How much can you stand?

One of the most frequently asked questions that we get from our readers and students is, “What are the deal-breakers in relationships?”

“Deal-breakers” are those behaviors or conditions that one partner is unable or unwilling to tolerate in a relationship. Because “tolerance” is a relative term and subject to everyone’s unique capacity to accept varying degrees of distress or discomfort, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and no higher authority we can defer to that could legitimatize our right to refuse to tolerate a specific practice or behavior on the part of our partner (or, for that matter, to sanction our right to continue behaviors that are unacceptable to him or her).

While one person may be willing or able to tolerate occasional affairs on the part of a spouse, another may be unwilling to stay together after a single betrayal. The same goes for verbal abuse, or addiction, or chronic dishonesty, or different religious beliefs, or any of a number of other conditions that may be present in a relationship.

This is not to say that either person is right or wrong in either their behavior or their degree of willingness to tolerate that behavior in a partner. It is also not to say that we shouldn’t make an effort to work out the inevitably different values that all couples have in regard to their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

What can and often does push a situation from workable to unworkable is an unwillingness on the part of either partner to openly discuss their thoughts, feelings, concerns, experience, and needs. A willingness on the part of the “offending” partner to consider altering their beliefs or behaviors is required in order to create a deeper level of trust and respect in the relationship. If there is no motivation on the part of an alcoholic to address their drinking, no desire on the part of an abusive partner to get help, no willingness on the part of a parent to discuss child-rearing philosophies openly and respectfully with their spouse, the chances of any of those situations being or becoming a deal-breaker greatly increase.

In most cases, the possibility of resolution has less to do with behavior than the perception on the part of one or both partners that there are legitimate grounds to trust that there is genuine intention to change, or to effectively manage the behavior or attitude that is causing distress in the relationship. It is also important that the other partner is open to reflecting on ways in which they may be unknowingly contributing to the situation or to discovering ways in which they can be more effective in dealing with their concerns. Yet even in cases where there is a willingness on the part of both partners to do their own work, that may not be sufficient. It may not be enough to interrupt the pattern enough to bring about an outcome that restores equilibrium and mutual trust in the relationship.

The longer an unacceptable condition is allowed to continue, the more likely it is to become toxic. A toxic relationship is one in which the level of trust, respect, and goodwill has deteriorated to the point where even the desire and motivation to heal has been lost by one or both partners. At this point, the likelihood of restoring this desire is low and the prognosis for the relationship is poor.

There are serious risks that couples take in trying for too long to toleratecircumstances that are causing extreme suffering for one or both partners. Couples take a serious risk in trying for too long to tolerate circumstances that are causing extreme suffering for one or both of them. Living in hope or denial, or distracting ourselves through unhealthy behaviors or relationships, only causes greater suffering in situations that are already intolerable. While facing the truth can be difficult and painful, in the long run, it is the most direct path out of suffering.

With very few exceptions, most situations don’t begin as deal-breakers; they become deal-breakers when they are ignored or inadequately addressed over a long period of time. Not infrequently, misguided efforts that one partner makes to try to tolerate their pain and frustration only add to the entrenched nature of the problem.

While there is no way—nor is it necessary—to assess what percentage of the problem is due to each partner, it is generally the case that both partners have perceptual filters preventing them from seeing the full range of options available to them. This is where help from a trusted friend or professional can illuminate possibilities that may have gone unrecognized.

The earlier we acknowledge and respond to entrenched relationship differences, the more likely it is that they will not become deal-breakers. Still, despite our best efforts, we can sometimes be faced with true deal-breakers. Where it is clear that fundamental differences are too great to bridge the gap between partners, it is wise to acknowledge this reality and to respectfully end the relationship in its present form, moving on separately or in a different form of relationship.

Commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that we stay together forever, no matter what, but that we stay engaged in the process of honoring, respecting, and loving each other as best we can, and in the process becoming a more loving and lovable people ourselves.

Sometimes the best way we can express our love is by refusing to tolerate something in a partner that is causing harm or doing damage to them, to ourselves, or to others. Sometimes the best thing that we can do is to try to become more accepting of them or their behavior. There is no generic answer to the question of which is right for you right now, in this situation, in your relationship. But staying present and deeply connected to ourselves, rather than focusing on our partner, can sometimes can be the best way to find the answer to what may be the most important question of the moment: “What is my next step?”