Are you in or contemplating a serious relationship but wondering whether you are really compatible?
It is sometimes said that opposites attract, but is “being opposite” really a useful standard for determining compatibility in intimate, interpersonal relationships such as marriages, partnerships, and companionships?
Like most clichés, this popular belief is overgeneralized and can be misleading, even dangerous. This is because the attraction between opposites can sometimes be a telltale sign of dysfunction. A dysfunctional relationship is one that does not support cognitive, emotional, and behavioral adjustment among its participants. For example, dependent individuals may be attracted to other individuals who enable or encourage helplessness or dependence.
Similarly, a person who is passive and another who is dominant may seem like a match. The passive individual may even seek out a dominant partner. However, in some such cases, this is a condition of an oppressive relationship. The powerful one may treat the passive one like a doormat. Indeed, the classic case of an abusive relationship where the recipient of the abuse has a “victim mentality” is a case in which one individual is dominant (the perpetrator) and the other passive (the victim). Indeed, it is no accident that many who harbor victim mentalities come out of abusive relationships only to enter into another such relationship.
This isn’t to say that all relationships arising from opposites attracting are dysfunctional. For example, some who are quiet and reserved may look for mates who are boisterous and extroverted and the relationship may (or may not) be functional. However, it is not because the relationship is between opposites that makes it compatible. Rather, there are more fundamental personality attributes that can make a couple compatible.
So what really makes couples compatible?
As a preliminary to answering this question, the concept of compatibility itself needs some clarification. First, in the sense in which this question is posed here, the concept of compatibility is that of functional compatibility in contrast to the dysfunctional relationships briefly discussed above. Indeed, most people who want to know if they are compatible with their mates want to know if they are functionally compatible.
Second, compatibility is not all-or-nothing; rather, it admits of degrees on a continuum from incompatible to highly compatible. Thus you can be more or less compatible with your mate. So, the question addressed here is not merely whether you are compatible but instead how compatible. The degree to which you and your significant other are compatible depends on several variables that are discussed below.
Do you and your significant other share basic values?
Functional compatibility is increased to the extent that the couple shares basic values. A basic value is a value from which the other values in your belief system are derived, but which are not themselves derived from any further values. For example, the belief that it is (or tend to be) wrong to steal is a basic (moral) value for most people. From this value, many other derivative values follow such as the wrongfulness of white-collar crime. Thus it is not likely that a couple will be functionally compatible if one party to the relationship holds such a basic value while the other is a thief.
Because religious values can also be basic values, there can be genuine incompatibility between individuals who, from very strict fundamentalist religious values, derive many of their derivative values (e.g., no use of birth control, traditional gender roles, strict dress code, keeping the Sabbath, etc.) and individuals who do not share the same basic values. For example, an atheist is not likely to get along well with a strongly religious person.
So, there needs to be at least some core basic values that hold the relationship together. If not, there is likely to be little, if any, functional compatibility.
How other-regarding are you and your significant other?
Two people who are ego-centered are not likely to get along. An ego-centered person is one who believes that what he or she wants, desires, prefers, values, or believes is good, right, and true; and therefore, that others should share the same subjective states as he or she does. If one individual is ego-centered while the other is not, there is a greater chance that the relationship will last but it is not likely to be a very functional relationship. This is because, sooner or later, even very tolerant people tend to become wary of constantly appeasing a self-centered person. In some cases, this tolerance can turn to the dysfunction of mindlessly adopting the values, preferences, and beliefs of the ego-centered mate as a coping mechanism. This, however, is the height of dysfunction.
Do you and your significant other complement each other intellectually?
What is important here is that both individuals have an ability to comprehend ideas, issues, and problems that arise in the course of ordinary life in a reasonable and thoughtful manner. This does not mean that you must have the same IQ, that is, ability to solve problems. It rather means that there is potential to share insight and perspective in a mutually enlightening way so that the exchange of ideas flows in two, not just one direction, and both parties benefit. Two people in such a functionally compatible relationship can also be intellectually oriented in different ways. Thus one may be better in the sciences while another in the arts. In fact, such contrasting orientations can mutually enhance the relationship by making things more interesting and instructive for both parties.
On the other hand, there are some ego-centered kinds of people who are drawn to mates whom they perceive to be unintelligent. In some cases, this is a means of maintaining dominance and control in the relationship. The well-educated male professional who looks for a “trophy wife” is an example. But this kind of relationship is dysfunctional because the weakness of one person in the relationship is exploited for the perceived benefit of the other. In reality, neither party to the relationship benefits because the dominant figure forfeits the opportunity to have a partner from whom he or she can learn; and the less intelligent partner is not provided with the opportunity to be nurtured cognitively—including helping to foster a stronger self-concept.
Do you share interests?
While compatible couples do not need to share all interests, they should share at least some interests. Other things being equal, couples who have little or no interests in common are likely to be less compatible than ones who have some significant common interests. Here, “significant” refers to interests that provide frequent occasions for engaging in mutually rewarding activities. Thus, a couple who has a common passion for music (and can find common ground on the genre) can increase compatibility through engaging in music-related activities (such as concert-going, jamming, listening, etc.).
Are your temperaments compatible?
Are you both high strung? This can lead to a very turbulent relationship although not necessarily an incompatible one, so long as the other criteria are appreciably met. If one party to a relationship is extremely anxious or obsessive-compulsive, this can place a serious strain on the relationship and lead to significant loss of functional compatibility.
A couple will be more compatible when the two parties are more disposed to managing disagreements rationally and talking things through rather than engaging in name-calling or other self-defeating and irrational tactics. Many relationship problems stem from such poor emotional and behavioral management skills. Thus, functional compatibility can be improved through working on such coping skills within the context of the relationship. Couples counseling can be geared largely toward increasing such compatibility through the teaching of such relationship skills.
Do you relate to each other authentically?
It is not uncommon to learn that a relationship, which seemed “ideal,” has come to an end. In fact, there really aren’t any ideal relationships and ones that seem to be so are generally too good to be true. Relationships are imperfect because human beings are imperfect. Beneath the veneer of perfection there is often a reality that lacks congruence with the outer façade. The essence of such inauthenticity is the breakdown of meaningful communication.
On the one extreme are relationships where there is too much communication, albeit of an unnecessary nature. In this sort of relationship, parties are indiscrete in how they speak and act to one another. This includes couples who are inconsiderate of each other’s personal space and feelings, who speak out of turn, provide too much information (“chewing off the ear” of the other), who are insulting or indiscreetly honest. On the other hand, there are relationships where there is not nearly enough constructive communication. In these, the parties rarely if ever argue or disagree, or disclose what they really think or feel.
Somewhere in the middle lies the Aristotelian mean, which is the province of an authentic relationship. In this sort of relationship the parties do not wear masks that hide their true thoughts or feelings. They feel comfortable disclosing to one another and are disposed to discreetly and considerately level with one another. Thus, expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the other’s words or deeds does not need to include finger-pointing, blaming, reprimanding, degrading, or punishing. Such ease of constructive communication is a core component of highly functionally compatible relationships. It is never perfect, but it avoids the extremes of dysfunctional, incompatible relationships.
Are you attracted to each other?
It is not likely that your relationship will flourish if you do not like each other. Here, being "attracted" means that you enjoy spending time with the other and look forward to it. There may be a certain mannerism that you like—the way he or she smiles, the tone of voice, the facial expressions. This is psychological attraction but it shades into the physical. You may find the other person to be handsome, beautiful, or sexy. There is no formula for such “chemistry” but it is no myth that the lack of such chemistry is a strong indicator that the relationship will not be a very functionally compatible one.
This does not mean that sexual attraction is the only form of chemistry. Indeed, many people have strong companionships where they enjoy being with each other even though there is not necessarily a sexual component to their relationship. While sexual attraction tends to bring people together it does not necessarily hold a relationship together. In fact, relationships based primarily on sexual attraction tend to be short-lived.
Sexual activity can play an important role in marriages and partnerships, however. It can provide a way of expressing unity with the other. Indeed, the sex can provide a vitalizing and unifying aspect of a relationship. Social psychologist Erich Fromm succinctly expressed this in his classic work, The Sane Society. “Erotic love," said Fromm, "begins with separateness and ends with oneness.” Such sexual relating is giving as well as receiving. It vacillates between self-gratification and gratification of the other. This kind of sex is not to be confused with the purely self-interested desire for sexual stimulation. The latter could equally be fulfilled through masturbation. On the other hand, unifying sexual activity, where there is both giving and receiving, can promote highly functionally compatible relationships. It is this form of sexual relating that can be properly called “making love” because it is an expression of love and solidarity with the other (see also my post on “How Good are You at Loving?”).
As you can see, figuring out how compatible you are with your significant other is a complex question. Nevertheless, using the standards I have provided here, you can come to a clearer understanding about how compatible you are. Accordingly, utilizing these standards, you are invited to take the below compatibility inventory.
Functional Compatibility Inventory
RANKING KEY: 0 = Incompatible | 1 = Weak | 2 = Average | 3 = Strong | 4 = Very Strong
- Do you and your significant other share basic values? _____ (enter ranking)
- Do you and your significant other complement each other intellectually? ______
- Do you share interests? ______
- Are your temperaments compatible? ______
- Do you relate to each other authentically? ______
- Are you attracted to each other? ______
Overall Total (add up rankings) ______
Final Average (divide overall total by 6) _____
For example, if your give standards 1-6 the following rankings respectively, 2, 4, 3, 1, 4, 3, then your overall total would be 17 (2+4+3+1+4+3 = 17) and your Final Average would be 2.83 (17 / 6 = 2.83). This would put your functional compatibility ratio in the high average range.
Can you increase your functional compatibility ratio?
Yes! For example, you can cultivate more shared interests, work on your temperaments, and work on communicating more authentically.