Why Compatibility Is (Sort Of) A Relationship Myth

“Compatibility” seems to be the magic word when it comes to romantic relationships. But is it really all it’s cracked up to be? Or are we putting too much stock in it?

By Keelia Clarkson4 min read

Whether you and your friends are talking about a celebrity relationship that went south, a mutual friend’s recent breakup, or even your parents’ marriage falling apart, you most likely come to a similar conclusion each time: They simply weren’t compatible with one another. And so, of course, things fizzled out. Their connection was missing a key ingredient that made the relationship unsustainable.

Compatibility is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit in the context of romantic relationships. We think of it as the glue that holds a marriage together, as the yeast that allows the relationship to rise and thrive rather than collapse and become tough or unmalleable. 

It’s so essential, experts say, that a relationship cannot survive without it – even more so than chemistry. “Chemistry is what we look for initially; it’s surface-level – an instinctual desire that sparks relationships to begin. Compatibility, on the other hand, is the vehicle that carries the relationship through life’s curveballs and increases the romantic love or bond we feel for our partners. … The difference is that it’s much easier to establish chemistry than it is compatibility,” says Alex Scot, a relationship coach.

To be sure, focusing solely on the in-the-moment feelings of chemistry can lead us to make unwise romantic decisions. Think getting involved with the bad boy against your better judgment, letting him string you along even after he says he’s “not looking for anything serious,” and hoping against all hope that he’ll change his mind. And then being heartbroken two months later when he ghosts you. In this scenario, you might have had physical chemistry, but the lack of compatibility meant there was never any chance that the relationship would last.

But let’s say you learned from your mistake with the bad boy, and you chose to focus more heavily on compatibility when looking for a partner. Maybe you met a guy who checked off all of the compatibility boxes – he shared your sense of humor, your hobbies, and even had a similar personality. Everything about him was technically “right.” And yet, you weren’t sold on him. You couldn’t put your finger on why, but the compatibility you shared with him didn’t feel like enough for the relationship to survive on for decades to come.

This leads us to a few questions: Does being compatible with someone guarantee your relationship will succeed? Is compatibility the most important thing to look for? Or has it been overemphasized as a means of protecting singles from making mistakes?

Don’t Confuse Ease with True Compatibility

When we imagine a couple that’s compatible, we instantly see matching jogging suits, his and hers coffee mugs, and perfectly aligned hobbies. We see two people who never disagree about where to live or how to discipline their children or what to have for dinner. We see a couple that are carbon copies of one another. But is this actually what compatibility is?

“Compatibility involves being in alignment with one another in a way that allows you to function together harmoniously,” says Claudia de Llano, author and licensed marriage and family therapist. Functioning together harmoniously might include having the same taste in TV shows, but it has more to do with aligning on deeply-held values, sharing long-term desires, having more positive interactions than negative ones, and genuinely enjoying each other’s company.

The myth that can often come along with compatibility is that it’s easy – that there will never be quarreling or a time when you fail to see eye to eye or a season during which you feel distant from one another. But just because a relationship is uncomplicated doesn’t mean it’s the right one. Simplicity doesn’t guarantee a winning partnership; instead, too much of it can actually make a relationship feel stale, boring, predictable.

The Rumors Are True: Opposites Do Attract (within Reason)

We’ve all heard it said that opposites attract, but is the old adage actually true? Science seems to back up the claim, at least somewhat. In a 1995 study conducted by Claus Wedekind, a group of men each wore the same t-shirt for two days straight before placing it into identical boxes. A group of women were then asked to smell the t-shirts and report which scent was most pleasant to them. The study found that women were most attracted to the t-shirts worn by men whose MHC (major histocompatibility complex) was more different from their own, rather than less. This meant that women were, without recognizing it, drawn to the scent of men who carried immune genes that could help their future offspring fight diseases. Furthermore, the women perceived the scents of dissimilar men to be more like that of their exes than that of similar men. 

But the attraction we feel towards people who aren’t exactly like us doesn’t only have to do with pheromones. According to Robert Francis Winch, a sociologist in the 1950s, marriages seemed to “work” when a couple’s personalities complemented one another; for example, when one spouse was extroverted and the other was introverted. This suggests that it’s not so much the opposite that attracts us, but the complementary flavor, and even the balance, that the right partner can bring to our lives. Think about it – if you naturally tend to be on the pessimistic side, would you rather build a life with a fellow Eeyore, or would you rather find a Tigger who can spur you on, assure you that everything will be okay, and bring much-needed positivity to your thinking patterns? Often enough, we will be drawn to someone who exhibits qualities that we don’t have, qualities that are foreign but intriguing to us nonetheless.

Compatibility Isn’t Set in Stone

A study of couples who had been married for years run by Dr. Ted Huston of the University of Texas had interesting findings. “My research shows that there is no difference in the objective compatibility between those couples who are unhappy and those who are happy,” he said. Dr. Huston reported that couples who were content in their marriage didn’t attribute their success to the compatibility of their personalities, but to their individual desires to make the relationship work. On the flip side, the couples who were unhappy blamed their dissatisfaction on their lack of compatibility, which Dr. Huston interpreted to mean: “We don’t get along very well.”

We tend to see compatibility as sort of predetermined. Just like an iPhone won’t be compatible with an Android phone charger, we think of two people’s compatibility as something that just is. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, people aren’t phones. We have free will, we change, and we adapt. This means that our compatibility with someone is hardly set in stone. Ultimately, a relationship’s success is more determined by both people’s desires to love each other well than by similar personalities or hobbies. In the same way that love is not relegated to only being a feeling but is also a choice, our compatibility with someone, or our ability to function harmoniously with them, can be chosen and created – so long as there is a foundation of shared desires and similar life visions. Even the most in love couples know that their spouse isn’t a “perfect” match, but the match they’ve committed to fully, hard times and all. 

What We Actually Mean When We Say We Want Compatibility

We’ve seen the science to back up the claim that, at least to an extent, opposites attract – in both scent and personality. We don’t actually want to marry our clone (well, most of us don’t). And partnering up with someone whose Myers-Briggs or Enneagram is the same as ours doesn’t actually point to a lasting relationship. So what is it that we actually want when we say we want a compatible partner?

More likely than not, we’re thinking of qualities like agreeability and conscientiousness and support. “These qualities,” writes Dr. John Gottman, renowned psychologist and relationship expert, “are indexed by a person being able to say things like ‘Good point,’ or ‘That’s interesting, tell me more,’ or ‘You may be right, and I may be wrong’ during a disagreement.” We want someone who is thoughtful of our desires, who values our input, who supports our dreams, whose needs don’t directly conflict with ours – not someone we never have a disagreement with or whose temperament is different from ours. 

Closing Thoughts

Compatibility is sort of a myth. It’s true that a couple with zero similarities or shared values won’t have a strong chance of lasting beyond the honeymoon phase (if they even get there). But when we can agree with our spouse on the big picture, the differences in the little details will matter less – and they might even add to the fun.

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