Jane, a 20-something woman in New York City, had a great relationship with her boyfriend—until she found out he planned, without question, to relocate to his Midwest hometown and expected her to move with him. While Jane cared for her boyfriend deeply, she did some soul searching and realized she couldn’t leave her family, friends or job to be with him. And so this was a deal breaker. The couple had to break up.
Deal breakers like Jane’s are common but they can vary widely from person to person.
What is a deal breaker in a relationship?
“A deal breaker is something that, if it exists in a relationship, that relationship can’t proceed,” said Tracy K. Ross, LCSW, a couples and family therapist with Redesigning Relationships in New York City. “It’s a ‘hard no.’”
The deal breaker could be a personality trait, a viewpoint, a lifestyle choice—or any other quality about a person that you can’t accept, no matter how many good qualities they have. Yours can discovered early in the relationship or long down the line, but it’s always cause to end things.
Ross says when single people come to her for relationship advice, she has them make three lists:
- Around 5 to 6 deal breakers.
- 10 things that are very important to have in a relationship—a person can probably have seven or eight of them but not all 10.
- Eight to 10 things that would be “nice to have.”
Making these lists encourages people to identify what they’re looking for in a potential mate and helps them understand what might just be a small annoyance and what might be a reason not to pursue or proceed with a relationship.
It’s important to be clear with yourself about the things you want and don’t want in a relationship. Too many people pair up just because their friends are in a relationship or it’s “that time in their lives,” said Ross. Knowing your deal breakers, as well as the necessary and “nice to have” qualities, helps you start a relationship with a solid foundation.
Common relationship deal breakers
Deal breakers are personal—what one person can live with might send someone else packing. But there are deal breakers that crop up often. These can include differences in religion, political or moral views and lackluster physical attraction.
Abuse should always be a deal breaker, and substance abuse is invariably one as well, said Ross.
Short-term deal breakers
A few common issues that can come up early in a relationship are:
- Different interests or pastimes: If one person in the relationship is a homebody and the other wants to go out every night of the week, you might not find common ground from the start. It’s usually important couples identify activities they can enjoy doing together, whether it’s going to baseball games or staying home with a good book.
- Sexual expectations: “I see a lot of patients who complain about their sex lives,” said Ross. “And often, they’ve never been on the same page about it.” She also points out that lifestyles such as polyamory are more common today and is something both people have to agree on for it to work.
- Communication style: Some people like to have independence in their relationship; others like to check in with their significant other throughout the day. If they aren’t on the same page about how and how often they’ll communicate, it could be a dealbreaker.
Deal breakers for long-term relationships
Once things get serious, people might consider whether they’re in the relationship for the long haul. A few factors that could break the deal are:
- Wanting or not wanting to have kids: Ross says this is a very common deal breaker. “If someone tells you they don’t want to have kids, believe them,” she said.
- Wanting or not wanting to commit: Same goes for someone who says they don’t want to be tied down or get married. They’re not likely to change their mind.
- Deeper feelings: Ross brings up the example of a woman whose boyfriend planned an elaborate vacation for her—but not the type of vacation she liked to go on. This was a big sign he wasn’t the one for her. “How he expressed his caring for her was in a way that showed her he didn’t truly see who she was,” said Ross. “She realized that one of the most important things to her is that she was really ‘seen’ by the person.”
In the end, a deal breaker for a short-term relationship isn’t necessarily different from one in a long-term relationship. “Many times, when I see couples, it’s years later and they tell me a lot about the issue was known in the beginning but they pushed it aside for various reasons,” said Ross. People may assume they can live with the problem or that the person will change, but they can’t and they won’t—and that realization becomes the deal breaker.
That’s why open communication is important. Having an upfront, kind conversation about things that bother you in your relationship can help you both decide if it’s something that you can live with, work out with a compromise or change .
Talking about potential deal breakers
Ross suggests bringing up potential deal breakers in the relationship early—it can be as soon as you notice them, or at least once things get serious. For instance, in Jane’s case, she’d assumed her boyfriend was open to staying in New York, but later found out he intended on moving all along. If she’d asked him point blank, perhaps she could have known earlier that the relationship wouldn’t last.
“Usually, if you ask someone a question point blank, they tend to tell the truth,” said Ross.
“The decisions we make—even when we’re young—can have long lasting ramifications,” said Ross. “If you stay in a relationship for four years, for example, and that person’s not your future, then what opportunities are you missing for those four years? If you know something in the relationship is bothering you, I wouldn’t wait to address it.”