One of the questions that we often receive from our readers is:
What are the deal-breakers in relationships, and what’s the best way to deal with them?
“Deal-breakers” are those behaviors or conditions that one partner is unable or unwilling to tolerate in a relationship. Because “tolerance” is a relative term and subject to everyone’s unique capacity to accept varying degrees of distress or discomfort, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and no higher authority we can defer to that could legitimatize our right to refuse to tolerate a specific practice or behavior on the part of our partner.
While one person may be willing or able to tolerate occasional affairs on the part of a spouse, another may be unwilling to remain a couple after a single betrayal. The same goes for verbal abuse, addiction, chronic dishonesty, different religious beliefs, or any of a number of other conditions that may be present in a relationship.
This is not to say that either person is right or wrong in their behavior or their degree of willingness to tolerate that behavior in a partner. It is also not to say that we shouldn’t make an effort to work out the inevitably different perspectives that all couples experience to some degree. Sometimes “working them out” looks like making changes on one side or the other. Sometimes it means learning to live with the differences.
What can and often does push a situation from the workable to the unworkable zone is an unwillingness on the part of either partner to openly discuss their thoughts, feelings, concerns, or needs. A willingness on the part of one or both of the partners to consider reassessing their beliefs or behaviors is usually necessary in order to create a deeper level of trust and understanding in the relationship. If, for example, there is no motivation on the part of an alcoholic to address his drinking problem, no desire on the part of an abusive partner to get help, no willingness on the part of a parent to discuss child-rearing philosophies with his spouse, the chance of any of those situations being or becoming a deal-breaker greatly increases.
In most cases, the possibility of resolution has less to do with behavior than the perception on the part of one or both partners that there are legitimate grounds to trust that there is a genuine intention to change or to effectively manage the behavior or attitude that is causing distress. It is also important that both partners are open to reflecting on ways in which they may be unknowingly contributing to the situation or to discovering ways in which they can be more effective in dealing with their concerns. Yet even in cases where there is a willingness on the part of both partners to do this work, that may not always be sufficient to bring about a mutually satisfying outcome.
The longer an unacceptable condition is allowed to continue, the more likely it is to become toxic. A toxic relationship is one in which the level of trust, respect, and goodwill has deteriorated to the point where even the desire and motivation to heal has been lost by one or both partners. At this point, the likelihood of restoring this desire is low and the prognosis for the relationship is poor.
There are serious risks that couples take in trying for too long to tolerate circumstances that are causing extreme suffering to one or both partners. Living in hope or denial, or distracting ourselves through unhealthy behaviors, only causes greater suffering in situations that are already painful. While facing the truth can be difficult, in the long run, it is the most direct path out of suffering.
With very few exceptions, most situations don’t begin as deal-breakers; they become deal-breakers when they are ignored or inadequately addressed over a long period of time. Not infrequently, misguided efforts that one partner makes to try to tolerate their pain and frustration only add to the entrenched nature of the problem.
While there is no way to assess what percentage of the situation is being caused by each partner, it is generally the case that both partners have perceptual filters preventing them from seeing the full range of behavioral options that are available to them. This is where help from a trusted friend or professional can illuminate possibilities that may have gone unrecognized.
The earlier we acknowledge and respond to entrenched relationship differences, the more likely it is that they will not become deal-breakers. Still, despite our best efforts, we can sometimes be faced with true deal-breakers. Where it is clear that fundamental differences are too great to bridge the gap between partners, it is wise to acknowledge this reality and to respectfully end the relationship in its present form, moving on separately or to a different form of relationship. Commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that we stay together forever, no matter what, but that we stay engaged in the process of respecting each other and ourselves as best we can.
Sometimes the best way that we can do that is by refusing to tolerate something in a partner that is causing harm or doing damage to him or her, to ourselves, or to others. At other times, the best thing that we can do is to try to become more accepting of our partner or his/her behavior. There is no generic answer to the question of which response is the correct one, but staying present and connected to our own experience, rather than focusing on our partner, will ultimately produce the clarity that we seek.