Compatibility In Marriage

“Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.” ~ Alain de Botton

Many of us live in cultures that stress compatibility as the prerequisite for a lifelong romantic partnership; this contrasts sharply with the idea that compatibility is something achieved through time, compromise, and effort. The touching scene above from “Fiddler on the Roof” takes the latter view. The compatibility and eventual love of these partners whose marriage was arranged was an achievement. (Note. Topol who played Tevya in this scene died today.)

And the psychoanalysis Erich Fromm offered a similar idea when he wrote, contrary to much of contemporary culture, that love is an art that “requires knowledge and effort [it is not] … a pleasant sensation … something one “falls into” if one is lucky.”

But the philosopher Alain de Botton has articulated this idea most clearly. He writes,

We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on an early dinner date would be; “And how are you crazy?”

The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.

We make mistakes, too, because we are so lonely. No one can be in an optimal state of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.

Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently—the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

Romanticism has been unhelpful to us; it is a harsh philosophy. It has made a lot of what we go through in marriage seem exceptional and appalling. We end up lonely and convinced that our union, with its imperfections, is not “normal.” We should learn to accommodate ourselves to “wrongness”, striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and our partners.

I think this is a mature thoughtful description of real compatibility.

Reflections On “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

While the short quote expresses a great and important truth it needs to be further analyzed. [We’ll assume a standard definition of compatible—(of two things) able to exist or occur together without conflict.]

Question 1 – Is compatibility completely irrelevant?

I suppose that some compatibility between two people contemplating marriage would be good. For example, it would be nice if they spoke the same language and wanted to live in the same country, and perhaps agreed about politics and religion and whether they wanted children or not. This isn’t to say that such potential areas of disagreement couldn’t be resolved just that it would be easier to achieve success in a relationship if some basic ideas were shared. So some compatibility may be a prerequisite for a good marriage.

However many so-called differences between partners could be resolved and resolving them over time is a large part of what it is to have a successful relationship. Moreover, some conflict between people is inevitable no matter how hard they try to live harmoniously. We are never going to find someone with whom we are completely compatible; we are never going to find a clone of ourselves. In fact, we may even find living with our clone unbearable. So, contrary to Western cultural norms, I argue that the idea of compatibility as a precondition of a successful marriage is overvalued in our culture.

Question 2 – How hard should we try to be compatible with our partners?

While the quote suggests that compatibility is an achievement there are limits to how hard one should try to be compatible. This is obvious in a case where, for example, a partner wants you to compromise on his plan to be a serial killer, physical abuser, child molester, or alcoholic. I’m sure there are other less obvious examples in which you are asked to compromise your core values. At some point though, compromise would entail losing personal autonomy. So there are limits to the extent to which you should try to avoid conflict. But in other trivial examples, what color you prefer on your walls or car, compromise is easy. Obviously, there would be a lot of cases in between like how to manage money or raise children.

Question 3 – Is compatibility an achievement then?

For the most part, with the caveats listed above, yes it is. To live many long years with minimal conflict is the very definition of a successful marriage (and probably of a successful friendship, organization, etc.) This will be very difficult, and if we are self-aware the process will reveal to us our many flaws. But if successful this will provide us with one of the true enduring comforts of our lives. The comfort that we are not totally alone in this lonely universe, that someone else thinks about us, cares for us, waits for us, loves us, and overlooks our many shortcomings.

Question 4 – How do you know if a person is compatible enough?

On this I agree with de Botton, “the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently—the person who is good at disagreement.” This “capacity to tolerate differences with generosity” is the key. I’m not sure how you can determine this beforehand, but perhaps careful observation about another’s ability to tolerate differences rather than impose their will upon you is a good guide.

Nonetheless, there are no guarantees as people often deceive one another; it is simply risky to commit ourselves to someone who may not reciprocate our feelings. This suggests that longer courtships are generally better than shorter ones as they provide more time for a person’s character to reveal itself, thereby minimizing the risk of being hurt and betrayed. (This is from someone who got married a few months after meeting their wife. But I was just lucky that Jane is a remarkable woman who has tolerated me for so long.)

Question 5 – Are romantic relationships necessary?

Still, lives lived without romantic partnerships can be satisfying too. In the end, we are all ultimately alone in this vast spacetime and there are many ways to ameliorate our existential angst. We can create art, music, or literature; we can help other people; we can improve the world. A fulfilling life is one in which we become self-aware and use that knowledge to better the human condition, but none of this demands that we mate for life. Remember too that a bad relationship is far worse than none at all.

Question 6 – What’s the real problem?

Finally, let me say that most people think that the problem of finding compatible partners is one of being loved. Hence we try to make ourselves more marketable in the quest for partners. And I admit to having done this when I was young. But the real problem, it now seems to me as I approach 70, is one of learning to love. And while I don’t think I know how to do this, I do think that this is the real problem of love.

So it seems to me that loving others, whether they be lifelong partners, children, friends, or even strangers is the difficult part. But if we can learn to love … that will be its own reward.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

6 thoughts on “Compatibility In Marriage

  1. Kathy and I have been married for 51 years. We were fortunate to have married when we were still young enough to have malleable personalities. For the first five years or so, the normal hormones of youth held us together. Gawd, I was such a jerk back then! I did so many dumb and hurtful things. But my sense of integrity forced me to admit that, one way or another, I had to do everything possible to make the marriage work, even if it meant swallowing my pride. I had made a promise on my wedding day, and I was determined to honor that promise, come what may.

    Slowly, slowly, Kathy taught me some basic social skills, and slowly, slowly, my self-centeredness faded. These days, we each recognize that the other is different and not a perfect match, but we also know each other so well that neither of us could imagine life without the other. Our love is not the passionate, romantic kind of love celebrated in movies and literature. Rather, it’s like an old sweater that you’ve worn all your life, that has always kept you warm, is a bit worn, but absolutely comfortable. I have never been as happy as I am now, and it’s because of Kathy.

  2. I have thought about this over the course of failed relationships and one early failed marriage. There is a big difference in how women and men operate in the world. The psychology is striking. Women are more introspective and reflective, though they have their hasty and impulsive sides as well. Men generally do not think as well in the science of relationships and tend to be selfish. If there is one problem—and that would be rare—this modus discrepancy is a breaking point, seems to me. It is one big cause for the high rate of divorce and a reason for lack of commitment from both sides in a traditional heterosexual arrangement, for as much as I know.

  3. I was constantly reminded by my mother, who was usually mad at my father, that you’ll never know a person until you live with them. I was therefore a strong believer during my youth of trying before buying. It worked out for me.

    On the lighter side of this question, I’ll add some spousal advise that crossed my desk this past week: As we’ve been told, Socrates said he knew nothing, for which he was proclaimed the smartest man alive by the Oracle of Delphi. And how did you know you knew nothing his questioner asked? “My wife told me,” Socrates replied.

    Then there appeared in my inbox a picture of a very old, heavy and leather-bound book with this interesting title: “Marriage advise by King Henry VIII.” Still trying to remember how all those Divorce, Beheaded, Beheaded Divorced, Died went?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.