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What Does It Mean to Be Compatible?

Is he or she the one? Six key issues you'll want to talk about to know.

 Free Stock Photos
Source: Free Stock Photos

It’s easy to do. When you’re dating you put on your best face—you’re considerate, accommodating; you let small irritations go by, you hold back on the darker sides of your past and personality. But the real purpose of dating is not just being good and nice but about sorting and selecting, at some point being honest and real to see if you are both truly compatible.

But what does compatibility really mean? What are you looking for to decide? Here’s my shortlist.

Having common interests. Yes, we all know about complementarity, the bungee jumper hooks up with the fly-fisherman, the one who wants to traverse the Ural mountains meets the one who doesn’t need to go more than six miles outside of town. All this is fine ... to a point.

What happens to a lot couples when dating is they fall into dating activities—movies, concerts, eating out, partying with friends on weekends, lots of drinking, lots of sex—and downtime is essentially crashing from all this and watching NCIS marathons together on the couch. Do this long enough, add in mutual accommodating, and you can wind up with a distorted view of your compatibility.

At some point, everyday life has to take hold. You both settle. The sex drops off a bit because of natural oxytocin shifts, going out all the time for dinner is too expensive. This is where couples can start to drift apart—working longer hours or going to Facebook as a default way of spending time—and moving towards parallel lives. Or, if already married, they can fill this space with kids, and become child-centered—going to endless soccer games, school meetings, and trips to the zoo.

You don’t want to do this. It’s important that you have a core of activities, even if small, that you both honestly enjoy doing together and don’t cost a bazillion dollars or require you to be in an altered state of mind. These are the glue that can hold the relationship together over the long haul. Those couples that wind up building around children struggle as the children leave home and the center falls out. And yes, your individual interests may change over time, but the challenge is to have and keep a core.

Common values/philosophies over key issues. Sure, Republicans do marry Democrats, and Jews do marry Christians, but there are certain issues that you do want to be on the same page about:

Individual vs. couple time: This is about expectations and visions about what being a couple means. Is it OK for me to take a weeklong vacation with my sister? Can I throw myself into work even if that sometimes means traveling or working 80 hours a week? Here, we’re determining each partner’s needs for alone time, the introvert vs. the extrovert, but also about each partner’s own priorities and vision of a good life.

Negotiating this can be difficult at times because differences can easily stir up each other's emotional wounds around control and abandonment (see my post Why You Tolerate What You Hate for more details on this). This is where the solo vacation feels like the other is pulling away, just as complaining about work travel can feel like micromanagement. All too quickly, each partner’s feelings are hurt and arguments slip into "you don’t care, you’re too demanding" mode.

Sex: Sex is about having compatible libidos, each partner’s baseline desire for sex, though this will change with developmental issues such as having children or aging. But it is also about both partner’s needs really getting met, and being able to educate your partner by saying what you like and don’t like, rather than, once again, slipping into accommodation. It is also about values: Is sex about connection or fun, or primarily about procreation? Once the oxytocin of dating and early marriage naturally fades, are your visions of a good sex life good enough for both of you?

Money: The spendthrift marries the fiscal conservative. There is wiggle room here but it the gap shouldn’t be too wide. Basically you need to be on the same page about bottom lines and priorities—like credit card balances, budgets, and savings accounts—but also priorities including traveling vs. private school for kids.

Kids: Disciplinarian vs. the laidback parent. Again, wiggle room about style but not about priorities and bottom lines. The biggest danger here is about polarization—"I’m easy because you’re so strict," or, "I’m strict because you’re so easy." The kids get confused and caught in the middle. The couple argues over whose way is right. Not good.

And that’s why these issues are important to iron out early. Differences can trigger power struggles over who is right and who will win. And if one partner takes the route of going-along-with, it’s only a matter of time before he or she will get fed up and begin to protest, setting off WW3. Better to tackle at the front end than later on.

Handling each other’s stress. Small stuff: One partner gets stressed and irritable after a hard day, the other gets stressed and withdraws. Big stuff: Can you get through a five-day holiday with in-laws or, God-forbid, dealing with a job loss or the death of a parent, and be the support the other needs?

This is about compassion and stepping up for the big stuff, not taking things personally for the small, not falling into tit-for-tat over who got it tougher. Do you each know your partner’s signs of stress? Can you handle it without taking it personally? Do you each know what to do to help and know what not to do that might make it worse? Ask, speak up, don’t walk on eggshells, get resentful, or expect the other to read your mind.

Handling conflict. Couples may disagree—that’s fine. But can you both speak up, or is one or both of you conflict-avoidant and always biting your tongue? Do your arguments get out of control, even become abusive? More importantly, perhaps, can you both recircle, return and repair, have sane conversations later and actually put the problem to rest?

This is where couples can get stuck. They sweep things under the rug, or they argue, make-up (I’m sorry), and sweep things under the rug but never resolve the problem. Problems stack up; they use distance to avoid conflict or constantly fight about the same things; they only talk about weather; they fall into parallel lives.

Supporting each other’s dreams. The notion here is that I want to help you be happy, live the life you want to live, and know that I always got your back.

Feeling safe. Without safety the power in the relationship is unbalanced, one is forced to be less than oneself. Without safety, you substitute magical thinking—that "if I do things just right, the relationship will change, I will get what I need"—but in reality, it all at some point blows up.

Feeling safe is ultimately what all these other issues come down to: both partners being able to say what they think and want without fear, without holding back.

That’s my list; you undoubtedly will think of others. What’s important is to not wait too long to tackle these questions. Speak up and get them on the table. The risk, of course, is that you may lose the relationship.

But, ultimately, you'll gain yourself.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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