Folding without breaking: define long-term relationship compatibility?
February 25, 2016 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me define long-term relationship compatibility. How do /you/ define it, or, what do /you/ think compatibility is all about?

I've been dating a ton throughout my 20's and, along the way, have been pretty intentional about trying to figure out what long-term relationship compatibility is all about. I've talked to lots of people about this; sorted through my own thoughts, adjusting my conclusions every few years or so; read all kinds of books on relationships, psychology, attachment style, etc.; tried dating all sorts of sort/tried to stay open, etc, etc, but I feel like I could really use more food for thought on this topic. I do want a long-term partner and, ideally, imagine sparks, a mutual feeling of "just getting" each other, and sharing interests. I've tried to come up with a flexible/broad list of things I think I have to have in a partner, but I've found it mighty difficult to find someone who fits *all* of these needs. I've tried only to include things that seem truly important in my list -- like genuine kindness, a sense of humor (doesn't even have to be identical to mine!), intellectual compatibility, mutual attraction, affection, similar values when it comes to the really big stuff. None of my "needs" are what I consider to be superficial things like looks, profession, etc., and I've been even questioning how badly I really need a partner to share my interests if other important things are in place. I've always thought it would be neat to find someone I truly admired--and that that's how I would recognize compatibility. But it seems like admiration is something you have to have enough time to develop--not necessarily the sort of thing you can spot in just a few, short months of dating (or is it?).

The web's take on compatibility seems to have the obvious stuff -- one should find a partner who is respectful toward him/her, duh. But what do we do about tough to pinpoint things, such as the "he/she 'just gets me'" unicorn-like thing that might seem to fit under compatibility, or "being on the same wavelength," whatever, exactly, that might mean?

Tell me, hive mind/askmefi's: how do /you/ define long-term relationship compatibility? I realize this is a very personal question that is bound to vary infinitely from person to person, but I'm curious about what common themes might be found in anecdotal evidence. Thanks!
posted by dubhemerak3000 to Human Relations (23 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Can You Tolerate Their Shit? Its the 'see me at my worst' thing, plus some of the routine day to day (or weekly or monthly) annoyances that everybody will have. Can you tolerate her annoying laugh? His snoring? DOING THE #&$^@% TOILET PAPER WRONG!?!?

I require patience and understanding that when I say something stupid and oblivious that I'm just being special and oblivious, not malicious. So... benefit of the doubt/patience, understanding, and accepting of flaws....

How they handle themselves in a fight/argument/heated emotional discussion is key. I like hearing 'ok, I see your point. I think this is why you were upset, and this is what you'd like me to do differently next time. I will try to do so'

Not blowing up over little stuff. Life with another person is so much easier when you pick the really important battles to fight. Everything else with a decent partner is just fluff.

Who Will be the Adult on X? She's better with finances, I'm better with emotional support. Shes a (way) better cook, I do dishes.

Both people have to be willing to give 100% to the relationship. Sometimes my 100% is more than hers, or more than last weeks was, and sometimes my 100% will look like 10%, but I feel its important to be able to say I gave 100%

Understanding what they need to feel loved.... and that it is likely different from your style of giving or receiving love.
posted by Jacen at 9:53 PM on February 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I think my partner just gets me, but tbh it's taken me longer to get him. I'm still learning about him.

As a sufficiently old lady who's going to be a fairly old bride this year, I see compatibility as when the relationship works despite yourselves. My partner and I are only so compatible on paper but we keep working, and working well, despite some fairly obvious mutual shortcomings. It's like we are the same where it matters (affectionate, same money style, similar intelligence, overall life goals) and different where it helps (decision making style, I'm big picture he's detail etc). Honestly I think a lot of this is subconscious patterns of expectations - I think we give each other the right amount of space, the right amount of closeness, the right amount of relationship reassurance and so on. It's nothing we negotiated consciously, I think we just found someone whose interaction expectations matched our own. No one is left confused or missing something.

If you are constantly on the search for a perfect partner, this can be holding you back from actually finding it. There is no perfect partner but there is a perfect interaction between imperfect partners. Think about why you got together with and split from your previous relationships. At the risk of souding cliche, the "cosmic" relationship you seek is when you know yourself and your sense of stability comes from within; then the relationship you build is a dynamic dance of two full partners who are showing up as they are. That's not something that can be transcribed into a list on paper. You just show up fully and the other person shows up fully and then you examine the outcome of the both of you together and decide if it's good. Hope that helps.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:56 PM on February 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Part of compatibility is when that person brings out the good parts of you, and also the good parts of the bad parts that they are inherently related to. And when they bring out the parts of you that you most feel you need to be expressing to feel like "yourself".

However, I think analyzing or making lists about this is only helpful insofar as it lets you recognize that compatibility when you see it, and I'm not sure that requires this level of analysis and list making. (not that I don't think it requires great thought, just not analysis or accumulating list points).
posted by Blitz at 9:58 PM on February 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A big part of compatibility is the desire and ability to grow together over time, instead of growing apart. Of course you need compatibility when you start dating, but to keep a relationship going, it needs effort from both parties. It needs love and support and compromise and communication to remain compatible in the relationship as both people grow and change.

That said, my husband and I are truly best friends. We're a team. We can talk about everything. We can talk about our poop - which I've never done with any partner before! We can bring up tough subjects. We want to see each other happy. You can laugh together, and just spend time doing nothing. I can be my weirdest, goofiest self around him and he just laughs. I can lounge around looking like a total mess with unwashed hair and he'll still find me sexy. I can hear him snore all night and still love him and go to bed with him again the next night. We work to do things together and make plans as a team.

So, I think your list is fine. And of course you want to be with someone with basic positive human characteristics. But I'd also see how you - and they - handle the long term stuff in terms of compromise, problem solving, and support. How will you grow together? Do you have enough interests that overlap but also enough that don't overlap so you can have alone time?
posted by Crystalinne at 10:24 PM on February 25, 2016 [12 favorites]

Best answer: 1. You want to be more like one another
2. You want to retain separate identities
3. You don't annoy each other
4. Everything logistical works
5. Hot sex
posted by ead at 10:29 PM on February 25, 2016 [20 favorites]

Best answer: I always reflect on that bit of The Accidental Tourist

Macon: I'm beginning to think that maybe it's not just how much you love someone. Maybe what matters is who you are when you're with them.

It sounds trite, but observing yourself and noticing your emotions as you spend time with a potential new partner is a good thing to take into account, not just the 'on paper' compatibility markers. Are you telling the truth easily? Are you feeling safe? Are you being yourself? Are you learning? Are you growing? Are you being 'met' when you make bids for intimacy/ can you meet the other when they make bids for intimacy?

I recommend writing by John Gottman and another great book on the construction of healthy relationships is Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:55 PM on February 25, 2016 [20 favorites]

Best answer: Based on your list, what strikes me is that for most of those things, my boyfriend and I either shared them from the get-go (kindness, attraction, affection and values)or in the case of the others (shared interests, sense of humour and intellectual compatibility) we differed, but over nine years together that gap has narrowed. We originally didn't have the same sense of humour but now we have a shared language and dozens of in-jokes and can make each other laugh with just a look. We come from different worlds intellectually - he's a maths-fluent engineer who rarely reads novels and I'm a journalist who likes books and newspapers, and equations make my brain hurt. But we've endlessly exchanged ideas within other realms of knowledge like politics, economics, technology and most recently parenting. He likes fishing, building, making things, cycling and running and my hobbies are essentially talking, reading and drinking wine. But over the years we've found lots of TV shows that we both love to watch and lately our main hobby is spending time with our kid. I think ead is onto something with "you want to be more like one another" and that is what has worked for us. Despite being really quite different people, we like each other enough that we do so much together that we've become less different over time.
posted by reshet at 1:08 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What do you think compatibility is all about?

Core value systems that align. Communication styles that are complementary. Mutual willingness to sustain commitment through dedication, as the spark gradually fades. Compatible sense of humor.
posted by tackypink at 1:13 AM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have an answer that's both helpful and unhelpful: you just know. If you haven't met someone you feel like you click with yet, then that's a sign to keep looking. I know it can be discouraging and frustrating some times, so I wish you all the best!

dubhemerak3000: "But what do we do about tough to pinpoint things, such as the "he/she 'just gets me'" unicorn-like thing that might seem to fit under compatibility, or "being on the same wavelength," whatever, exactly, that might mean?"

To elaborate, I actually think these fall under "short-term" compatibility. These are things you should ideally be experiencing within the first few dates (I won't say first date, because nerves can get in the way). Long-term compatibility is partially about agreeing on long-term goals, because you don't want, for example, one polyamorous partner and one monogamous partner, or one partner who wants kids and one partner who doesn't, or one partner who plans to move to Alaska in five years and one who refuses to ever leave California. But otherwise, long-term compatibility is something you build, not something you find. It happens after you've been with someone for months, for years, and grown together - created a life together. The short-term "this person just gets me" stuff is generally what drives two people toward creating a life together, because that's what makes it fun and exciting, but it's not a guarantee (see: the long-term goals stuff above).
posted by capricorn at 4:33 AM on February 26, 2016

Best answer: Most people have cohabitation and/or marriage as their relationship end goals. So you need someone that you don't just love, but also like, get along with, work well with, are comfortable with. This is someone who will see your rattiest underwear and smell your morning death breath. Someone you'll shop for mattresses and do the laundry with, and one of you will inevitably shrink the other's favorite sweater.

All of that is a sort of spark, a deep connection that can't really be quantified, but it's not the sexy romantic type of spark. You want a soulmate, sure, but practically speaking you also want a good teammate and roommate.

You can't suss this out from a questionnaire or a list of desired traits, and you usually can't figure this out on the first date. It comes up later, and it's not easy to find. The most important thing you can do is prepare yourself to be this kind of person - this is what "be the person you want to marry" means. Learn how to communicate and resolve conflicts well, have your shit together as best you can, and pay attention to the snags you encounter with the person you're dating, even if they're not a big deal at first: do you feel like you can ask them for what you want? Do you feel like they listen to you and understand you? A relationship is between two people, and you both have to make an effort to be good partners.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:46 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: i've been with the same person for over 20 years. what i think might be interesting to your question is that she's from a different culture to me. so we are "not the same" in a huge number of areas - very basic, important things like how you expect other people to behave. we don't even enjoy doing the same things much of the time.

in our case, at least, an awful lot has come down to a sheer bloodyminded refusal to give up, a willingness to talk things out, and a lot of (slowly won) self-awareness. although we do agree on money (we're both, well, somewhat frugal), children (lack of), and share a similar academic background.

so from our experience i would say that with a few common areas and major commitment you can make things work. i don't think you need to be terribly "compatible" if you have (or can develop) the skills to handle the gaps.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:04 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

My wife doesn't have many of the traits I thought I would need for compatibility, and I think that's true for her as well.

For example, I'm not musical in the way that she is and that means there is this whole significant area of her life in which I won't ever play a big part. I just don't have the ear. We are intellectually compatible in the sense that we are both intelligent people who enjoy talking to each other and have similar levels of education, but we formally studied entirely different subjects and have different interests in our private reading. I've always focused on history, politics, economics, and law, and she's a music, math, science, and child development person. In addition to having different areas of focus, we also have very different styles intellectually. I work out my ideas by making arguments and seeing how they play out. I focus on distinctions. She tends to take in lots of information and arguments, slowly mull things over, and look for patterns.

The key is that we are attracted to each other, we do love spending time together, and we like who we are in our relationship. I'm kinder and more honest with her than We don't have as many common interests as I'd always thought would be necessary, but we do share the common endeavor of raising our children together and that's more than enough. We try to support and encourage each other's separate interests and enjoy teaching each other.

Given my experience, I'm skeptical of the effort to make a long list of traits. Obviously, mutual respect, kindness, treating each other well, and similar goals with regard to children and lifestyle are important, but I think just about everything else should come off the list. The whole reason for dating is to see if there is compatibility and I think you just have to try it out, and be willing to cut things off when there isn't.
posted by Area Man at 6:58 AM on February 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

When I was younger, I, too created the lists of "desired qualities" in a mate. All of that flew out the window when I went out in the world and you know, met actual living people. The person I am dating now would never have fit on my list, but he's actually really good for me in ways I could not have predicted. (For instance, I am an atheist. I thought "non-religious" was important on The List. Ended up dating a Jewish guy who is very mildly observant/agnostic. This actually works BETTER for my lifetime happiness because my family is Christian and this gives me more of a bridge to them. Never would have thought of that in my silly List!)

I also focused on shared interests a lot when I was younger, and sometimes way too much. Not just music, but this specific music, not just literature, but this specific literature...boy, let me tell you, that was a losing battle if there ever was one. About 90% of married couples do not have the same favorite book in my estimation. That seems really obvious in hindsight, but favorite books seemed really important when I was 20 for whatever reason. Now, I think interests are almost irrelevant. Character and values are way more important than shared interests.

Other than that, there are some boring statistically proven factors for long-term success, including both being over 25, similar levels of education, having some money in the bank, blah blah blah you can google this stuff.

Personally I think "attachment style" is largely bunk.

"Sparks" for me is a very loaded term that it helps to pull apart. I think a lot of people mean "really intense physical attraction" by it. I did not feel really intense physical attraction, or even much physical attraction, on my first 2 or 3 dates with boyfriend. I definitely got a few butterflies and nerves and was laughing and happy and felt a connection. But I wouldn't say "the sky opened up and I just Knew and felt like I was struck by lightning." However, our sex life is really good. I think like 90% of "sparks" basically translates to, do you want to have sex with each other and is it satisfying? And the answer is yes. So that covers "sparks" to my satisfaction.

As for "just getting each other" - this one really raises my ol' brows. This sounds like another thing I would have really wanted when I was like 17-23. I'm so alone, someone out there will Just Get ME, blah blah blah. I find this is, honestly, pretty unrealistic. Everyone has to communicate. Everyone had to compromise. These things are never easy. No one ever really "just gets" someone else, actually. If it feels like it, it's generally a temporary illusion.

As for not getting everything on the list- yep. You will get like 8/10 at best. Everything in life is compromise. Makes choices difficult. Makes life more interesting. There will be known flaws with basically anyone you find. You will learn to live with them, because of the good qualities.

As for "truly admiring" - I find I do truly admire boyfriend sometimes. And in an overall general sense, I feel he is a good, admirable person. Not all the time. Hard to truly admire someone you've seen in the grip of diarrhea, know all their flaws, etc. And I think that's actually healthier. "Truly admiring" someone too much leads to imbalance, unrealistic idealizing- bad, bad things. Should not hero-worship your mate.

The two things I really, really agree with you on are genuine kindness and a sense of humor. I hit the jackpot there. Never compromise on those two things. They will get you very far.
posted by quincunx at 7:21 AM on February 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I think you have to be careful about disqualifying people on the "shared interest" checklist. Obviously, there should be an esprit de corps - you don't want to be with someone who hates everything you love, but as long as you are capable of finding things to want to do together it doesn't actually matter what the things are, and they don't have to be forever, and it has to be okay if one person cools on it while the other continues to pursue it.

It's much more about how you do it rather than what you do, though when you first start dating it does help a lot if there's a number of intersections of interest, just to give you something to do.

I think the "how not what" stands for a lot of your items. I think the ultimate meaning of compatibility is how you deal together with the unexpected, unknown, change, crises, fantastic but completely unprepared-for opportunities. How do you deal with each other at your less-than-best? Do you take turns giving each other the pat on the back/push/hand up/help the other needs? Or do you turn on each other, put up roadblocks, compete and play dirty?

The best bits of my relationship with my husband are the places (and luckily there are many of them) where our Venn diagrams overlap enough but not too much. And some of those took/take no effort, which is the "just gets me" part, and there should be some quantity of that (be warned: it's almost always on the small stuff, not the big stuff), but you can't build an entire relationship on it either. You still have to show up and do work because a life together has a lot of moving parts, but it's much easier to do that with good team dynamics.

But I always warn people that relationships are a right time/right place deal too. You cannot manufacture a great relationship out of checklists and math alone. You have to be ready and in a good place with yourself and game for the adventure and not have mitigating circumstances, AND they do too, AND then there has to be those pieces that fit together and if any of those components aren't right...the fuse just never lights.

(And I think it is harder to get two people in the right place and time in most of your 20s than in any other stage of adulthood. Even if it doesn't happen to you, you will start seeing it happen to people around you more often by your/their very late 20s. People are just in too much flux until then.)

Like other people have said, some people mean "sex" when they say "spark" but for us spark was an energy, it was wind in our sails that we had not really experienced before, one that felt like we were going in the same direction, which was not really something I necessarily had with anyone else.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:31 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Commitment. You know the things that nurture the relationship, and you try to do them. You know the things that irritate, and you try to avoid them.

Personally, I think humans are a pair-bonding specie, and deep in our psyche is a switch. If it gets flipped, you are in for the long haul. Some couples get married without the pair bond; that can be trouble. Sometimes, only one partner has the pair bond; also trouble.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:16 AM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Compatibility is more about a lack of incompatibilities than a checklist of things.

Some (there are many more) possible incompatibilities: disagreement on whether to have children, disagreement on whether to practice a certain religion, wanting to live in very different ways and being unwilling to compromise, etc. There are other things that might be an incompatibility for you with some possible partners but not others, and you just have to try things out and see how they work. Different preferences for things like alone time and food can play out very differently depending on how people in the relationship handle them -- for example, if you are a vegetarian, people who eat meat have a whole range of how they do that from hunting their own venison and making jerky at home to eating meat a few times a month -- and you'll need to feel out what you're comfortable with and how much this person is willing to be accommodating of your own preferences.

I've been even questioning how badly I really need a partner to share my interests

Well, in general this is not something people have to share. It's going to knock a lot of people out of the running if you decide in advance that they have to share your interests. Read more here.

OTOH, if your interests are things that have a huge effect on your lifestyle like traveling permanently, living on and running a small farm, etc., then someone who has no interest in those things isn't going to be able to share your life. But if you like to camp out at SCA events a few times a year, play music with a band, or ride horses -- while it's nice to have a partner who likes to do these things with you, you'll find many people involved with these things who have partners who aren't.
posted by yohko at 10:32 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: - shared values (you're on the same page about the most important things to you)
- similar-enough-lifestyle (literally the way you live on a daily basis -- is it similar enough so that you both can be relatively comfortable and happy?)
- ability to compromise
- self-awareness
- commitment to taking care of one's self and personal growth
- multiple levels of attraction (can't just be intellectual, can't just be physical, can't just be humor.. you need several different kinds of things that pull you together)
- commitment when the going gets tough
- a sense of peace and calm when you're together (for the most part) -- while you definitely will get on each other's nerves at times and might drive each other crazy on occasion, for long term compatibility you need to feel good in each other's presence.
- mutual respect, admiration
- you bring out the best in each other but also can tolerate or at least cope with your/their "worst"
posted by Gray Skies at 10:35 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, some couples will talk about how they are very "compatible" when they mean sexually compatible, but don't want to share the details of how they are both into a certain fetish or something like that. So that can be one reason why people just say they are on the same wavelength and won't explain what it is that makes them compatible.
posted by yohko at 10:37 AM on February 26, 2016

To add to what the others have said, my husband and I tend to think of our compatibility in 3 key areas: 1) friendship, 2) romance and 3) sex. We believe being compatible in those areas makes our relationship great. We are best friends. We have many shared interests, and for the ones that aren't shared, we do take interest in each others hobbies and are supportive. We can talk about anything, including poop, sex, family issues, feelings, needs, boundaries, you name it. It's not like we don't fight, but when we do, we try to sort things out fairly and work to make things better constantly. We try to do things for each other and make each other feel special (this falls into the romance category). We also work on keeping our sex life fun. We respect each other and trust each other.

I used to have a list of attributes I wanted in a mate when I was younger, but honestly that just went out the window eventually. And funnily enough, with my husband, I knew after about 6 months of dating that this could actually work long-term and we could be lifetime partners.

Honestly, I think the friend part is where a lot of people miss the boat with their dating partners. They find someone who they have amazing sex with, but they aren't actually friends and can't talk about things. And then when the honeymoon phase is over, they are left wondering what's up. I have always found my boyfriends by being friends with them first - it's what has worked for me. To find a partner to have a long term relationship with you need to focus on more than the lust and sex aspect, otherwise it just falls apart, from my experience. The shared values part is also very important, as others stated upthread.
posted by FireFountain at 12:22 PM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also I forgot to add - when considering long-term partners, you need to basically consider if you can deal with the mundane aspects of life together. Life is basically a series of boring Wednesday's you know? It's not all roses and rainbows and excitement. If you are happy to just be together, and go through life's mundane and boring shit together, like doing laundry, going food shopping, doing chores, cleaning the house etc. - then you stand a better chance as a couple. For example - I actually enjoy doing laundry with my husband. That might sound dumb, but we just have fun whenever we are together. Anyway, just some more food for thought.
posted by FireFountain at 12:27 PM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: from a long-divorced observer - two constants I've observed in healthy marriages are: that both partners are on roughly the same intelligence level, or that one of them is a natural caregiver; and that at point of commitment, each is "ready [ripe] for a lasting relationship." Readiness seems to be really hard to self-evaluate, but is more a matter of having settled in to one's self, rather than wishful thinking or pragmatism. Also, fighting the right way - see Pepper Schwartz's studies of this.
posted by mmiddle at 4:15 PM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think you're correct in identifying the problem -- you often don't know a lot about someone until you've known them for a while. For example, you probably have a very good idea of what your family members are really like, because you've had so many experiences with them over the years.

But it's probably not realistic to spend years getting to know someone just to find out if they're a compatible long-term romantic partner for you. Dating doesn't work that way. So instead we often go off reputation. Any time someone tried to set you up with their friend and you agreed to at least meet the guy, that was reputation working to his favor. And of course more traditionally there have been "matchmaker" services and arranged marriages that function on sort of the same principle.

You also can identify certain behaviors or trends that can be indicative of a person's character. For me, one key thing is how someone treats me when I'm really, really sick. This ended up being a red flag for an ex and it's something I really value in a good friend.

It's also worth noting that a long-term relationship is in many ways a financial relationship. You'll inevitably end up sharing finances, an apartment lease, splitting bills, etc. So it's important that you have compatible ideas about spending and saving money. This sounds tacky but it's really practical. If you're hung-ho about early retirement and your partner doesn't even know what a 401k is, you're going to have major problems. Money wrecks a lot of otherwise salvageable relationships.
posted by deathpanels at 7:04 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for your thoughts!
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 7:59 PM on February 27, 2016

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