Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Myth of Compatibility

The how of loving is a priority over who we love.

Key points

  • We tend to judge partner compatibility during the romantic phase when we least know our partners.
  • Our perceptions of "compatibility" can morph over time as we learn more about our partners.
  • How we love may be more critical than who we love, since who we love is subject to change.
Ronny Sison/Unsplash
Source: Ronny Sison/Unsplash

The "illusion" of compatibility is hugely enticing and seductive, especially at the beginning of a romantic relationship–ironically, when we least know our partners.

Hence, our illusions blossom in this vacuum of personal information, making it easy for us to conceive of our partners as conforming to our needs or even as ideal.

It's almost magical how quickly we can find shared interests and other commonalities when we strongly desire to find them or need them to exist—a feat handily done when trying to please, impress, or idealize someone.

During romance, positive partner characterizations flourish. Even so, we may still fall short of scrounging enough positive adjectives to capture the full breadth and depth of our impassioned feelings for our partners.

Romance Is Never Enough

Of the myriad reasons for intimate partnering and marriage, romance tops the list and stands out as the most compelling. It captivates us; our appetite for it is insatiable whether we're in the throes of romance or not. Consider the timelessness of our most cherished love stories, the never-ending stream of literature and film-making that keeps romance plastered over the forefront of our consciousness like a flashing neon billboard.

In the heated embrace of romance, whether our own or as experienced vicariously through others, our worth gets affirmed and our emptiness gets filled: We celebrate our "sameness," our newfound sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning. It's no wonder we attempt to "eternalize" this experience by making it permanent through our commitments to each other.

Take an Imaginary Romantic Tour

Picture yourself meeting a very attractive stranger. Almost instantly, you find yourselves locked in mutual gaze and rapidly "inebriating" with passion for each other as you eagerly devour your full-hearted moments together. Then, within the blink of an eye, emboldened by the intensity of your passion, you are convinced that you have at last found your one and only true love, your soulmate.

Exciting, huh?

Yet it is a potential minefield, despite all the intoxicating joys that romance promises us. Speedy, whistle-stop courtships, according to the famous Boston Couple Study, are usually a poor prognosticator of relationship success. In their more extreme, dramatic form, these wanton love frenzies often include a rush to sex, followed by a hasty chaser of unthinking, poorly reasoned commitment. Chances are this quick-mix-deadly cocktail will lead to an early demise for this type of hastily construed relationship. Here's an infamous case in point: Pop singer Britney Spears sped to Las Vegas with her bodyguard boyfriend to tie the knot, which they must have done pretty loosely because their marriage lasted just 72 hours before Spears filed for divorce.

An ancient proverb states, "amanitas amenities," meaning lovers are mad. In 1949, a European social critic, Denis de Rougemont, stated, "We were in the midst of a most pathological experiment, namely, basing marriage which is permanent upon romance which is a passing fancy."

He reasoned that marriage based solely on romance is tantamount to divorce preparation since marriage can completely obliterate romance. Romanticized compatibility connotes perfect love, unending passion, and excitement, as opposed to the realities of long-term partnerships, or married life, which often brings tedious responsibilities, conflict, and imperfect love, topped off with protracted, lifelong, humbling exposure of our personal peculiarities and defects.

Maybe at its best, the romanticized pursuit of compatibility should be awarded a gold star for putting the wheels of commitment in motion. But convincingly, successful long-term relationships are a disciplined art form, and the initial perception of partner compatibility may be little more than an incomplete tool. Surely, the rigors of genuine, sustainable intimacy cry out for the entire toolbelt.

Beyond Compatibility: Who vs. How

Partner compatibility, however we may define it, has value. And dating services promoting it can be useful–although perhaps mostly because they bring motivated individuals together and thus reduce the unpleasant uncertainties accompanying the search for a good candidate. But are matchmaking services the best solution?

Certainly, however important the quest for compatibility may be, how we generate love for our partner and ourselves, concerning whomever our partner may be, is arguably more critical. In support of this supposition, consider the not-so-uncommon experience of discovering that the person we thought we knew and committed to is more layered with individuality, idiosyncrasy, and flaws than we initially thought. Or they may have morphed into an unrecognizable caricature of their former self. What then?

What I'm lobbying for is the how of loving as a priority over who we love. While characterological compatibilities in the person we love are important, in the longer term, how we love may be more important because who we love is subject to change, either actually or by changes that often occur in our view of our partner. In this sense, "character-based" love rests upon an ever-shifting ground of perception. For example, when Maria first met and fell in love with Reuben, she boasted to her family and friends that he was "confident," "positive," and "a take-charge kind of guy."

She was strongly drawn to these "compatible" traits like metal to a magnet. However, five years into their now rocky marriage, Maria chides Reuben as "controlling," "dominating," and "always right." Why? Has Reuben changed? Has Maria's perception of him changed? Or is it some combination of both?

Here's another example for those who remember recent history: Reflect for a moment on the remarkable affection Nancy Reagan had for her husband, President Ronald Reagan. Imagine Nancy falling in "character-based" love with Ronald: She would be attracted to his rugged good looks, driving ambition, and endless energy and charm—presumably traits compatible with Nancy's romantic needs.

In Reagan's later years, though, the ravages of Alzheimer's disease tarnished his appearance, cognitive abilities, and ambition. He was no longer the same Ronald. Yet despite these profound changes, Nancy's love remained steadfast, suggesting that her love came from how she continued to love, because who she loved wasn't the same.

A Logical Spin-Off

By prioritizing how we love our partners over the conventional priority given to who we love, we untether from our emotional dependency upon the shifting, ever-changing perception of compatibility (or the character traits of our partners). Instead, love for our partners predicates how we create, apply, enjoy and sustain our affection for them.

Have your perceptions of your "compatibilities" with your partner changed throughout your relationship? If so, how has this impacted your connection? And lastly, how well do you love your partner?


Hazan, C., & Shaver, P.R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

Rubin, Zick. (1973). Liking and Loving: An Invitation to Social Psychology. New York, Holt Rinehart & Winston.

Johansen, R.N., Gaffaney, T. (2010). Making love: how to create, enjoy and sustain intimacy. San Francisco, CA. Untreed Reads, LLC.

More from Robert N. Johansen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today