Deal breakers

I never learned how to barter. I never needed to. Nearly everything I have bought was sold for the price on the sticker. Oh, I did learn how to negotiate for cars and houses, but the expectations of the deals were pretty clear to all concerned. There was no real need for posturing or threatening to end the negotiation over details. Even when it is non-confrontational, I find the negotiation process stressful and avoid it if I can.

Now, I find, everyone is using negotiation strategies for all sorts of reasons: shopping, hiring tradespeople, international diplomacy, neighbourhood diplomacy, college course assignments.  “Dealbreaker” has become a new word. People say things like “That was a deal breaker for me,” when talking about everything from choosing a vacation to hiring a house cleaner.

I recently saw a TV show about a man who hoarded things in his house. He was in a romantic relationship with a successful businesswoman and she saw his house for the first time during the filming of the show. There were so many possessions in the house that she had to clamber over them to get into the living room. The furniture could not be seen underneath all the stuff.  Her own home was very neat, and she was clearly in shock. In a subsequent interview she said that, even though they had been a couple for a long time, having seen his house was a “dealbreaker.” She could no longer continue with the relationship.

Is there a dating “deal?” Not really. Dating is an ongoing exploration of expectations and characteristics; a sort of fluid negotiation prior to making an agreement.  In contrast, a purchase is clearly a contract. There is an explicit understanding of responsibilities on both sides and a document to seal the deal. Nothing of this sort is apparent when dating. A lot of thoughts, behaviors, habits, and fears are in play, and most of the time these are not expressed in terms of a contract. It could become a deal, but dating is the romantic equivalent of tire-kicking, not buying the car.

A woman on an online dating discussion board said that she had met the perfect man. They had been together for six months and everything was wonderful—except that he liked to spank her. The discussion was about whether or not this was a deal breaker, whether or not this relationship was ultimately sustainable.  There were all kinds of conversational detours into whether or not the spanking was fun, but ultimately the issue was whether or not such behaviour could or should end a romance. Had he broken the dating deal?

When I went on a couple of dates with Al, I really enjoyed his company. He was intelligent, creative, kind, gentlemanly, and an easy conversationalist. I was starting to think this relationship would work out well–until he told me about his family. He has three natural children (all independent adults), six adopted children, and fourteen grandchildren. All of the adopted children are his nieces and nephews and he is sponsoring them in coming to the US. At the time, he was in the process of buying a very large house for them all to live in.

He isn’t abusive, addicted, or arrogant. He is a hoarder of relatives. For me, as for the woman in the TV show, even though we didn’t yet have a deal, that was a deal breaker. Long before there was any kind of agreement, I knew what I could not live with.

Dating negotiations would be a whole lot easier if I had bartering in my background, but I still don’t think a deal can be broken if there isn’t really a deal in the first place. Until, figuratively speaking, I sign the contract, I’m just kicking the tires. I wish we could use a different word than “dealbreaker” to explain an ending to a romantic adventure. The word is much too contractual, not sufficiently personal, and shouldn’t apply to something that hasn’t actually been agreed.


  1. Dealbreaker in other contexts doesn’t just mean “a reason to break a contract,” it also means “a reason not to sign a contract in the first place.” For example, you’re just kicking the tires and they’re really flat. That’s a dealbreaker.

    So relationship-wise, a dealbreaker could be anything that makes you say “I will NEVER marry you/live with you/make a commitment to you,” regardless of whether you’ve already made a commitment. I think it’s an ok word for that.

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