Conflict Relationships

Are We Compatible? A Risky Question

The problem with the question, “Are we compatible?” is that if the answer is no, that can mean only one thing – the end of the relationship.

Are we even compatible? You may have wondered this about a romantic partner. Once the incompatibility thought has been planted, it can really start to take root. Any time a couple has a fundamental difference, one or both might think of that as an incompatibility. The problem with the question, “Are we compatible?” is that if the answer is no, that can mean only one thing – the end of the relationship.

Maybe the first time a couple fights about approaches to spending or communication, they just think of it as a conflict, but two or ten or twenty years later when they are still having the same fight, they think that if they cannot work out that issue, they must not be a good fit. Preeminent couples researcher John Gottman describes these seemingly incompatible areas of the relationship as perpetual problems. Perpetual problems plague every long-term relationship. In fact, Gottman found that even in the happiest, most successful couples, about two-thirds of their conflicts were reoccurring, even decades apart. 

Gottman found that when someone leaves their partner in search of a relationship that doesn’t have those perpetual problems, the person is likely to initially find what they are looking for. No more fights about spending, or cooking, or whatever. Whoo-hoo! However, it does not take long before different perpetual problems become apparent. Eventually, the person discovers things about the new partner that don’t quite mesh, perhaps differing ideas about politics or how much time to spend with friends. Pretty quick the new relationship is riddled with conflicts, approximately two-thirds of which are once again going to stick around for the duration. 

Instead of asking the question, “Are we compatible?”, couples that learn to manage perpetual problems in a way that both partners can live with is one of the keys to finding happiness in a relationship. Most of the time, conflicts about perpetual problems are not resolved to the delight of both partners. However, there is usually a workable compromise when both partners feel somewhat understood and valued.

So, are committed romantic relationships ever incompatible? Yes! Here are some examples of relationships where the partners are not, in my opinion, compatible. 

  • One partner wants to be a parent more than anything and the other partner refuses to ever have kids.  
  • One partner is committed to viewing pornography and the other partner concludes that is not something they can tolerate.
  • One partner (or both) are abusive. [People can change abusive behaviours, but the partnership is incompatible until the abusive partner has done some extensive work to modify behaviour patterns.]

If reading this is causing you to rethink compatibility and you would like to work on some of those perpetual problems, what can you do? Gottman couples counselling might be a great fit. Beyond that, invest your time and energy into the parts of the relationship where you feel most compatible with your partner. Odds are the differences will feel a lot less important. At least, that is what Gottman found in his research.

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