By Steven Ing
I’m going to tell you a little something about myself.
Before I met my wife, if anyone had asked if I had any deal-breakers — a must-have for my next relationship — I would have said the following:
“Absolutely,” this imaginary conversation would have gone. “The next woman I date absolutely MUST love hiking.”
Well guess what: I did meet another woman, she did not love hiking, and she is now my wife. And of course I have ZERO regrets.
Here’s what happened: My so-called “deal breaker” was actually a reflection of my own loneliness from previous relationships. I had erroneously equated happiness in a relationship with exploring the backcountry together. I had assumed that, because my previous significant others didn’t like hiking, that perhaps THAT was the reason our relationship didn’t work.
But it wasn’t the reason. Far from it, in fact. And now that I’m in a fulfilling relationship with a woman I adore who doesn’t like to hike, I can see it for what it is.
Many people will tell you, from the outset, they have a list of “must-haves” for their future significant others. For some, it’s physical — he or she has to be a certain height, must have green eyes, can’t be a redhead, must have good feet.
For others, it’s socio-economic: This person MUST have a degree, has to make at least six figures, can’t work in construction.
But the bottom line, from a therapist’s perspective, is this: When you go into a dating situation with a list, you’re ruling out people who could help you learn some wonderful things about yourself and your life.
Deal breakers keep you from being able to form a strategic alliance around something that is important to you. Perhaps you truly want a significant other who doesn’t smoke, for example. While this is a perfectly reasonable expectation, you may find yourself attracted to — and maybe even dating — a smoker.
This is an opportunity.
Your imaginary conversation may go something like this:
“Dave, I was never honest with you about how I feel about something important to me,” you’ll say. “You smoke, and I don’t like that. I’ve not been completely honest with you about how much I don’t like this, so that’s why I’m talking to you now. Because if we get closer, and if you continue smoking, this might be a deal-breaker to me.”
“I’m not asking you to quit,” you’ll continue. “But I need you to know how I feel, and maybe we can work together on a solution?”
Because we all need to remember this: In relationships, we inherently change each other. It’s usually not a fundamental change, but we react to the other person in small — and sometimes not-so-small — ways.
Perhaps Dave is looking for an excuse to drop his habit. You’ve just provided some pretty good incentive.
Maybe Dave responds like this:
“I think you’ve misunderstood something about me — I actually don’t like to smoke,” he might say. “I would love to quit. If you’ll give me some time [and this is something you can negotiate], then I’m sure I can kick this habit.”
So see? It seems he’s open to negotiation, and you’ve given yourself and your significant other a chance to collaborate to find solutions. You’re growing in your partnership — assuming you’re both willing participants.
Sure, you may have some ideas of deal breakers. But instead of ruling people out before they even have a chance, consider the idea that sometimes, you can negotiate — together — past them. Or through them, depending on the situation. After all, a person likely won’t get any taller, if height is on your “must-have” list; but you can certainly stop wearing heels, if the height discrepancy is what makes you feel uncomfortable.
Oftentimes, happiness isn’t packaged the way we think it should be. Personally, I realized quickly after meeting my future wife that I am free to hike with whomever I wish. And she’s perfectly comfortable with that — and even encourages me to do so.
But had I excluded her from the outset, I would have potentially missed out on a lifetime of happiness.
Now keep in mind: You’re perfectly welcome (and encouraged, even) to have solid deal breakers that support your moral views, and you certainly should never, ever, date someone who remotely threatens your safety; I'm not suggesting you should date someone with a clear ongoing and unresolved problem like substance abuse or verbal abuse because you're looking for a role in their romantic future, not a job as a therapist.
But in terms of the “want to” versus “must” haves: I’m beyond grateful I chose to not make “must hike” a deal-breaker; and I think you’ll be glad you are open to modifying your personal list as well.