Are We Meant for Each Other? : Compatibility Re-Defined

Are We Meant for Each Other? : Compatibility Re-Defined

Many couples who come in for help say they’re worried they’re not compatible with each other, and that their relationship is therefore doomed.  No matter how much time, money, and effort they apply towards trying to improve their connection, they tell me, they’re convinced they will never climb from a “C+” to an “A+” relationship since they believe their differences are too great to overcome.  “We’re just so different,” they tell me.  “We see things so differently.  Maybe we’re not meant for each other?”  

The types of differences they cite run the gamut from personality styles to financial goals to preferences for how to spend free time.  One person likes to keep a tidy home;  the other has a high tolerance for clutter.  One person wants to focus on saving money for retirement;  their partner enjoys pricey wines and gourmet dinners out.  One likes to socialize;  the other is more of a homebody.

What is compatibility?  Is there such a thing?  Are differences dealbreakers? When are differences a problem, and when are they not?

There’s no doubt that the more similar two people are in the ways they philosophically and aesthetically approach life -- in their values, interests, and their tastes in music, for example -- the easier it is to make plans and decisions.  There is simply less likelihood they’ll have a disagreement.

What I have found over the years, however, is that the alignment of interests is overrated.  What is important is whether two people align in their vision of the relationship.  Do they both want closeness?  If so, these differences ultimately won’t matter nearly as much.

What seems to matter is whether two people are each open to the other’s ways, or -- conversely -- whether they are rigid and closed, and unwilling to consider ways other than their own.  Whether each is willing to leave their comfort zone a bit and try to share in their partner’s interests and perspectives.  Whether they can find ways they do overlap with one another, and emphasize those.  “Compatibility” matters when talking about alignment in two people’s goals for the relationship, but not when talking about ways they each like to spend their time.  

I don’t want to dismiss the very real problem of two people having philosophical differences about approaches to parenting, for example, or to salient values such as the importance to each of them of consumerism.  If one person believes in authoritarian parenting and the other in hands-off parenting, it’s likely they will experience lots of conflict. And if one values buying a new car every year, and the other really values driving one car for 15 years until it’s into the ground, they could, no doubt, find themselves pushing up against one another frequently. These very real, interfering differences require focused efforts at patience, compromise, and, often, the gathering of outside information through advice-seeking, therapy, or looking up research on aspects of the topic they disagree about.  All of those pursuits often can help a couple arrive at a shared vision about the topic at hand. 

I have seen successful unions when one is a Republican and the other a Democrat;  where one is a Jewish New Yorker and the other a Protestant Midwesterner;  where one loves biking and the outdoors and their partner mostly likes to shop in malls and watch TV.  The reason these relationships are successful is that emotional closeness is not built upon the basis of both people liking the same foods or tuning in to the same radio stations.  It’s built, instead, on respectful responsiveness to the other person’s “way.”   

Rather than trying to change your partner to be more like you, or despairing that s/he is so different from you, try to cultivate interest and curiosity about the other’s preferences and perspective.  Develop acceptance, and coach yourself to be appreciative that your partner is expanding your horizons, and giving you chances to grow and learn. Focus on staying open; don’t disrespect the differences; be willing to join in on the other’s preferences for activities; and try on their perspective now and again.  Look for and nourish whatever similarities you do share.  

Aside from trying to synch up interests, though, the most important endeavor, by far, that will fortify a feeling of compatibility is the mutual fostering of emotional intimacy.  When partners share a desire for closeness -- when they learn to be attentive to each other, curious, and engaged -- their relationship can flourish.

Suzanne Marcus