Red Flags Vs. Deal Breakers


Not long ago, I spent a year in the sort of “on paper it’s perfect” relationship desperate screen-writers are always on about — except, and here’s the thing, she just didn’t find Monty Python “clever or funny at all.” We watched it together and every time someone smacked a cat against a wall I laughed and looked expectantly at her, to no avail.

Those of us who ventured into the dating pool too early — I felt so many feelings when I was 14! — remember how it feels to be dumped for a very stupid reason; in fact, there were exclusively stupid reasons to be had at that age, because 14-year olds have no idea what they’re doing or looking for and crave novelty as much as anything else. (In that sense, they’re very much like smaller 20-year olds.) It makes you wonder if you were told the real reason or if your now-ex discovered something about you so awful they’d rather let you persist in cruel, blissful ignorance than force you to confront it. I don’t want to put anyone through that; I’d like to think that I don’t get into relationships for the wrong reasons, and also that I’m not a commitophobe who actively seeks reasons to jump ship at first chance. At a minimum, I try to care at least enough to not end a relationship in a devastating and wholly avoidable way like having a terrible explanation. Besides all that, I’m afraid that dumping someone for a stupid reason automatically makes me the bad guy. (So I have selfish reasons for things, too. Fuck me, right?) When my friends or my parents ask, “What happened?” I don’t want to have to say something idiotic and mundane like, “She’s a buncher not a folder.” What sort of manchild cares about something like that? Suddenly, any post-breakup support has evaporated.

So we learn to put up with our significant others’ quirks. After all, aren’t relationships are about making it work? We’re not supposed to hold out for lucking into something perfect. We’re supposed to accept and support each other, quirks and foibles and everything. Every once in a while, they’ll say something that makes you go, “Really?” and instinctively, a flag goes up in your brain. You’ll spend a week of disbelief telling yourself that this isn’t a real flag, and maybe also trying to convince your boyfriend that what he really needs to do is try Nutella warm once before he decides he absolutely doesn’t like it, or your girlfriend that she should give Holy Grail another chance because it ages really well.

That shouldn’t be a big deal, right? “On paper perfect” doesn’t imply “exact match,” which would be excruciatingly boring anyway; “on paper perfect” means, like, we’re attracted to each other and on the same page in all the big categories; optionally, our mutual friends nod in solemn agreement that we’re some sort of power couple. I didn’t want to have to answer, “everything was great, except she didn’t like Monty Python,” because that seems so incredibly nit-picky next to all the very broad, very important things which worked wonderfully. And we did watch it again and every time someone smacked a cat against the wall she’d say, “Why is she doing that? It makes no sense. Why is that supposed to be funny?” It was like she was playing Jeopardy!, answering her own question before even asking it. And I died a little inside each time, not because she was killing me slowly but because I was attempting a gradual mental suicide.

I’ve gotten over girls not liking spicy food and going to Dave Matthews concerts every summer and even drinking Bud Light regularly. I’m not trying to make it as a chef or a musician or a brewer and while all of those things irked me, they didn’t prevent me from sharing what was important to me. Eventually, though, it wasn’t just Monty Python this girl didn’t find funny, and I found myself auditing my shenanigans in groups of people, a really intolerable circumstance. It turns out that silly, absurdist bullshit is a prominent feature of my sense of humor and my sense of humor is central to my personality — I do write humorous pieces and tell jokes about everything and if you don’t like that particular brand of silly bullshit, you’re going to spend more time tolerating me than enjoying yourself.

Often our specific preferences are whimsical and personal and there’s no accounting for them. “Because it tastes like warm piss” is just a more descriptive version of the answer, “because I just don’t like it.” There’s no deeper reason for that preference of mine; we’ve already reached the bottom. We should really try to avoid breaking up with someone for failing to share one of those preferences. Sometimes, though, our specific preferences come from deep-seated features of who we are and maybe my insistence on Monty Python looks childishly specific to you, but trust me when I say that here the reasons go much deeper than, “because I just think they’re funny.” Very stupid reasons and very good reasons look deceptively similar, and I’m still learning to tell the difference. But that’s not such a surprise after all; now that I’ve dated Stupid and Freakishly Religious and Drowning in Daddy Issues I’ve gotten past all the really big red flags and I’m mostly fine-tuning, discovering what is really important to me way down the road. We have to have a chance to work all that out; if we can’t be selective about whom we share a life with, what can we be selective about? 

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