Compatibility, What is it?

Compatibility is what most single people have in mind when they are looking for love. But what is it? You can try to get off easy by offering the dictionary meaning of the word compatibility as: the state in which two things (people) are able to exist or occur together without problems or conflict. This definition doesn’t really say much. Like I said, what is it?

How do you know two people are compatible? Let’s see if I can put something together that you can use. A few of the usual ways of thinking about compatibility in love are to think in terms of opposites attract, similarity attracts, common goals attract, and the same level of maturity attracts. Let’s analyze each of these to see what little corner of the whole truth each of them holds.

As a single person have you ever considered the possibility that opposites attract to explain why you and some else are attracted to each other? The idea is opposites would have a natural affinity for each other because they complement each other. Something like, what I have you need and don’t have, and what you have I need and don’t have. If a love relationship is a pie, you’re the left side and I’m the right. Together we make one whole pie.

The problem here is I could get so used to thinking like this, two halves make a  whole person, that I might get a little lazy about developing the half in myself you are representing. Did you get that? If you do my mathematical computations for me, I won’t get better at math. I like to think its better for a relationship to think in terms of two whole individuals sharing their lives together. Regardless, let’s move on to the next idea of compatibility, similarity.

To say that similar people are attracted to each other is to state the obvious. If I like road bikes and you like road bikes, we’ve got something in common we can discuss and feel good about. Chances are we’ll enjoy each other’s company. In the love-life world understanding compatibility as similarity attracting two people together makes sense. Here’s the problem, too often for comfort similarity can limit your exposure to difference and therefore learning.

If you have your heart set on defining compatibility as similarity chances are you won’t be considering anyone different than yourself. That’s not to say using yourself as a reference for a mate or partner is altogether bad. It’s just potentially limiting. If I hang around with people who are like myself all the time, my world will remain small if you know what I mean. Differences teach us things about other worlds, other people, and ourselves.  It seems to me that a mixed lifestyle of different and similar has greater reach, just in terms of learning about life.

Common goals like similarity, tends to bring a measure of uniformity into a love relationship. The most common common goals are things like having a baby at some point after the relationship starts, buying a house, starting a conjointly run business, or simply getting married and living somewhere together. Common goals seem like a pretty superficial way of defining similarity with a lot of appeal. It tends to drown out harder way of defining compatibility with its easy superficial focus.

Working on buying a house or starting a family can be overwhelmingly consuming. Not much time to think of anything else, if my memory serves me. It just leaves me feeling like I want more. Are we still compatible once we’ve got the house, baby, and bank account? Next, is the old psycho-biological way of defining compatibility as matched levels of maturity. The idea here is that two people are compatible if they are grown up enough or not grown up enough to be at each other’s maturity level both physically and emotionally.

Maturity can have a lot to do with whether or not two people share each other’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. There can be a vast disparity of values and interests, for example, between older and younger lovers, when it comes to compatibility defined in this way.

Another psycho-biological definition of compatibility would rely upon the popular concept of ‘chemistry’ between two people. This is fundamentally a physical concept with a lot of overlap into psychological and perhaps spiritual areas. You can have chemistry in pretty much every area of life. My take on what chemistry really means always takes into account that it’s one of those things in life that is simply hard to define.

We all know what it means. In fact, we kind of know viscerally. Chemistry is something you feel. If we have chemistry, it doesn’t take much to enjoy your company. It just sort of happens on its own. The hard part is you either have it or you don’t. You can’t make chemistry happen no matter how hard you try. You could say it’s built in. When you have chemistry with someone, you enjoy being in his or her company, but that’s not saying much about your relationship with that person beyond your initial enjoyment.

In fact, chemistry is one of the essentials when it comes to lasting love. It’s just not sufficient. Being able to built a sustaining friendship (you know how to be friends) and partnership (working together to make a life) on whatever chemistry you have with your lover is a great formula for a long-term love relationship.

I personally like to think of compatibility more in terms of a couple’s capacity to grow together. Regardless of whether your personalities are similar, opposite, have loads in common, are matured at the same level, and are chemically tuned, if your lover and you have made a decision to work on your relationship together, you’re compatible. I guess I’m trying to remind you that you can’t rely on compatibility alone to make your relationship work.

A compatible love relationship is defined by the work of solving relationship problems together and growing as individuals in the relationship together. The great thing about this type of dedication to the relationship is that a couple starts showing the signs of mutually compatible growth in the ways they live together over time. Like two branches on a tree that start responding to the sun from the same direction might overlap in their efforts to get to the sunlight. There is no greater satisfaction in life than to grow as someone with someone. Dr. T. Jordan








Dr. Jordan

Dr. Thomas Jordan is a clinical psychologist, certified interpersonal psychoanalyst, author, professor, and love life researcher.

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