Rule #1: Make Fewer Rules

01/10/2014 01:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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, naivetᅢᄅ, 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 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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