How to Navigate a Relationship: Dealkillers Vs. Negotiables

Dear Wisegal:
I have always had a strong objection to smoking and it has always been a deal-breaker for me in terms of dating. For the last four months, I have been dating a wonderful guy, except it is gradually becoming apparent to me that he is a full-on smoker. When we met, there was no mention of smoking, and I started noticing that he was wearing the patch – he told me he had almost quit. Gradually, he stopped wearing the patches and went back to smoking, and now he’s smoking more and more often. I do not want to put an ultimatum of the smoking or me; but I feel a bit duped in a way, as I never would have dated him in the first place if I had known he smoked. It reviles me and I have feelings of hatred and disgust every time he sneaks off for a smoke. When we discuss quitting it ends up in fighting. He has even said that quitting is all about motivation for him, and he’s simply not really convinced that he needs to. What do I do?
Not Impressed, Cos Frankly It’s Terrible

First of all, let me confess, before I go any further, that I am a non-smoker who has been subjected to second-hand smoke every time I walk down the street or stand at a bus stop, so you know where my sympathies lie. It disgusts and angers me that I have no choice in the matter, that even if a smoker is a full block well ahead of me, I am still going to be inhaling his/her smoke down wind. And even on a bus or an elevator, when a smoker comes aboard, I have to smell, and taste the smoke particles from the haze that surrounds them. If smokers have the freedom of choice, why is it that I don’t? Need I continue?

But let’s get back to your dilemma. I think the answer to your question lies within you, in your own words and acknowledgement of your feelings regarding your boyfriend’s smoking – “strong objection,” “a deal-breaker,” “feeling a bit duped,” “feelings of hatred and disgust.”

You see, from my point of view, deal-breakers are things that end relationships, the opposite of what “seals the deal,” or consolidates them. Some people take “deal-breakers” to mean negative preferences that may be changed or moderated by the passage of time or balanced out by other more favorable characteristics. Like not dating people with particular physical (e.g. short, overweight, plain), personality (e.g. geeky, awkward, loud), behavior (e.g. cruel, stingy, inconsiderate) or value (politically right or left, willingness to lie, cheat, steal) characteristics. A short, geeky, stingy guy who is also a Republican may, in time, learn to be socially more adept, generous, and even vote Democrat, though it is unlikely that he will become taller.

I believe that deal-breakers are the gateway to self- preservation. But I’m not talking about superficial characteristics like height, weight, bank balance, bathrooms habits, and so on. I’m talking about the deeper principles that define us. Such as kindness, honesty, caring concern and consideration for another, willingness to protect another against suffering, open-mindedness, curiosity for learning, shared life goals and values. These deal-breakers protect us from losing our integrity. They are the values that if violated, make us feel less than who we are, less honest, less authentic, and less present to another.

I believe that our preferences can be influenced while deal-breakers cannot; preferences are things that are negotiable, if they are balanced by positive aspects of relationship. These positive aspects may not even necessarily be things that are brought into the relationship by the other (i.e. their personal characteristics or values) but by what they are willing to do when in it. What is your boyfriend willing to do for you in regards to this very important issue?

The core of your issue lies in clarifying what it is that feels violated for you. Is it a preference or a real deal-breaker? Choosing not to smoke and not to be with a smoking partner is a healthy act of self-care, a choice to live a lifestyle that does not jeopardize your health and well-being. Your strong emotions are evoked by the violation of this deeply held value, leading me to think that this is indeed a deal-breaker.

We are not just talking here about a behavior, but rather a lifestyle choice and one that affects both of you, even though you personally don’t choose it. Furthermore, it is proven that nicotine is a highly addictive substance that can cause cancer. Can you be with someone who willingly chooses to put his own (and someone else’s) health at risk by engaging in this behavior?

Furthermore, how will you feel about compromising yourself by being with someone who cannot support you and share in important life goals and choices? What emotional and physical price tags go along with this kind of compromise?

It may be more than a question of motivation that your partner is choosing to continue smoking. He does not share your value of adopting a smoke-free lifestyle. It is his right to do so, as long as he is only making the decision for himself. If he chooses to be in a relationship with you, then he forfeits that sole right to choose because what he does affects you. His smoking will either expose you to second-hand smoke and/or to the unpleasantness of being with someone who smells and tastes like nicotine (and four thousand other petroleum byproducts), as well as to the negative health effects to himself associated with smoking.

In the shorter term, you could talk yourself into forgiving this violation by recognizing all the other wonderful characteristics that you say he has, and put up with it. In order to do this, you will have to suppress your strong feelings of disgust and upset, as you did your probable smaller reactions earlier on when he “gradually...stopped wearing the patches and went back to smoking.”

In the longer term, if this relationship carries on and you have children together, who will be making the decision for the children? And in favor of what – health or habit?

On a more hopeful level, you could try to communicate to your guy how deeply this is affecting you and invite him to consider quitting, with professional help and/or your support. We can never make anyone change for us – they have to see the benefits of participating in something with us. So don’t expect him to naturally embrace what’s important to you. Instead, clarify what options you have and what you are willing to compromise, before you talk to him – the ultimatum is on you, but it sounds to me like you may already know what your choices are.

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