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.
"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.