I’m a Relationship Therapist, and This Is the Biggest Thing People Get Wrong About Compatibility
When people worry about compatibility, they often assume “closeness” equals “sameness,” operating under the belief that we should like to do similar things and have the same ways of thinking as our partners. In reality, relational compatibility doesn’t come from being alike, but rather possessing a willingness to relate to our partners with equality and respect, no matter what.
In my practice, I’ve found that the preoccupation with being with the “right” person stems from two main reasons: relationship anxiety (rooted in a fear of commitment) and an over-investment in outdated romantic ideals (skewing our expectations for our relationships).
Let’s start with relationship anxiety. Holding onto the belief that you wouldn't be struggling if you were with another person or the "right" person may actually be a way for you to avoid taking responsibility for your own insecurities. Therapist and relationship anxiety expert Sheryl Paul, MA, says that at the root of the question, "Is my partner good enough, attractive enough, smart enough, witty enough?" is usually: "Am I enough?" So, instead of viewing any of these doubts as a red flag, Paul recommends asking yourself: "How do I feel about my partner when my heart is open and I am not in an anxious state?"
Wondering if there’s someone more suited for you may also be connected to a fear of settling—defined as taking less than you feel you deserve. In reality, settling just means that you accepted something you didn't like and didn't vocalize it. It's not settling if you're in a relationship where you can talk about the yearnings you have that aren't met and have these recognized and explored in a constructive way.
I’ve also found that people feel anxious about their relationship in part because of preconceived notions about compatibility. People have this idea that in order to be compatible, you have to be super alike and go through life in lock-step agreement about everything. But as I mentioned, compatibility is more about how partners are able to relate to each other and navigate life together—their ability to problem-solve, respect each other’s boundaries, and work together. And you don't have to have the same hobbies, tastes, or even temperament as a partner in order to do any of the above.
What would it be like for us to assume that we will disagree, that we will dislike aspects of each other, and that we will spend a lot of our lives trying to find the right mix of “you” and “me,” rather than be disappointed and surprised by this reality?
To that end, dissimilarity is not inherently a sign of incompatibility. Instead of searching for someone who is more similar to you, focus on the need you have that isn't being fulfilled in your relationship. Is this something you can commit to addressing with your partner(s), even if it's difficult? How can you create a safe zone to surrender to what each of you is, so that neither one of you feels the need to reach outside of your relationship?
In moments when we are feeling anxious, our analytical brains take over and convince us that there is someone easier and better out there, as an attempt to soothe our distress. As long as you’re in a caring relationship with someone (or multiple people) who is emotionally open and willing to own their part in the moments of contention, your worries may be nothing more than evidence that there is a part of you that doesn’t want to be hurt in love. Take care of your tender heart, instead of fixating on the lack in the other.
As for why we tend to misunderstand compatibility so greatly? I believe it’s due to the enduring legacy of Romanticism, an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. It emphasized the value of emotion and redefined love as a central motivator for human life and relationships. Alain de Botton, a British philosopher, studied the origins of romantic love and found that this era promoted the idea that sex and love should be bound together, that love is a feeling, and that the “everything relationship” is the ideal one.
There's nothing wrong with believing in love and romance. Unfortunately, capital-R Romantic thinking can also make us place unrealistic expectations on our partners to fulfill our every need—and create this idea that love is a force that happens to you, rather than a choice you make that requires work and dedication. No wonder people are anxious about finding "the one," when they're taught to believe that one "right" person is the ticket to fulfillment and a happily-ever-after life.
Instead of seeking a partnership that is definitively in line with our likes and wants, it might be a better use of our time and personal development to feel the negative emotions that we may have about being with a flawed human, knowing that we ourselves are flawed, too.
It is okay to be sad about the compromises we naturally have to make to be in relationships. Couples who compromise, who live with the losses associated with defining love as an active commitment and not a forever feeling, may be the ones who truly understand what a long-term partnership requires. Compromise is also one of the green flags in a relationship. What would it be like for us to assume that we will disagree, that we will dislike aspects of each other, and that we will spend a lot of our lives trying to find the right mix of “you” and “me,” rather than be disappointed and surprised by this reality?
Above all else, remember that you are not committing to a person, but to being in the process of working through things together. In the words of couples therapist extraordinaire, Benjamin Seaman, LCSW: "Shift the question from 'Are they the one?' to, 'Is this someone that I believe I can work things out with?'" That might just relieve a lot of your relationship stress—and help you better navigate your romantic future.
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