relationships

The One Deal Breaker That Matters

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A Broken Deal Breaker

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that she would not, could not date a guy shorter than her.

I laughed.

"You'd really risk missing out on a great guy just because he's shorter than you?" I asked. She emphatically insisted she would. It was a deal breaker. As most "deal breakers" people develop, this one was serious. Had something to do with wanting to be able to wear the right shoes. I shook my head.

"Just watch. You're going to end up with a shorter guy." We all laughed, and the conversation about deal breakers and height compatibility was over.

Then, the story becomes almost too good to be true. In a perfect plot twist, the next guy she ended up with was, indeed, shorter than her. Somehow, despite his shortcoming (see what I did there?), it turned out that he was a great guy. They fell in love and got married. And I couldn't help myself but tell her, "I told you so."

Deal breakers make me laugh.

They're funny because most of the ones people have are so silly. They have something to do with hair or body type or something superficial, or they're impossibly specific. Burger King does not have enough customizable options to match the expectations that are on many people's relationship checklists.

And yet, I see couples who have been married for 20, 30, 40 years, who may be complete opposites in what I once thought were crucial areas, and they have not only survived but they've thrived. Some people are lucky enough to find someone who may have met a majority of their criteria, but most people? Yeah right.

The One Deal Breaker You Should Have On Your List

Despite poking fun at deal breakers, I do think there are some legitimate ones people should have. Depending on our values, what that list looks like for each person will vary. We have such unique personalities, lifestyles, and priorities that I wouldn't try to prescribe what a whole list of necessary deal breakers should include. I can say two things with confidence, though:

1. Your list of deal breakers should be short and sweet. I personally have a Top Three. Those are the ones that are non-negotiable. Everything after that is just gravy.

2. There's one deal breaker in my Top Three that should be in everyone's top three, no matter your background or religious views or priorities.

What is it?

A person who is committed to growth.

Don't waste your time wishing for someone who's perfect. You'll never have that wish granted. You may end up with someone who doesn't root for the same sports team as you, or someone who doesn't like sports period. You may end up with someone who can't cook at all (and since you can't cook either, you may be looking at each other every evening like, "What the heck do we do?"). You may end up with someone who has no desire to watch or discuss The Lord of the Rings. You may end up with someone who doesn't even know what a 5k is much less be able to run one. You may end up with someone who's shorter or blonder or fatter or skinnier or less educated or less wealthy or smellier than the ideal person you've dreamed up in your head.

But if you have someone who is committed to always growing, you'll be in pretty good shape to overcome those inevitable differences that arise in a relationship. (This isn't a new idea by any means; some very smart people have figured this out a long time ago.)

Being a person who grows isn't easy, though.

It means that you have to first be aware that you're not perfect. That you have room for improvement. That you have baggage and junk and attitudes and habits that could use some progress. If someone can't even admit that they could be doing better, it's hard to grow.

It doesn't feel right to say this, but people should be like technology. I'm not saying to replace your husband with a new one when you grow tired of him. I'm saying we should think of ourselves less as unchanging statues and more like software that continues to adapt to life.

The version of a person you get at the beginning of the relationship should upgrade as you go through the years. People who grow do that. They get better. They improve. When you're with someone who isn't about growth, the version you get at the start is the one you have years later, and suddenly you find out that more and more of your life is incompatible with that outdated version.

The great thing about a person who is committed to growth is that they don't have to be that perfect person you tried to create in your  fantasies. They're constantly improving.

When a person who grows hurts you, they own up to it. Then they commit themselves to prevent it from happening. They might not get it right all the time, but they're committed to the process. People who can do that not only are in a great position for growth themselves, but they know how to offer grace to a partner for his or her imperfections, too.

People who don't grow don't want to change. They don't want to adapt. They don't want to own their imperfection and do the hard work of improving. They prefer to stay stuck. When you find yourself with someone like that, you'll be facing an uphill road that's much rockier than you'd like.

Growth. I'm telling you. It's all about the growth.

A Final Thought for Both Single and Married People (and some advice from a real doctor!)

If you have the fortune of being single, you have the opportunity to figure out your priorities in relationships before you make some costly mistakes. As you look for people you might interested in partnering with in life, pay very close attention to whether or not they're "growth" people. If they are, many of those silly deal breakers you have on that checklist of yours will start to disappear. In turn, the best thing you can do until you find a growth person is to be a growth person. Bonus: growth people will figure out how to make the best of life with or without a relationship.

I asked Dr. Kelly Flanagan how you might recognize someone in a relationship who's "stuck" and doesn't like to grow. He responded:

I'd say the thing I'd look for in a partner is the ease with which they say, "I'm sorry." We talk a lot about the process of forgiveness, but for many people, forgiving is way easier than asking for forgiveness. When we say "I'm sorry," we drop our ego walls, acknowledge our fallibility, and express a desire to change.

If you're married, this may have been a tough read for you if you're with someone who may not be a "growth person." That's a hard place to find yourself. The first and best thing you can do in that situation is to be a growth person first. You can't expect or ask someone else to do it and not do it yourself. And that will be tough--it's going to require sacrificing your pride, it's going to require an avalanche of selflessness, and some days it's going to feel like nothing's changing.

I asked Dr. Flanagan what one might do in that situation, too. He says that if you feel like you're with someone who's "stuck," a helpful step is for you to seek individual therapy. Not because there's something wrong with you, necessarily--but because your relationship is so deep and complex that it needs the time and attention for someone to help you work with your situation.

***

Look for growth people. Be growth people. And it won't matter if he's shorter than you.

 

 

Featured image ©2013 Mufidah Kassalias | Flickr

#LiveTogether: (Not So) Great Expectations

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We're continuing the #LiveTogether series, in which we take a look at the highs and lows and in-betweens of doing life with people.

I'm excited for today's post--it's from my good friend, Sarah Gurley. Enjoy!

***

When I was four years old, my dad found me crying on the floor of my bedroom, buried by my dolls and a palpable sense of anxiety.

“Why are you crying?” his concerned voice asked.

My pre-school self tearfully responded, “Because I don’t know who I’m going to marry.”

At four years old, it was silly. Juvenile. Innocent.

But then 23 rolled around, and I had yet to experience a real romantic relationship. I’m not talking about holding hands at lunch, or circle “yes” or “no” notes; make-out buddies or a date here and there. No. A real relationship. A partner. Someone you can depend on. An automatic plus-one to the prom. A “you hang up first” wave of nausea for anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot.

I saw it perpetually happening to my roommates and friends. College was the absolute worst place for someone grappling with singleness. While everyone eagerly coupled up around me, I stood firm on my island of solitude. Who needs a man, anyway? I’ve got my ambition and body pillow, dang it.

I moved to South Korea after college graduation to seek adventure. After all, I made it out of college without a significant nibble on my romantic fishing lure--why not move halfway around the world and ride out this single wave while I’m young? I packed away my yearning for romance, locked it in a box and left it under my childhood twin bed. Let it collect dust; see if I care. I was headed to the Land of the Morning Calm where I most assuredly would not find a romantic interest.

But the unthinkable greeted me upon my arrival. I met someone. As soon as my feet found the sweltering Korean ground, a fetching, blonde-haired New Yorker started to show interest. Not just casual interest either. We’re talking Ethan Embry in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, ridiculously in like with me. So I did what any relationship amateur would do. I jumped in feet first.

But there was a problem.

After that day my dad found me in my bucket of self-pity tears, I spent the next 19 years racking up expectations and ideals for whoever would eventually fill the role of significant other in my life. Everything from appearance and talents to personality type and disposition were accounted for.

This poor guy didn’t stand a chance.

I finally found an eligible male who was head-over-heels for me, and three weeks into our relationship, I dumped him over a plate of Korean dumplings (the irony in our food choice was not lost on me). One may ask why on earth would I break up with a guy who was kind, compassionate, caring, handsome and all-around wonderful?

Simple: he didn’t fit the bill.

I started my collection of expectations before I even hit puberty. And without a significant relationship in my past to give me a healthy dose of reality, those expectations ballooned. What started as an innocent “that would be nice”  multiplied into countless dealbreakers. I didn’t have to give a reason for the breakup other than, “He’s just not what I’m looking for.”

This guy in Korea didn’t have the right profession. He was a teacher. I wanted a pastor. He wasn’t super musical. I wanted someone to write songs with. He was blonde. I wanted a guy with dark hair. He was super athletic. I wanted someone less…hunky. (Editor's note from Paul: All of the nerds of the world are thinking, "Where was I when you were single??") Sure, he had everything else I was looking for but to my novice and nitpicking heart, what he lacked drowned out the whispers of his outstanding qualities.

We parted ways.

Then, something curious happened. My mom, whose opinion I esteem more than just about anyone’s, told me I was being a self-centered, unrealistic, hypocritical idiot (not in so many words, but that was her gist).

She didn’t want my unrealistic expectations and ideals inhibiting me from experiencing life to the fullest. We can’t all marry Ryan Gosling, sigh.

We’re always going to find something in our significant other that doesn’t quite fit the bill; nobody is perfect. But life isn’t comprised of rigid puzzle pieces needing to fit together just so. If that were the case, we’d spend 50% of our time looking for that specific person and the other 50% stressing over whether or not we already missed him/her. But have you ever put together a worn-out, old puzzle that has eroded and chipped pieces? What was once a beautiful landscape is faded and filled with gaps. When the pieces no longer fit perfectly, what’s the use? It’s not worth the effort so you just throw the puzzle away.

What I didn’t realize was that by racking up all those expectations, I was setting myself up for a temporary, throw-away puzzle of a relationship. Even if he fit my 23-year-old self, would we still fit together at 33? 57? 81? By going in with a checklist of qualities, I was preventing myself from experiencing the wonderful unpredictability of love.

I took a few months to rid myself of my unyielding plans and expectations. I threw my puzzle pieces away and instead embraced moldable clay. Where one piece pushes, the other can give way to allow for the new formation. A beautiful, flexible push and pull where chips and gaps are simply rubbed away.

One day, the guy came back around and asked if I wouldn’t mind giving it a go again. He hadn’t changed during that time apart. He was still a semi-musical, hunky, athletic, blonde teacher. But after sloughing off my own expectations and preparing myself to jump in sans deal breakers, I found myself falling in love with this unsuspecting gentleman in a far-away land.

A wedding, two adorable children and seven years later, he’s still creatively exceeding my original expectations each and every day.

***

Sarah is a travel-addict who leads worship and teaches bible at a private boarding school in Western New York. When not reading age-inappropriate YA novels or searching couch cushions for lost binkies, she spends time with her hunky husband and two daughters. You can check out her book reviews and mom rants at Paperbacks & Pacifiers

Feature photo ©2011 Aric Cortes | Flickr

#LiveTogether: Hide and Seek

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This post is the first in a series on relationships called #LiveTogether (and if you followed up with "Die Alone," then you have watched Lost and are my best friend) which will cover all kinds of relationships--romantic, platonic, familial. I hope it'll be fun, funny, heart-wrenching, hope-giving, and eye-opening.

***

On our first date, we played Hide and Seek in a Super Walmart.

I was nineteen and didn't have a car. She picked me up in her dad's worn down, small-size Chevy S10 pickup. As soon as I shut the rusting door, her perfume danced around my head and slipped smoothly into my nostrils down past my lungs, spun circles around my nerve endings to the soles of my feet and floated all the way back up to the hair follicles on the top of my head.

She looked at me and smiled. Even in the dim orange tint of my apartment's parking lot lights, she lit up in my mind like a hungry fire and burned an image there--long, feather-like earrings and waterfall bangs framed her face. In the dark, brief gleams of light flashed from the middle of her shadowy eyes, her speck of a nose ring, her unbalanced smile, and the metal loop in her lip.

The air was no warmer than 40 degrees, but all she was wearing to guard herself from the cold was a thin, black blazer. Its sleeves stopped just below her elbows, which made sure I could see the large, turquoise beads shaking and rattling around her wrists. I had stepped through the crusty, outer crust of a country pickup truck and found a rich, elegant, caramel center inside.

It was like happily drowning in a pool of rare, century-old wine.

And then we headed to Walmart.

To play hide and seek. Because that's what kids in a college town do. (To my credit, it wasn't the only place we'd go that night--there would be dinner, there would be music, and there would be a drunk guy mooning us. What a night.)

 As we walked through the wide, toothless mouth of Walmart's automatic double doors, I was ready for what my wiry, circus-like body was born to do--hide in really weird places.

I hid first. I felt good about it--I could set the bar high, leave a good impression. My clearly yet-to-be-developed brain was convinced a girl could be wow'ed by my hiding skills. She had trash talked me earlier, bragging about how awesome she was at this game.

Nonsense, I thought.

I left her, with the smug smile of arrogance on my face, to count to sixty somewhere between the racks of extra-large men's camo gear and the wall of Hanes socks. I jogged down the aisles, snapped my head from side to side, my eyes pinging in every direction, zipping like hummingbirds, looking for the spot.

I don't remember exactly where I hid. It doesn't matter--she found me faster than a mom of four could find the Snack Packs on sale. For years, as I investigated the mystery of how she found me so quickly, she would only say, "I'm that good."

Now came her chance to hide, and mine to redeem myself. Each second I counted, my body temperature seemed to rise. By being found so quickly, I identified with my Korean ancestors' shame when they tarnished the honor of their families. I gathered myself and narrowed my eyes with determination as I rattled off the final seconds before my hunt began.

I marched in swift strides, moving quickly underneath the fluorescent lights and spherical cameras hanging from the ceiling. Toys aisle. Not there. Bikes. Not there. Baby stuff. Not there. Electronics section. Not there.

Of course--the garbage bins! So easy.

I looked behind them, inside them, around them. Not there.

The sweat of pressure began to seep over the lip of my forehead. Oh no. This can't be happening. Everything would have been fine had we simply gone to dinner and started our night there. But no--I just had to agree to begin our night in the land of broken dreams: Walmart. Minutes disguised themselves as hours in my head passed as I poked my head in between shelves and ripped open racks of clothing. Exasperated, panicked, and desperate, I started to backtrack my route through the store. Still nothing.

And then:

“Paul!”

I heard her voice ring out. I spun around. And there she was.

The baby stuff. The baby section where I had already looked--she was crammed on the bottom shelf behind some cribs. That I missed her on my first pass, I’ll never forgive myself. She shimmied out, and I thought her head might be cocked to one side permanently from having held it in that position for the eons of my fruitless search.

“You suck at this,” she said. “I told you I’m the best.”

After that, we left. We ate. We listened to music. We began. We kissed. We fought. We strayed. We came together. We journeyed for a long time. We parted ways.

As I look back on it all, I'm not sure that I ever really found her that night in Walmart. I'm not sure that our game of Hide and Seek ever ended.

For years, I traced and retraced the same steps through those scuffed aisles. I called, "Olly olly oxen free." I sat down on the floor to wait.

I was forever found, but never finding.

***

Feature photo ©2010 Sylvia Sala | Flickr