, they do their thing. Boom, problem solved. But for many people, their religion is more than just a list of rules handed down by their god or goddess. It’s also rituals that they take comfort in, a culture that they love and a community that is often central to their lives. Dating someone outside of your religion is more than just issues like “God’s ok with buttstuff because everyone knows He’s cool with technicalities”, it’s how this person will or won’t fit into your life and your future together. How will you settle the question of how you’re going to raise your children? If their values conflict with yours and your community’s, will they be able to go along to get along, or would involving them in that side of your life mean constant confrontations between your partner and your friends?
It’s easy to cluck your tongue and say that you should be able to get past it if you love each other enough… right up until you‘re the one who realizes that your family and friends are avoiding you because they hate your girlfriend.
But even if the dealbreakers aren’t so complicated and elaborate, it doesn’t make them illegitimate. If there is some factor or feature that somebody finds unacceptable, you don’t get to demand that they make an exception because it’s inconvenient to you. Even if someone’s dealbreakers seem ridiculous to you, they get to set them wherever they choose.
Now that having been said…
…But Not All Dealbreakers Are Equal
Just because you decide something is a dealbreaker, that doesn’t automatically make it a good choice. Not every dealbreaker is necessarily formed out of bitter experience or careful consideration. Many things that people might consider to be dealbreakers are an outgrowth of stigma, of ignorance, or of social pressure and it’s worth scrutinizing your dealbreakers and just why you have them.
Some dealbreakers are born out of mistaken ideas about others. Someone might decide that they don’t want to date somebody who’s been divorced before because they don’t want to have to deal with another person’s emotional baggage from a previous relationship. Others may decide that they will only date virgins because of ideas about “purity” or the notion that someone with less experience will be less prone to judge them harshly. If you are the sort of person who insists that “drama” is a dealbreaker, then you need to examine whether your idea of “drama” translates to “my partner having needs or desires that annoy me.”
On the other hand, the common complaint that women won’t date shorter men has less to do with height being inherently attractive and more to do with ideas about gender roles. There’s a great deal of pressure for men and women to conform to masculine and feminine roles; a woman being taller than a man often makes her feel less feminine. Similarly, a man may push back against dating a larger woman less because of how he feels and more about worrying how others will judge him.
Still other dealbreakers are based on social stigma, which can affect us even when we’re unaware of it. Asian men and black women, for example, both stand at a disadvantage in dating because of the social messages conveyed about them. Asian men are seen as feminine or sexually null, while black women with strong sub-Saharan features and darker skintones are portrayed as less attractive and desirable than black women with more European facial features.
I have nothing clever to say here. I just want to take a moment to appreciate Ataui Deng and Aaron Kwok.
When we look at just who we are and aren’t attracted to, it’s worth taking the time to go beyond a simple “yes/no” and ask ourselves why we think they’re unattractive. You might be surprised how often what we think of as acceptable or unacceptable is based on other people’s opinions and popular culture rather than how we feel ourselves.
Other times, issues that might be a dealbreaker are born out of residual stigma that may not necessarily apply any more. Many people would consider being HIV positive to be an instant dealbreaker. While this is understandable – it’s not certainly not unreasonable to want to remain seronegative – modern medicine has made living with HIV night and day different from the 80s and 90s. With treatment, one’s viral load can be rendered virtually undetectable (which reduces the odds of transmission to nearly 0) and pre-exposure prophylaxis can help protect the unexposed partner even further.
And still other dealbreakers are about us. You may decide that someone having a chronic health condition – a severe allergy, mobility issues, limited energy, etc. – to be a dealbreaker; you may simply decide that you don’t to deal with the inconveniences that their condition would introduce into the relationship. That is a legitimate choice. Just as it’s legitimate for that person to think you’re kind of an asshole1 for doing so.
It’s worth remembering that while having dealbreakers is totally legit, that doesn’t render you immune from other people judging you for having them. If you decide that you’re only going to date blonde women with 30 inch waists and a c-cup, that’s your choice; other people are well within their rights to think you’re shallow for making that a dealbreaker. Part of having boundaries – including regarding who you will and won’t date – is being willing to accept that other people are going to disagree with you over them.
You can’t control other people’s dealbreakers… but you do control your own. That’s why it’s important to examine just what you consider to be a dealbreaker and why.
And while we’re on that topic…
When Can You Negotiate a Dealbreaker?
You can’t demand other people make an exception for you. But there will be times that either you or they find yourself in the position of having to question just how strict that dealbreaker is.
Sometimes you’ll meet somebody who’s pretty awesome. And by the time you’re two, three or even four dates in you realize… they have something that you would consider to be a dealbreaker. Or perhaps it’s the other way around; they discover something about you that they would consider a dealbreaker. Often what we consider to be a dealbreaker is based on an abstract idea, rather than concrete reality. Once we get to know somebody as a person and become somewhat invested in them, we end up in a position of having to put a face to that choice. Do you cut things off now, or do you try to work around the issue?
It’s easy to assume that love will ultimately take care of any issue, but in practice, it can add significant challenges. Any compromise surrounding a dealbreaker is a tacit acceptance of a greater level of inconvenience in your relationship, and often in ways you might not expect. Dating someone with different dietary needs can become complicated incredibly quickly. If your partner’s an observant Jew who keeps kosher or a Muslim who keeps halal, respecting their dietary rules goes beyond not having a BLT in front of them, it means having entirely separate cookware and in some cases an entirely separate kitchen.
Long-distance relationships can be another tricky dealbreaker to negotiate. An LDR is easier to manage when there’s an end-date in sight, but ending it requires that one person or the other pull up stakes and move. That’s a pretty huge thing to ask of someone; it frequently means giving up one’s job and social circle to move to a place where they have no connections outside of their partner. And not wanting to move can be seen as being a rejection of the person, not just the circumstance.
Dealing with other dealbreakers demands that you be very good at compartmentalizing. Dating someone of an opposing political party is more than accepting that you’ll cancel each other’s votes out. Are you able to keep all talk of politics out of your relationship entirely? Or are you both people who’re capable of debating an issue without letting it get personal? If you’re vegan and your partner isn’t, is it going to be a problem if they wear leather shoes or have foods in the house that includes animal products? If your partner is kinky or has a fetish that you can’t or won’t fulfill, will you be OK with them finding a way of fulfilling it outside of your relationship? If you’re non-monogamous, are you willing to accept a closed relationship at first in order to build up the trust and security that would allow you both to open things up later?
Another very important question – and one that people often don’t stop to consider – is whether you can negotiate those compromises in good faith. One issue I see come up frequently is that a partner will agree to a compromise without ever intending to fulfill their end of things. They may offer to table the discussion “until later”… with the intention of continually kicking that can further down the road in hopes that the other person will quit asking. Other times – especially in “open” relationships – they’ll agree but place rules that are so stringent and specific that it’s virtually impossible to meet them. It’s fundamentally unfair to someone you supposedly care about to make promises you can’t – or won’t – keep, and doing so will permanently damage the relationship.
When Is It Time To Leave?
As hard as it can be to accept, love doesn’t conquer all and not every challenge can be overcome. A relationship where everything is great except for that one thing is a relationship that is likely going to come to an end. That one thing may seem inconsequential (or feel like it should be) in the grand scheme of things, but at the end of the day it’s the flaw that will make the relationship fall apart.
Sometimes, a difference in values is just going to be too great to work around. A relationship between two people who’re sexually incompatible is one that can’t last, especially if one or both partners are going to insist on strict traditional monogamy. A politically opposite couple won’t survive for long if one person is continually treating the other as being dumb, ignorant or gullible for not believing like they do. If some differences are too great, that difference of opinion can turn from disagreement to resentment and bitterness very easily, poisoning the relationship from the inside.
Other times, there are issues where compromises can’t be reached. There is no compromising between, say, one person wanting children and the other not wanting any, ever. One person is going to have to give up and give in. It can work out, but it’s a massive leap of faith and not everybody is going to be prepared to handle that.
If it does come down to one factor being insurmountable, the kindest thing that you can do is end the relationship as quickly and cleanly as possible. It will hurt. It’ll feel like you’re giving up too easily, like you should have tried harder. But at the same time, ending things earlier means that you’re able to maintain the good memories and affection for your partner. It’s better to end it while things are still good rather than letting your relationship curdle into anger, blame and nastiness.
Handling dealbreakers can be difficult. But knowing yourself and the price you’re willing to pay to be in a relationship can make the difference between a failed relationship and an amazing one.
- I have been that person, and they were not wrong about me [↩]