How Couples Know They're Compatible
A couples therapist offers a new framework to assess goodness-of-fit in dating.
Posted July 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Relationships are too complicated to be boiled down to an algorithm.
- Instead of focusing on a trait-based approach to compatibility, focus on a story-based approach to compatibility.
- Hidden within supposed incompatibilities are opportunities to stretch, by practicing patience and/or by turning to other people for our needs.
The question, "Are we compatible?" is a fascinating one. Who isn’t captivated by the thought of finding their “perfect match"? And it seems like nearly everyone has an opinion:
- Arranged marriages in contemporary cultures are often facilitated by a community member who sizes people up.
- Astrologers and numerologists use their lenses to assess whether a potential relationship is in the stars...or the cards.
- Some dating apps use algorithms to match lovers using a formula or a set of traits. One example is Chemistry.com, which partnered with evolutionary biologist Helen Fisher to connect users based on the neurochemistry of four different brain systems.
- Even Buzzfeed creates cute quizzes and snappy “What would you do if?” questions to determine compatibility between quiz-takers and their partners.
Compatibility is typically framed in a formulaic, trait-based way. We wonder, “Do opposites attract?” or “Do birds of a feather flock together?” In other words, should we value the complementarity between partners or cherish the similarities that bring us together? Regardless of which side you’re on, the mere idea of matching with a perfect partner based upon your personality and/or inherent characteristics is understandably exciting.
A Different Approach to Compatibility
While exploring this topic with students and clients over the past 20 years, I have long said, “Narrative trumps traits.” What do I mean by this? No list of traits can possibly capture the complexities of love, so I want people to focus on stories rather than qualities. Rather than asking, “Are we compatible?” ask, “What is this love story all about?”
Focusing on how, for example, one of you is an introvert (trait) and one of you is an extrovert (trait) creates fear: We can’t possibly understand each other or build a life together because we are different. Focusing instead on the story of the difference creates compassion, curiosity, and possibility: “Your introversion grounds me, and my extroversion challenges you. We work together to create a relationship that honors both of our ways of being in the world.” Research by Samantha Joel reinforces this framework.
So, if the joint narrative of a couple supersedes their individual traits, then why do we feel such a strong desire to focus on a trait-based view of compatibility? I think we seek a formula to bind the tremendous anxiety and vulnerability inherent in loving and being loved. We crave a certainty that assures us that the risk of opening our hearts will be worth it. When we experience relationship doubt (as we inevitably will), we seek a list of characteristics in another that can either guide us back home or let us know that the situation is untenable. The problem, of course, is that love refuses to play by a neat and tidy set of rules.
When the question of compatibility becomes the topic of the conflict, this indicates that one or both partners is/are feeling misunderstood or devalued. It is a cue to pause the conversation until each partner can imagine the conflict from the other person’s perspective. One powerful tool for doing this comes from Eli Finkel’s research: Step away and write about the conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party who loves you both very much. This practice moves you away from focusing on whose traits are getting in the way and refocuses you on the story of the problem.
The Gift of Incompatibility
There are also gifts hidden within our incompatibilities. If your story is that loving your partner across this difference gives you that chance to learn, grow, flex, and extend yourself, then you can actually become grateful for the differences between you. The “incompatibility” gifts you insights and opportunities:
- To seek what you need elsewhere, taking pressure off your partner and your relationship to be your everything
- To practice patience, humility, and grace
- To continue to learn how to love your partner in ways that feel good for them, and to ask your partner to love you in ways that feel good for you
By providing a bit of contrast, incompatibilities can be blessings in disguise.
Compatibility in Action
Recently, I polled my Instagram community to learn more about their perspectives on compatibility. I asked them to complete the sentence, “I know we are compatible when...” and I conducted a “qualitative factor analysis” of the responses, grouping the data into three broad categories (shown in the table). I was struck by how well their responses fit with the story-not-trait framework.
As seen here, the notion of compatibility seems to expand past the basic idea of sharing similar characteristics with a partner. In fact, being on the same page or even in agreement on a topic is barely alluded to in the table above. Instead, compatibility appears as both a deeply individual and relational experience. These responses suggest that many feel compatible with their partner when, above all else, they feel validated and seen. I wonder what might happen when we consider compatibility to be something that occurs “between us” rather than “within you or me.”
Perhaps compatibility isn’t really about finding a perfect match—it’s about fostering a relationship with a partner who is willing to be curious and engaged across your differences.
Practice gentleness and grace as you communicate your relational needs and see if this story-based model of compatibility helps you discover new ways to appreciate your partner.
Relational Self-Awareness Questions About Compatibility
I hope these reflections on compatibility feel helpful to you whether you are looking for love, falling in love, or nurturing your relationship. I want to leave you with a Relational Self-Awareness boosting exercise and some journal questions to solidify your shifted perspective on compatibility.
Relational Self-Awareness Exercise: Make a list of the qualities that you most value in an intimate partner. Review the list and ask yourself this question, “To what degree do I embody these qualities myself?”
Relational Self-Awareness Reflection Questions:
- What does compatibility mean to me?
- What part of me do I most want my partner to see and validate?
- Why is it so important to me to have this part of me seen and validated in my relationship?
- How do I feel when this part of me feels seen?
- How do I feel when this part of me feels unseen?
- What three words best capture what I want and need in an intimate partnership?
- Complete the sentence: “I know we are compatible when…”
Facebook image: Jelena Zelen/Shutterstock
Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict-reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24, 1595-1601.
Joel, S., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2017). Is romantic desire predictable? Machine learning applied to initial romantic attraction. Psychological Science, 28, 1478-1489.