Rule #1: Make Fewer Rules


by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

According to Urban Dictionary—and maybe Liz Lemon—a deal breaker in a relationship is “the catch” that one cannot overlook in a particular individual and ultimately outweighs any redeeming quality he or she may have. Or it may be some aspect of a deal you make (to take a job, make a purchase, or to relocate, for example) that prevents you from being able to follow through with it. When there are several catches, the deal breaker is the one you just cannot overlook and/or tolerate.

Like many of my introspective moments, especially my “there-is-no-answer, stop-trying-to-answer-this” moments, this one comes courtesy of my birthday, a new milestone that’s looming. The idea of deal breakers and the role they play is on my mind these days. I’m struggling with this question: What if all the deal breakers I thought meant something, way back when, actually didn’t? How can you tell if the “rules” you set up for yourself and your life are legitimate without spending 30 years living by them?

Which leads me to this: What were your deal breakers 20 or 30 years ago when it came to a partner? A job? A home? Are they still valid today? Or are they pretty much the opposite of your current deal breakers?

Turns out, as a result of some utterly unscientific research (thank you, Facebook) many adults feel exactly that way. I posed one simple question: Are there more “deal breakers” in your life today than there were 20 or 30 years ago? Almost everyone responded basically with a “Hell, yes!”

Maybe that’s just the way things go. Youthful exuberance and optimism colored our earlier rules. Our young-adulthood deal breakers, many of which feel less consequential now, represented the full flowering of the “live and let live” philosophy we all preached to our uptight parents. Come on, everybody! One chorus of “Signs” for old times’ sake.

For many, someone at some time may have witnessed a circumstance unfolding and said—with great love and wisdom—”That’s a deal breaker, honey. Walk away.” We may have run even faster toward it in reply. Whether a job, a relationship, a major purchase…were they right? Or did we know better? Would your son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter, hear you today?

The fact remains that nearly 100 percent of my Facebook respondents admit to having more deal breakers (some said many more) in their present-day lives. Why? Maybe the attitude that felt so right at age 25 has turned into Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” outlook at age 55: “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” People gave reasons that were variations on “life’s too short,” “my priorities changed,” or “I’m much more selective about how I invest my energy these days.” Or just “I was young and dumb.” Feels like a lot of the deal breakers we established years ago were the result of inexperience, fear, naiveté, wanting to please, or trying to make the “safe” choice.

Did we just get older? Wounded? Scarred?

I wish I had certainty. In my dotage, I agree that many of the so-called deal breakers I trusted years ago have turned out to be suspect at best. But I’m not sure that identifying new ones and living by them is the answer. A few of my respondents expressed that thought, as well. New-and-improved deal breakers may result in nothing more than a new set of monumentally flawed rules that also prove to be pointless.

Then again, I am older now, with a birthday to prove it, and (theoretically) wiser. So maybe the perspective should be this: I’ll happily set up deal breakers for what I will or won’t accept…from myself. Sure, that rule may have some influence on who is or is not part of my life—along with their drama—but it starts and ends with me, not them. A subtle difference? Maybe. But there it is. In the end, the deals I make with myself may turn out to be the only ones that matter.

Renee JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations’: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to “like” her Facebook page where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway)  and welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.


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7 Responses to Rule #1: Make Fewer Rules

  1. Alice Green January 10, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    I agree, Renee, the only one I can change is me. My rule of life is the Golden Rule, I try to do to others what I want them to do to me. I try to be understanding, forgiving and tolerant, but if someone (family or friend) in my life is emotionally or verbally abusive to the point it makes me ill, that’s my deal breaker. Women say “the moment he lays a finger on me I’m out the door” but I’ve seen these same women take terrible emotional abuse without even a glance toward the door. We have to know, love and trust ourself and learn as we go along. Thanks for your always wonderful insights!

  2. Donna in Delaware January 10, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    Hear, hear! You are so right, as far as I am concerned! I started last year deciding to set ‘deal breakers’ for myself. The ones from the past, which were few, I just let slide (talk about naïve and wanting to please). Now, I just won’t take a lot of crap from anyone or anything. I still have patience, but I find that it is starting to get shorter and shorter as I age, and in dealing with nonsense from others. So, I have to ‘please myself ‘ now, thanks to an altercation with a beloved relative last year that I thought I could trust. Actually, I had my doubts about her, but I give people the benefit of doubt, until proven otherwise, which she proved “BIG TIME.” So from now on, I’m setting the deal breakers for what I will and won’t accept, as you say, “from myself.” It’ll be easier to deal with and tolerate in the long run.

  3. Donna in Delaware January 10, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    A belated HAPPY NEW YEAR to you Renee!

  4. Renee January 10, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    Thank you so much, Alice.
    Sometimes I just feel worn out. Modeling tolerance and understanding does seem to go unanswered so often.
    And learning to trust yourself is so hard, right? It shouldn’t be but it is. Thank you for bringing that into the conversation.
    Appreciate your feedback and support so much!

  5. Renee January 10, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    Thanks so much, Donna – glad to hear someone else is re-thinking how her deal breakers get incorporated into her life. I’ve had the same family drama you describe for lots of reasons over the years and it’s never easy. And often very, very debilitating. Glad to hear you’re in a better place these days.

    And happy new year to you, too!

  6. Mary January 11, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Thank YOU Renee for writing this! You write like Trevor sings. This resonated with me thoroughly, and the song references were so poignant. Had to play Garden Party a couple times. Two years, 3 months ago, I finally realized there were Gigantic Deal Breakers I had suffered through for half a century. Spent much time trying to be introspective about why, but that turned into wasting more time on the past. All I know is that what I will not accept now and it is time to go forward. Hope the weather turns sunny for your birthday!

  7. Renee January 14, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

    Thanks so much, Mary. A very dear and very wise friend shared this quote with me a little while ago and this may be my new theme for life: “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”
    —Maria Robinson

    I love it. I’m starting to believe that unless a trip down memory lane brings you joy, it’s better to stay put in the present and look toward tomorrow with love and hope.

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