The other day I had a great Twitter conversation with dating writer Kelly Seal about her fantastic article, “What Are Your Dating Deal-Breakers?” Kelly was writing mainly for women but her points hold for everyone. I want to add my own perspective to the issue of deal-breakers, specifically explaining when I think they make sense—and when I think they don’t.
By “deal-breakers,” I mean that one thing that drives you so crazy you can’t imagine even going on a date with—much less living with or marrying—someone who did it. It may be smoking, biting fingernails, being sloppy (or excessively neat), or having political views opposite yours.
We call these traits deal-breakers, because no matter how great a person is in every other way, that one nagging aspect of their personality or behavior matters so much to you that it breaks the deal. The idea always think of those classic episodes of Seinfeld in which Jerry’s friends mock him for breaking up with many interesting, smart, and beautiful women because of some minor flaw—but in real life, not all deal-breakers are so minor.
Generally I think deal-breakers are a bad idea: They elevate one characteristic over all the others that may weigh in a person's favor. Deal-breakers block us from considering or even seeing anything else that might be good about a person. Can you honestly say that a pet peeve is important enough that you would pass up an otherwise fantastic person because of it? Yes? Then imagine that person being even better—is that one characteristic still really that important? I’d be surprised if it were—and I’ve got my own pet peeve.
We can draw a parallel with ethics. I often describe moral dilemmas as a conflict between principles which need to be weighed and balanced against each other to arrive at a decision. We each adhere to many ethical principles and ideals, some more important to us than others, but we would be hard-pressed to say there was one principle that always took precedence over every other. For everyone who says, “I would never...,” we can usually ratchet up the effect on his or her other principles to a point at which the person would say, “Well, OK, in that situation, maybe.” (Sorry, Meat Loaf.)
It’s the same thing with the things you want (or don’t want) in a partner. No matter how important your deal-breaker is to you, does it really outweigh every other quality a person may have? Can you really not imagine anyone that is good enough in every other way so as to override that sticking point? I admit that I have a deal-breaker—smoking. It’s not based on any moral judgment—I just cannot stand the smell, having lived with it for years while I was young, and then being free of it for a long time since. I’ve met amazing women who smoked, and dismissed them, not even considering asking them out. But part of me always wondered if I was too hasty. What if one of them was perfect for me in every other way? What did I possibly pass up because of that one thing I couldn’t get past?
Having a deal-breaker is the same as putting one ethical principle above all others, demanding that that requirement be fulfilled before you’ll even consider others. But I doubt that any one principle (in ethics) or characteristic (in relationships) can be so important as to override every other, no matter how strong they might be. People have so many different aspects to them and may have so many wonders to reveal to you that you should be wary of foreclosing that possibility because of one pet peeve.
Except, as Kelly points out, if that deal-breaker is something truly harmful, rather than merely annoying. For example, refusing to date someone whom you know (or suspect) is abusive is not a pet peeve—that’s self-protection. Or if something that person does reminds you of someone who hurt you in the past, again, I would consider that a useful decision-making heuristic or rule of thumb based on self-preservation. For example, maybe someone who hurt you in your past shouted a lot, so you avoid dating people who shout. I think that makes sense: It’s not a perfect signal, but we can’t make perfect decisions. Deal-breakers may also protect us from our own bad choices. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, you may not want to date people who drink—not because it says anything negative about that other person, but because endangers your own sobriety. You might lose out on dating a basically great person that just happens to shout a lot or drink, but you would be anxious with them until you knew that a relationship would not lead to abuse or a relapse.
More serious deal-breakers are often reflections or indications of a person’s character and how they are likely to treat you. If a person is violent or dishonest, those are signs about who that person is, not harmless eccentricities that simply annoy us.
Personality traits reveal themselves in different ways as well: The sad part is that many people too often accept abuse from some partners—in part because it reveals itself slowly over time—and reject others based on mere quirks that are obvious from the start. We end up rejecting people for the wrong reasons and staying with others for even worse ones.
In the end, whether you have deal-breakers and what those deal-breakers are comes down to a point I made earlier about compromise in relationships: You need decide what things about a person are truly important to you and demand those things, but not get stuck on lesser things that really don’t matter and will just stand in the way of fulfillment in your love life.
Aside from avoiding people that threaten to harm you, I would recommend ditching the deal-breakers and keeping an open mind when it comes to minor annoyances that may be hiding a truly wonderful person.
Pick up Kelly’s new book, Date Expectations: A Guide to Changing Your Love Life and Finding Real Love.
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.
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