This post is the text of a video essay I’ve hosted on YouTube here:
Love vs relationship
I like the idea that anyone can love anyone, regardless of their life conditioning and their genetic attributes. And technically I think that’s true. I believe that at a soul level, we are all the same consciousness, so loving any other being is like loving ourselves.
But loving someone isn’t the same as having a relationship with them. Love isn’t transactional, but relationships are, even if those transactions aren’t kept track of (which are the best kind of transactions for intimacy).
Love and relationship are related, but not the same. Some kinds of relationships like family, friendship, and intimate partnership require love to work. Other relationships, like financial ones, might not. Sometimes love means there’s a relationship, and sometimes love can be present when no relationship is there.
Love, as Sadhguru says, “is a certain sweetness of emotion.” Relationships, on the other hand, are about fulfilling needs.
The elusive and uncomfortable pillar
I wish I could say that every two people could, with enough inner work and work together, be compatible enough to have an intimate romantic relationship. However, my own experience, and common sense, tells me that isn’t true.
I do think that most couples who have been together for years and are having problems, are compatible enough, and can bring their relationship back to health and mutual fulfillment through hard work together and their own individual healing. But to leave essential compatibility out of the equation for a thorough consideration of what makes a relationship work would be overly simplistic.
We’re all different individuals, and not all individual combinations resonate as easefully as others. It’s easy to see this through the friendship lens. We’ve all met kindred spirit friends who seem “cut from the same cloth”, and with whom we felt an easy and quick connection. And we’ve also met those who feel like they are from a different planet, and we’ve met many people in between those extremes.
The subject of compatibility feels broader and more complicated to me than the subject of putting in the work, as it crosses into the vast territories of personality, genetics, ethics, and other domains. So I’m sure this essay will fall quite short of a complete treatise on compatibility. I don’t have all the answers about what makes partners compatible or not. And I think there’s a lot of mystery to it.
I’m placing this second pillar in the middle of the other two, because it is longer, and less comforting. The other two are about what we can do, the work we can put in, together and separately, and how we can steer the ship of our relationship toward smoother seas. This section is about a side we have less control over. It is not the ship we are steering but the waves that we might encounter with a particular person who we’ve chosen, and how we can understand those waves.
This second section is also for people who are single or dating, and who want to have a framework for seeking out a partner with whom there is high, long-term compatibility.
When we think about our primary intimate relationship, we often underestimate the foundational importance of our individuality. We assume, “I can just adapt to their needs”, or “we’ll figure out how to make it work”, or “where there’s a will there’s a way”, or “love conquers all”, as if we have an infinite degree of flexibility to stretch our individual needs and essential nature to “fit” with someone who we want to fit with. But at some point our individual differences create actual walls of reality that we collide against.
One partner wants to focus on earning and saving, one on spending and collecting experiences. One wants to “go deep” emotionally through conversation and intimate eye contact, the other prefers focusing on doing activities in parallel together. One wants parents and extended family to be a big part of life, the other wants to focus on each other and a few special non-kin friendships. One believes in certain religious or ideological systems, the other is comfortable in agnosticism.
Many differences and needs and life goals mutually exclude each other. It’s just not possible to spend the same three hours staying home and going out. We can’t have children and not have them. We can’t both believe in a specific God and also believe in a different, mutually exclusive God or be atheist. We can’t simultaneously drink champagne in a pub and meditate in a forest. The same dollars cannot be spent and saved at the same time. Short term indulgences tend to be long term sacrifices, and delayed gratification, by definition, delays gratification.
Zero sum spectrum
At the same time, relationships need care and feeding in order to thrive and provide the individuals in them the intimacy needed to make it mutually beneficial and worthwhile. We need to spend time together. We need to converse and talk about our lives to each other. We need to be in the same place and time in order to do this. We need to place our focus on each other, and experience good feelings when doing so. That requires that we don’t feel resentful or that our individual needs and life purposes are not jeopardized for the sake of the relationship.
Being in relationship is a balancing act between honoring our own individual selves and also nurturing the relationship, and sometimes time and energy cannot be used on both. The more different two people’s needs are from each other, the less their energy can “double count” and enhance both their individuality and their relationship at the same time.
Compatibility protects our relationship from becoming a “zero sum” competition in which energy devoted towards one person takes away that energy from the other. If we want to spend time and energy in opposite ways, then every hour we spend doing what our partner needs feels like an hour that we lost. But if we value and need similar things, we can more often catch two fish with one cast.
Synergy or antisynergy
Or it might be more accurate to say that compatibility helps us catch many fish with one cast, because we are not only meeting the needs of both individual selves, but we are also synergizing through the nourishing magic of the emotional bond.
Synergy is an interaction effect that is greater than the combined individual components. This is why human beings get into relationships in the first place. Through a healthy connection, we feel better. We can call it secure attachment, or wholeness, or love, or safety, or many other names. It is a fundamental experience of being individual separate beings that are also connecting and connected beings.
But if our relationship pulls us too far away from our own individual needs, our own path, and our own values, we become anxious. In that case we may actually experience anti-synergy, in which there is a negative interaction effect that is larger than the individual selves involved. The anxiety of feeling “off course” from their individual paths might actually prevent the individuals from benefiting much from the relationship, even though both are trying their best to do the right thing.
How did we get together?
Why do people who don’t have enough in common fall in love in the first place? The answers to that question can be very complex, but I’ll mention a few basic reasons here.
Many therapists believe that we unconsciously are attracted to people who share characteristics with our parents and other family of origin members, out of a sense of familiarity and an unconscious agenda to heal from challenging emotional attachments. In this light we might look too much for what is familiar to us rather than what will actually work.
Then there is the evolutionary and biological insight that sex, passion, and even emotional bonding alone don’t guarantee happiness together. We can be led by the older, more primal parts of our brains into becoming emotionally attached to someone, only to realize later when the passion cools, that different attractors are needed to keep a relationship satisfying in the long term.
There can also be social and cultural factors that cause us to attach without much compatibility. For instance, family or societal pressure to be with a certain type of person who is considered attractive or high value, or economic motivations to marry or be with someone.
Some of our romantic and sexual compatibility is biological. People talk about having “chemistry” with someone, a word that invokes molecules and hormones and other microscopic chemicals bonding with each other, carrying us along for the ride.
There is some research suggesting that physical attraction between people could be unconsciously related to their genetic compatibility. A complementary immune system, for example, might be one trait that we are attracted to through automatic and unconscious chemical mechanisms.
People whose genes combine well to create healthy and robust offspring likely find each other sexy, at least at first. And it’s not hard to see why this might have been adaptive for our species by leading to genetically healthy babies.
Pheromones and scents, physical features, and behaviors may all sometimes be unconscious cues that create attraction at a primal and instinctive level.
This type of compatibility is almost certainly best felt – physically and emotionally – rather than analyzed. I doubt that getting a PhD in this area will be more effective than practicing skillful somatic and emotional awareness. If the smell of someone’s sweat makes you feel pleasure, or if certain physical features are your “type” and are more attractive to you than they are to most people, you might be subconsciously detecting a genetic compatibility.
Malleability of chemistry
While I think that physical chemistry compatibility is important, I don’t think it’s sufficient for long term compatibility or happiness. Just because two people’s gametes would make a fantastic zygote, doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily enjoy conversations or have shared aims in life.
Another confounding consideration is that physical chemistry is hard to isolate from other ingredients of attraction and affinity toward someone. The minute that we have actual experience with someone, we are taking in not only their physical features and pheromones, but also their mannerisms, words, emotional hearts and minds, their energetic “vibe”, and potentially their social and cultural role. All of these aspects of a someone’s psychology and soul can easily augment or dampen the attraction that stems from chemistry. The longer we know someone, the more their personality and character will either amplify or cancel out the more primitive and purely biological attractors.
Foods that we eat over and over again tend to taste better and better as our minds increasingly associate them with safety and nourishment. Similarly, it does often seem to be the case that when two people get along well with each other psychologically, their physical attraction increases, and when they don’t get along, the attraction fades fairly quickly.
For these reasons, and also because biological and genetic chemistry and compatibility isn’t my area of expertise, I’m going to focus on psychological, emotional, and social compatibility that derives from both our genes and our environments.
To understand compatibility between people, it helps to understand how individuals vary among each other.
Other than our purely physical and biological features, a word that we tend to use to refer to the rest of our uniqueness is “personality”. One dictionary definition of “personality” is “the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual.”
A framework that I like for understanding personality on a broader level comes from a 2006 article called, “A New Big Five”(1). In this model, three different levels of personality lie in between evolutionary biology on the nature side, and cultural conditioning on the nurture side. The three levels of personality that range from low resolution to high resolution are:
- Dispositional traits, also called temperament
- Characteristic adaptations, which include core beliefs, values, ethics, goals, and ingrained habits
- And life narratives, which are unique and conscious stories that we carry about ourselves and the world
Viewed from these different levels, we can see how “every person is like all other people, every person is like some other people, and every person is like no other person”.
Evolutionary biology and dispositional traits
There were certain challenges and tasks that Homo Sapiens faced as it evolved into what it is today. All humans who successfully passed on their genes throughout the millenia needed to find food and water, stay physically safe, find mates to reproduce and pairbond with, protect and nurture children, and have mutualistic and prosocial relationships to survive in cooperative groups.
In order to accomplish those survival and reproduction tasks, we evolved universal psychobiological modules. Our bodies and minds are variations on the same design.
- We all have emotions that motivate us, and the ability to read the emotions of others.
- We all have ways of trying to balance the dual needs of individual autonomy and collective connection to others.
- We all make choices about how much we align with, invest in, avoid, or confront other specific individuals.
- We all weigh pros and cons of exercising caution or taking risk, from situation to situation.
- We all create personal and collective cultural meaning of our lives and our world.
These fundamental modules are grounded in our evolutionary neurobiology.
These are the ways that every person is like all other people.
On top of that universal, evolutionary layer, we are each born with a unique variation of dispositional traits, which are heavily determined by our genes. Dispositional traits are stable and continuous tendencies of thinking, feeling, and behaving across time and across contexts. Examples include extroversion, introversion, emotional reactivity, flexibility, tendency to stick to routine, attraction to novelty, impulsivity, and attention to detail. They’re like a “rough sketch” of our overall relationship to ourselves, to others, and to the world. And, they can partially predict what kinds of contexts we tend to thrive in, including the kinds of traits a compatible partner might have.
The old big 5
The traditional Big 5 model of personality is the model of dispositional traits that is most accepted by personality scientists. It consolidates dispositional traits into five categories: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These names form the acronym OCEAN.
High openness indicates teachability, receptivity, and willingness to experiment, and low openness indicates loyalty to beliefs and traditions, and strong boundaries.
High conscientiousness can tell us something about how much we can depend on someone to keep a promise and finish a task, and low conscientiousness suggests more flexibility to change plans easily.
High extroversion tends to correlate with social skills, charisma, and more numerous connections, and low extroversion (also called introversion) is associated with introspection, empathy, and fewer but deeper relationships.
High agreeableness is a tendency to go along and get along with others and promote peace and harmony, and low agreeableness is a tendency to assert one’s own will and voice disagreement in order to resolve conflicts of needs.
Neuroticism points to cautiousness and sensitivity, as opposed to nonchalance and daring.
These five trait dimentions convey a wealth of important information about someone’s personality, which can intuitively tell us something about likelihood of having a mutualistic relationship with them, knowing our own personality makeup. We evolved to subconsciously and skillfully observe, evaluate, and remember these dispositional traits in others, often even after spending a short amount of time with them.
Different, not better or worse
Different temperaments are not good or bad, although having very high or low degrees of a trait could potentially be lonely. Trait scores are rare to the extent that they deviate from the moderate average. But all of the traits have pros and cons to them.
Some traits are more adapted to certain contexts and cultures. Extroversion is probably valued more than introversion overall in a western corporate business world, whereas introversion is probably more esteemed in an eastern healing or creative arts context.
Dispositional traits that are compatible with yours are the ones that you find complementary, attractive, valuable, and able to accept and love.
Dispositional traits are just one of many facets of a whole person, and the whole fit between two whole people is what matters. I wouldn’t recommend hard and fast rules for choosing temperamental trait combinations. But I do think that learning what the main dispositional traits are can help us become more conscious about navigating the complex and mysterious landscape of relationship compatibility.
Builders, explorers, nurturers, and directors
Helen Fischer worked with match.com and created a four-category personality model for dating that’s an example of how dispositional traits might be able to inform compatibility to some extent. The 4 types are based on the chemistry of neurotransmitters and hormones. She named these types builders, explorers, nurturers, and directors, and said these are associated with seratonin, dopamine, estrogen, and testoterone, respectively.
Her research found that builders were the most compatible partners for other builders, explorers were most compatible with other explorers, and that directors paired well with nurturers and vice versa.
These pairings make intuitive sense by thinking about goal and role compatibility. Exploring nomadically and staying put to grow roots are largely incompatible, so it’s not hard to imagine friction between the dopamine-fueled explorers and the seratonin-rich builders. And a partnership works less well if you have two strong-willed directors or two passive and nurturing supporters, compared to having someone more comfortable leading and the other who prefers a supportive role.
Fisher’s 4 types seem to map onto other models of temperament like the Big 5. An explorer would tend to be high in openness, a builder high in conscientiousness, a nurturer high in agreeableness, and a director high in extroversion, among other potential correlations.
I think the model is strong but very low-resolution with only 4 main categories of people. Fischer also says that people tend to have a primary and a secondary category, such as an exploring director or a building nurturer.
Considering another perspective, Arthur Brooks has written about compatibility (which he calls complementarity) of emotional tendencies toward positive and negative emotions.
A test called the “positive and negative affect schedule” was created to measure the frequency and intensity that an individual tends to have toward feeling positive and negative emotions. The results create four basic categories that have been labeled as:
- mad scientists (high on both positive and negative emotion),
- cheerleaders (high on positive and low on negative emotions),
- poets (low on positive and high on negative emotions),
- and sober judges (low on both positive and negative emotions).
Brooks says that when it comes to emotionality, compatible partners balance each other out rather than enforce each other’s temperaments. The high emotions of mad scientists balance well with the low emotions of judges, and the bright positivity of cheerleaders might blend well with the darker feeling tones of poets. Perhaps two very emotional people can spiral into chaos, and two people with less intense emotions can feel sentimentally inert or flat. And too much collective positivity or negativity without the other side of the spectrum might feel like a life half lived that doesn’t encapsulate the full human experience that we need to fully potentiate.
That doesn’t mean that we should observe someone’s apparent emotional flatness or volatility and then make an analytical decision to start a relationship with them based only that criterion. I think that conclusions about compatibility are best formed gradually, tentatively, intuitively, and based on a nuanced and broad set of experience with someone. Theories and models like this one are just potential small clues that may help to solve the larger mystery of who we’ll get along with. They’re data points to be curious about as we let the servant of our intellect assist the master of our intuition.
Characteristic adaptations: Beliefs, values, goals, ethics, and habits
Characteristic adaptations is one label for the middle ground of personality between our universal evolutionary biology and our one-of-a-kind environment, with the word “characteristic” pointing at our genes, and the word “adaptation” pointing at our context.
Subcategories of characteristic adaptations include core beliefs, goals, values, ethics, and automatic behavioral scripts.
Compared to dispositional traits, they’re more linked to our conscious thoughts, more likely to change over time with new experience and transition across life stages, more anchored to family situations and social roles, more varied across cultures. Because they intertwine with both genes and contexts, they’re harder to categorize and thoroughly conceptualize.
Thoughts are to raindrops as beliefs are to puddles. The more times we think something might be true, the more we come to believe that it’s true.
Some beliefs are shallow puddles that can dry up easily, as we encounter new evidence and a puddle forms elsewhere.
Therapists have used the term “core belief” to talk about beliefs that are deep, ingrained, subconscious, and foundational to our worldview. Core beliefs color how we perceive ourselves, other people, and the world around us.
We form core beliefs in conjunction with our emotionally significant life experiences. If, as a child, we witness people being unkind to each other, we are likely to subconsciously and repeatedly think, “people are unkind” and gradually that can become a core belief. To the extent that we saw others being affirming and supportive, we will likely form the core belief that we can generally trust people. Depending on how much or little tragedy we experienced, directly or vicariously, we could form core beliefs that range from “the world is unpredictable and harsh” to “life will support me”.
I’m giving words to these core beliefs, but often a core belief is more of a felt sense that’s linguistically hazy. Putting words to them is a good way to make them more conscious and know our personalities better.
Core beliefs and genes
Our genes also intertwine with our early life contexts to form core beliefs. Genetic trait openness combined with experiences of exposure to novelty might lead to core beliefs in the value of diversity and variety. Inherited conscientiousness could interact with being recognized by others as dependable, that together form core beliefs about dedication and responsibility. High neuroticism might lead to experiences of being under stress more often than other people, forming core beliefs about life being challenging, as well as possibly beliefs about the importance of wellness and healing practices.
Malleability of core beliefs
Core beliefs tend to operate in the periphery of our awareness. The automatic activation of core beliefs isn’t really under our voluntary control. But I think that slowly dissolving them can be. With self-examination and conscious awareness, they tend to become more malleable.
We can notice our core beliefs and actively question them. If I know that I struggle with a core belief that the world is unsafe, I can consciously practice actively looking for evidence that things will work out. If I know that I struggle with a core belief of unlovability, I can deliberately look for real evidence of often being liked by others. It doesn’t help to fabricate evidence to feel comfortable. But it does help to challenge erroneous assumptions that are animated by our core beliefs, and hone in on real counter-evidence that our core beliefs cause us to filter out and pass over.
Because core beliefs form with significant emotional experiences, they tend to need significant emotional experiences to shift. That isn’t easy, because we tend to choose contexts that are familiar, comfortable and support our beliefs. Contexts that dismantle our beliefs are disorienting and uncomfortable. Even though it can be immensely liberating to disprove negative core beliefs, it’s unsettling when reality shows us that we have been distorting it for most of our lives. Imagine learning that you were capable all along of far more than you aimed for. Or that you were actually attractive all those years you avoided asking for dates. What’s harder: another day of the status quo, or the realization that we missed countless opportunities in our past to feel alive and to self-actualize? Changing core beliefs is a bit like admitting we’ve been delusional for a long time, usually in a way that wasn’t serving us. It’s no wonder they tend to be entrenched, to the point that we often fit our realities around our beliefs rather than fitting our beliefs around reality.
Core beliefs and compatibility
Because they can change, but are also hard to change, core beliefs lie in the gray area between the pillars of individual healing and compatibility. They aren’t as easy to change as developing a new habit like putting away dirty socks or making the bed, or even learning how to listen more attentively. They are the kinds of personality structures that can take years or decades to gradually shift, given that they take years or decades to form.
When two people are compatible, it has a lot to do with their timing. My partner and I have curiously wondered how much of our compatibility is innate and permanent, and how much depended on meeting each other at the right time, when personality structures like core beliefs came to mesh well. Would we have been compatible five or ten years before that when some of our beliefs were different? We think so, but we’re not sure.
When thinking about core beliefs as malleable structures that form for our psychological self-protection and can be dissolved, they fall under the pillar of healing. But to the extent that they are considered fixed and entrenched, they belong to the category of compatibility.
Core beliefs can be the result of emotional wounding, but I think they can also just be more neutral way of seeing the world. The belief, “never turn down an adventure” and the belief “always grow roots and build” are different core beliefs that might not need healing or changing, but could be ingrained life orientations that create friction between partners.
Values and goals
Values and goals are characteristic adaptations that I think are quite important in determining the compatibility between two people as life partners.
Values are sometimes compared to a direction on a compass, while goals are like a location on a map. To the extent that we have different values, its like wanting to head in different directions from our starting point, which will lead to different destinations. If a relationship is like a journey together, we need to both want to head in a similar direction, at least enough to both be satisfied with where we’re headed, so we can relax into the adventure.
Examples of value directions include creativity, self-reliance, community, family, gratitude, courage, adventurousness, respect, compassion, patience, temperance, responsibility, equality, power, integrity, and loyalty.
To the extent that a value is considered morally significant, it would be called an ethic. Ethics are similar to values in that both guide our behavior in specific directions, and lead to the creation and pursuit of goals.
Values steer us toward what we believe is good for us, and ethics orient us toward what we feel is morally right. I think of values as what an individual wants for their life, and ethics as having to do more with the human collective and how we interact with, treat, and help each other. Values could be considered more like subjective preferences, and more diverse than ethics. It’s also possible that ethics are more deeply rooted in our genes and less malleable than values.
A model of ethics that I’ve found helpful is Jonathan Haidt’s 6 “moral foundations” that he identified by analyzing large numbers of surveys that ask moral questions. The six foundations are:
- Care vs harm
- Fairness vs cheating
- Loyalty vs betrayal
- Authority vs subversion
- Sanctity vs degradation
- Liberty vs oppression
Haidt also studied how what he calls these moral “tastebuds” vary in predictable patterns according to political stances. For example, he found that liberals have the most care tastebuds, libertarians have many liberty and few authority tastebuds, and conservatives have moderate amounts of tastebuds across all six foundations, including the sanctity and loyalty tastebuds.
For me, the most valuable benefit of Haidt’s moral foundations theory is not the specific list of moral tastebuds, but the general principle that morality might not be as objective or universal as we tend to think it is. We all have our own views of what is more righteous, but it makes sense to me that other people who have a different assortment of moral tastebuds are going to feel equally objective and correct about their own subjective ethical palette.
Another interesting finding was that moral foundations have a fairly strong genetic component. I can see how the six moral foundations could correlate with dispositional traits. For example, someone with high openness and low neuroticism might have relatively few sanctity tastebuds. I can imagine agreeableness being somewhat correlated with the authority tastebud, and so on.
One implication of the genetic component of different moral tastebuds might be that we should strive to be less judgemental of the different ethics of others, given that we all have very limited control over how we evaluate right and wrong. And, we should probably be more humble about our own ethical pallates, knowing that no matter what set of ethics we have, none of us possess all of the ethical tastebuds that exist.
That said, being accepting of the different ethics – or any other significant difference with others – doesn’t mean that we need to partner up with them. In fact, acceptance of others often means that we keep a healthy distance from those who have ethics or other characteristics that are incompatible with our own, since we relinquish our efforts to change them, which makes the needed distance or closeness between us even more clear.
On the nurture and adaptation side of ethics, moral values are passed on culturally through families, societies, and religious and educational institutions. Parents usually work rather hard to teach their kids right and wrong according to their own moral intuitions. And it’s no secret that one will tend to find more conservative moral systems being passed on in churches, and more liberal ethics being taught in public schools and universities.
Moral foundations can morph over time. But like core beliefs, this tends to happen slowly and through emotionally significant experiences. People generally tend to become somewhat more conservative as they age, but some become more liberal. Perhaps more common is a move toward moderation, having lived long enough to see the downsides of excess in any direction. And many people change their moral stances when they leave their family of origin and encounter different value systems that resonate more with them than what they were raised with.
People generally gain wisdom with age and experience, which has a large component of morality to it. People tend to become more compassionate toward others as they face more painful loss and adversity, due to personal misfortune, or as an inevitable part of living longer. We tend to become more interested in helping younger people and interested in broader society as we become more in touch with our own mortality, comprehend the brevity of life, are humbled by our limitations, and come to see our interconnectedness with society.
Political orientation and relationship compatibility
Surveys have shown that people in the dating market highly consider political orientation in who they would or would not date and be in a relationship with. This could be because they are subconsciously using political categories like “conservative” and “liberal” as approximations for ethics and values, which in turn can predict goals, and goals are about how someone wants to spend their life.
In past decades, politics were far less important to prospective daters. While someone’s political category is noteworthy, I don’t think it’s the best approximation for compatibility or for someone’s goals and values. There are just a few common political labels, so the categories usually aren’t going to represent a unique individual well. There’s very large variation of values among people within each political category. Just because someone identifies with the label “conservative” doesn’t mean that they necessarily go deer hunting every weekend, make all their friends at church, and want to raise lots of children in a rural town. And not all who call themselves “liberal” want to live in a city and rub elbows with environmentalists and college professors in art galleries.”
Most people are closer to the middle of the political compass, so someone center-left and someone center-right could actually be quite close to each other despite self-identifying with separate categories. No one fits into a given political category perfectly, and many people consider themselves to have no political affiliation or to be politically homeless, since their unique array of values and feelings about all kinds of political issues partially fits many categories and doesn’t holistically fit with any specific category.
I’m not saying that people who are on polar opposites sides of the left-right continuum or the liberty-authority continuum of the political compass will be a good match. But I do think that it’s more helpful instead, when considering partner compatibility, to strive to see each other as unique individuals by directly considering the person’s unique collection of moral tastebuds, and remembering that sameness is not synonymous with compatibility on any dimension, including ethics and values. Complementarity could mean that there is a balance of similarity and also some diversity of viewpoints and perspectives, to keep things interesting and to create attraction that can sometimes come from novelty and a sense that we have something to learn from someone.
Family goals and relationship compatibility
The goal of having kids and raising a family is perhaps the most important initial compass check we can do with a prospective partner.
Whether or not someone wants children in the future is one of the first filters that dating apps provide to sort through potential matches, for good reason. A lot of goals in life can be compromised on fairly easily. But becoming parents together or not is really not one of them. You can compromise on the number of children you want to have, or whether you adopt or not, but the goal of being a parent or not being a parent is such a big life decision that wanting to go different directions in that way is, I think, largely a non-starter. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, to me, to forgo the one life you have to take the journey motherhood or fatherhood if you really want that. Nor does it make sense to take up that mantle if you aren’t up for it, just to be with a particular person.
Even if all the other compatibility stars line up perfectly, this one big difference can be enough to cause overall incompatibility. That said, I suspect that differences in family goals tend to correlate with and overlie differences in dispositional traits and characteristic adaptations. People who want to make career or travel the centerpiece of their lives probably have different biology and formative conditioning than people who want to make raising children the centerpiece. While most people want to strike a balance among such tradeoffs, I think that most people lean toward one side or the other when it comes to having children.
More important than the number of kids to have, is probably the level of importance that each person places on becoming a parent. Some have a sense that parenting will be a more moderate sized slice of the life pie than others, and are more likely to have just one or two children, and balance family with other parts of their life. Other people want parenting to be as large of a slice of life as possible and are more likely to want more children and sacrifice other experiences in order to place family as centrally and prominently on the table as possible. The more aligned the couple is with regards to how much of their life energy will go into parenting relative to other pursuits in life, the more compatibility they have around this major area of life.
I’ve known couples who decided to have a child or two, or not have children, after one of the partners changed their minds about their family goals. Perhaps one or both of them were ambivalent about becoming parents, or had unclear or slight preferences. In those cases, one partner might tip to the side of having or not having children, because it’s essentially a binary decision, and they heavily weigh what their partner wants in their decision. In such cases, I think there are relatively few regrets about whichever path they take. And I think it’s really beautiful when two people are so dedicated to each other that the decision to become parents doesn’t loom so large either way, since their priority is to each other first and foremost, and the most important thing to them is staying together and being happy together. Ironically, such a couple would likely be good parents, since a strong partnership creates the bedrock foundation that leads to emotional security and love for the kids and the whole family system. Partners who genuinely love and like each other and who have slight preferences or ambivalence about family goals could very well be compatible and handle it as a joint decision that needs to meet the needs of both spouses, and a journey that they will choose to enjoy, whichever direction it goes in. I can see having children together as kind of project that could bring a happy and compatible couple closer together, or create distance for an already troubled and distant relationship.
I don’t think that people need to know exactly how many kids they want to have in order to get together, because often having their first or second child changes their family size goal anyways. But I do think that couples who are dating should explore early on how much each person wants or doesn’t want to have children, and decide if they are likely compatible on this big issue before they get attached to each other.
I’ve observed, and experienced, that teenage or emerging adult couples (18-25) or so think much less about how much they want to be parents and often start relationships without worrying much about it. Generally we know ourselves and our big-picture life goals less when we’re 20 than when we’re 30. We also tend to think more short term, having the perception of ample time to figure it out later, even if that means leaving a partner and starting over. That said, many young people do know one way or another at a fairly early age if they want to become parents or not. Having worked with many university-age clients in the past, and remembering my younger self, I think we usually don’t consider family goals enough when we’re young and couple up. And maybe this is by evolutionary design, which didn’t require us to be happily compatible long term with a partner, as much as it favored us having babies now and asking questions later. But to act in the service of their own happiness rather than biological reproduction of the species, I think younger people would do well to heavily factor in future family goals in their dating choices, as well as spend time and energy getting to know themselves and thinking about what they want in this and other areas of life.
Behavioral habits and compatibility
Beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and contexts are all intertwined and interdependent. Automatic and ingrained habits are the behavioral version of core beliefs. They can result from wounding, or simply be an expression of our essential nature.
Couples often focus on the behaviors of their partners, because they are among the most visible and conscious characteristics of a person. “He leaves his socks everywhere,” “she interrupts me constantly”, “he doesn’t buy me flowers”, etc.
Perhaps for this reason, I have less to say about behaviors, since most people have already studied and considered them extensively. I see behaviors as flowing downstream from core beliefs, values, ethics, and goals. As the saying goes, “show me an incentive and I’ll show you a behavior”.
Most of the time, I think that difficult behaviors that drive partners crazy are defenses, or coping strategies that unconsciously aim to avoid having to face uncomfortable emotions. Examples of defenses include aggression, blaming, criticizing, dominating, status seeking, manipulation, deception, passive-aggression, rebellion, control, submission, pleasing, complying, withdrawal, novelty seeking, numbing, escapism, and dissociation. Everything on that list are largely ways of dealing with trauma and self-protection from the pain of core wounds. Wounding tends to be hard to deal with no matter what flavor it takes, because it separates us from connection with others, with ourselves, and with life. In the section on individual healing, I’ll talk about how we can become better at relationship by healing the core wounds that these defenses and behaviors protect so we can retire them and increase the range of who we can connect with.
There are also healthy versions of all of the different behavioral patterns from the above list. It’s not as though we converge on clone-like uniformity as we heal from trauma. A healthy version of dominance might be leadership. A healthy version of passivity might be generous altruism. Novelty-seeking for escapism can evolve into adventurousness and an appetite for learning.
If there are behavioral incompatibilities in a relationship that accompany being emotionally troubled, the partners might just need to get well. That can take a lot of time, but it’s possible. If partners’ behaviors seem incompatible when they are emotionally healthy, then compatibility might be more at play. There is nothing to heal or fix when we’re just being who we naturally are at our best and it doesn’t meet another person’s needs. I’d guess that far more personality combinations are compatible when people are healthy. It’s much easier to be attracted to someone’s healthy difference than it is to be drawn to a mental illness, whether it’s different or familiar to us.
Life Narratives and compatibility
Layered on top of dispositional traits and characteristic adaptations are life narratives. They are even higher resolution detail of personality, and are mostly influenced by culture and context rather than by biology.
Cultures provide a menu of stories that can be lived. Those stories are particular to time and place. Familiar-sounding stories might include the doctor, the stay at home mom, the NBA star, the high school music teacher, and so on. A thousand years ago in feudal Europe, the menu might have consisted of the serf, the lord, the soldier, the clergyman, the midwife, etc. We assemble most of our life narrative by combining one or more of the cultural stories that are available to us, and then refining them based on our own unique experiences.
Sometimes a life narrative can consist of a rebellion against dominant stories on the menu of a culture. “Atheist” is an identity of not being religious or believing in a god. An expat left the country to live elsewhere. The flapper, the bohemian, the hippie, and the punk rocker, were all menu narratives that did more to distinguish individuals from the dominant culture than to connect them with it.
Objective events plus subjective meaning
Life narratives are largely subjective, but do need some grounding in objective reality in order for them to stick and be satisfying. They include significant events in our long-term memories, and the meaning that we give those events. Our memories are largely altered as time goes by and as they are retrieved over and over, compounding the subjectivity of our personal story.
Childhood experiences and relationships heavily influence our life narrative, imprinting on us during a formative time of life, and orienting us to often behave and relate as adults in ways that confirm our stories, for better or worse. Someone with a narrative identity of being daring will likely seek out adventures that confirm this story. The identity of a funny comedian will generate confidence to tell jokes and elicit narrative-confirming laughs from others.
A life narrative also includes our imagined future – the specific experiences that we hope to have and hope to not have – in the near, mid-term, and distant future, as well as what we imagine those events would mean to us if they were to happen or not happen.
Life narratives are ever-evolving sources of meaning that develop across the lifespan. It’s healthy and inevitable to have a life narrative of some kind. They provide us with an orientation to guide us through adversity. Nietzsche said that, “he who has a why can live with any how”, and Viktor Frankl wrote that “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” Having a story about how our pain leads to growth and our destiny helps us accept our pain and suffer less psychologically.
Life narratives also have archetypal undercurrents which transcend time and context and are part of the collective human unconscious.
Archetypes are general human stories that are grounded in psychobiology and, many would say, in spirituality. Examples of archetypal narrative roles include the hero, the mentor, the sage, the trickster, the king, the queen, the warrior, the goddess, the explorer, the magician, and the artist. These general archetypes are far fewer in number than their context-specific manifestations, which are cultural and virtually infinite. Each archetype can be played out in as many ways as there are different cultural settings. A modern warrior archetype might be played out on a football field or in an executive boardroom. A modern magician might be a hypnotizing speaker, or an engineer designing a new technology. A modern goddess might be a woman who is looked up to for her feminine qualities of nurturing, compassion, grace, and connecting people.
I believe that everyone is living some version of the narrative called the hero’s journey. In fact, I think we live multiple hero’s journeys over the course of life. Every time we face some adversity and come out of it transformed, we’ve gone through a hero’s journey cycle. We’re all protagonists in our own life narratives.
Being a compatible partner for someone involves being able to see, accept, and celebrate each other’s relationship with life. We need a partner who isn’t going to ignore, criticize, or control our essential orientations toward life and frameworks for our life projects.
It’s enriching to occasionally and compassionately be challenged, but such questioning should come from helpful intentions and from substantial understanding that’s been built through curiosity and empathy.
Sometimes the life narrative of one partner can feel threatening or anxiety-provoking to the other, and vice versa. A devoted mother might feel anxious when hearing a daring explorer story from her partner, wondering if he’ll be stable and present enough to co-parent. Conversely, a person who sees himself as a nomadic adventurer might feel threatened by the more domestic story of a partner whose chosen path is to grow deep roots in one place. Similarly, the proverbial mayor of the town and an inwardly-focused hermit might have a hard time supporting each others life narratives if they feel too far apart from each other to stay connected. A scholar who prefers to inhabit the world of thought and concepts, and an empath who resides primarily in the world of feeling, could potentially feel discomfort with each other´s identity, if their stories take place in distant enough worlds.
Discomfort with a partner’s narrative identity might simply mean there are things to learn about each other and a practice of mutual respect and acceptance to be developed. It’s only a compatibility problem to the extent that the different stories represent real and insurmountable obstacles to fulfilling each other’s needs. If couples can honor each others’ different narratives and still meet each others’ needs, they may have a vibrant and interesting partnership.
Family, culture, and relationship compatibility
How important is family and cultural background when considering relationship compatibility? Do cultural differences decrease compatibility, or increase complementarity? What happens when you study abroad and fall in love with someone from a different culture and exotic land? Or when you partner with someone who has recently immigrated from another country, or someone who was raised in a family that strongly identifies with a very different culture? Or when you just sense that someone grew up in a very different family from the one you grew up in? Each family is it’s own culture.
A person’s temperament probably says more about them than about their culture. But how those temperamental traits are expressed speaks to their cultural conditioning. For example, equally high extroversion will be expressed differently in the individualistic American culture compared with the collectivist Japanese culture.
I think that multicultural couples sometimes aren’t sure how much of their conflicts stem from their different cultural and family upbringings, as opposed to the interface between their underlying temperaments, as all couples have to contend with. The two dimensions of nature and nurture can’t fully be separated, making the impact of culture difficult to measure.
A natural ease between two people could be called a “resonance”, or a positive “energetic signature.” I think of an energetic signature when I see an old friend who I haven’t seen in years. I have a sense that we’ve always been destined to connect, given the natural ease that is there.
When a resonant signature is present, it’s easier to trust and work through surface-level problems and conflicts of perspective, which are probably fewer in number and smaller in degree. Our mental stories can change far more easily than our inherited biochemistry and nervous system wiring. Love might not change our biology, but it can be the raw material needed to build bridges across family and cultural divides.
I would guess that when couples meet a “kindred spirit” or “soulmate” from a different culture, it is because they have a strong resonance at a biological and perhaps a spiritual level. Sometimes people fall deeply in love despite having limited ability to communicate with language. I have personally met several people who lived abroad for some time, fell in love, and wound up marrying or having satisfying relationships with someone from a different country and culture.
Two people with compatible dispositions but different adaptations and narratives can usually find common ground with each other by adopting newer strategies that still fit their underlying temperaments. A soccer fan and a football fan can probably take turns enjoying the other’s sport. A conscientious and introverted couple might enjoy learning each other’s hobbies of gardening and carpentry. The exploratory needs that Susan has met from long road trips might also be met on John’s sailing adventures. In other words, there´s usually something on each cultural “menu of narratives and adaptations” to satisfy everyone, despite having different dispositions.
But to the extent that underlying temperaments are different, it’s probably more challenging. Football will probably not substitute that well for sailing, nor concerts for camping, nor fishing for road trips, nor reading books in adjacent chairs for lively cocktail conversation. We can more easily change the details of our habits around the rough sketches of our compatible dispositions, than we can alter our dispositional rough sketches around someone’s different habit details. And because life narratives are highly shaped by context, two people who grow up far apart and then live together in the same context will likely find their life narratives converging toward one another over time.
That’s not to say that cultural differences are insignificant. Cultural conditioning does have an impact on core beliefs, values, and other characteristic adaptations, which are more subconscious and ingrained than our conscious stories. For better or worse, childhood conditioning from society and family has enduring effects throughout our lives. And, new cultural and relational conditioning as adults can also be created, which blends with old conditioning.
Being from similar cultures may require less work to bridge smaller personality divides, if we´re including characteristic adaptations and life narratives as part of personality. Multicultural couples may have a more rich collective set of beliefs and life adaptations, and also a longer list of conversations and compromises needed to bring both partners toward mutual understanding and shared goals. This may be simultaneously more stimulating, exhausting, frustrating, and rewarding than what culturally homogeneous couples might tend to experience on average.
Personality and compatibility conclusion
So what’s the TLDR synopsis here with personality and compatibility? Which levels of personality matter most for partner compatibility?
In general, I think that biology determines compatibility more than culture. Experiences and contexts shape us, and so they can reshape us. They heavily impact the expression of our genes, but they don’t change our genes themselves. Our personal narratives have less bearing on compatibility than our highly heritable temperaments, and our characteristic adaptations lie somewhere in between.
That said, compatibility for any specific couple is going to be a unique and complex landscape. My intent here has been to provide some considerations for navigating that intuitive and mysterious terrain more consciously.
Compatibility vs quality
Some people find a compatible life partner on their first or second try at intimate relationship. I used to think this was the result of being blessed with great looks or other genetic attributes that made someone highly desirable and able to get a “great catch” right away, which set them up for a lifetime of love. But I’ve seen far too many people who are very attractive and competent struggle to find and keep love, to believe that it’s about being or finding some sort of absolute objective quality in a person. I’ve also seen plenty of examples of people who don’t seem to have above average looks or stand out in other conventional ways, who have found a mate who adores them and who they cherish. I tend to now see this as a outgrowth of self-love first and foremost, and a consequence of choosing someone who fits well, rather than striving to attain some ephemeral level of absolute or objective “quality” in a partner.
People joke sometimes that they’d leave their partner for some rich or hot celebrity, as if being with someone with extraordinary looks or wealth or talent will lead to happiness. Men and women both get the idea, perhaps partly from biology and partly from culture, that the route to relationship success and happiness is to find the best “quality” mate they can catch and keep, as if we’re shopping for a watermelon, inspecting them intently and trying to wind up with the juiciest and most flavorful one in our shopping cart.
Men and women vary in how much they value attributes like looks, wealth, and status, but basing partner choice on only superficial qualities is not a good strategy for obtaining love and happiness. They do matter to some extent, but alone they’re far from enough, because we’re not just mammals who are simply after the best genes for our offspring. We’re advanced primates who have strong emotional bonds and attachment needs. We don’t just need a sexy body to mate with, we need a companion who’s going to see our value and continuously reflect this back at us in a world that challenges and sometimes defeats us. We need an ally who’s going to love us not only when we’re performing or looking good, but when we’re hurting and failing. We need a teammate who we can depend on, so we can be stronger as a unit than we are as an isolated particle. We’re going to be our best and healthiest with that kind of nourishing connection.
The last place we need to find threat and defeat is our intimate relationship. Looks, money, and status have little to do with most of the emotional and spiritual needs we have that an intimate partner can provide. If those attributes are the foundation of a relationship, then both partners will feel constant pressure to perform and stay beautiful and successful, lest they lose their relationship.
Compassion, wisdom, integrity, kindness, honesty, loyalty, and commitment, to name a few deeper attributes, do correlate with relationship need fulfillment. Everyone has these golden qualities deep within them, but we all have some amount of personality mud covering them over, and the right partner who can bring out the gold in us is the partner who can see the gold even underneath our mud flaws. More importantly, the right partner is the one whose gold we can see and love in them despite the mud that overlies it. For all the complex theory about compatibility that I’ve talked about, this one criterion captures the essence of it: can these two individuals love each other and feel satisfied and gratified that they’ve found each other, despite all of their shortcomings, and does that sentiment flow equally in both directions? If so, they’re a great match that will almost certainly help each other chip away the muddy exterior and reveal their brilliant inner gold underneath. And if they can’t do that for each other, the gold is likely to get even more buried under additional mud as they spend time together.
Attachment trauma and compatibility
Attachment styles have become part of the cultural vernacular. More and more people have heard about secure, insecure, anxious, and avoidant attachment styles. And for good reason. Attachment theory is a very powerful yet simple model for understanding the dynamics of the bond between couples.
Many are familiar, through knowledge or experience, with the common pursuer-distancer dynamic, in which one parter anxiously pursues the other and the other avoidantly withdraws, in an increasingly negative cycle. At some point, the pursuer may give up, and the withdrawing partner stops withdrawing, and even pursues for a short time, until they come together with some relief, and then repeat the cycle when the next conflict starts.
One perspective is that two such people lack compatibility because their ingrained attachments styles, which are heavily influenced by childhood emotional bonds, and probably by genes as well, are so different. Someone who tends toward avoidant attachment and someone who tends toward anxious attachment are more likely to trigger each other regularly than other attachment style combinations.
But another valid view is that such attachment wounds belong to the categories of individual healing work and hard work together. Damage isn’t the same as incompatibility. Damage can be repaired, and wounds can heal, with hard work and courage and dedication. If a part on your car is damaged, that means it probably needs to be repaired; we wouldn’t say that it’s incompatible with the car in the same way that a working part from some other make and model car is incompatible. And yet, in a different sense the correct damaged car part is incompatible, since it won’t work if installed.
Trauma can make two people not function well together, but that lack of functioning is not due to their natural essence. It’s due to the wounds that they’ve incurred that are preventing them from giving the potential love that they have within them and receiving love the other has to offer.
Two people that come together with childhood wounds that block their exchange of love, are perhaps temporarily incompatible. But that sort of trauma-induced incompatibility can diminish if they do the work of healing, which I’ll cover in part 3. Whether it can diminish enough to make them work well together within a period of time that they both accept, is unique to each couple.
The extent to which one sees trauma-induced tension as a compatibility issue or not probably depends on one’s level of optimism about the degree to which trauma can heal. I personally think of compatibility as less about our trauma and more about our unique essence, which is related to our genes, or our soul, or however you want to explain the way we are simply different from each other, even at our absolute healthiest and most whole. This is probably at least in part because I’m in the business of helping people heal from trauma, and I believe that I’ve personally developed substantial “earned secure attachment”, through significant individual healing work. I feel quite optimistic whenever I meet individuals and couples who realize they’ve been wounded and want to heal from that, so they can feel more love within themselves and between each other. Attachment wounds take place within relationships, and so they can also be healed within relationships.
Developmental stage of life and compatibility
How does age difference relate to compatibility? Some say age is “just a number” and that it’s the age of the soul, not the body, that counts. Others point out that chronological age can be significantly far ahead of, or behind, biological age measured at the cellular level.
What I do think can be a significant factor in relationship compatibility is the psychological developmental stages of the two people in a relationship. Erik Erikkson proposed 8 psychosocial life stages, each with a specific task. The ones that are relevant to this topic are stages and tasks 5-8:
- Stage 5: Identity formation, during adolescence
- Stage 6: Finding intimacy in young adulthood
- Stage 7: Generativity and contribution in middle adulthood
- Stage 8: Integrity and fulfillment in late adulthood
I suspect that the ages that correspond with these stages have increased since the 1950s when his theory was proposed. 30 is the new 20, 40 is the new 30, etc.
Another stage called “emerging adulthood” has more recently been delineated, which lies in between adolescence and young adulthood. It’s characterized by exploration, focus on oneself, and various transitions.
When I was in my late 20s, I dated someone several years younger than I was for a couple of years, after which she decided she wanted to do more traveling and broke it off. At the time I felt very hurt, but over time I came to see a developmental difference as a major factor for what happened. I was about to finish a master’s degree and hit the ground running with a therapy career, and was ready to settle down and build, both relationship-wise and career wise. I was solidly in the young adulthood stage and task of finding intimacy, and she was more in the emerging adulthood phase, focused more on identity formation and exploration. I’ve also heard several similar stories from clients, on both ends of this same developmental mismatch.
It’s interesting to consider how sometimes we meet the right person, but at the wrong age or time of their life. We wonder if things would have worked out wonderfully if one or the other was several years younger or older.
The older we are, the less age differences matter, but they probably always matter to some degree. A three year age difference is very significant in adolescence, and less so in our 20s. A ten year age difference is huge between 20 and 30, but not so big between 40 and 50. This is because the rate of human development decreases from extremely rapid in the beginning of life to very slow toward the end of it. Erikkson said that stage 5 lasts for 6 years, and stage six lasts for 20 years.
It’s not too hard to imagine a mismatch between later life stages. Someone who is 40 might be solidly in the generativity stage, wanting to conserve energy by having a mellow evening and going to bed early to get up and work hard the next day. Someone in their late 20s is more likely to still be mostly in the intimacy stage, more likely to devote energy to socializing, going out, and deepening friendships through exciting and unique experiences. Of course, both of them will engage in intimacy and generativity, but they will not likely prioritize these developmental tasks in the same order.
Someone who is in later adulthood and past most of the generativity stage might be more focused on reflection, relaxation, and and spiritual practices, rather than working as hard as someone in middle adulthood who is striving to contribute and leave a mark on the world.
Energy level and type of energy is probably a big part of developmental compatibility. It’s no secret that young kids have a ton of physical energy, and that physical energy decreases gradually the older we get. Younger adults tend to stay out later and undertake activities and experiences that require higher energy output than most middle-aged adults can or want to take on. Older adults are more likely to enjoy and prefer activities that are calmer and mellower.
On the other hand, older adults may also have longer attention spans, more patience, more wisdom, and more of a spiritual focus, which is a different kind of energy, or at least a different way to focus it. It’s going to be easier and more rewarding when partners are more of a developmental and energetic match for each other.
Psychosocial developmental stages transition from one to another gradually, so in reality we’re all in a blend of stages, and it just helps to be “close enough” developmentally to a partner to be able to relate to each other and enjoy shared activities on a shared path.
And of course, every person is different. There are old souls in younger bodies and young souls in older bodies, and early bloomers and late bloomers and those with natural high energy capacities and those with lower energy capacities. So chronological age is definitely not perfectly correlated with developmental stage or energetic match.
Compatibility vs similarity
Compatibility can come from being similar, but it can also come from being different in complementary ways.
People who are dispositionally natural leaders (“directors”) tend to be less compatible with other natural leaders. It’s less stable to have two kings of one castle. Some believe that the quiet and deep introspection of introverts is complementary with the connecting and broad social energy of extroverts. And maybe one person’s calm rational thinking can balance with another person’s wilder and feeling-orientation to the world. The synergy of masculine and feminine energy tend to attract each other and work well together.
There is a fine line between strengths and weaknesses. A polar bear’s amazing ability to stay warm in Arctic waters would be a weakness in warmer climates. Adaptation is context specific. Partners are often drawn to each other’s differences at first, and later come to see the limitations and downsides of those differences. This is because any difference can be both a strength and a weakness depending on their contexts. If they can accept the differences as both a strength they can vicariously benefit from, as well as a weakness that they can help compensate for, then they can become a more complete and adapted unit together. This can create a lot of attraction, fulfillment, and adventure.
But if the differences feel too threatening, we optimize for sameness in who we select. Sameness is less alive but potentially more stable. It’s potentially easier and less interesting, and requires less trust. If we’re the same as a partner, then we don’t need each other as much, because each can do what the other can do. It takes trust to move through life with someone who complements us and completes us, since without them we are less complete than we are with them. But the upside is a greater range of adaptability as a whole – more we can learn from each other and do together.
Very different partners can either teach each other to be more well-rounded, or they can polarize and increase their differences. Someone who is organized and clean, seeing their disorganized partner, may feel the need to be the cleaner and organize more to compensate, and over time becomes more stuck and rigid in that role. This can happen with any trait, such as sociability, novelty-seeking, or discipline. I’ve usually been discontented with this kind of polarization, since I don’t generally like being pigeonholed into roles or traits. I like to develop weaker areas by trying new ways of moving in the world, not always have to play to my strengths. At the same time, it can be efficient and fulfilling to divide and conquer, and operate differently within a unit, with one person planning and the other executing, one person focusing on details and the other on the big picture, etc. I have a sense that most people want to spend the majority of their time in their comfort zone, but occasionally step outside to focus on a skill or task that doesn’t come naturally to them, that their partner normally completes. It’s nice to both have roles and sometimes expand into something new, and it’s helpful for partners to accommodate that novelty for each other, even though it might be slower or less smooth in the short term.
I think the most important thing is that both people are happy enough with the way they go about life together, whether that is trying to share the same roles and tasks to become more well-rounded, or to divide up the roles and tasks according to natural ability in order to be more efficient together, like a mini society of two. Some of both is probably best for most people, and most people probably strike a balance. It can be very challenging to be in a marriage of total opposites, and very boring to feel like you’re married to a sibling who is too similar. What matters is knowing ourselves, where we need similarity and where we need complementarity, and to choose and navigate those areas consciously.
Then there are dissimilarities that are essentially neutral and neither enhance nor decrease compatibility. My partner reads a lot of fiction and I read more non-fiction. I run and do calisthenics and she paddle boards and is learning Tai Chi. Each of us having some different interests doesn’t threaten the other, because we’re compatible on the important levels like temperament and values. And because there are also plenty of activities we both enjoy, like hiking, meditating, and talking.
We can enjoy the same metaphorical hike together even if one person wants to look at birds in the air, and the other looks at the insects on the ground, as long as we’re bound for the same destination. But if one person wants to go to a peak and the other to a lake, or one wants to hike and the other doesn’t, then it’s hard to choose a journey together. We can experience the same journey in different ways, but we can’t take be on two different journeys together at the same time.
Compatibility is intuitive
It would be nice if there was a formula we could calculate, by measuring and inputing our dispositional traits, values, goals, and narrative into an app and get some printout of our ideal partner match. Some dating sites have attempted this. No doubt that AI engineers are hard at work on it. But at this point, the most effective means of discovering compatibility is still seems to be simply spending time with someone.
The “fit” or resonance between two people has unique and stable properties. The right hemispheres and limbic emotional centers of our brains do most of the heavy lifting as we make these intuitive and primal determinations. These ideas I’ve presented are simply an attempt to augment the intuitive process of understanding compatibility, with more conscious analysis, a descriptive language, and a conceptual framework. But we shouldn’t let the servant of analysis subordinate the master of intuition, when it comes to partner selection.
Navigating suboptimal compatibility in a committed relationship
What if two partners who have already bonded and invested a lot into each other are questioning their compatibility? What if they initially got together due to some combination of not knowing some of their blind spots that were later revealed, or because they were more compatible in the past, or family or cultural pressure, or just prioritizing more evanescent chemistry? Can the relationship still work? Does compatibility increase or decrease over time? To what extent can a lack of compatibility be compensated for? And what if uncoupling is needed due to lack of compatibility? I’d like to attempt to answer a few of these questions.
Compatibility is elusive
Compatibility lies on a spectrum of gray, rather than in binary categories. No couple is 100% compatible or 100% incompatible.
Compatibility is impossible to objectively measure, and so it depends, somewhat at least, on the subjective narratives, mindsets, and perspectives of the people in the relationship.
What looks like low compatibility can sometimes be more about the other two pillars – hard work together and individual healing. Prematurely concluding that there’s not enough compatibility can sometimes be a subconscious way to rationalize leaving a relationship or staying in a stagnant and lukewarm one, rather than doing the hard inner work and uncomfortable empathizing and compromising that might seem too difficult, but could make the relationship nourishing.
And, as I’ve said earlier, some aspects of a person (like trauma or habits) are a hybrid of temporary incompatibility and something that can be healed or worked out. And since goals, developmental stages, and even parts of personality do morph over time, compatibility between two people is often relevant to a particular time and context.
Strengthening the other two relationship pillars
Because many elements of our personality are deeply ingrained and foundationally part of who we are, we can try to compensate for less than ideal compatibility by strengthening the other two legs of the relationship stool. We can work hard on communication, expressing feelings, and compromising to find a middle ground between our preferences. We can both try to stretch ourselves and get out of our comfort zones, out of a desire to give the other person what they need and adapt to the relationship that we’ve chosen, because we’ve committed to it. There’s no rule that says we need to leave a relationship in order to find someone who is easier to be with.
We need to be “compatible enough”, and how compatible that is depends on the two people subjectively making that decision, day in and day out, year in and year out. No relationship can ride on 100% compatibility, because we aren’t even fully compatible with ourselves, let alone with another, different human being. Even as individuals we have conflicting parts, aims, and feelings that create intrapsychic pain and problems to work through. Introduce a second complex psyche into the mix, and it’s a matter of doing more of what we already do within ourselves — namely, to communicate and integrate.
Measuring compatibility with the magic ratio
One measure of compatibility in a relationship is if they can maintain a high enough ratio of positive to negative interactions. John Gottman, a marriage and relationship researcher, found that relationships are rewarding and stable when the ratio of positive to negative interactions is at least 5 to 1.
It could be helpful, as we’ve done here, to spend time thinking about the underlying reasons for why a relationship feels or doesn’t feel nourishing in a given time period. Alternatively, we can just agree with a partner to try to get this particular result: create at least five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Whether that comes from hard work together, individual healing on our own, or just naturally, a nourishing relationship is, almost by definition, one in which there are mostly positive interactions happening.
In reality, there’s nuance to this “magic ratio”, such as the degree and intensity of positivity or negativity in each interaction, and the extent to which a couple sees conflict as positive when it’s resolved skillfully and fruitfully. Bigger and more emotionally significant interactions will of course, weigh more heavily than smaller ones.
Gottman also found that, on average, couples headed for divorce had a ratio of about 0.8 to 1 positive to negative interactions. So that’s quite the difference from the 5 to 1 healthy ratio. Most couples can probably tell which of these two ratios they are closer to. If they feel they’ve done everything they can to work well together and address their own issues that get in the way of showing up lovingly in the relationship, and the ratio of positive interactions still struggles over a significant period of time, that would be more indicative of a compatibility issue than a couple that’s having say, 3 to 1 positive to negative interactions and sees room for improvement in the other two pillars.
Reframing the incompatibility as a spiritual practice
We can choose, if we want to, to see the friction in our more-challenging-than-average relationship as a spiritual pursuit that calls us to forego what we want and sacrifice for something larger than ourselves. Parents are familiar with this kind of spiritual growth, since they don’t get to divorce their children and find more compatible children. They selflessly sacrifice their own agendas, and in that crucible of grief and joy, can be forged into more mature human beings.
A smaller example of this might be a committed pet owner that realizes they might have been better off with a different breed or species, but has bonded with this animal and is going to see through the relationship.
If we choose, we can do the same for a partner. In fact, every intimate partnership requires this of us to some degree, since every pairing between humans involves some incompatibilities. It’s just a question of degree.
Relationships can be thought of as a spiritual path, because spirituality is largely about dissolution of the ego, of our individual separateness. Spirituality is about identifying with something larger than ourselves. Accommodating a partner who has different wants and needs is a selfless act of generosity, which requires many small ego deaths, one for every time we have to put aside our own ideal scenario, in order to become a harmonious unit with them.
Whenever we do what is in the service of a larger purpose, like maintaining a bond with someone, we take a step on the spiritual path of unifying with a larger whole.
There’s something freeing about releasing the grip on our own self-serving agendas and being of service to others. We do it through our jobs, community service, helping out a friend or a stranger, and other forms of social contribution, which is a fundamental human need. When we put aside a need of ours in order to meet a partner’s different need, we can ironically meet our own need for altruistic contribution – a silver lining of not getting what we wanted.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not recommending a foolish or masochistic martrydom of being in a relationship in which one’s needs are perpetually not met. I’m only saying that, since all relationships involve thwarted needs to one degree or another, there is this other, spiritual level from which we can look at those situations, when we’ve already decided that it’s in our best interest to stay with someone.
Incentives for sticking to it
If someone is 20 years old and realizes they’ve chosen a very different person with whom there’s not enough essential compatibility, and they’re emotionally attached but they’ve only been together for a year, the incentive to uncouple and find a more compatible partner is quite high. Why spend the next 5 to 50 years frustrated and frequently disappointed when you can probably find a more compatible match within a year or two, and have a fantastic time of it for decades to come?
That’s a very different situation than a couple who has invested two or three decades of their lives into each other already, own a home and other assets together, have children together, and are in the second half of life. All of these factors tilt the incentives toward trying to make it work and staying together despite less than ideal compatibility.
Sometimes the wise and sensible thing to do is to “grow where you are planted” and make the best of whatever soil and climate you find yourself in, because the two paths of staying and starting over both have potential and hard-to-predict upsides and downsides to them. I’m not advocating resignation to unhappiness and loneliness. I am saying that sometimes perfect can be the enemy of “good enough”, if too much is thrown away too easily. Whether or not to disrupt life by ending a relationship to go it alone for a while and seek a more compatible match to start all over with, is a highly individual decision that depends on the unique complex array of factors of that person’s life, including their context, personality, health, and various needs.
Building other areas of life
We can compensate for a less-than-average compatibility in a relationship by focusing more on other areas of life. Our primary love relationship is only one — albeit important — slice of the entire pie of life, and the size of that slice isn’t the same for everyone. Some people reach a point where they decide that they don’t even need or want that relationship slice anymore, and still can live a very rich life.
Teenagers and younger adults may generally have a hard time understanding this. That may be because they unconsciously know that they are in or are headed toward the intimacy stage of their psychosocial development. Emotionally and sexually intimate love usually feels like a non-negotiable for young humans in the springtime of their lives.
As we get older, we move on from the core developmental task of intimacy and toward the stages of generativity and integrity. Romantic intimacy is still important, even vital, but for many it can come more into balance with other priorities. This may make lower compatibility in a relationship more tenable as we broaden and diversify the various focuses of our overall lives.
As we age, we also grasp the brevity and finiteness of life, and the impermanence of everything. Even the most beautiful, intimate, and vast relationships come to an end eventually, and do exclude other alternative and potentially beautiful experiences. This growing awareness can put less pressure on having any particular experience in life, and also can give us gratitude for the relationship that we do have. It’s our relationship, so why not cherish it? We can practice nonjudgment — not classifying the compatibility difficulties as bad, or the ease as good — and simply embracing it all as part of the unique tapestry of our lives.
Does relationship compatibility change over time?
Compared to hard work together and individual healing, compatibility is the least malleable of the three legs of the relationship stool.
That said, it’s true that personalities can shift somewhat over time. Experiences and contexts as children are extremely formative, but as adults they can also change who we are to some degree. This is true especially with big and pivotal events and transitions (such as death, loss, geographical moves, career pivots, and other big changes) that really push us out of our comfort zones.
Imagine if you spent the next ten years in some very different country with a different culture. Would you be the same person at the end of those ten years as you would be if you stayed where you are? Most adults would probably change significantly. Not as much as if they spent the first ten years of their life in that place, but there would be substantial change.
If we want to, we can try to change ourselves to accommodate a relationship. I would only recommend that if the motivation to change was coming from within. Our basic temperament is probably not going to change much, but our life stories, beliefs, habits, and even our values and goals, can and will shift along with different contexts we spend time in and experiences that we have.
Since compatibility isn’t super malleable, it’s unlikely to decrease easily either. When couples feel less of a spark as the years roll by and responsibilites — like breadwinning and childrearing and parent caretaking mount up — the decrease in the heat of the passion flame is largely situational. They have less time to focus on each other and on their bond, so it can atrophy. But the underlying chemistry and spiritual connection that brought them together initially — to the extent that it was there — is probably still there, and can be rekindled with renewed focus and energy put toward it.
There might also be shifts in context, personality, and developmental tasks that cause a long term relationship to get out of sync compared to how it was in the beginning. But to the extent that these factors got out of sync, that implies malleability, which also implies hope for change in getting back into sync, if that’s what the individuals want to prioritize. That could look like making more non-negotiable time together to rediscover each other and re-romanticize the relationship. And it might mean both partners consciously working to update their understandings of where the other is on their individual life journey or “soul quest” if you will, and creatively getting back on a shared path on which they both feel supported in their individual purposes, like is most often the case when relationships are new.
If the pursuits of working on the relationship together and healing ourselves have both been exhausted, and we just don’t think that our relationship has sufficient compatibility to be nourishing enough, we can of course uncouple. In this scenario, people tend to feel more peace and conviction about parting ways than if they haven’t first and thoroughly explored all the options for working together and for pursuing their individual healing.
It’s a big loss and great opportunity when this happens. It’s an ending and a beginning, a death and a rebirth. It can open both people up to restored freedom individually and rewarding relationships with more compatible partners.
Prior relationship experience is really helpful for knowing when to throw in the towel. Compatibility, or a lack thereof, is largely relative, and it often takes contrast between different romantic partners to really feel what sufficient compatibility feels like. I don’t think there’s any virtue in staying in a miserable relationship, and there’s no shame in ending such a relationship. The difficult question is to what extent we’re ending the relationship to avoid some growth and inner work that we’re called to undertake, as opposed to doing it to free us for our growth and fulfillment of our life purpose.
How and why to end a relationship is a big entire topic in itself. But my brief and simplified advice that I would say to the people who I care about would be this: don’t leave a relationship only because it feels hard. Find out why it’s hard first, and if the reason is that you have your own wounds getting in the way of loving and receiving love, or that you need to put effort into communication, compromising, and creatively synergizing together, then stay in that crucible a while longer, and use the difficulty as the transformative heat of growth. The more effort you give to this, the sooner you’ll learn if your partner is also willing to work on himself or herself and the relationship. Once you’ve cleaned up all your mess, it’s easy to know where the remainder of the mess is coming from. Usually a partner will begin cleaning their parts of the relationship mess when they see you doing the same. Conversely, most partners don’t clean up their messes when we’re not cleaning up ours. But if they don’t reciprocate our best efforts for a long enough period of time, then leaving could be the right thing to do.
And if the difficulty is coming from a fundamental mismatch of two basically healthy and sincere people who realize that they just don’t have a good enough time together due to a lack of resonance, or because they want fundamentally different life journeys, then that’s okay, and parting ways as friends in order to find the right life companions for both of them is the wise thing to do. They can genuinely thank each other for all the effort they put in and all they taught each other about their needs and about love, and take all of that gained wisdom with them. It doesn’t need to be seen as only a loss, and certainly not as a failure.
This ends my discussion on compatibility, the second pillar of nourishing relationships in this model. The next video will be on the third pillar, doing our own individual healing, so that we can freely give and receive love in an undefended way.