How to establish deal breakers in a relationship so you know when it's time to move on

Life coach and boundaries expert Michelle Elman reveals how to establish deal breakers in a relationship

Woman and man sat at dining table with cup of coffee and filter, talking, representing how to establish deal breakers in a relationship
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Deal breakers in a relationship can be, as the name suggests, the difference between staying together as a couple and going your separate ways. They can be seemingly small things, like tidying habits, or larger issues like opposite religious beliefs and political ideas. 

But deal breakers tend to stay the same throughout the relationship, no matter how well we get to know someone, as they work to establish long-term happiness and make sure you and your partner are on the same page. But what's a deal breaker for one pair might not be for another, so it's important to discuss them with a partner early on. 

Whether you're looking to rebuild romance in a relationship or wanting to set your expectations early on with a new partner, we've got all you need to know. Here, woman&home speaks with Michelle Elman, a five-board accredited life coach, to reveal exactly what deal breakers in a relationship are, how to set them for yourself, and why they're important. 

What are deal breakers in a relationship?

Deal breakers are non-negotiables, things that lead to an automatic ending of a relationship, explains Elman. "They're specifications that someone might have for someone they're dating where there is no compromise," she explains. "For example, for me, a deal breaker is long distance. I've done it three times before and no matter how amazing the person is, it's something I can't bend on because I know myself and I know that it won't work for me."

Often deal breakers get confused with red flags in a relationship or signs that your relationship is over, but there's a clear difference. "Red flags are warning signs and we require a few of them to build up before we think about ending the relationship, or the red flags might disappear," explains Elman, who is also the author of The Selfish Romantic. "A distinction between the two would be if someone is late, that could be a red flag, whereas a deal breaker could be if someone swears at you in an argument."

What are the biggest deal breakers in relationships? 

Although every relationship is different, there are some deal breakers that many people will agree on, according to a review by Charles University. The researchers here conducted four separate studies to determine the seven dating deal breakers in a relationship, which are:

  • Being abusive
  • Arrogant
  • Clingy
  • Dirty
  • Hostile
  • Unambitious
  • Unattractive

The participants' judgement of how worthy the characteristics were to end a relationship was also looked at. Women listed abusive behaviour as the primary one for ending a long-term relationship, and both men and women noted poor personal hygiene as a top deal breaker in a long-term partnership. While still important, being clingy and/or unambitious were considered to be the least problematic traits of the bunch. 

Previous research by the University of Padova also discovered additional common deal breakers, and these included differing religious beliefs, limited social status, "divergent" mating psychologies, and differing relationship goals, among those listed above. 

If these sound familiar to you, boundaries expert Michelle Elman has the following tips for establishing deal breakers in your own relationship. 

Clasped hands together resting on marble surface

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to establish deal breakers

1. Communicate

As with all difficult topics, communication is key when it comes to making your partner aware of your deal breakers in a relationship. "Communicate what your deal breakers are so that your partner is aware," suggests Elman. It may sound simple, but the earlier you speak to a new partner about your deal breakers, the earlier you'll be able to tell if they're the one for you.

"For example, my partner knows that when it comes to cheating, there would be no second chance and I also know he has the same view."  

2. Look outward

Aside from the common deal breakers, like relationships outside of each other and the idea of having children, many people don't know what their hard limits would be in a new relationship. You may have dated people all completely different from each other in the past. Both big spenders and big savers, those who were tidy and those who liked to spread their things around. 

If you're having trouble picking your deal breakers, "pay attention to your feelings when they arise in other people's relationships," says Elman. "For example, I was once watching a TV show where a man was controlling how much his wife was spending. I had never thought about it before because I've never been in a relationship where money was a source of conflict. However, on noticing it, it became one of my deal breakers [for future relationships]."

3. Be transparent

We've mentioned communication, but this really can't be undervalued if you're looking to learn how to build trust in a relationship by making your boundaries clear. "Talk, talk, and talk some more," urges Elman. "You can never overcommunicate and when you known someone inside and out, you will know their boundaries. Having clear communication and a level of transparency will only let your relationship flourish and be the healthiest it can be." 

4. Learn from the past

When setting deal breakers in a relationship, consider what's come up in previous ones. "If you keep ending up in the same position then recognize the similarities that led to the same ending might be a deal breaker for you, or even just a warning sign that something doesn't work for you," says the life coach. 

"For example, if you keep ending up in relationships where you don't get as much affection as you'd like, notice that, and place affection as a deal breaker when looking for another potential partner," she suggests. This could mean talking to them about their love languages and if yours is physical touch, ask them 'is it important to have sex in your relationships?'. As Elman says, honesty is key.  

Why are they important?

Deal breakers in a relationship are essential because they set boundaries for your partner. They have some idea from early on of the lines that can't be crossed, and as you're learning how to be happy in a relationship, you can make sure you're with someone who is aligned with your worldview. 

"It's important to know how you deserve to be treated and there are some lines that should never be crossed," adds Elman. "If they are, you know that you're strong  and capable enough to bring that relationship to an end. Otherwise it could not only impact your safety, but your self-esteem too." 

Grace Walsh
Health Channel Editor

Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer.

A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.