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Everyone Has Relationship Deal-Breakers. Here’s How to Identify Yours

Plus the best, non-awkward ways to bring them up.


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Relationship deal-breakers are highly individual: Not liking cats, say, or poor hygiene can be enough reason to call it quits for some people, while others may be able to easily overlook those same turn-offs. There are certain behaviors that are never okay, of course—including all forms of abuse—but for the most part, there aren’t really hard-and-fast rules dictating the specific traits, attitudes, or actions that disqualify someone from being a viable romantic partner.

That said, it’s important for everyone to establish their own boundaries around what they will and won’t accept in their love lives, Marie Murphy, PhD, a relationship coach specializing in interpersonal conflict and host of the Your Secret Is Safe With Me podcast, tells SELF.

“Everyone has deal-breakers, in some form or another, and I encourage my clients to be as clear as they can when it comes to what’s most important to them, or what they do and don’t want in a healthy relationship,” Dr. Murphy says. Some people, for instance, are 100% sure they want (or don’t want) kids and desire a partner who shares these preferences. Deal-breakers can also be situational or subject to change: Maybe vaccination stance wasn’t important to you pre-pandemic, but now you have specific expectations around public health and personal safety. Or perhaps you never thought about how much politics mattered to you until you ended up dating someone with drastically different views.

Identifying your boundaries is one thing, but discussing them with your potential mate isn’t exactly the easiest, nor most romantic, conversation. While it’s tempting to avoid this uncomfortable chat altogether, in order to have a successful relationship (and to protect your mental health), it’s critical to reflect on and be very clear about your personal parameters, Dr. Murphy says—whether you’re thinking about getting back on dating apps or trying to meet someone IRL, or you’re already in a committed partnership.

Here, experts explain both how to ID your sticking points, as well as a few strategies for bringing them up—in the least awkward way possible.

How do you figure out what your relationship deal-breakers are?

Some of them are probably obvious. For instance, if you can’t imagine a life without travel, a relationship with someone who wants to stay close to home probably won’t fulfill you. Other potential nonnegotiables may not be so clear-cut. Would someone allergic to your pup be off-limits if you’re very much a dog person, or would it depend on other factors?

Ultimately, only you can decide what counts and what doesn’t—and if you’re not sure where to start, consider these guidelines:

Reflect on what worked—and what didn’t—in your past relationships.

“Realistically, we may not know what our deal-breakers are until we encounter them first-hand,” Dr. Murphy says. So determining the things that turn you off or conflict with your values may require looking back on your past flings and romances to decide what you will and won’t compromise on. You might remember, for instance, that you hated that your college love was constantly late since you felt disrespected, or you couldn’t stand the fact that your previous partner was clingy and constantly needed your attention, especially since you really value your alone time.

If the thought of dealing with these issues again drives you mad in the not-hot way, that’s a solid indication that you have some deal-breakers on your hands. Basically, the idea is to reflect on why your exes became your exes so you can get clear on what will and won’t work in the future.

Follow your gut.

“But wait: I haven’t dated much!” If this is your first serious romantic relationship or your list of former lovers is short, there’s a chance you don’t have many past experiences to reference for deal-breaker guidance—and that’s okay. Instead, Dr. Murphy recommends trusting your instincts, because who knows you better than, well, you?

“There are some things in life that we simply know we want and don’t want, without having to think about it very much,” she says. If you’re a devout Christian, say, you may already know that you’re looking for a partner who shares those same religious beliefs and views. If material wealth or a “flashy” lifestyle isn’t a big deal to you, something like their clothes, car, or financial status probably won’t be a deal-breaker.

Still, maybe you’re not totally sure if a certain difference in opinion, say, or one irritating quirk is something to end—or not start—a relationship over. In that case, you can try this little exercise recommended by Shadeen Francis, LMFT, an individual and couple’s therapist who specializes in emotional intelligence: (1) Recognize what you do want. (2) Own it. (3) Advocate for it. So let’s say you’ve been seeing someone who can’t stop checking their notifications. Maybe you recognize that you value presence and quality time in your love life, and you hate when someone is always buried in their phone on a date. If you own the fact that this isn’t a value worth compromising, you might end up with a deal-breaker like: “I don’t want to be in a committed relationship with someone who’s always on their cell when we’re together.” You can then advocate for what you want by telling your date that, if device-free dinners are something you both can’t agree on, it’s probably best you stop seeing each other.

What are some examples of common deal-breakers?

As we mentioned, deal-breakers are highly dependent on one’s preferences, wants, needs, communication style, or even just their vibe.

However, there are some common relationship red flags worth paying attention to, like a significant other with anger issues who punches walls when they’re mad, say, or someone who refuses to introduce you to their friends, without explanation. Another typical deal-breaker topic, according to Dr. Murphy: What counts as commitment? Whether the relationship is monogamous or not doesn’t really matter, but it’s important to decide whether or not you think commenting with heart eyes on someone else’s Instagram post is considered emotional cheating, say, or if a partner staying in contact with their ex is grounds for an automatic breakup. The definition of monogamy—and non-monogamy for that matter—is not always one-size-fits-all, so it’s important to make sure you’re on the same page.

On that note, sexual compatibility is another possible point of contention. “People have radically different preferences when it comes to sex, in terms of how often they prefer to have it, the kinds of things they like to do, what they will and will not try, etc.,” Dr. Murphy says. Sexual chemistry isn’t the utmost priority to everyone, but still, you never want to feel pressured in the bedroom, nor do you want to feel shamed for any (harmless) kinks or fetishes you enjoy that someone else may not.

And of course, there are also just plain old lifestyle differences. Some early birds want to enjoy their daily routines with their partner, so someone who stays up late and rolls out of bed after noon probably won’t make the cut. Or perhaps you’re big on communication, but your fling is…not: They take hours to respond to your messages and can go days without speaking to you, leaving you confused, frustrated, and disappointed—all of which point to the fact that they’re not the one for you.

It’s also important to be on the same page about finances, Dr. Murphy adds, because tension is bound to brew if you prefer to save your money and your other half enjoys splurging and “treating themselves” regularly—credit card debt be damned!

How (and when) to talk about deal-breakers.

So you’ve done some self-reflection and established a list of your biggest deal-breakers. How do you then convey them to a potential lover or your current partner without scaring them away or coming across as “too picky”? Here are a few possible courses of action:

Lay out your deal-breakers at the start of the relationship, ideally.

The idea of bringing up your nonnegotiables can be nerve-racking—especially if your budding romance is fragile and new. But discussing them early on helps protect you from the future pain of discovering that you and this person don’t mesh after all. “It’s really about what your needs are,” Shanet Dennis, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in New York, tells SELF. “And if you communicate that early on, you give the other person the option to choose to be a part of that or not.”

That might sound scary because it could raise thoughts of rejection and being alone. “But the reality is, if people know what they’re getting up-front and they choose to stay, then they’re getting the real you and not the representative,” Dennis says. Plus, if you choose to ignore something that’s important to you at the beginning of the relationship, you’ll likely find yourself feeling resentful and disappointed down the road.

If you’re dating online, one simple and drama-free way to introduce your deal-breakers is to add things like “must love cats” or “not interested in smokers” in your profile, Megan Fleming, PhD, a couples and sex therapist in New York, suggests. This can help weed out people who won’t be a good fit before you ever chat with them. Of course, a shopping list of must-haves and must-nots can also be off-putting (and make it pretty much impossible to find someone to date), so it’s a good idea to stick with the biggies and let some of the others—your desire to eventually move to the suburbs, maybe, or your career ambitions—come up naturally in conversation

If you already have a partner, it’s best to have a sit-down talk and discuss your boundaries together.

For people in a long-term relationship, discussing personal needs will likely be an ongoing process and may come up in response to certain situations, Dr. Murphy says. For instance, maybe your partner was always present and engaged on dates in the beginning, but now you can’t get through a meal together without them picking up their phone. If that wasn’t a boundary that you established early on, it’s worth bringing it up now—ideally, at a time when no one is particularly stressed or distracted—so that you’re both on the same page about what’s important to you.

But for newer relationships—the ones where you know it’s getting kind of serious, but you haven’t quite had “the talk”—this territory can be especially intimidating to navigate. You’re pretty sure you like them and they like you, and the boundary discussion is one you want to have in order to make things work, but you’re terrified of scaring them off. Introduce the topic gently by saying something like, “Hey, I’m really enjoying our time together, and I want to talk about the future of our relationship.” With a conversation starter like that, Dr. Murphy says you can naturally ease into a mutual discussion about what’s important to you, and vice versa, as a couple—rather than you just spewing off all the things you hate and potentially killing the lovey-dovey mood.

Regardless of how the other person reacts, though, don’t let anyone pressure you into abandoning your morals or convince you that you’re asking for too much. No matter what your specific deal-breakers are, you should never tolerate or settle for anything that compromises your values or makes you feel like you can’t be your full, wonderful self.

Jenna Ryu is SELF’s Lifestyle Writer based in New York, covering topics ranging from beauty to mental health to relationships. She previously was a Wellness Reporter at USA TODAY and received her BA in psychology and journalism at Georgetown University.

Kasandra Brabaw is a health and sex journalist living in Brooklyn. Her work has been features at Health, SELF, Refinery29, Prevention, and Space.com.

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This post originally appeared on SELF and was published July 18, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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