I recently had breakfast with a woman I dated almost 20 years ago, soon after I graduated from college. She's married now, with two beautiful kids and a husband who seems like one of those solid, true-blue, stay-at-home-dad kind of guys. I'm married now, too (though not to a stay-at-home dad), with kids who are also pretty swell, mostly because my wife is such an outstanding mother.
My former girlfriend and I dated for approximately two years, as I recall, and remained close for a while after we no longer lived in the same city. However, I can't recall us ever talking about marrying each other, largely because neither of us was sure we wanted to marry anyone. I actually was quite adamant about remaining single my entire life; she may have been more on the fence.
This got me to thinking about how priorities change for relationships as we get older. Every once in a while, I'll have a conversation with someone about “deal breakers” — the personality traits or habits that would make any relationship (whether it's romantic, professional, or platonic) pretty much impossible. If you would have asked me in my 20s for the list of deal breakers in a potential spouse, I would have listed something along the lines of the following:
- She consumed drugs or alcohol (which I saw as the same thing). I was a very judgmental and self-righteous young man.
- She smoked.
- Her goal was to get married, and soon.
- She had little to no sense of humor.
- She wasn't Catholic. I told you I was very judgmental and self-righteous.
- She was a couch potato.
- She didn't like the smell of pickles. Just kidding, sorta — my sisters used to tell me I smelled like pickles. They also called me Lurch (as in the “Addams Family” butler). Don't you love siblings?
There would have been other characteristics that would have been challenging, such as hating to dance, not appreciating music, and not enjoying books (which are these pieces of paper that are glued or stitched together – you might have seen some in your grandmother's house). But they wouldn't have been insurmountable. And, of course, I'm not talking about the extreme relationship squashers – for example, being a cannibal. I'm just talking about the characteristics and habits that you'd encounter in everyday life. I'm sure you had/have your own, which would be interesting to read in the comments section below.
The naïveté of youth
A couple of decades later, some of those deal breakers would still be important (were I in the market for a mate again), while others, frankly, seem rather silly. I couldn't date anyone who was an addict of any kind, though casual drinking is just fine; I do it myself (though I still have never been drunk). As for being Catholic, I don't even go to church anymore, much to my mother's gnashing of teeth. A sense of humor is still good to have, but couples don't have to find the exact same things funny. Since I've become a bit of a health nut, smoking would still be tough, but perhaps not quite deal-breaker status. I'd still include “couch potato” on the list. Music and dancing have become less important as I've gotten older.
What strikes me now — after spending many years building a career, raising a family, and co-running a household — is the lack of any practical deal breakers I would have had back then. Specifically, there's nothing about the management of money. Of course, in my early 20s I was still in that “save the world” phase. I had been in a seminary, then chose a pre-med degree so I could be a doctor for underprivileged populations; but instead of going to medical school, I became a volunteer teacher in inner-city schools (though my specific school ending up not being so inner-city). To have put something about money on the deal-breaker list would have seemed shallow and materialistic.
But I've since grown up. If I were to make that list now, it would have something about the management of money. It wouldn't be as strict as “A woman with more than $10,000 in credit card debt and carries a balance” because I've known so many good people who have been in that situation. But I've also seen so much marital strife caused by financial difficulties and mismatched priorities. My wife, who's a mental-health therapist, has plenty of examples of her own, from her many years of helping people get their lives together.
It's not that two people have to be perfectly matched. When my wife and I first met, she was much more comfortable with a low bank account than I was. It was understandable, given the way she grew up. But she recognized that it wasn't ideal, and I relaxed a bit, too; we got each other to compromise. She's been fabulous about setting up various accounts for our financial goals, and I've relaxed about spending a bit more for things like family vacations.
The real deal breaker would be huge amounts of debt with no appreciation for the consequences and no real desire to change. No interest in saving for the future would also be tough. For me, money isn't about buying things; it's about security for my family, education and experiences for my kids, and enough money to not fear old age or health crises. I can't imagine being with someone who didn't understand that. Even if she didn't mind the smell of pickles.
We all gotta grow up sometime
If my 23-year-old self were able to read this post written by my 43-year-old self, I think the young me would have been quite surprised, and perhaps a bit disappointed – at least until I had the chance to talk about my kids, my wife, and my job as an actual, bona fide writer (for a company with the wacky name “The Motley Fool,” no less). I just wouldn't have anticipated becoming so practical and having a job related to money; it might have felt like selling out or something.
But if my 43-year-old self could talk to my 23-year-old self, I'd try to explain that being financially responsible is the foundation for everything else, especially once you have kids. I'm not sure I would have understood, but nowadays, I couldn't have it any other way.