Chemistry Lessons

What makes or breaks compatibility? Eight couples bare their souls.

By PT Staff, published on September 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Shared Passions

Dina and Bob Bomgardner

Bob, 42, a photographer, and Dina, 40, a singer and legal secretary, enjoy life's pleasures. "We love food, wine, travel, music," says Dina. Childless by choice, the Bomgardners have been together for 10 years, married for eight, and have created a life filled with art and adventure.

But things weren't always so sweet. Dina's hot temper flared on occasion; her fear that it would sabotage her relationship with Bob prompted her to see a therapist. "I would credit the fact that we're married to [my therapist]," she says.

They've now mastered the technique of "fair" fighting -- sticking to the issue at hand without bringing up past hurts, listening to each other's point of view -- and they avoid bickering over minor matters. And they both point to one ritual as the pillar of their marriage: formal dinners together a few times a week. "We light candles, and one of us will make the meal," says Bob. "We're not parked in front of the TV." Adds Dina, "That's when we do most of our talking. We'll share a bottle of wine and gab for two hours."

Common interests are of great value to this pair. "I know couples who aren't well matched, but who work well together," says Dina. "But I think they have less fun. That's the bottom line -- I enjoy his company."

Bob and Dina's quiet knowledge that they love each other has replaced the passion that fueled the more volatile early stages of their relationship. "I didn't know if I would be happy and in love in eight years. I'm happier than I've ever been. That is a surprise," says Bob.

Balancing Act

Kathleen and Ollie Johnson

Kathleen, 44, and Ollie, 62, met on a New York City paddleball court and have been married for 20 years. Despite the palpable affection and respect they share for each other and their three teenage children, the Johnsons are quick to admit that happiness didn't come without a fight. "The first 10 years were very hard," says Kathleen. "It was a real power struggle."

Kathleen, whose parents were divorced when she was young, was drawn to Ollie's strong family ties and his flamboyant style. (He was a graphic designer and is now the cocreator of a line of hair-care products.) But once they married, she felt herself casting a critical eye his way. "The things that first attracted me to him -- the fact that he is so laid-back and easygoing -- started to drive me crazy," she says. "I'd think, God, he's so slow! But If I'm attracted to another man, I realize it is because he exhibits the same qualities that Ollie has."

One such attribute is Ollie's work ethic. And yet money is a hot-button issue for the Johnsons. While Kathleen is a homemaker who homeschools their children, Ollie has embarked on several entrepreneurial ventures, which have led the family both to flush times and to the brink of ruin. "We trust each other more with money now," says Kathleen.

Ollie's initial frustration with the relationship was a consequence of their age difference: He was less tolerant than she, and resisted taking suggestions from someone who hadn't "been around" the way he had. But Kathleen's religious opposition to divorce and her desire to forge the stable family she never had formed a force field that holds the couple together. "Sometimes in a relationship, one person is more fervent about being loyal and faithful. In ours I'm that person. He's a kite; he's a dreamer," she says.

"I gave up at one point," admits Ollie. But Kathleen made it clear that no one was going anywhere. "It helped, because I realized that she wasn't going to give up. It forced me to take a look at the bigger picture, at the fact that we have lovely kids who are doing great. In the beginning, I was selfish. But love is unconditional. It is just give, give, give, and then you keep giving."


Rick and Joel Stoeker

Rick and Joel were both weary of the dating scene when they met in 1996. "I've always wanted to be in a long-term relationship," says Rick, 39, owner of a graphic design firm. "And I've never been a big player," agrees Joel, 35, a buyer for an apparel Web site. The Stoekers (the moniker is a combination of their family names), together for nearly nine years, adopted Violet, who is now 2 years old.

Joel shook his head when he saw friends dropping their dates in hopes that something better was around the corner. "If you want to make a life with someone, you have to compromise," he says. "I was looking for core things like honesty and faithfulness," qualities he detected in Rick early on. "We're both realistic and willing to work on things. That's probably why we're together." Much of that labor now consists of hammering out parenting strategies, as Violet learns to manipulate her dads as well as delight them.

Instead of needing to reconcile incompatibilities, the Stoekers have to contend with a degree of hypersimilarity. "What we face is competitiveness," says Rick. "But it's over petty matters. And a potential problem in our relationship is that we kind of become each other. But we both thrive on togetherness and being in close contact with each other."

The Collaborators

Jeannie Noth and Jim Gaffigan

Jim, 38, is a comedian and actor, and Jeannie, 34, is an actor and comedian. Being funny may come naturally to them, but, as with a good marriage, comic success is ultimately the result of hard work. Husband and wife for more than a year, they're tackling their most ambitious project yet: 2-month-old Mari.

Shortly after the couple met at their neighborhood deli, Jim landed a part on a TV sitcom, Welcome to New York. Jim had worked the comedy club circuit for years but lacked acting experience, so he turned to Jeannie, who studied theater and led a children's drama troupe. "He asked me for help practicing his lines," she says. "I started to coach him on timing and delivery. That was when we realized we were a great team." They've cowritten comedy for the past four years and just completed scripts for a new animated TV series.

"We have the same sensibilities," says Jim. After a gig on the David Letterman Show, for example, Jim will come home and immediately review a tape of his performance with Jeannie; they analyze what went well and what could have been better. "That is invaluable. I'm married to my friend, writing partner and acting coach -- it's a pretty great deal."

Peripatetic Partners

Mieczyslaw and Ewa Bak

In a wedding between a young girl and the boy next door, compatibility is often assumed, thanks to shared perspectives and backgrounds. The Baks were elementary school classmates in Szczecin, Poland, and married at age 19. But while their union was one marked by ease and predictability, their marriage became an unforeseeable journey, laced with hardships and, ultimately, triumphs.

"We didn't have any expectations for what marriage would be like," says Ewa. "We had a lot of fun together and we were very young. We just learned as we went through it." Mieczyslaw was a merchant sailor who occasionally took Ewa and their daughter, Patryce, with him on trips. In 1980, while Poland was embroiled in political turmoil, they were on such a voyage when their families told them not to return because of safety concerns. Stranded in Spain, the Baks struggled to survive for two years.

"To leave our house and country with one suitcase and one child, it was very tough," says Ewa. "Mieczyslaw would help me when I was discouraged, when I thought we couldn't make it, and I would do the same for him." Returning to Poland was not an option as Mieczyslaw was considered a traitor and would have been imprisoned. A few years later, the family was given an opportunity to go to California, where again, they started from scratch.

But by the time Patryce was 13, the couple had bought their own house in a middle-class neighborhood. Now Ewa does automotive research, and Mieczyslaw is a shipyard superintendent in Oakland.

"When we were poor, we had tougher times -- and more arguments," says Ewa. "But it made us stronger. And we've never had silence between us. When there is a problem we talk about it right away."

A Well-Tempered Match

Rick Marin and Ilene Rosenzweig

When he met Ilene, Rick was busy seducing impressionable young women with a sob story about his failed first marriage -- and subsequently kicking them out of his apartment after sex, antics he eventually chronicled in a memoir, Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor. Like all good romantic comedies, his ends with a wedding (last year), and this year the cad becomes a dad.

In 1996 Rick and Ilene, who were "just friends," were part of a group renting a summer beach house together, where their relationship simmered. "I had some designs," says Rick, "but even if she wasn't romantically inclined toward me, it was still worth it to spend time together."

Disinclined she was. Rick was the "anticad" to Ilene, making her laugh and agreeing with her "radical centrist" politics and movie interpretations, but not fitting her ideal. "He was too sane and reliable," says Ilene, a writer and designer who now has a line of home furnishings, called Swell, at Target.

"She's always been a novelty seeker, and I've always been a creature of habit," Rick concedes. His dogged pursuit was fueled by the realization that while Ilene was his opposite, she was also his equal. By the fall of 1996, he convinced her that she could be happy with someone who wasn't likely to hurt her. "I had a bad-boy complex," she admits.

Although Rick, 42, heads up the logistics of home life-tending to the bills and the laundry -- Ilene, 39, is in charge of spontaneity -- exotic vacation planning. Still, they've rubbed off on each other. Says Ilene, "He went cliff-diving on our honeymoon, and I keep my taxi receipts now."

The Romantic Road Less Traveled

Ehud and Vatsala Sperling

Ehud, an Israeli-born, U.S.-raised book publisher, was reeling from a painful divorce when he placed an ad in an Indian newspaper in 1995. His aim: to pursue an arranged marriage, on an Indian friend's heartfelt recommendation. A year of soul-searching letters to his prospective bride, Vatsala, a microbiologist and dedicated daughter in a Hindu Brahmin family, led to their first glimpse of each other. Vatsala's palms were sweating as she traveled to meet Ehud for the first time. Would he be the same man from his letters? When their eyes met, her heart didn't skip a beat and no fireworks exploded, but she felt sure that he was the person she had come to know. Ehud also felt peaceful and relaxed upon seeing the woman he had fallen in love with, and he proposed to her the next day. Married for nine years now, the couple lives in Vermont with their 6-year-old son.

Writing detailed letters enabled Vatsala and Ehud to crystallize their thoughts and feelings for themselves and each other. "We considered all the issues that turn out to be land mines in a marriage," says Vatsala. "We even discussed whether our children would be breast-fed or not. Because of that, we have domestic peace." And when disagreements do arise, the Sperlings hold each other to the law of the letters -- their household's constitution. They've published their epistolary relationship in a book, A Marriage Made in Heaven: A Love Story in Letters.

Arranged marriage appealed to Ehud because of its emphasis on ferreting out compatible values. "I was determined not to make another mistake; I wanted to expose myself completely," he says. He saw in modern American courtship the tendency to fall into bed quickly, and then after years pass, to wake up as virtual strangers who do not want the same things out of life. So he was eager to take personal attraction out of the equation. "There was no chemistry charging the atmosphere," he says.

"We knew each other better after a year of correspondence than most married couples probably do after living together for years," says Ehud. That deep knowledge gave Vatsala the confidence to leave her country, family and career -- and to fly across the world to a new life with Ehud.

The Two Act Lovers

Warren Bennis and Grace Gabe

Nearly a half-century ago, this couple's whirlwind romance was thrown off course as each pursued high-flying careers before the concept of "work-family balance" existed. They married other people, raised children and divorced their spouses. Thirty years later, they picked up the dropped thread of their relationship and acknowledged that neither had ever loved anyone else as much. Grace, a psychiatrist and coauthor of Step Wars: Overcoming the Perils and Making Peace in Adult Stepfamilies, and Warren, a professor at the University of Southern California's Business School, have now been married for 12 years.

"When we met [in 1957], there was instant attraction," says Grace, now 70. "We were extremely compatible, in terms of our interest in the arts, literature and music. And we were very compatible sexually."

"I felt she was the incarnation of everything I had dreamed of," says Warren, 79. "It doesn't mean we like all of the same things; it means that we share what we think is important in the world, our sense of adventure."

But while other women were typing their sweethearts' dissertations, Grace was struggling under the taxing demands of medical school. The pressure ate away at their relationship, yet they didn't know how to articulate the problem or tackle it head on.

Now in a second incarnation -- and in a different stage of life -- they share a reverence for the evolving nature of relationships. "When we reunited, we were no longer trying to prove ourselves with respect to our careers," says Grace.

Neither feels that the other has changed significantly in terms of their underlying values or dispositions. They both love plays and concerts as much as they used to. Grace prefers solitude, just as she did when she was 23, while Warren hasn't lost his magical ability to work a room. Yet they appreciate that each has had a lifetime's worth of rich experiences while they were apart.

"Now, we negotiate when incompatibilities arise. It's about the others' needs as well as your own," Warren says. "I've learned that sustaining and nourishing love is something that one has to continue to think about. You have to tweak things regularly. The alternative is entropy and decay."