By Joy Birnbach Dunstan,MA, LPC, MAC
Love Isn’t Always Enough
In my counseling practice I see many couples who come in hoping to create a more harmonious relationship. I can help them improve their communication skills. I can help them safely discuss delicate or difficult issues. I can help them get more in touch with their own feelings and become more empathic to their partner’s feelings. Together we can explore and discover what might be the real issue underlying frequent petty arguments. These are all skills that can be taught and learned.
But a crucial factor in a good relationship is something that cannot be taught: compatibility. The dictionary defines compatibility as “being capable of existing or performing in harmonious, agreeable, or congenial combination with another or others.” Not everyone is compatible with everyone else. More importantly, we are not always compatible with those to whom we are initially attracted.
Couples get together for a variety of reasons. Sexual attraction, that thing we call “chemistry,” is often the first draw. A handsome or beautiful new someone with that special spark can fuel passion and make your heart go pitter-patter – for awhile.
When couples are dating, they generally get together and do something. They both may enjoy similar activities and have fun doing them together – for awhile. The sex is good and you enjoy doing things together—this must be love, right? Well, sometimes love just isn’t enough.
A long-term committed relationship is more about being together than doing together. Values, perspective, and life goals determine a couple’s compatibility far more than hot sex and enjoying the same activities. It’s great if you both love to travel or go bird-watching, but if one of you values family above all else while the other treasures independence, you are in trouble from the get-go.
Conflicting values, standards, morals, ethics, and ideals with your partner makes compatibility impossible. For example, if you and your partner have major differences in deeply held religious convictions or beliefs about spending money, then compatibility reaches an impasse. Things that don’t matter very much while you’re dating can become deal-breakers when you’re trying to build a life together.
Compatibility is vital for romance to sustain itself over the years. If daily life is filled with frequent disagreements, you may not feel very romantic because you’re often harboring angry feelings. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you do have to feel respected, safe, and accepted. This is the foundation upon which trust is built.
If you’re exploring a new relationship, avoid trouble down the road by talking about those deeply held beliefs that guide how you live your life. It is much more effective to choose a compatible partner now than it is to “fix” something that is “broken” later. Find out if you share basic values and life goals. If you don’t hold mutual values, go ahead and enjoy dating if you like, but don’t expect you’ll be able to live together long-term without a lot of bumps and disagreements.
What if you’re already in a long-term marriage and you’ve discovered you’re incompatible? You have three realistic options: One, you can learn to accept things as they are. Two, you can work on yourself and the relationship. Three, you can leave the relationship. And of course, there’s option four: you can stay and be miserable.
Option four really isn’t much fun, so (to paraphrase the Serenity Prayer) I suggest learning to accept the things you cannot change and working hard to change the things you can. Much of the wisdom to know the difference is in remembering that you can only change yourself. It’s unreasonable to demand that another person change when they don’t want to.
The key in relationships is not finding someone to love, but in learning to love that someone you find. Find someone who shares your core values and ideals, and learning to love each other will be a breeze.