Some boundaries should never be crossed. Learn when to compromise—and when to hold firm with your boundaries.
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Not all behaviors should be tolerated in your relationships. We set boundaries to let others know what we expect and how we want to be treated. But what happens when an important boundary is crossed? We need to determine whether it makes sense to compromise, give a second chance, or whether the relationship is damaged beyond repair.
What is a deal-breaker boundary?
Not all boundaries are equally important. A deal-breaker is a non-negotiable boundary. If it’s crossed, the relationship may end or there are other serious consequences. Deal-breaker boundaries are essential. They are key to keeping us physically or emotionally safe.
Deal-breaker boundaries address important issues, such as safety or health concerns. A deal breaker communicates a behavior or belief that you will not tolerate.
These are examples of deal-breaker boundaries:
- Physical abuse will not be tolerated.
- My stepmother is not welcome in my home due to her abusive behavior.
- Guns must always be locked in a gun safe.
- My partner using drugs is unacceptable.
These are just examples; you will need to decide which of your boundaries are deal-breakers (see guidance below). Everyone has different expectations and needs and is willing to tolerate different conditions; thus, we all have different deal-breakers.
What’s not a deal-breaker boundary?
It’s important to recognize that most boundaries don’t need to be deal-breakers. Especially in close relationships, some boundaries can be flexible. For example, you may loosen some of your boundaries in a specific context, like during the holidays.
Here’s an example: Rae doesn’t usually allow smoking or shoes inside his home. However, when he hosts his large family for Thanksgiving, he makes an exception. He’s found that he’d rather hire a cleaner for the next day than spend the holiday nagging his guests.
In addition, some boundaries are negotiable; we consider other people’s needs as well as our own when setting boundaries and expectations in relationships.
Here’s an example: Dharmil and Jasmine, a married couple, decide together how to divide the care of their toddler, so they can each get some time alone.
How to identify deal-breakers in your relationships
Because deal-breakers have serious consequences, we need to be thoughtful about which boundaries fall into this category. Often, people identify many deal-breakers only to realize later that they will in fact tolerate these behaviors. They may be extremely angry or hurt by the boundary violation—but they don’t end the relationship or leave until the behavior/problem has been resolved. So, they aren’t truly deal-breakers.
Tip 1: Identify behaviors that would cause you to end a relationship; behaviors that are so egregious that you’re not willing to give someone a second chance if they behave this way.
Tip 2: Consider behaviors that compromise your safety, health, or wellbeing (or the safety, health, or wellbeing of your minor children).
Tip 3: Identify red flags or problem behaviors in past relationships that you want to avoid.
Tip 4: Aim to set only 4-6 deal-breakers in your relationships. If you categorize too many boundaries as deal-breakers, you’re probably becoming too rigid with your boundaries or you’re giving ultimatums, both of which can be counter-productive.
This doesn’t mean that all of your other boundaries are wishy-washy or that there are no consequences for violating them. There should be consequences when people violate your boundaries. However, most boundary violations don’t warrant ending the relationship immediately. Generally, we make multiple attempts to explain, restate, or enforce our boundaries before cutting ties with someone.
A deal-breaker boundary is a do not pass go, do not collect $200, end the relationship immediately type of boundary. A deal-breaker violation is so harmful that there is no way to rectify it and it is not safe for you to continue to be in contact with the person who violated it.
Communicate your deal-breakers
It’s usually a good idea to share your deal-breakers with close friends and family members before issues arise. For example, if you are in a newish relationship and having your partner use a condom is a deal-breaker, you need to communicate that to your partner—and it’s best to have this conversation before you’re about to have sex. It’s not fair to assume that others know your deal-breakers unless you’ve talked about them.
Your deal-breakers can change over time. Sometimes a behavior becomes intolerable because of its frequency or duration. For example, your partner’s alcohol use may not have been a deal-breaker when you first started dating but if it escalates and your partner is unwilling to change, it could become a deal-breaker. In this case, let your partner know that their alcohol use is a deal-breaker as soon as it makes sense to do so.
Deal-breakers are your most important boundaries. Give them the time and attention that they deserve. Discuss them in person whenever possible. Allow enough time to talk about them and do it in a private, non-distracting environment.
And if you’re in a new relationship, communicate your deal-breakers early on. Don’t wait until it’s too late to let your partner know how you want to be treated and what behaviors are inexcusable.
Be clear about what you will tolerate
Deal-breaker boundaries exist to keep you safe—either physically or emotionally. They aren’t harsh or judgmental. And explaining them to important people in your life is a kindness that will help them treat you well. So, don’t be afraid to identify your deal-breakers—and stick to them—because you’re worth it.
©2022 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
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