What Are Acceptable Dealbreakers?

Morning Friend,

We just finished our Try Me week of coaching around Moving Beyond Insecurity. It was a huge success, and many women shared amazing takeaways and life-changing insights. For the summer we are opening a brand new flexible coaching program for six weeks (starting the week of July 8) around the topic of Unhealthy People Pleasing. If you are a woman who says yes when you want to say no but feel scared to stop, this program is for you. Summer often is a time that’s hard to nail down a consistent schedule so our brand new flexible coaching program may be just what you need to continue your growth and healing. Check it out here.

Question: Thank you for your hard work. How do I go about determining what are lines that cannot be crossed, the non-negotiables? I prioritize the things of God, but with partners who yo-yo with their change and don't have a godly conversion, it's very difficult to figure out. It's exhausting to always be the one who is setting goals, seeking personal change, putting in the work, and wanting what's best for our family.

Answer: You ask an excellent question, but I think you might be asking two questions, not one. The first question I hear is more along the line of defining what your non-negotiables are in a marriage relationship. What will you tolerate and what will you not tolerate? What can you live with peaceably and what can you not live with peaceably? I’ll give you some things to think about but ultimately you get to decide what these are. 

It seems like you also have a second question. This question is more about how to have a conversation with your spouse around goal setting, who is doing what work to change, and together looking at what is best for your family.

So let me tackle your first question and then I’ll give you some suggestions on how to invite a conversation with your spouse.

Marriage is a covenant relationship where promises are made by both parties. Those promises involve sexual fidelity as well as a commitment to stick through hard times and work together towards mutual goals because of your shared covenant and values. 

Ideally, even before you marry someone, it’s important to think through what your non-negotiables are. In college, I remember deciding that I would never marry a man who treats me disrespectfully. I grew up being abused, I was not going to allow that to be my life story in marriage. If I dated someone who was crass, mocking, or disrespectful towards others (even if it wasn’t me), I stopped dating him. I had zero tolerance for that, it was a total turn-off. There were other things I decided as well. However, my deal-breakers may not be yours. I remember working with a woman who hated smoking and drinking so much that they were her deal breakers. She would not date or marry a man who smoked or drank alcohol. Period. Not negotiable. 

You get to decide what you like and what you don’t like. What you’re repelled by and what you’re attracted to. What you can forebear and what you can’t live with. Remember, no person is perfect so if you have a long list of what you aren’t willing to live with, it may be better to live alone. There is no perfect person. 

Many women have not taken the time or been encouraged to think through their deal breakers before they marry. In addition, good Christian women often stop thinking about what they want or don’t want (believing that it’s selfish) and instead try to become what their man wants them to be. That only works for so long because living inauthentically, trying to get the approval or affection of someone else, is exhausting and unsustainable long-term. 

That may be where you are. Exhausted, bewildered, and a bit frustrated because you do want to grow, make personal changes, and do what’s good and right and your spouse may not share those goals for himself or for your marriage.

But now is not too late for you to discover what your deal breakers are, what you can continue to live with peaceably (even if you don’t like it), and what you can’t. For example, perhaps your husband is unwilling to engage in deep conversations about personal feelings or growth. That is something you desire, but he’s not ready, or interested. Is that a deal breaker for you and for your marriage? Or does it fall into more of the category of deeply disappointing but something you can learn to live with? Only you can decide that. 

After counseling thousands of individuals and couples over 40 years of ministry, I want to be honest with you. No one is married any length of time without having to compromise and live with some disappointment. That is part of reality’s wake-up call. Marriage does not solve all our problems or meet all of our needs/wants/desires. Sometimes we live in a Hollywood fantasy that if only we find the “right” person, then everything will be great. Trust me, that’s not true. It's important to try to find the right person, but the right person is still an imperfect person, as you are. And it’s more important to allow marriage to help you learn to become the right person.

Therefore, how might you discover your non-negotiables? What is not okay with you? Often deal-breakers in a relationship have to do with things that break trust and safety, the bedrock of any relationship. For example, any kind of physical abuse or threats of harm, chronic deceit, repeated adultery (including pornography), taking away your agency or choice to say no, or using words to threaten, degrade, dehumanize, or malign you are behaviors you cannot or should not forbear in any relationship let alone the most intimate relationship of marriage. If any of that is what you’re living with it would be unsafe to have any kind of conversation because it’s always going to win/lose, with the more powerful one winning and the less powerful one losing. 

Going back to your second question, how do you get someone to engage in a conversation about the status of the marriage, goals, change, etc.? One way that may not work, but you can give it a try, is to invite him to a conversation with curiosity and respect. Meaning, you’re not trying to win, or convince him to change. You’re inviting him to be honest with what he wants and who he is. You do not argue or try to change his mind. You listen. Here’s an example of how you might initiate that invitation.

“I’m not sure if you would be willing or not, but I would love to invite you to a conversation about our marriage. I know neither of us has been happy and we have deteriorated into silence or the blame game. I don’t want to do that anymore. But I do want to listen to where you are, what you want, and where you’d like to be. I won’t criticize or defend, explain or argue. I will just listen, and maybe ask some questions if you’re open to that. I’m genuinely curious about what you want, and what you want to do about our marriage going forward. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and if you’re willing to listen, I’m also willing to share my thoughts.”

Now this conversation would not be wise if you don’t trust him, or he’s demonstrated he’s not a safe person to have a conversation with. But if that’s not the case, your goal would be to prime the pump for an honest conversation with no blame or shame, no requirements or expectations, and see if that’s possible. You might discover that you both want the same thing and that could lead to a new conversation around what might be possible. Or you might discover that you are going in completely different directions. Then you might invite a conversation on what that means for your marriage and family going forward.  

Be careful because we often want our husband to change, to grow, to be the man we know he could become. It’s tempting to push the conversation around your goals for his change. Friend, as tempting as that is, his growth or his character is not your responsibility. He gets to decide what kind of man/husband/father/person he wants to be. All you can do is invite him to reflect on what he wants and doesn’t want. However, once you learn what that is, it may help you discern whether those things are deal-breakers for you.

Friend, how did you decide what your non-negotiables are in a relationship?

3 Comments

  1. Gwen Counts on June 20, 2024 at 8:26 am

    This reply left me disappointed. Yes, before one is married, one may–and should–determine what her/his non-negotiables are. At that point, one has made no covenantal vow before God to stay true to the other person. After one has taken the marriage vows, there are only two clear non-negotiables given in Scripture for allowing (not necessarily mandating) divorce: adultery or abandonment. The issue of abuse is implied also by many scripture verses, but that takes careful definition and wise application before it can be determined to be a condition for divorce.

  2. Cheryl Hines on June 20, 2024 at 9:56 am

    After many years of living with a dry drunk, who was a master at manipulation, verbal and mental abuse, I chose to walk away. However, I was broken and lost. I knew Jesus, yet, I didn’t live in that space. I met someone else and quickly got married again. This time, I was hoping things would be different. They weren’t, actually that marriage was worse and dint even last 4 years, until he left. He had multiple affairs, and moved out of state, moving in with someone else. At this point, I had decided I needed help. I found an amazing Godly counselor, and for the first time I finally looked at me, my choices, responses and how I reacted out of anger. I also found Celebrate Recovery. I attended CR, and worked the program along with several different step studies where I again looked at the broken places, and I invited God into that space so I could get healing.
    Fast forward to today. I got married in November 2011 to an incredible man who is emotionally and mentally healthy. He loves God and works his own recovery program.
    I have my own coaching business and also my own speaking business where I go into different churches and share my story, yet, it’s really God’s story.
    The hard work is worth every tear shed. I continue to work my recovery journey daily. Trusting God for the little and big things. I am grateful for my journey. I have peace, hope, and joy in my life. It’s not always easy, but I keep pressing into the promises of God. Who he says I am, fearfully and wonderfully made in his image, I am chosen, loved, made new, redeemed, and forgiven.

  3. April on June 21, 2024 at 12:32 pm

    Great question! Here’s a few:

    As stated, some non-negotiables are obvious, from the Bible-adultery, lying, cheating, etc. (If I’m unsure about something, I go to God in prayer and keep my radar on; Also, I protect myself as necessary.)

    If something makes me feel physically uncomfortable or extra tense , especially sexually, then I stop it. (Definitely non-negotiable!)

    I need sleep and to do daily tasks/life as best I can. H wants breakfast every morning and can get whiny about way things are done during day . I remember we are both sinners. I don’t pressure myself to be the “perfect wife.” I sleep if needed, go visit a friend instead of ______, and do not take care of his needs before my own (non-negotiable). He is an adult. I recognize what I’ve accomplished or not each day, and know God has seen my heart and know I’m not perfect. H can think whatever. It’s not for me to make him think I’m _______. I’m making my choices as best I know how. each day (Non-negotiable)

    I need support and a “Christian family.” I choose to connect with a local body of believers , sometimes attend or lead Bible study, and to develop a few close friendships. (Non-negotiable)

    I have older kids now. I’m not available 24/7, nor do I keep a phone attached to my person or even in the same room sometimes. (Non-negotiable)

    Living with an unhealthy relationship (not destructive) requires keeping a guard up to see if other non negotiable are necessary., trusting God to show the way as I regularly seek Him.

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