The Importance of Compatibility
There is an abundance of resources available to established couples looking for help in improving their relationships. The self-help sections at bookstores and at Amazon are brimming with titles offering guidance on every aspect of marriage: sex, money, in-laws, communication, conflict, closeness, parenting, spirituality and so on. Similarly, a substantial proportion of reality and daytime talk TV shows is devoted to marital relationships that are in some kind of trouble, with usually at least some time given over to experts analyzing and then attempting to guide the couple back to health. And, of course, one cannot say that there is a shortage of marriage counselors willing to provide formal treatment for marital dissatisfaction. No modern-day married couple should have any real difficulty finding readily-available input on what to do about any kind of relationship trouble they are having. The same cannot be said, however, about the new couple looking for help in making the decision with profoundly life-altering ramifications: "Should we get married?" Our experience as therapists tells us, as does our common-sense, that much if not most of the marital problems we are asked to help alleviate would not exist if couples made better choices about whom to marry. This article will summarize a way to think about long-term relationship success that results in a clear-minded, realistic appraisal of the likelihood that a marriage will thrive over time.
A psychologist named Sam Hamburg has written a gem of a book, entitled "Will Our Love Last?" which makes some simple propositions that have far-reaching implications. The first eye-opening proposition says that the fundamental problem for many couples in unhappy marriages is not poor communication but rather poor understanding. The terms 'communication issues' and 'we don't communicate' permeate the discussion of marital problems in popular culture and in the therapy world. This focus on communication frames marital problems as stemming from a particular skill deficit, a deficit which can be ameliorated with training and practice either under the tutelage of a therapist or through self-help. The accepted but largely unexamined wisdom asserts that improved communication will lead to greater closeness and less conflict through an increase in empathy between partners. But, when you really think about it, there is a difference between communication and empathy. Empathic understanding flows from being able to understand the emotional experience behind the words being used. Married partners, very, very often, fail to understand (empathize with) each other despite their ability to communicate. They understand perfectly well what their partners are saying, but they don't understand how their partners could think and feel as they say they do. Hamburg wants us to appreciate the natural limits in empathy we all have so that we do not cling to the pervasive illusion that we can empathize consistently with almost anyone we want to (and certainly our spouse!) if we try hard enough to communicate with them better.
Dropping this illusion means conceding that if a happy marriage requires high understanding between the partners, then marriages without high understanding will fail, or just be miserable, no matter how good their communication. Clearly, given the high divorce rate in the U.S., lots of marriages lack a high level of mutual understanding. Hamburg starts from this realistic spot and then, logically, focuses on explaining where understanding comes from and how couples can ensure that they have a lot of it. His argument, in a nutshell, is that understanding is largely "found" rather than created. We find it by choosing someone with whom we are highly compatible, which boils down to choosing someone who is very similar to us in the areas that matter for marriage. Thus, his book is a guide for couples considering marriage who want to assess their long-term chances. His book does not offer help for established couples who are struggling because they are relatively un-compatible. The tone of the book is pretty pessimistic with respect to those marriages, which is probably partly due to his real opinions on the matter but also partly a polemical stance stemming from his desire to shake new couples out of their fantasy that their incompatibilities (if they've thought about them at all, which is often not the case) don't matter very much and will 'work themselves out' over time. One resource he, and we, recommend for un-compatible married couples is "Reconcilable Differences", by Christensen, Doss and Jacobson, which offers practical advice to help couples recognize and reconcile themselves to the differences between them and work around their incompatibilities rather than get caught in a destructive pattern of trying to change each other.
A second eye-opening proposition made by Hamburg comes in his explanation of the nature of compatibility. He points out we are all built to need affirmation as perhaps our highest social priority. And, long-lasting love depends almost entirely on a strong feeling of mutual affirmation. The romantic love we feel when first 'falling' for another person is based mainly on mutual sexual attraction, a kind of mutual affirmation narrowly focused on our physical attractiveness, charisma, etc. Romantic love will deepen to long-lasting love when the mutual affirmation widens from the physical realm to the rest of ourselves: our ideas, goals, values, sense of humor, perspective on the world, etc. The eye-opener here is that we feel most powerfully affirmed in those realms when our partner is like us; pure and simple. Having our ideas, values, goals, sense of humor, priorities, tastes, etc. reflected back to us by someone very similar in all those ways affirms us at the highest level and ensures that we will love them in a long-lasting way. It also means that our partner will feel understood/empathized with at the deep and consistent level required for marriage because our similarity to them ensures it. This, clearly, is not a poetic, magical view of love: love is a process of connecting with an externalized version of us! Although disconcerting, if you adopt this perspective your romantic blinders will fall away and you will know exactly how to think about picking a long-term mate: find someone with whom you have a very high pile of similarities.
To foreshadow the second part of this article, there are three areas of compatibility which matter most to marriage: a Practical Dimension, a Wavelength Dimension, and the Sexual Dimension. Long-term marital success depends on a high degree of compatibility in each of these dimensions. Some configurations wherein a couple is highly compatible on two dimensions but not on a third are sustainable, but not optimal. Those configurations can't really be understood until you know about the details of each dimension, so read on if you are interested in digging into those details.