Relationship Deal-Breakers and Preferences Aren’t the Same Thing

When it comes to dating, anyone in the game has a line in the sand that, once broached, immediately triggers the relationship to implode. What I'm referring to, my friends, is a deal-breaker. It’s something you could never live with. And thanks in large part to the prevalence of online dating and apps that allow users to paint a specific picture of the ideal partner, these romantic impasses seem far more abundant these days. But perhaps we're confusing general preferences with deal-breakers? After all, experts say those two are not the same thing at all.

“I would define a deal-breaker as one or both people in a relationship reaching the point of no return,” says relationship counselor Rachel Sussman, LCSW. “Some deal-breakers I see [in my practice] are infidelity, relapse to drugs, alcohol, or other addiction once the person has gotten sober. I also have seen deal-breakers insofar as timelines for commitment.” So if you see yourself married in a year, and you S.O. doesn’t believe in marriage, that may be a deal-breaker for you.

The problem comes when people incorrectly label preferences as deal-breakers, says sex and relationship expert Logan Levkoff, PhD. “People list things like height, eye color, and living situation as a deal-breaker. That can be extremely limiting. Think about all of the people you’re ignoring because they aren’t the ‘right’ height.” And while some folks may argue that “attraction is important,” and indeed it is, Dr. Levkoff and Sussman agree that "important" and "mandatory" are two different things. “A deal-breaker is something that challenges your core values,” Levkoff says.

“A deal-breaker is something that challenges your core values.” —Logan Levkoff, PhD, sex and relationship expert

That said, Dr. Levkoff says that even staunch deal-breakers can shift depending on the specific situation. Let's say meet someone who doesn’t share your religion (a particular deal-breaker she sees often), but they’re willing to raise your future children in accordance with your religious practices. You may be willing to rethink your stance on the entire issue. “Something you consider a deal-breaker could actually be an opportunity for change,” Sussman says.

And since everyone's list of nonnegotiables is different, not letting friends or family influence what you want in a relationship is key. “They may be well-meaning, but they don’t know the insides of your relationship,” Sussman says. “It’s best to use your own instinct. If you need guidance, reach out to a professional to get some unbiased advice.”

Still having trouble deciphering deal-breakers from preferences? Ask yourself, “could I live with this situation?” If the answer is yes—and don't get dramatic here—then it isn’t a deal-breaker. And once you really think about it, these supposed deal-breakers (or, ahem, preferences) may actually be a lot less important than you initially thought.

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