A while ago, I wrote about deal breakers in relationships, warning readers about the danger of rejecting a person who has most of the qualities you want just because they also have one you don’t. I drew a distinction between relatively minor complaints, such as large ears or an odd laugh, and much more significant concerns, such as abusiveness or violence, and wrote about how some people focus too much on the little things and not enough on the big ones.
A friend suggested that I also focus on the other side of the issue, which I am happy to do here. As my friend emphasized, sometimes we are very quick to reject dates and partners for seemingly trivial reasons, and other times we go to the opposite extreme and are too willing to overlook major flaws.
In the worst-case scenario, these flaws could include abusiveness and violence, or more moderate but still troubling behaviors such as a lack of affection, support, or respect, which can be very harmful to the person on the receiving end of them. Even if these aspects of a relationship never approach an abusive or violent level, they are nonetheless corrosive factors that have strong and lasting effects on a person’s well-being and health.
Much has been written about why people stay in abusive or violent relationships. (See here and here.) In this post I’ll focus on those of us who stay in relationships with people who may be more negligent or thoughtless than malicious or mean. These are partners who are not necessarily bad, or not necessarily bad for everybody, but definitely bad for the people they’re with at the time. After all, not all of us want the same amount or kind of attention or affection—some of us crave constant attention that would make others feel suffocated—but we should all seek out people who give us what we want and help us feel the way we want to feel. If the person you’re with doesn’t do this for you, that is a significant problem and it should definitely be a deal breaker.
Why are people willing to put up with significant relationship flaws like lack of affection or attention while they reject people for much less important things?
Here are four possible reasons:
1. The nitpicky things we tend to focus on are often more obvious and observable. You can quickly see if someone has a physical feature, political opinion, or verbal tic you don’t like, but the characteristics that are likely to lead to serious harm are often slower to appear.
2. By the time these traits do appear, we may already be enamored with the superficial aspects of the person—including their lack of any obvious minor flaw that would immediately pop out at us.
3. After we do notice the harmful behavior, it is easy to tell ourselves that these negative personality traits will change over time, whether we believe that we can change them ourselves or that the person will get better—once they fall in love with us.
4. We accept the love we think we deserve. For many people, that’s not much, especially those who suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, or self-loathing. (For more on self-loathing and relationships, see these posts.) These people may be more likely to accept a partner with obvious shortcomings, and to stay with them even after these shortcomings manifest themselves in behavior that approaches abuse, because they don't think they deserve any better or worse, that they deserve it or even caused it.
To some extent, there's a positive side to the last two items: They reflect a large degree of compassion and patience that contrasts nicely with the lack of compassion and patience shown when rejecting people out of hand for minor flaws. But as great as these traits are, they become harmful to a person possessing them when indulged to the expense of one’s own well-being and self-esteem. As with many things, we should try to find a comfortable middle—what Aristotle called “the golden mean”—where we express kindness and acceptance of some of the flaws of other people while also protecting ourselves from the more significant ones.
But we need to be able to see whether a flaw is just a quirk that can be accepted or even embraced, which will make the relationship and the people in it stronger over time, or if it's a sign of a serious problem that will only hurt us. As I wrote in an earlier post about compromise, each of us needs to decide what aspects, traits, and behaviors fulfill our needs and affirm who each of us is as a person.
I'd bet that kindness, affection, and respect—in whatever form or to whatever degree you want them—are a lot higher on that list than a sexy laugh, cute nose, or a sharp fashion sense. Always keep in mind what is truly important to you, what you want and deserve, and never settle for less. In the end, that's the only deal breaker you need.
If you are in an abusive or violent relationship, please seek help, such as from the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the U.S., Domestic Violence in the U.K., or similar organizations where you live.
Other posts mentioned in this article:
If you're in a relationship that doesn't suffer from the issues described above, but seems to have run out of steam, you might like to read this post: If, When—and How—to End an 'OK-But-Not-Great' Relationship.
For more posts on relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see this categorized list.