How To Assess Compatibility

In "The Importance of Compatibility" we summarized a way to think about long-term marital success that emphasizes the vital importance of compatibility between spouses. In essence, long-term love springs from consistent mutual affirmation. Mutual affirmation ensures empathy between partners; empathy is what most unhappy couples are short on, and without accurate empathy closeness suffers and conflict flourishes. Empathy is largely "found" rather than created; there are limits to the amount of empathy that dissimilar people can have for each other, and marriage requires lots of empathy because the partners focus so many of their needs on (and spend so much of their time with) each other. We feel affirmed when our partner is very similar to us, essentially mirroring back to us our own values, goals, tastes, etc. This high similarity makes us compatible. Hence, the best strategy for having a happy marriage is to marry someone with whom we are already highly compatible, not trusting in the fantasy that incompatibilities will work themselves out over time. They rarely do.

     Sam Hamburg, in his book "Will Our Love Last?", breaks compatibility down into three main Dimensions, discussing each in detail. The dimensions have several component parts. What follows is a synopsis of the three dimensions; make sure to take a look at his book to fully assess your compatibility with your current partner. As you read, bear in mind that your goal in choosing a spouse is to optimize compatibility, not find another perfectly similar human. As Hamburg says: "You and your partner don't have to be clones of each other to be compatible. You just have to be similar in enough key ways so that there's enough continuing mutual affirmation for you to continue to feel in love." (p. 59)

The Practical Dimension

     This dimension encompasses the realm of day-to-day life. Married couples must coordinate on an enormous list of issues: from meals to purchases, social life to parenting, activities to friendships, tastes to long term goals, and on and on. The number of opportunities to disagree is as enormous as the list, and none of these issues is without importance. Couples often assume that differences about the 'little things' will be tolerable over the long haul, but of course life is made up of the little things. When you're tired, who's cleaning up after dinner is important. When you're hungry, what you're having for dinner and who will make it is important. Partners who are not closely matched in this dimension don't spontaneously agree very often, so they have to constantly negotiate. The problem here is that few of us are expert negotiators. Additionally, and paradoxically, we are actually less disposed to negotiate effectively with our spouse than we are with acquaintances because we have focused most of our need for affirmation on our spouse, not our acquaintances. Remember that we feel affirmed when we have ourselves (our tastes, goals, interests, styles, definition of fairness, etc.) reflected back to us in the form of a similar spouse. We feel real rejection or loneliness or criticism or shame when our spouse fails to affirm us, even on the seemingly minor day-to-day scale of who 'always' does the dishes, and those real feelings block us from negotiating effectively. The emotion wins and conflict occurs.

     The practical issues on which couples need to assess their compatibility are: 1) Your Model of Marriage (traditional, equal, non-traditional), which largely turns on your expectation for who will earn the money in the family; 2) Your Orientation to Money (spending priorities, spending style, savings orientation, risk tolerance, debt tolerance); 3) Your Standards for Maintaining Your Household (neatness, taking care of possessions, taking care of your physical health and appearance); 4) How You Use Your Free Time (interests and activities, desire for socialization, need for time apart); and 5) How You Will Deal With Your Families (similarity in cultures of families of origin, willingness to transfer primary loyalty to new marriage). Of the three dimensions of compatibility, the practical dimension is probably the one where initial differences can be neutralized somewhat, mostly through honest deal-making and rotation of power and decision-making. However, incompatibility in Model of Marriage is a deal-killer; investigate this issue thoroughly with your potential spouse.

The Sexual Dimension

     Sex is a biological drive with tremendous power. The drive toward sex is naturally promiscuous, meaning that novelty is very stimulating. Because marriage is a commitment to monogamy, married partners must maintain an interesting and satisfying sex life without resorting to novel partners. This is challenging, but happily married couples are successful at this because they match up closely on the sexual dimension. Common sense tells us that the most important aspect of sexual compatibility is attraction: couples must feel highly and mutually sexually attracted to each other. This is largely a question of 'chemistry' - attraction won't improve or increase over time, so if it isn't there to begin with, that's a deal-killer. The other aspects of sexuality on which couples need to assess their compatibility are: 1) Interest in Sex (sex drive); 2) Comfort With Sex; 3) Sexual Style.

The Wavelength Dimension

     In essence, being on the same 'wavelength' is the basis of a feeling of strong friendship and good companionship. Our best friends 'get' us: they get how we think and feel, they approve of us, they affirm us. As Hamburg says: "To be on the same wavelength is to share the same outlook on life, to see it with the same eyes. When we are on the same wavelength with someone, we have the same attitudes about the big questions in life: about what is important and not important, about what constitutes 'the good life' and about what makes life worth living. We agree on what kind of world we see around us and how we would like that world to be different. We share the same spiritual understandings: about how - or even whether - this world and our individual life in it make sense; about God's part in our destiny and that of others; about why there is suffering and evil in the world; about our ability to control our destiny; and about what love is and the part love plays in our life." (p. 34-35) As you can see, the recipe for friendship encompasses the mutual affirmation of many aspects of ourselves. Without high compatibility in Wavelength, couples feel lonely, a feeling with great destructive power for a marriage. Here are some of the aspects of wavelength on which couples need to assess their compatibility: 1) Personal Truth (looking at things the same way); 2) Agreement on the 'Important' Things (values, aspirations, sense of justice, spirituality); and 3) Shared Primary Concerns.