I love talking about love. I love listening to stories of how people met, what attracted them to each other, how they knew this person was “the one.”
The process begins, of course, with a simple interaction that occurs online or in person. Online we read the “resume” and decide to click that we are interested. We decide that based on whether they have a profile picture. If they don’t have one, why don’t they? If they do, who is in it with them? Do they have friends? Where are they (on a beach, in a bar, in their living room)? In person, our chat grows out of the venue where we meet. This may not seem important, but it does have huge implications. In a Marriage and Family class I taught, I had the students “speed introduce” themselves in pairs. I rang a bell and they had to move to the next spot. Afterwards we discussed what we had found out about each other – we found out about college majors, schedules, and jobs. We then discussed what we might have asked each other at a bar that we did not ask here (what kind of drinks we like, who else we were with, other bars we regularly go to). So, the venue has an impact on our first impressions and first impressions can determine if we will get the opportunity to get to know someone better.
What is interesting is that when we discuss our search for love, we generally begin with the list of qualities we are looking for in another person. It is, in part, a process of comparing the person we are getting to know with the idealized person we are looking for. We have a list of sorts: “They have to be established – they have to have a career.” “They have to be physically fit.” “They have to enjoy traveling.” “They have to be a Democrat/Republican.” “They have to love animals.” “They have to love sports.” “They have to be into Metal.”
Similarity is certainly an important part of our friendship with others; it is an important component of love. As intimacy progresses, we begin to discuss our likes and dislikes – of sports, music, animals, activities, and foods. It feels “right” when we enjoy similar things, when we are in sync with each other. It is also nice when differences emerge and then become similarities. We begin to like something just because the other person does. We enjoy seeing them happy and know our presence at some event or activity makes them even happier. They enjoy it more because we are there. This is also part of love. It is nice if they introduce us to some sport, music, theater, physical activity we never participated in before and we find we like it. This is part of being similar, of being in love. If our partner finds they do not enjoy some activity we like, we may find we start to do it less because we choose to do something that we can both enjoy. This is love too.
These adaptations to each other make us understand the importance of flexibility, of being able to change. When these changes make us happy, when we are making each other feel better about ourselves, making each other better people, then change is wonderful. This type of change is reflected in statements like, “I didn’t ski until we started dating, now I love it!” “I hated football, now I don’t mind watching it.” “I didn’t know I liked going to Broadway shows. I’m glad I went to one with you.” The key factor here is that these changes are “peripheral” – they add to who we are, what we like, what we know.
What does any of this have to do with deal breakers? Well, when couples come in complaining that one or the other or both “refuse to change” the issue is generally one that revolves around core values. The couple, having grown in intimacy and enjoyment of each other’s company, has come to believe that a willingness to make peripheral changes is an indication that core changes are not only possible, they are probable and necessary. The changes they now seek rattle to the core.
In part, this happens because while they had a list of qualities they were seeking, they did not have a list of “deal breakers.” So, their partner had the qualities on their checklist such as intelligence, humor, or ambition – they were allowed into their heart. Once there, the “deal breakers” begin to emerge but the evidence is pushed aside. This is reflected in statements such as “If he loved me, he would want to have children.” “If she loved me, she would understand that I want to move across the country. Leaving her family wouldn’t matter.” In such cases, the change “required” doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t feel right because it involves a core value. Core values are such a part of who we are that changing them rattles us; we are suddenly in a conflict over loving someone but not wanting to change something in ourselves. So, we ask the other person to change.
The idea of deal breakers makes us seem rigid and unaccepting of differences. How can we reject someone because they disagree with us about something? Well, when that something is core to us, what we need to recognize is that we are not rejecting someone; we are seeking someone who is a better fit.
Let us explore the idea more: What are some potential deal breakers? For most of us it would be a deal breaker if someone were in prison on death row, but that is not true for everyone; some people write to prisoners on death row and do indeed marry them. This exemplifies how deal breakers are individualistic; we have to develop our own.
A more common deal breaker is one already mentioned – a disagreement over whether or not to have children. There is no compromise possible. Children are permanent; they cannot be given back. The one who wants children cannot say “If you loved me you would” anymore than the other can say “If you loved me you would agree to not have children.” It is a deal breaker, a difference in the core values one possesses. Another example I can give was a couple who came for counseling. One was an Atheist, the other a Born Again Christian. They bonded as they debated about morality. They respected the ethical lifestyle each lived. They loved each other. They wanted to marry, but were unable to agree on a marriage ceremony or on how to raise children. No compromise was possible. To be married in church was to go against everything an Atheist believes in; to get married without clergy would send a Born Again Christian to Hell. This stark difference in core values was a deal breaker for them.
Other deal breakers might be wanting to live in the artic zone while the other wants to live in the tropics, wanting adventure when the other wants stability, wanting material possessions when the other wants to live minimally and share with the poor, or wanting to have pets when the other is highly allergic, afraid or disinterested. It might be one enjoying spending time with family and the other viewing such time as intrusive on “their” time. It might be one believing that alcohol is a necessary component of having fun and the other believing it is not, one thinking of drug use as typical and the other as deviant. It may be one seeing the world from an optimistic point of view and the other from a pessimistic one.
Pursuing a relationship thinking the other person will change his/her mind is often counterproductive – a recipe for heartache. Yes, people can change but changing core values is unlikely. Our core values define us and the desire to change such values is minimal even if we love someone. Both parties often believe the other will change and heartache follows when the realization that this is not going to be the case emerges. A key indicator of this kind of problem is the phrase, “If (s)he loved me, (s)he would change”. This needs to be replaced with the question, “Would I be willing to change this about myself for him/her?” If the answer is no, then the change is not likely to be easy for either of you. It is best to move on; it is even better to check that “deal breaker” list before the heartache is too intense.
Differences are fun. Being able to introduce someone to something they didn’t even know they liked is fun. Growing together as individuals and as a couple is fun. The key is in knowing what we are willing to change in ourselves, not in someone else.
“There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” ― Aldous Huxley