When it comes to seeking a life partner, people tend to either settle for lackluster compatibility, or confuse attraction for love. Neither is enough.
Love and compatibility are not the same thing, though they are often confused for one another. Being intensely attracted to someone doesn’t always translate to a thriving partnership. Getting along with someone doesn’t mean your relationship can blossom into romance if only you try hard enough to muster up desire.
Most importantly, having a particular set of traits doesn’t mean you’re compatible with another person, though this is how we attempt to determine a suitable life partner. Compatibility is a disposition, a willingness to grow together. This is often fueled by attraction, as we often want to build long-lasting relationships with people we find irresistible.
Personality is important, but no one really knows how to match personalities up. People are sometimes attracted to like personalities and sometimes to different ones. Relationship skills, on the other hand, can always be improved, and they’ll help any two people — with any two personalities — to get along better. – Robert Epstein
You must be in love with your life partner, but you also must be in like. Love is something you find: attraction is the product of having differing DNA (that’s the scientific reason for romance). “Like” is something you can work on, and in fact, to sustain a relationship, you must. Though some people are fundamentally more alike – therefore more predisposed to have an easier time understanding one another – in the grand scheme of it all, that doesn’t determine compatibility.
“There is no such thing as a compatible couple,” says Diane Sollee, the founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. “All couples disagree about the same things: money, sex, kids, time… it’s really about how you manage your differences. If there is chemistry, then the whole courtship is about convincing yourself and others that you are compatible. But, really, you create compatibility. And then, eventually, maybe in 25 years, you will become soul mates.”
Unfortunately, it often seems the only way to really see if you’re compatible with someone is to spend a lifetime with them and find out. Our cultural approach to dating does very little to cater to this. Most people can get along when they’re only interactions are sultry date nights and weekend getaways that are adorned with all the trappings of new, unattached romance. It’s when you begin to live with someone, travel with them, spend every sick day, vacation, holiday, weekend, breakfast and dinner with them that you can determine whether or not you’re really meant to be together.
Measures of personality don’t predict anything, but how people interact does. – John Gottman
This is because it is in your repeated interactions that you see whether or not you can tolerate one another. And as fate would have it, being ready for a relationship has a lot more to do with your disposition than it does finding (what you assume to be) the perfect mate. Often, our perception of who is “right” for us is… wrong. Almost always, one must be self-fulfilled and truly ready for a partnership to make one work.
The best indicator of compatibility is two people wanting the relationship just as much.
Tom Stoppard once said that real love is the “knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” Alain de Botton argues that we marry the wrong people because our attraction-fueled expectations superimpose the reality of a person. It is only when our desire is not just for them – but for the partnership – that we have the rudimentary foundation for real companionship.