Excerpt: 'Deal Breakers'

Psychologist talks about when it's time to work on a relationship or walk away.

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? Doyou know?

You may consider yourself wise, self-sufficient, and agood judge of character. Your girlfriend's troubled love lifealways 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 relationshipbecause what constitutes a deal breaker for her may notnecessarily constitute a deal breaker for you. Conversely, aromantic situation that seems like nirvana to you might feellike sheer hell for her.

So how can you judge a true deal breaker?

A deal breaker is a character flaw or emotional stance thatsignificantly deteriorates the quality of a relationship. Note: Dealbreakers are not minor annoying habits such as your boyfriend'schewing with his mouth open or your husband's endlessly quotingsports statistics. Rather, they are qualities that erode yourmost cherished aspirations for a satisfying love relationship.

But in order to spot a deal breaker, you must first havea deal. By this, I mean that you must know what you hopeto get out of a relationship (other than two carats in a platinumsetting). Knowing what you want is important becauseall relationships are built upon arrangements. Some are financialarrangements. Some are emotional arrangements. Someare marital arrangements. Some are sexual arrangements. Yourrelationship may contain some, or all, aspects of the arrangementsjust mentioned. Arrangements are best when they areagreed upon by both parties and flexibly negotiated over time.But what if you don't know what you want? Or you settlefor an arrangement that makes you unhappy? Or you grewup in a household where nothing was discussed or explored,so you never learned to ask for what you wanted?

Nicky's Story

Nicky, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student, came to therapybecause she felt anxious about her "dating" relationship.

I put "dating" in quotes because Nicky revealed to me thather relationship consisted primarily of watching late-night TVtogether, cuddling until four in the morning, and then havingsex. After these nights of so-called passion, her boyfriendwould 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 articulatedto herself what she wanted out of a relationship. Thus, shecould not spot a deal breaker even though it was staring herstraight in the face.

I broached the subject of deal breakers by educating Nickyabout normal dating relationships; namely, that a man's willingnessto call in advance and take a woman to dinner isan indicator of his willingness to invest his emotions in her.Nicky's newfound knowledge helped her realize that she wasin a sexual arrangement, not a dating arrangement. Once sheacknowledged that she wanted a boyfriend instead of a sexbuddy, she realized that his lack of emotional investment wasa deal breaker. She told him that she wanted an exclusivedating relationship that involved dinners out and time spentwith mutual friends, but she could tell by his reluctance thathe was not "The One."

If you think back to the last time you were unhappy in arelationship, there is a great likelihood that your partnerwas doing something that undermined the arrangement youwere hoping for. For example, if your boyfriend consistentlyrefused to attend family holidays, then he was probably ruiningyour hopes of a relationship arrangement that includedinterest in each other's life and a possible future together. Ifhe continually questioned your decisions, he could have beenundermining your dreams of a relationship built upon trust.If he flew into irrational jealous rages, then he was possiblydashing your hopes of being in a stable relationship arrangement.

A deal breaker is not a deal breaker unless it destroys somethingthat 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 bedifficult to talk about, because they're typically unspoken.Here are some important aspects of common relationshiparrangements 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 possibleto love. And as such, they constitute a warning that the relationshipneeds either to dissolve or to change. Unfortunately,you may not know what you want out of a relationship. Orif you do, you may feel guilty about creating the situationthat works best for you. Thus, you may remain unaware ofthe factors that make a relationship impossible. But do not bediscouraged. Being in a good relationship is not rocket science.By the time you are finished with this book, you willknow exactly what you want.

In the meantime, here's a little tidbit to think about.Regardless of the arrangement that you are trying to buildfor yourself, your healthy relationship should include threeimportant ingredients:

1. Reciprocity

Both of you are equally invested in the relationship.

2. Generativity

The relationship generates something new (a new experience,a new understanding, a new solution) with each encounter -- thus it is always moving forward.

3. Honesty

You feel free to tell him what's on your mind and heresponds by revealing his true thoughts, motivations, andintentions. Thus, you continually get to know each otherbetter.

It's a red flag if you have to call your friends or obtain aPhD to decipher what he is trying to communicate to you.

For example, you think that you are having a discussion, butyou walk away from each conversation feeling confused. Oryou worry about whether he's coming clean or telling youthe truth. Or you try to communicate with him, but he hearssomething other than what you said. And you begin to realizethat if you cannot communicate about the simplest ofthings, you might not be able to build a good relationshiparrangement together.


Is there one relationship problem that eats away at you, butyou don't know why? You keep trying to connect the dots,but you can't -- and you wonder if there's a deeper issue thatyou are missing? Or whether the problem is serious enoughto be considered a deal breaker?

The answer: A deal breaker is not a one-time fight. Noris it an excuse to put distance between you and him. A dealbreaker is a sign of everything else that is wrong in a relationship.Sometimes, deal breakers erupt into consciousness duringone awful moment (like discovering a pile of bounced checkswhen you have long suspected that he is irresponsible). Orthey are characterized by a series of seemingly minor eventsthat add up to one big problem (like many social eventsduring which he inappropriately brags -- worse yet, abouthis baseball card collection). Often deal breakers surface insocial contexts, where it becomes easier to view your partnerthrough the eyes of others you trust.

For instance, Jim entered therapy to understand his inabilityto assert himself. Although Jim is a brilliant oncologist, hehas a poorly defined sense of self. Thus, he is constantly seekingapproval and is rarely willing to say what he thinks. In arecent session, Jim described a painful breakup that occurred inhis early twenties. He had been dating a girl who overlookedmany instances in which Jim had exaggerated his accomplishmentsin order to gain approval. About one year into therelationship, she introduced Jim to her parents. During theintroduction, Jim lied and told them he was a licensed MDwhen in fact he had not yet attended medical school. His girlfriendbecame worried and broke off the relationship.

As I listened to Jim's painful recollection, I thought, Ofcourse she broke up with you! This was a deal breaker! The poor girlhad probably been listening to your thinly veiled lies and exaggerationsfor months. But when she observed you lying to her parents,and was able to view the problem from their perspective, she wasfinally able to conceptualize everything else that was wrong with therelationship.

Women who come to me for help initially express surfacecomplaints 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'sin the passenger seat."

"He tells me that he won't spend an entire weekendtogether. Is it wrong for me to feel upset?"

"He tells me that I am shallow and immature. That reallybothers me. Should it?"

"When we have sex, he fixates on my breasts and ignoresthe 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 weekendtogether mean to you?" or "Does it remind you of anythingelse that is wrong with the relationship?" I ask these questionsbecause seemingly trivial complaints are often a signof something much larger. And often, the woman's originalconcern is backed up by other observations and worries thatreflect the true significance of the original complaint. Forinstance, the man who fixated on his girlfriend's breasts hadother parallel problems (if he hadn't, it would not have beena deal breaker ... just creepy and annoying). He only relatedto the parts of her that felt exciting and pleasurable to him andignored the rest (he forgot that breasts are typically attachedto a person). Therefore, he could not understand anythingabout her that did not relate directly to himself. This majorproblem had an impact on the rest of his relationships, as hesaw people as objects to meet his needs rather than as individualswith 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 toa deal breaker, her original complaint will be related to manyother problems in the relationship. If she's trying to workthrough a curable problem, then her worries will either haveto do with her own history (for example, she was abandonedas a child and is now anxious whenever her husband goes outof town) or the problem can easily be fixed.

True deal breakers are symptomatic of underlying relationshipproblems. They point to something severe, such as a relationshipimpasse or a destructive emotional issue that cannot beresolved. As such, deal breakers become signposts of otherdynamics that are unworkable in a relationship.

[Giselle's Story]

Giselle came to therapy to talk about her relationship withher boyfriend. In the second session, she told me that herboyfriend wanted to take back a diamond tennis bracelet thathe had given her for Christmas. His plan was to exchange itfor 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 wantedto buy for her! As the story unfolded, however, I learnedthat Giselle's lover frequently bought her gifts after closingbusiness deals. But the minute they had a minor quarrel, hewould retaliate by retrieving her gifts and returning them forcash. His problem was compounded by a belief that Gisellewas a money-grubbing girl who only wanted him for hismoney. (He screwed people out of money for a living. Heassumed Giselle did too.)

Of course, the gift-returning scenario merely reflectedlayers of other relationship problems. He frequently tookthings personally and would become upset at minor infractions.He was constantly breaking up with Giselle and thenreuniting with her. The breakups seemed to occur duringperiods when he was feeling his oats and wanted to go outfor a good time with his friends. As with the gifts, he wasconstantly 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 therealization that this was a deal breaker to implement importantchanges in her life.

Note: Once Giselle realized that the gift-returning incidentswere symptomatic of deeper relationship problems, shewas also able to understand that the relationship arrangementwas not working for her. Although she wanted a relationshipthat potentially included marriage, her lover was toobusy breaking off the relationship to create a secure future forthem.

* * *

Because deal breakers are signs of other relationship problems,they can slap you in the face while other important problemsare hidden from view. For instance, if you are in a difficultrelationship, you may find that there is one annoying habitthat drives you crazy. Or one big problem that seems toeclipse everything else. The problem could be parenting skills,control, arguing, lack of money, ambiguity, indecisiveness, etcetera. But if the horrible problem is a deal breaker, it will bea reflection of other problems that are equally important.

Perhaps your one big complaint is the only tangible signthat other things are wrong. For instance, you focus on yourman's alcoholism when underlying selfishness is the trueproblem (alcoholism can be fixed by a twelve-step program,but selfishness might not). Or you are upset that your boyfriendwon't get married, when his lack of emotional interestis the real issue.

Once you notice a deal breaker, you can't unsee it. Youcan pretend you didn't see it, like the man who pretends noone notices his sideways, back-of-the-head comb-over, butanyone who cares about you will see it.

Deal breakers can be helpful, in that they can helpyou picture other relationship problems. For instance, I oncetreated the girlfriend of a wealthy real estate developer. Thisthirty-six-year-old woman had put ten years of her life onhold, and would often fly to various parts of the world tomeet him (so many times that she had accumulated enoughfrequent flyer miles to orbit the moon). At the end of eachvisit he would hand her five thousand dollars in cash, whichshe was supposed to live on until the next time. She chosenot to get a job or develop a career, because she believedthat her availability would secure her future with him. (Afterall, beauty duty is a full-time job.) But as you probablyguessed, if he wanted to marry her, he would have alreadydone it.

One day my patient picked up a city magazine, and guesswho was there on the cover? Her boyfriend. The caption read"Mr. So-and-So Donates $50 Million to Build a MuseumWing in His Name."

She was devastated. But when she read the caption,she was able to envision everything else that was wrongwith the relationship. Namely, that he was more devotedto outside interests than to her. That she had not accuratelydefined her relationship arrangement (she thought it wasan emotional arrangement, when in fact it was merely asexual arrangement). And she acted as though she werehis fiancée, when in fact she was merely a playmate. Theserealizations led her to the conclusion that the relationshipwas financially disadvantageous and emotionally unfair. Thatshe had sold her soul for an illusion. And most important,that her lover did not care about her (the biggest dealbreaker of all).

Once she broached the subject of his self-involvement,he responded by reminding her that she was not obligated tobe in a relationship with him. Her confusion cleared and shebroke off the relationship.

If a problem is not representative of deeper issues, it maynot be a deal breaker. For instance, giving you herpes is notnecessarily a deal breaker. Not announcing he was about tois. Remember: A deal breaker is only a deal breaker if it issymptomatic of other destructive relationship dynamics.

Thus, if your husband slept with another woman on a businesstrip yet has always been an excellent and loyal partner, itmay not be a deal breaker! (Though it is common to view sexualinfidelity as symptomatic of other relationship problems, this isnot always the case. Not to undermine the sting of betrayal, butI have seen more couples successfully negotiate sexual infidelitythan a lack of mutual interest or relationship craziness.) If he loseshis job and becomes temporarily financially dependent -- yet hasalways been responsible -- then it may not be a deal breaker.So here's the tricky point: When is it a deal breaker, andwhen is it not?

It is a deal breaker when it is the tip of the misery icebergand you know that there is more lurking beneath the surface.Or when it destroys the relationship arrangement you needin order to feel fulfilled and happy.

It is not a deal breaker when it is merely one bad thingthat has happened, and is not related to other fundamentalproblems in the relationship.