Birds of a feather flock together.
Well that may be true in the avian world but, sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way in the land of long-term, committed relationships.
Okay, I’ll give you this: it may be true that, in our search for That One Right Person, we do end up gravitating toward potential partners that are more like us than not. That just makes sense.
But under this innocent and very understandable preference for perceived compatibility lies the equally innocent, and somewhat dangerous, belief that this compatibility will protect our marriage from eventual demise. Dangerous because it’s not true.
Think about it. Doesn’t everyone know a couple that is divorcing because they’ve “grown apart?”
But what causes this growing apart feeling? And why does it feel so insurmountable and incompatible with long-term love? I’m hoping the myths I’ve noted below (helpfully bolded) will shed some light on these questions.
First of all, the person who shares our every value and interest truly doesn’t exist. We know this, don’t we? And yet we keep hoping, and searching.
A friend of mine has an actual checklist (yes, written on paper) of qualities her eventual mate must have in order for her to even consider going on more than one date with him. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is still single.
But sometimes it happens, doesn’t it? Sometimes THIS happens:
“We are so much alike.”
“I’ve found my soul mate.”
“We like all the same things!”
And then we’re all in.
But not so fast.
Because despite our certainty in this moment that we have found our perfect soul mate, this sense of perfect compatibility often turns out to be only an illusion of sameness.
If you doubt this, consider how honest you were about your shadow side the last time you were getting to know someone. What little dark details did you leave out of those initial rounds of storytelling and baring of souls? Personally, I work really hard to keep a lot of that nasty stuff hidden. And, yes – even from my partner (whom I really believe loves me no matter what, by the way).
Even more important (and unnerving), few of us have much insight into our own complexities, much less about those of another person. Most of us, to quote Alain De Botton, have “the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with,” when the truth is that we generally have some pretty ragged and annoying edges.
So even if we really do try to bare all to a potential mate, we obviously can’t be honest about facets of ourselves about which we lack awareness, which means that the information we share with each other in that “getting to know you” phase (which can last a lifetime, in my experience) is . . . well . . . suspect.
Also, and this is really unfortunate, the sense of alikeness or compatibility we feel for someone is often organized around our mutual brokenness. If this is true, then we are often looking to recreate, within our committed relationships, patterns and dynamics from our childhood that may not work very well in the adult world, and so can’t necessarily be counted on to save the day when things get rough.
Here’s the good news (I always have good news!):
More important than the interests and values we share (which, truth be told, can change over time – and actually should change if we want to be evolving humans, but that’s another blog post) is the way in which we relate to each other as we engage in these interests and live out these values.
Couples can and do fight (sometimes destructively) in all kinds of situations – even at Disneyland, on a trip to Italy or while training for a marathon. What becomes truly important as a relationship progresses – and is predictive of relationship longevity, according to relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman – is the way a couple interacts while pursuing our interests and values, shared or not.
Case in point:
- One couple shares a fondness for the Christmas holiday but always fights over the proper decoration of the Christmas tree.
- A second Christmas-loving but aesthetically-different couple decides to decorate one side of their tree in multi-colored ornaments and the other side all in bisque, thus avoiding a yearly argument. (This really happened, and this same couple owns two coffee makers set to brew each morning – one that makes a strong brew for him, and one that brews it lighter for her. Genius!)
De Botton has this couple’s wisdom in mind when he observes that “the person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste . . . but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently – the person who is good at disagreement.”
Consider James Carville (lead strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign) and Mary Matalin (Deputy Campaign Chief to George H.W. Bush), married with two children. These two are polar opposites politically, but (according a 2014 CBS News interview) live peacefully within and around their ideological differences. They say they are more likely to argue about pets than politics.
“Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition,” writes De Botton (can you tell I love this guy?).
And this earned compatibility – one built on countless moments of yearning to understand, respectfully disagreeing, loving the differences, and moving toward compromise – is one that will go the distance.
Please take some time to share your compatibility stories below, and feel free to check out this Hitch Fix post for more marriage myth-busting!
My husband and I have agreed to disagree on certain issues but our core values are pretty much the same.