In a perfect world, couples would sit down at the start of a relationship and ask one simple question: How far is too far? They would agree on a list of deal breakers, and the unforgivable offenses would then be etched in stone, hung in the couple’s home as a subtle reminder of the sanctity of their relationship. Both partners would dutifully honor the agreement for the rest of their long and blissful days together.
Real life is different. It’s complicated. And, often, feelings change.
What sounds like a harmless offense in theory — brazen flirting or the occasional white lie, for example — can be hurtful when it actually plays out. And when previously accepted behavior suddenly becomes off limits, it’s not uncommon for both partners to be caught off guard. “One partner might not know something is a potential deal breaker before it happens, but if something comes up that doesn’t work for them, it needs to be discussed immediately,” Seven Year Switch relationship expert Charles J. Orlando explains. “Otherwise, resentment builds.”
Be willing to go back and edit your list when the need arises. Or, better yet, preempt any feelings of betrayal by checking in with each other regularly. “Revisiting your expectations about your relationship and marriage can help couples avoid conflict,” explains Dr. Jessica Griffin, another Seven Year Switch. “I work with some couples who have benefitted from a yearly ‘check in’ around the time of their anniversary to talk about whether they’re satisfied in their marriage. It’s also a good time to review what they need and expect from each other.”
But is it fair to change the rules in the middle of the game? Orlando shuts the question down. “Of course it is. People change, and their wants and needs change as they do.” Dr. Griffin adds that it’s not uncommon for boundaries to shift as you get older and the relationship matures. What made your blood boil in your 20s may result in a lighthearted eye-roll by 40. Conversely, something that wasn’t even on your radar at the start of your marriage could be the ultimate deal breaker by your tenth anniversary. If a relationship is going to survive, it needs to evolve with both partners.
The problem arises when a partner is aware of a deal breaker and chooses to ignore the invisible yellow tape. “If they knew and crossed the line anyway,” says Orlando, “you might have a hard decision to make.”
Dr. Griffin is a little more optimistic. “It’s possible to recover, but it depends on the severity of the situation and how committed both spouses are to healing the relationship.”
So keep lines of communication open, and forget the stone tablet. When it comes to a defining a relationship’s deal breakers, paper and a pencil might be a better option. Just be sure you have a good eraser.