5 Relationship Deal Breakers That Suggest It’s Time to Move on
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Most healthy relationships require compromise, but if you see these red flags in your partner, pay close attention—especially if you are in the first flush of romance.
Is it time to move on from a relationship?
Some relationship deal breakers are pretty much universal. Others are completely individual. So while some warning signs should make you rethink the relationship, other things may just be stumbling blocks that you can work out or ignore.
A good way to think about these red flags is to apply the best friend test, says Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University and the author of the forthcoming Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship…and How to See Past Them: “Like, would you put up with this behavior from your best friend? Wouldn’t you be surprised if your best friend treated you this way?”
Another way is to think of deal breakers as boundaries. “Each individual has boundaries. It’s how we make ourselves feel comfortable in partnership with another. And they’re unique to us,” says Susan Winter, a relationship expert, coach, and author of Breakup Triage. (Here’s how people pleasers can set boundaries.)
Just be aware that those hard-and-fast lines can shift once you’ve partnered up for the long haul, and it’s not so easy to walk away from someone with whom you’ve invested lots of time.
Here are what the experts, and science, say about red flags in a relationship—and how to bring them up once you and your significant other become serious.
In a series of six studies on deal breakers published in 2015 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that the main deal breakers for long-term relationships were anger issues and abuse. Experts are 100 percent in agreement.
“I think that if you don’t feel safe with someone you’re with, then that is too huge a red flag to ignore,” says licensed clinical social worker Beth Sonnenberg, a psychotherapist in Livingston, New Jersey.
Winter agrees. “My personal bottom line is anything that affects my serenity, safety, and security,” she says. “If I have a volatile partner, that’s my safety. If there is verbal or physical abuse or any kind of violence, physical violence, it’s a deal breaker. You cannot fix that, overlook it, or wish it away. You can’t love them enough to heal it. It’s something that they have to do.” (Here are the signs of domestic violence you should recognize.)
The same team of researchers from the 2015 studies also uncovered the second biggest red flag—having multiple sex partners. But while you may say that cheating is a cause for moving on, once you’re in the situation, it may not be as clear cut, says Sonnenberg.
First, it depends on your definition of cheating, she notes: “Is it an emotional relationship like with a colleague at work where they’re emailing back and forth? Is it a 10-year sexual relationship or just a one-night stand? There are so many different scenarios that can play out, and you don’t know how you’re going to feel until you’re in that,” says Sonnenberg. (Get the lowdown on micro-cheating and how to spot it. )
For couples in an open relationship, it may be about breaking the ground rules you mutually agreed on.
How long you’ve been in the relationship, how destructive the trigger was, and how strongly you feel about infidelity will determine how motivated you are to consider this a deal breaker, Sonnenberg explains.
Or you may want to get past your partner’s affair and work on the relationship, only to find that your resentment continues to grow and you no longer trust your significant other. “That’s only up to you. Some of it is up to the behaviors your partner is showing you, but what are you OK with?” says Sonnenberg.
An untrustworthy mate
Many things can fall under this category—cheating, doing drugs, or being involved in some kind other kinds of criminal activity. “These are deal breakers because they affect my day-to-day safety and security,” says Winter, again citing her three “S” rule in relationships—security, safety, and serenity.
Research in the 2015 group of studies in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin also reveals that people are apt to look at someone who’s already in a relationship or marriage as a deal breaker, along with a sense of general untrustworthiness.
“If you were a person that I cannot trust—if there are chronic dishonesty and betrayal and no trust, then it also affects my serenity,” says Winter. (Here are the worst relationship lies partners tell.)
The same goes for financial abuse or infidelity, she says. “That affects your safety and security. If you have a partner who is taking your money or the communal money and making bad investments and doing things behind your back or that you disagree with, and some portion of that is yours, then that’s not cool. And that’s not a relationship that’s going to survive,” Winter notes.
How can you tell early on in the relationship if the person you’re dating is a stand-up kind of guy or gal? “People will talk about simple tests, like, would you give your partner your cell phone password? Would you give them your credit card and then trust them with that?” Lewandowski notes. “Some of those kinds of things are important to think about. You should have a trustworthy partner.” (Here’s how to build trust in a relationship.)
One of you doesn’t want kids
Some differences you can work out. For instance, while you may think now that you’d never marry outside of your faith, you might fall in love with someone who doesn’t share your religion. “Maybe there’s a compromise available because the other person may be willing to raise the kids in your religion, even if they don’t switch their own,” says Sonnenberg.
But one issue that doesn’t really have a compromise is whether to have children, say experts. “If someone’s sure that they don’t want to be a parent and the other person isn’t on the same page, that can be really tough,” Sonnenberg says.
“Maybe one person thinks the other partner will change their mind and want to be a parent, and then resent them for not changing their mind. I think that’s an example of one that definitely should be discussed ahead of time because you have to have a similar vision for picturing your future together.”
When to hold that conversation? “Obviously you’re not going to start talking about having kids on your first date,” says Sonnenberg. “But I think if you’re going into a situation where you’re meeting their family or friends, it would be helpful to have these discussions ahead of time just so you’re on the same page.”
A partner who’s not willing to listen
Another warning signal for Winter: “A partner who’s always right and will never listen to you,” she says. “A person could look perfect on paper and tick all the boxes, but their disposition will erode the relationship if they’re not able to take responsibility for the times that they have been insensitive or hurtful, they’re not able to honor your boundaries, or be sensitive to your needs, and make these corrections.” (Learn the difference between healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.)
Other character traits can be deal breakers because, in the long run, they eat away at your relationship, says Winter. One is the person who plays the victim in every fight, even when they’re in the wrong.
For instance, if your partner decides to go out with friends instead when the two of you had plans for dinner—but then blames you for being controlling when you call them out. That’s a warning signal, as is the narcissistic person who just loves to push your buttons for their own power trip, Winter notes.
“Psychological mind games are not allowed,” she says. (Can’t spot these personalities in your life? Here are some signs that you are dating a narcissist.)
Deciding what your relationship deal breakers are
Other issues can drive some people away, but not others. One survey in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin of roughly 5,500 singles ranging in ages from 21 to 76 found the top three deal breakers for roughly two-thirds of those surveyed was someone who looked messy or unclean, was lazy, and too needy.
Bad sex was a red flag for 47 percent of the participants (but there are ways to make sex great again, say experts) while a third thought watching too much TV/playing too many video games were warning signals. (Here’s how important sex is in a relationship.)
“Your partner is always going to have stuff you don’t like, so what can you live with?” Winter says. The things some people might find irritating in a partner or partnership are not the same for everyone. Meaning what bothers one person may have no effect on another, or simply may not be as important. (Here are the characteristics of a healthy relationship.)
Just be sure that your standards are fairly high when you enter a new relationship, Lewandowski advises. “Early on, there’s just so much good stuff happening that you’re super forgiving about a lot of things,” Lewandowski says. But if you know what your dealbreakers are, it’ll be easier to navigate relationships and make conscious decisions about what is acceptable and unacceptable, for you.
One example is someone who’s inattentive or seems uncaring at times (again, think of Lewandowski’s best friend rule). “You might be more forgiving of those early on, and you should be less forgiving of those things,” says Lewandowski. “We know that it’s the costs early on that are the most predictive of the relationship outcome. And so the more problems you have early on, those really should be major red flags.”
Bringing up your relationship deal breakers
Talk to your partner about areas of compromise vs. your relationship deal breakers. This might include discussing certain values you hold in terms of say, religious differences. Or maybe you want to make sure your partner shares your values on monogamy and honesty. “Having effective communication about deal breakers is very important,” says Sonnenberg.
“Maybe there is wiggle room, maybe there’s not, and you could decipher that by how much they stick to their belief,” says Sonnenberg “If it’s an ongoing discussion and you’re able to change your feelings about it, and see the other person’s side and make a compromise, that’s the important piece.”
But again, you might want to hold back on these conversations until things get a little more serious. “I think you have to feel it out, and maybe you hold back from some of your strongly held beliefs because you feel that it would stop the projection of the relationship,” says Sonnenberg. “If you say, ‘This isn’t going to work, we come from two different worlds,’ because you both have different religions or different socioeconomic backgrounds, if you’re really into the person then you may let it go and have that discussion later.”
Winter takes a different tack. “I have people say, ‘Oh, keep the mystery.’ But I don’t have time. I know what I want. If you don’t want what I want, let’s part,” she admits. “I think it’s better to eliminate in the beginning those people who aren’t in the same place rather than wait and hope they come around. You’ve lost another year out of your life only to realize, no they’re not where you are.”
Whenever you bring up your deal breakers, do it in person—not over the phone or text—so you can observe your partner’s body language, says Sonnenberg.
“There are other visual cues besides just how they respond so you can really understand if they’re telling the truth and are on the same page as you or not,” she notes. You can also tell how honest they are if you bring up a topic like an infidelity and it makes your partner uncomfortable, she says: “Or they say, ‘Totally, me too!’ and they’re not removing their picture from Bumble.”
Focus on deal makers, not relationship deal breakers
A 2020 study on deal breakers in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that people, especially women, tended to pay more attention to such negative character traits as inattentiveness and untrustworthiness than positive ones like kindness and a sense of humor in a prospective mate. In other words, deal breakers trumped deal makers as people learn more about their mate.
Granted, the experiment asked people to vote up or down on a hypothetical partner, so who knows how they’d react in a real-life relationship. Still, as Lewandowski notes, “Humans just naturally have a negativity bias, where we tend to notice bad things more than we notice the good things. We take good things for granted.”
So if you find yourself thinking seriously about a partner, ask yourself if they meet these criteria: “They should be that person who cares for you, who supports you, who helps make you a better person. It should be the person who you’re willing to do anything for, and who’s willing to do anything for you,” says Lewandowski.
“Which means that they treat you with respect, they value who you are. You enjoy spending time together, you authentically like them as a person. And if your romantic partner is that kind of person, it benefits everything—it’s good for job and life satisfaction, you make more money, you’re healthier, and all those kinds of things.”
If your partner has those good qualities, then maybe it’s time to stop obsessing so much about the aspects that are annoying or need work. “People never know if they have a good relationship or not, sometimes it’s hard to tell for sure, or if it could be better,” Lewandowski explains. “But people just need to be careful when evaluating their relationship to weigh the good and the bad so that you’re not being too hard on the relationship. A lot of times, relationships are stronger than you really think they are.”
Next, check out these five tips for making your relationship successful.
- Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr., PhD, professor of psychology at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey
- Beth Sonnenberg, LCSW, psychotherapist, Livingston, New Jersey
- Susan Winter, relationship expert, coach and author, New York City
- Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: "Relationship Dealbreakers: Traits People Avoid in Potential Mates."
- Personality and Individual Differences: "Should I stay or should I go: Individual differences in response to romantic dealmakers and dealbreakers"