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When couples come to me before committing to a life-long partnership or formal marriage, we work on building a solid foundation. An assessment of their strengths and challenges as a couple is part of the process. One of the things to flush out is if there are any dealbreakers the couple has been avoiding.
Deal breakers are different from perpetual problems. In every partnership, there are recurrent problems. According to relationship therapist and Scientist Dr. John Gottman, 69% of conflicts couples have are repetitions based on fundamental differences in personality, lifestyle, or needs. “When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems.” (Dan Wile). If you were with another partner, you would also have unsolvable problems; they would just be different ones. Accept that these conflicts won’t go away and require ongoing compromise. You can learn to create win-win situations so that your needs and your partner’s needs are met as much as possible.
Some examples of common perpetual issues are differences in
- decision making,
- preferred activity level,
- wanting time together versus time apart,
- optimal sexual frequency,
- preferred lovemaking style,
- expressing emotions,
- approaching finances,
- how to approach household chores,
- how to raise children,
- a desire for closeness versus distance to family, and
- preferred lifestyle.
It is usual for a couple to disagree and experience conflicts over those differences. A common misconception is that our partner should change and adopt our way of being. Instead, learn to dialogue about those problems so you can both adapt. If a couple cannot dialogue, they might end up in gridlock conflict. A gridlock conflict tends to take over and rob us of joy and lightness. At that point, couples come to me and ask, “Should it be this hard?”
Any of these perpetual problems could turn into a dealbreaker, depending on how far the couple is apart in their positions and how (un)willing they are to compromise. Other problems can be dealbreakers from the start due to the nature of the problem. However, couples might ignore these dealbreakers without recognizing their impact on their relationship.
Tom wants to get married and have a child, but his girlfriend Lisa is not ready to give up partying, taking drugs and drinking. She is not sure if she wants children. It also turns out she has an addiction problem but is unwilling to address it. So her addiction becomes a dealbreaker for Tom.
Susan and Ellen have lived in the city for five years to be close to Susan’s job. The city is where Susan feels alive. However, due to COVID, her work situation has changed, and Ellen, who thrives on being in nature and loves small towns, finally wants to move out into the country. Susan cannot imagine not living in a vibrant city. Unless they can compromise their living preferences becomes a dealbreaker.
Chris and Peter have different definitions of commitment. Peter wants a monogamous relationship, while Chris wants a polyamorous lifestyle. They have tried to convince each other of their preference for a while, but their positions are clear. They have a dealbreaker.
Christine has supported her husband Pierre financially through debt and unemployment. Her understanding and expectation were that this was a temporary arrangement. However, Pierre is not willing to actively change the situation. His unwillingness to be an equal breadwinner is a dealbreaker for Christine.
In the four cases, the couples ignored the dealbreaker for a while and hoped things would change. Once everybody had put their cards on the table, they had clarity. I don’t tell anybody what they should do, and a couple might still decide to get married or stay together, but they are now doing it with full awareness of the fundamental difference. My job is to flush out the issues and explore with the couple if they are perpetual and workable differences or dealbreakers, which have the power to strain and destroy their partnership because they ultimately make one or both of them unhappy.
If you are wondering whether you are faced with a dealbreaker or a workable problem,
reach out for couples coaching.