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The Truth About Compatibility

Expert opinions on love and compatibility, and the interaction between biology and behavior.

Love. Freud, for once, got it right. It's a cornerstone of our humanity; only love protects us enough to grow and change. And increasingly, it's the lone element absent from our otherwise fortunate lives. Living in a society that satisfies material wants we didn't even know we had throws into glaringly high relief our need to find acceptance and meaning through deep human contact.

Love remains something we all long for, at least on the receiving end, but that we also seem to have so much trouble finding, or recognizing—or holding onto. And sometimes, letting go of.

Love's coming, or sad going, is not only the biggest drama of our private lives; it's on center stage of our public ones too. It is, for example, a guaranteed political flash point: Exactly whose love is entitled to receive civic or religious recognition? And who picks up the pieces when it ends? Lawyers may dine out on love gone awry, but public policy is often left to grapple with the mess of disaffected children and poverty it leaves in its wake.

Still, anyone who has come within waltzing distance of it, read Jane Austen or Danielle Steele, or listened to Frank Sinatra or Celine Dion, knows there's no elixir like love. Our search is not likely to end any time soon.

Of course, we want someone to share our laughter, be a best friend as well as a lover, someone who'll not only listen to our doubts and celebrate our triumphs but also jump in the car for impromptu getaways. We want to be one half of a couple whose personal characteristics so closely mesh that we'll remain oriented to one another in a hyperstimulating world. Such assurance resides only in compatibility, that critical stew of traits that matter—if only we could figure out which traits they are.

We talked to a variety of experts who could be expected to provide insight into these key qualities. From family researchers to matchmakers, each has watched countless couples draw together and pull apart. And each suggested the same thing: We're looking at love all wrong.

Compatibility does not hinge on some personal inventory of traits. Compatibility isn't something you have. It's something you make. It's a process, one that you negotiate as you go along. Again and again. It's a disposition, an attitude, a willingness to work.

And while we're redefining compatibility, let's banish its more combustible cousin, "chemistry," that black box of a term too often invoked to denote the magic ingredient of a good relationship. Chemistry is an alluring concept, but much too frequently people use it to absolve themselves of the need to consciously examine their approach to one another. As if the muse of love will alight on their shoulder and sprinkle fairy dust on them, and then they will suddenly open their eyes and behold The Perfect Mate—without prying open their own heart, embracing an unwavering willingness to see the other in a positive light or doing the hard work of exploring, knowing and respecting another human being.

Love operates on many levels. It involves a dauntingly complex interplay of biology and behavior. But it operates best when we add a certain spirit, when we consciously shape our relationships through an attitude of goodwill. Here, experts weigh in:

Compatibility is overrated. The similarities or personality traits that attract people to each other may not hold up over time. You might be attracted to someone because you both love to ski, but then one of you blows out a knee. When people are divorcing, they'll say, "We have nothing in common." But they have kids, a house and 30 years of shared experience. Values about money and children run very deep and are important. The surface ones—antiques, sports, travel and gourmet coffee—don't matter. —William J. Doherty, professor and marriage and family therapy program director, University of Minnesota

Sensitivity to the issue of compatibility may be in and of itself a sign of trouble. My research shows that there is no difference in the objective level of compatibility between those couples who are unhappy and those who are happy. But the unhappy ones think compatibility is important to a good marriage—but don't think they have it. When people say, "We're incompatible," that usually means, "We don't get along very well." People overemphasize the effect of personality or values. And they underemphasize the extent to which easy, congenial temperaments aid marriages. —Ted Huston, psychology professor, University of Texas, who runs the PAIR project, a longitudinal study of married couples

People assume compatibility as a baseline requirement, then want more. "I want him to fit in with my family and do all the things I love to do—and he should be sexy, and he should take me out to cool places." I think you can have an even more fulfilling relationship if you respect each other's worlds, and learn a little bit from each other. I always think of the phrase, "You've met your match." You really do want someone who challenges and spars with you. —Nancy Slotnick, dating coach, founder of

I recently asked myself: What would social science have to say to a matchmaker? Damn little. Measures of personality don't predict anything, but how people interact does. Couples need to feel they are building something together that has meaning. How does a relationship support what you see as a mission in life? This is the existential part. You must also connect emotionally. How much do you respond to each other's bids for attention? Does your partner turn toward you with equal enthusiasm? You need to ask questions and constantly update your knowledge of one another. And you need the ability to hear your partner's delight and take it in. —John Gottman, founder-director of the Relationship Research Institute, Seattle

The biggest reason people get divorced is they grow apart. I don't see many marriages that can be saved, and I don't know that it's possible to save marriages. Counseling doesn't work; by the time couples get to the lawyer, their positions are very hardened. —Raoul Felder, divorce lawyer who has presided over the dissolution of some 8,000 marriages

A couple needs to be within one standard deviation of each other in intelligence (10 points in either direction). —Neil Clark Warren, founder of and creator of a questionnaire that attempts to match couples

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, Psychologist

If a man comes home late, his wife may get angry and ask, "Why didn't you call?" Instead, she could say, "Honey, I was worried about you. Did something happen?" People must look for the best in each other. —Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, author of The Committed Marriage, and founder and president of Hineni, an organization fostering Jewish heritage

There is no such thing as a compatible couple. All couples disagree about the same things: money, sex, kids, time. So, 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. —Diane Sollee, founder and director, Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education

People might agonize and think; 'Do we have the same likes and dislikes?' But people are not aware of how powerful self-fulfilling prophecies are. We have expectations in a relationship, and we tend to make them come true. The most satisfied couples are those with overly rosy views of each other. —Lisa Diamond, assistant professor of psychology and gender studies, University of Utah