It's Not Me, It's You

People have a million excuses to break up with someone -- some are valid, but many are ridiculous

September 30, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

People with bumper stickers on their cars.

Boys who wear Aeropostale T-shirts.

Girls who don't reach across the car and unlock the driver's door.

People who call on speakerphone.

Men who shave their bodies.

Women who don't drink beer.

People who don't split the check down the middle.

People who wear sweat pants in public.

Men who spend any time doing spa-related activities (tanning, facials, manicures).

Guys with cats.

Society now has a term for the myriad reasons that people end relationships or refuse to begin them in the first place: deal-breakers. Some are significant and have vexed relationships for years -- religion, politics, cultural values -- but many others are trivial and seem to exist merely because there's a word for them.

Britton Gore, 25, opted against a second date with a guy because he had too much gel in his hair. "And it was bleached blond," says Gore, a law student at the University of Baltimore. "I don't want a guy to be more into his looks than I am into mine."

Her friend Laura Burrows, 26, is put off by guys who try to move too quickly. "On a first date, a guy assumed he was spending the night at my house," she says. The guy hadn't made arrangements to get home, so Burrows made him sleep on the couch. There was not a second date.

While Burrows' unwanted sleepover guest sounded like bad news, relationship experts warn against having too many minor deal-breakers. No one should be so rigid, they say, and everyone has to compromise in even the best relationships.

"There's a point at which deal-breakers become a transparent fear of intimacy, a kind of get-out-of-every-relationship-free card," says Dan Savage, who writes the syndicated column Savage Love. "No one is in a long-term relationship who hasn't had to reassess and have some of their deal-breakers broken."

Savage said he used to have dealbreakers: He wanted to date a guy who was his age or older, who had a good career, who had gone to college. But then he fell in love with someone who was much younger, didn't have a stable career and hadn't gone to college.

"The deal-makers that prompted me to break some of my deal-breakers were worth it," he says. "A lot of the deal-breakers I hear people trot out are just excuses because they want to be alone."

Now that the deal-breaker has been articulated in culture, people feel they must have at least a few to be interesting. Some trace the development back to Seinfeld, the '90s TV show that celebrated the trivial and meaningless, on which the characters' immaturity was a kind of badge of honor.

On the show, for instance, Jerry Seinfeld can't continue dating a woman who has "man hands." Relationships on the show also fell victim to someone's radio station presets, a bad laugh, an inability to speak clearly (the low talker), having "Desperado" as a favorite song, the fact that a person's voice sounded like Elmer Fudd, the discovery of fungal cream in someone's bathroom, an appreciation for a Dockers commercial, and, perhaps most famously, a nose pick.

"It's a new way of saying, `It's not you, it's me,'" Savage says. "It's kind of a dodge. It shifts responsibility for the demise of the relationship to this usually inanimate object."

Talking during movies.

People whose e-mails are "Sent from my iPhone."

Rudeness to cabdrivers, wait staff, doormen, etc.

People who use "etc."

Guys who only read books written by men.

Thinking Norman Mailer is some kind of demi-god.

Guys who can't drive manual transmissions.

Girls who like Hello Kitty.

Guys who wear socks with sandals.

Ear wax.

Fans of Dave Matthews Band.

People who text message at dinner.

People who answer their cell phone at dinner.

People who put the phone in the middle of the table at dinner.

Girls who wear sweat pants with words on the butt.

Guys who live with their parents.

Even the most minor deal-breakers can point to real problems that can undermine a relationship, says Brittany Marshall, a therapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. She knows because she lived it.

For four years, Marshall dated a man who would make her lunch every morning and ask her, when she got home from work at night, "Did you eat it?" His annoying habit, Marshall realized, was a symptom of a larger problem: Her boyfriend was jealous. The reason he made her lunch was because he didn't want her going out to lunch with any other guy.

"He was a petri dish of pathology," she said. "The first time I told a lie [to him] I said I loved the lunch and I didn't even have the lunch."

That's when she knew it had to end. Now Marshall is happily married (to someone else), but to help women and men who find themselves in bad relationships, she has written Deal Breakers: When to Work on a Relationship and When to Walk Away.

Marshall says the idea came from her study of relationship impasses -- why people stop therapeutic treatment for no reason after five years, for instance, or walk away from marriages of 20 years. A deal-breaker, she says, can help people understand and address deeper issues.

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