April 11, 2007 -- In her new book, "Deal Breakers: When to Work on a Relationship and When to Walk Away," psychoanalyst Bethany Marshall outlines how women can make romantic relationships work for them. Marshall suggests setting boundaries -- or deal breakers -- to achieve the happiness she believes every woman deserves. The following is an excerpt.
Chapter 1: What's Your Deal?
What do you absolutely want out of your relationship? Do you know?
You may consider yourself wise, self-sufficient, and a good judge of character. Your girlfriend's troubled love life always seems transparent and filled with unnecessary drama. But when faced with your own murky relationship waters, the easy answers seem to disappear.
Perhaps it is easy to analyze your girlfriend's relationship because what constitutes a deal breaker for her may not necessarily constitute a deal breaker for you. Conversely, a romantic situation that seems like nirvana to you might feel like sheer hell for her.
So how can you judge a true deal breaker?
A deal breaker is a character flaw or emotional stance that significantly deteriorates the quality of a relationship. Note: Deal breakers are not minor annoying habits such as your boyfriend's chewing with his mouth open or your husband's endlessly quoting sports statistics. Rather, they are qualities that erode your most cherished aspirations for a satisfying love relationship.
But in order to spot a deal breaker, you must first have a deal. By this, I mean that you must know what you hope to get out of a relationship (other than two carats in a platinum setting). Knowing what you want is important because all relationships are built upon arrangements. Some are financial arrangements. Some are emotional arrangements. Some are marital arrangements. Some are sexual arrangements. Your relationship may contain some, or all, aspects of the arrangements just mentioned. Arrangements are best when they are agreed upon by both parties and flexibly negotiated over time. But what if you don't know what you want? Or you settle for an arrangement that makes you unhappy? Or you grew up in a household where nothing was discussed or explored, so you never learned to ask for what you wanted?
Nicky, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student, came to therapy because she felt anxious about her "dating" relationship.
I put "dating" in quotes because Nicky revealed to me that her relationship consisted primarily of watching late-night TV together, cuddling until four in the morning, and then having sex. After these nights of so-called passion, her boyfriend would disappear and forget to call her for several days.
This was not a dating relationship. This was a booty call! But Nicky was young and naive, and had not yet articulated to herself what she wanted out of a relationship. Thus, she could not spot a deal breaker even though it was staring her straight in the face.
I broached the subject of deal breakers by educating Nicky about normal dating relationships; namely, that a man's willingness to call in advance and take a woman to dinner is an indicator of his willingness to invest his emotions in her. Nicky's newfound knowledge helped her realize that she was in a sexual arrangement, not a dating arrangement. Once she acknowledged that she wanted a boyfriend instead of a sex buddy, she realized that his lack of emotional investment was a deal breaker. She told him that she wanted an exclusive dating relationship that involved dinners out and time spent with mutual friends, but she could tell by his reluctance that he was not "The One."
If you think back to the last time you were unhappy in a relationship, there is a great likelihood that your partner was doing something that undermined the arrangement you were hoping for. For example, if your boyfriend consistently refused to attend family holidays, then he was probably ruining your hopes of a relationship arrangement that included interest in each other's life and a possible future together. If he continually questioned your decisions, he could have been undermining your dreams of a relationship built upon trust. If he flew into irrational jealous rages, then he was possibly dashing your hopes of being in a stable relationship arrangement.
A deal breaker is not a deal breaker unless it destroys something that is precious to you.
But deal breakers are emotional, so they're easy to miss. They're feelings, so there's nothing to sign. And they can be difficult to talk about, because they're typically unspoken. Here are some important aspects of common relationship arrangements and the deal breakers that can destroy them:
You need autonomy.
He wants to oversee and approve your friendships and date book.
You are ambitious.
Not only has he been in the same job for fifteen years, but his uniform still includes a paper hat.
You need a relationship where conflicts are discussed and resolved.
To him, resolving conflicts means getting you to put a sock in it.
You want to feel special.
He is withholding and cheap.
You need consistency. You want to know that when you see him, he is the same person he was the last time you saw him.
He is so moody that you are convinced he has PMS.
You like the idea of monogamy.
He's faithful, but when he sees another woman his tongue unfurls like a cartoon rodent's. And so it is with deal breakers.
One person has a need. The other will not fulfill it. One person wants to get married.
The other person does not. One person wants fidelity. The other does not. One person wants freedom. The other is only interested in control.
Deal breakers undermine the very conditions that make it possible to love. And as such, they constitute a warning that the relationship needs either to dissolve or to change. Unfortunately, you may not know what you want out of a relationship. Or if you do, you may feel guilty about creating the situation that works best for you. Thus, you may remain unaware of the factors that make a relationship impossible. But do not be discouraged. Being in a good relationship is not rocket science. By the time you are finished with this book, you will know exactly what you want.
In the meantime, here's a little tidbit to think about. Regardless of the arrangement that you are trying to build for yourself, your healthy relationship should include three important ingredients:
Both of you are equally invested in the relationship.
The relationship generates something new (a new experience, a new understanding, a new solution) with each encounter -- thus it is always moving forward.
You feel free to tell him what's on your mind and he responds by revealing his true thoughts, motivations, and intentions. Thus, you continually get to know each other better.
It's a red flag if you have to call your friends or obtain a PhD to decipher what he is trying to communicate to you.
For example, you think that you are having a discussion, but you walk away from each conversation feeling confused. Or you worry about whether he's coming clean or telling you the truth. Or you try to communicate with him, but he hears something other than what you said. And you begin to realize that if you cannot communicate about the simplest of things, you might not be able to build a good relationship arrangement together.
Is there one relationship problem that eats away at you, but you don't know why? You keep trying to connect the dots, but you can't -- and you wonder if there's a deeper issue that you are missing? Or whether the problem is serious enough to be considered a deal breaker?
The answer: A deal breaker is not a one-time fight. Nor is it an excuse to put distance between you and him. A deal breaker is a sign of everything else that is wrong in a relationship. Sometimes, deal breakers erupt into consciousness during one awful moment (like discovering a pile of bounced checks when you have long suspected that he is irresponsible). Or they are characterized by a series of seemingly minor events that add up to one big problem (like many social events during which he inappropriately brags -- worse yet, about his baseball card collection). Often deal breakers surface in social contexts, where it becomes easier to view your partner through the eyes of others you trust.
For instance, Jim entered therapy to understand his inability to assert himself. Although Jim is a brilliant oncologist, he has a poorly defined sense of self. Thus, he is constantly seeking approval and is rarely willing to say what he thinks. In a recent session, Jim described a painful breakup that occurred in his early twenties. He had been dating a girl who overlooked many instances in which Jim had exaggerated his accomplishments in order to gain approval. About one year into the relationship, she introduced Jim to her parents. During the introduction, Jim lied and told them he was a licensed MD when in fact he had not yet attended medical school. His girlfriend became worried and broke off the relationship.
As I listened to Jim's painful recollection, I thought, Of course she broke up with you! This was a deal breaker! The poor girl had probably been listening to your thinly veiled lies and exaggerations for months. But when she observed you lying to her parents, and was able to view the problem from their perspective, she was finally able to conceptualize everything else that was wrong with the relationship.
Women who come to me for help initially express surface complaints about the men in their lives:
"For some reason, I hate the way he dresses."
"I don't know why, but I only have road rage when he's in the passenger seat."
"He tells me that he won't spend an entire weekend together. Is it wrong for me to feel upset?"
"He tells me that I am shallow and immature. That really bothers me. Should it?"
"When we have sex, he fixates on my breasts and ignores the rest of me. It hurts my feelings, and I'm not sure why."
When I hear complaints such as these, I usually ask, "What does his unwillingness to spend an entire weekend together mean to you?" or "Does it remind you of anything else that is wrong with the relationship?" I ask these questions because seemingly trivial complaints are often a sign of something much larger. And often, the woman's original concern is backed up by other observations and worries that reflect the true significance of the original complaint. For instance, the man who fixated on his girlfriend's breasts had other parallel problems (if he hadn't, it would not have been a deal breaker ... just creepy and annoying). He only related to the parts of her that felt exciting and pleasurable to him and ignored the rest (he forgot that breasts are typically attached to a person). Therefore, he could not understand anything about her that did not relate directly to himself. This major problem had an impact on the rest of his relationships, as he saw people as objects to meet his needs rather than as individuals with thoughts, feelings, and desires of their own.
Whenever I explore a woman's relationship complaints, I can tell if they constitute a deal breaker. If she's referring to a deal breaker, her original complaint will be related to many other problems in the relationship. If she's trying to work through a curable problem, then her worries will either have to do with her own history (for example, she was abandoned as a child and is now anxious whenever her husband goes out of town) or the problem can easily be fixed.
True deal breakers are symptomatic of underlying relationship problems. They point to something severe, such as a relationship impasse or a destructive emotional issue that cannot be resolved. As such, deal breakers become signposts of other dynamics that are unworkable in a relationship.
Giselle came to therapy to talk about her relationship with her boyfriend. In the second session, she told me that her boyfriend wanted to take back a diamond tennis bracelet that he had given her for Christmas. His plan was to exchange it for an engagement ring that Giselle had admired.
On the face of it, the infraction seemed benign. I mean, she had admired an engagement ring that he now wanted to buy for her! As the story unfolded, however, I learned that Giselle's lover frequently bought her gifts after closing business deals. But the minute they had a minor quarrel, he would retaliate by retrieving her gifts and returning them for cash. His problem was compounded by a belief that Giselle was a money-grubbing girl who only wanted him for his money. (He screwed people out of money for a living. He assumed Giselle did too.)
Of course, the gift-returning scenario merely reflected layers of other relationship problems. He frequently took things personally and would become upset at minor infractions. He was constantly breaking up with Giselle and then reuniting with her. The breakups seemed to occur during periods when he was feeling his oats and wanted to go out for a good time with his friends. As with the gifts, he was constantly offering his love and then taking it back.
Once Giselle understood that she was like the bracelet -- easily bought and easily returned -- she was able to use the realization that this was a deal breaker to implement important changes in her life.
Note: Once Giselle realized that the gift-returning incidents were symptomatic of deeper relationship problems, she was also able to understand that the relationship arrangement was not working for her. Although she wanted a relationship that potentially included marriage, her lover was too busy breaking off the relationship to create a secure future for them.
* * *
Because deal breakers are signs of other relationship problems, they can slap you in the face while other important problems are hidden from view. For instance, if you are in a difficult relationship, you may find that there is one annoying habit that drives you crazy. Or one big problem that seems to eclipse everything else. The problem could be parenting skills, control, arguing, lack of money, ambiguity, indecisiveness, et cetera. But if the horrible problem is a deal breaker, it will be a reflection of other problems that are equally important.
Perhaps your one big complaint is the only tangible sign that other things are wrong. For instance, you focus on your man's alcoholism when underlying selfishness is the true problem (alcoholism can be fixed by a twelve-step program, but selfishness might not). Or you are upset that your boyfriend won't get married, when his lack of emotional interest is the real issue.
Once you notice a deal breaker, you can't unsee it. You can pretend you didn't see it, like the man who pretends no one notices his sideways, back-of-the-head comb-over, but anyone who cares about you will see it.
Deal breakers can be helpful, in that they can help you picture other relationship problems. For instance, I once treated the girlfriend of a wealthy real estate developer. This thirty-six-year-old woman had put ten years of her life on hold, and would often fly to various parts of the world to meet him (so many times that she had accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to orbit the moon). At the end of each visit he would hand her five thousand dollars in cash, which she was supposed to live on until the next time. She chose not to get a job or develop a career, because she believed that her availability would secure her future with him. (After all, beauty duty is a full-time job.) But as you probably guessed, if he wanted to marry her, he would have already done it.
One day my patient picked up a city magazine, and guess who was there on the cover? Her boyfriend. The caption read "Mr. So-and-So Donates $50 Million to Build a Museum Wing in His Name."
She was devastated. But when she read the caption, she was able to envision everything else that was wrong with the relationship. Namely, that he was more devoted to outside interests than to her. That she had not accurately defined her relationship arrangement (she thought it was an emotional arrangement, when in fact it was merely a sexual arrangement). And she acted as though she were his fiancée, when in fact she was merely a playmate. These realizations led her to the conclusion that the relationship was financially disadvantageous and emotionally unfair. That she had sold her soul for an illusion. And most important, that her lover did not care about her (the biggest deal breaker of all).
Once she broached the subject of his self-involvement, he responded by reminding her that she was not obligated to be in a relationship with him. Her confusion cleared and she broke off the relationship.
If a problem is not representative of deeper issues, it may not be a deal breaker. For instance, giving you herpes is not necessarily a deal breaker. Not announcing he was about to is. Remember: A deal breaker is only a deal breaker if it is symptomatic of other destructive relationship dynamics.
Thus, if your husband slept with another woman on a business trip yet has always been an excellent and loyal partner, it may not be a deal breaker! (Though it is common to view sexual infidelity as symptomatic of other relationship problems, this is not always the case. Not to undermine the sting of betrayal, but I have seen more couples successfully negotiate sexual infidelity than a lack of mutual interest or relationship craziness.) If he loses his job and becomes temporarily financially dependent -- yet has always been responsible -- then it may not be a deal breaker. So here's the tricky point: When is it a deal breaker, and when is it not?
It is a deal breaker when it is the tip of the misery iceberg and you know that there is more lurking beneath the surface. Or when it destroys the relationship arrangement you need in order to feel fulfilled and happy.
It is not a deal breaker when it is merely one bad thing that has happened, and is not related to other fundamental problems in the relationship.