It doesn’t matter whether you’ve just started to call yourself a couple or you’ve been together for years, at some point, almost everyone will learn something about their bae and think, “Holy shit. What have I gotten myself into?”
Relationships have their fair share of turmoil: Infidelity, grief, substance abuse, financial troubles—you know the drill. And even though we might think we know where our line in the sand is, it’s not always as easy to find once you’re actually faced with the decision to stay or go.
So how do you determine whether something is a deal breaker or not? We talked to two experts to find out.
1. Know Your Boundaries
Start simply: Find your line in the sand. “The important thing is really to know yourself and your boundaries,” Dr. Alisha Powell, PhD, licensed clinical social worker, explains. That line can shift over time; you should never feel locked into boundaries you set years ago, but you should be able to identify what you can tolerate and what you can’t.
Give yourself some time to think it over, then talk to your partner. Ideally, you can have this conversation before they cross a line to preempt any conflict. But even if they already have, clearly articulating your boundaries can help you two work through the current conflict and avoid problems in the future.
2. Communicate with Your Partner
The next piece of the puzzle is good old communication. “Can your partner sit with you and be accountable?” Dr. Fran Walfish, PsyD, Beverly Hills relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, explains. “Do their words, tone, demeanor and affect communicate that they truly have the capacity to feel the impact of their own behavior on you?”
In order to find out, you’re going to have to have a frank, transparent conversation. The best way to have this talk is to use “I” statements, sharing your feelings, needs and expectations, Powell advises. Then ask your partner to communicate what they just heard you say so you can be sure you’re really hearing each other.
“If your partner is willing to work with you and change and is 100 percent into it, then it’s [probably] something that can be worked through,” Powell says. But if your partner is shut down, critical, defensive and un-empathic? “That’s a clear indication that this relationship is not a healthy place for you to be in,” Powell says.
3. Advocate for Compromises
The first two steps work really well for obvious issues—those times when your partner has done something painful, like cheating or spending a large sum of money you hadn’t agreed on. But other times, issues are more complex, and neither of you is necessarily in the wrong. Maybe one of you wants children and the other doesn’t; maybe you have different religious views.
Often, these issues come down to “how powerful the love is in the relationship” as well as how rigid or flexible the partners in the couple are in their stances, Walfish says. If both of you are committed to your partnership above all else, you might be able to find a way through it—though it might require a lot of time, energy and emotional labor.
Given this, Walfish suggests taking your issue to a third party, like a therapist, counselor, pastor or rabbi. “These are very big, important, life-changing decisions, and sometimes they require careful, serious thought and time,” she explains.
And, of course, they require more communication. The goal is to figure out where you and your partner do and don’t agree and whether you can work together toward a similar goal. Through conversation, you may be able to work it out.
Or not. “Sometimes there isn’t a compromise,” says Powell. “But being able to talk it out means being able to recognize when there will be no compromise because something is conflicting with both people’s core beliefs.” Like most things in relationships, how you tell if a relationship issue is a deal breaker is by talking to and listening to each other. And in time, the answer will appear.