True Compatibility Isn't Found, But Forged

“What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.” — Leo Tolstoy


“So what’s your Myers Briggs type,” she asked. I was on a first date, in the middle of getting a “compatibility rundown,” that barrage of questions that the other person asks when they’re trying to judge whether you’re compatible or not. While questions are usually good things, her rapid-fire probes, “In what ways are you not normal?” and “How long do you see yourself in New York?” betrayed a deeper purpose: she wanted to figure out ASAP if I fit what she was looking for.

Compatibility, and our search for it, has become a major theme in today’s dating and marriage culture. Young people everywhere are searching for the most compatible person, hoping when they find them that they’ll get the marriage of their dreams. In our hunt for compatibility, we use our lives and interests as the standard, and then compare every other person’s personality against our own.

I used to think that if I just looked hard and long enough, eventually I would find the “right person,” that perfectly compatible person who matched up with me in every way. But as I dated in my twenties, I could never find one person who fit everything I was looking for. Eventually, I realized I had it all wrong: compatibility is not a precondition for a great marriage, but rather the result of one.

so what is compatibility?

When we set out to find someone compatible to marry, what are we looking for? Generally, our search for compatibility revolves around trying to find someone who has as many things in common with us as possible. We want them to have similar interests, attitudes, and goals for life. In short, we’re look for someone as much the same, or at least similar, as possible.

As we get to know someone, our interest in compatibility causes us to cling onto any bit of information self-disclosed by the other person, trying to figure out if they would be a good fit for us. If we have a lot in common we get excited, and if not, we grow doubtful about whether things could work out. While everyone differs, most young people look for compatibility in the following areas:

  • Personality compatibility: Do you agree on everything, and are they easy and exciting to be around?

  • Physical compatibility: Are you sexually attracted to them, and does their appearance fit how you want to be perceived?

  • Lifestyle compatibility: Do you relax, travel, and spend your free time in the same way.

  • Financial compatibility: Will you make enough money together to support your desired standard of living?

  • Background compatibility: Are you from the same kind of family, and did you have similar childhood, high school, and college experiences?

  • Interest and hobby compatibility: Do you like the same restaurants, music, TV shows, movies, etc.?

  • Aspirational compatibility: Do you both aspire to the same type of life and career success?

And so we spend our twenties searching for a compatible person, believing that somewhere out there is a perfect person who will seamlessly fit into our current lives. We meet, date, and get to know lots of people, hoping to find someone who checks off all of these boxes.

why is compatibility so important?

For most young people, after romantic love, compatibility is the most important thing they look for in a future spouse. But why? Because we all believe in the compatibility myth:

If you find someone perfectly compatible with you, then your marriage will be easy and you’ll never have to change.

While no one ever tells us this, we soak it up from our general culture, and hope that if we play by its rule we’ll the results we want. So what is it we’re looking to compatibility to get us?

  • We think our marriage will be easy: We all know that marriage can be hard, so we hope that if we are completely compatible with our spouse, then we can avoid the tension, conflict, and fights that will make married couples unhappy and lead to divorce. We think a compatible marriage will be easy and never require much in the way of maintenance.

  • If we find a compatible spouse, we’ll never have to change: As many of us get married at an older age than previously, we’ve had more time to develop our own preferred lifestyle, habits, and preferences. We hope that if we find a completely compatible spouse we’ll never have to change or be told that we’re wrong. We want to be reaffirmed that we’re already doing everything well, and are looking for someone to do that.

This ideal of the “perfectly compatibility couple” promises an easy and effortless marriage where your spouse always understands you and never makes you change. If you can just find this perfect person, you’ll be in marital paradise, and can expect a life of uninterrupted happiness.

why is it so hard to find compatibility?

Despite our desire to find this perfectly compatible spouse, it’s becoming harder and harder to do. Why? Because of something called Expressive Individualism, our society’s dominant, yet unknown, personal belief. Sociologist Robert Bellah, who coined the phrase, says expressive individualism is the belief that every person has a unique core of feelings and intuition that needs to be expressed if you want to realize your individuality. Expressive individualism tells you that if you want to reach your full potential, you need to focus on being true to your authentic self and expressing your inner thoughts, feelings, and desires.

Because of expressive individualism, we’ve all been encouraged to pursue interests, activities, and personalities that express our unique inner personalities. And so we use clothes, lifestyles, jobs, vacations, and social media profiles to show our authentic and unique individuality; that we’re different in all the right ways. The worst thing you could ever do in a society like ours is conform.

the compatibility paradox

While expressive individualism makes for innovative products and intriguing personalities, it creates a major problem when we try to find a perfectly compatible spouse. How does someone cultivate absolute authenticity, self-expression, uniqueness, and freedom from all constraints, while ever finding someone who is compatible with them? This desire to maintain self-expression while finding a perfectly compatible spouse creates a unique paradox: you have to find another person who’s different and unique in all the same ways as you.

As we search for this paradoxical person, we’re stuck between competing tensions: we want both freedom and intimacy at the same time. We want the complete freedom to always choose how we want to be our authentic self, while also having the breadth of shared experience that intimacy requires. And so we chase after absolute compatibility, thinking if they are the exact same as us, then we can get both the freedom to be unique, and the intimacy that tells us we’re not alone.

As we search for this paradoxical person, we’re stuck between competing tensions: we want the complete freedom to be always be our authentic self, but we also want some to connect with and share life together. We want freedom and intimacy at the same time, and the only way we can think of to get both is absolute compatibility on everything. If they aren’t compatible, we’re afraid we’ll not only have a hard and frustrating marriage, but we’ll also have to suppress our prized individuality.

These two simultaneous desires causes us to look for a clone instead of a spouse. If we find someone exactly like us in every way, we hope we’ll get the intimacy we’re starved for, yet not lose any of our self-expressive freedom. This search for our clone causes us to evaluate, and usually reject, each other on the tiniest things: if they were an unfashionable brand, like the wrong band, or have an unrefined Instagram style.

how you find “compatibility”

Due to the difficulty of finding this perfectly compatible person, we often settle for what I call “confirmation bias compatibility.” Confirmation bias happens when we are assemble the facts in a biased way to confirm the narrative we want. When we practice confirmation bias compatibility, we first choose who we want to date, and then find the facts to justify why we think we’re compatible with them.

This is why every young person magically finds themselves with any person they’re really attracted to. You want that relationship to happen, so you pick 3-5 things you both agree on or have in common and pronounce that you’re compatible. “Wow, you like traveling, eating out, and want to be successful at your career? We’re like the same person!” And so on the strength of just a few usually common similarities, we block out the other 4,732 things you either disagree on or do differently.

Meanwhile, if you’re not interested in dating someone, you’re always able to find 3-5 ways to prove you’re incompatible, regardless of the actual fit. “Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to work,” we think to ourselves about someone we don’t find as attractive. “We’re from opposite parts of the country, they’re too into football, and they don’t even enjoy skiing....we’re just too different.” And so we pass on the relationship, relieved we’re not compatible. Whew.

Because of confirmation bias, what often gets termed “compatibility,” is just finding someone who’s cool, good-looking, and goes to church, and then lying to yourself about how good of a fit you are. This whole process allows us to save face to ourselves; of course I’m not a superficial person who only judges someone on their looks, I’m just more compatible with this person than that one.

why you can’t find true compatibility

Because you’ll never fully know the person you’re dating until you’re marriage, confirmation bias compatibility can take you through the wedding day and into your marriage. Eventually, though, every married couple realizes they didn’t are married to the person they thought they married. The differences you overlooked, or never thought to discuss, while dating now come to the forefront.

Once married, the couple is not only involved in the tiniest details of each other’s lives, but they’ve also stopped performing. When this happens, you’ll begin to see for how differently your spouse approaches life. You’re now married to someone who puts the dish drainer on the wrong side of the sink, has no clue how to set the table correctly, and quietly introduced some terrible new way to store the plastic grocery bags, disregarding your obviously superior system. Not to mention their toast and butter etiquette, which could only be described as Neanderthalian. This person, who just a few short months early was absolutely perfect, is now on a mission from God to drive you crazy!

No matter how compatible you think you are before getting married, every couple will have times where they feel deeply incompatible with each other. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way:

The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is...learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Our desire to find a perfectly compatible spouse is impossible, not because you haven’t looked hard enough, but rather because they don’t exist. Most couples, though, surprised at how different they are, grow discouraged when they hit their incompatibilities, whether small or large. Many couples, who while dating created a narrative of perfective compatibility, now switch the narrative, emphasizing how different they are: maybe I did marry the wrong person?

These questions happen because we’re all flawed and have weaknesses, shortcomings, and inconsistencies, which naturally cause friction, frustration, and feelings of incompatibility between any two people. At the root of these feelings of incompatibility, though, are two things: pride and self-centeredness. Each person both thinks they know best, and that they’re desires should be met first.

Does this mean you just give up on finding a good fit and marry whomever? Tim Keller answers this question this way: “Everyone’s a bad fit for you, but some are worse than others.” Every person in incompatible with you, but avoid the ones who are really incompatible with you. Here’s the key takeaway: choosing someone to married is not about searching through all of the flawed people to find a perfect one, but rather choosing which flawed person and their problems you want to be married to.

what should you look for then?

So how then do you figure out who is less wrong for you? To do this, stop looking for a perfectly compatible person, and instead find someone with whom you can build a strong partnership. A great partnership isn’t based on perfect compatibility, but rather two crucial things: shared values and complementary personalities.

When you’d look to get married, begin by finding someone with the same foundational values. Ask yourself: does this person share my deepest values and perspectives towards life? If you’re a Christian, is the other person pursuing their relationship with God and using the Bible as their highest authority in life?

This is what God means when He tells us not to be unequally yoked: don’t enter into a lifelong partnership with someone who doesn’t share the same foundational values as you do. If a marriage is two people building a life together, if they’re each using a completely different set of blueprints the project will be a disaster.

On top of your faith, you should have be united on a common approach to how you want to live life. When I was 25, I felt God was leading me to move to New York City. The girl I was dating, however, felt like God had best equipped her to live in the Midwestern suburb she grew up in. While we were united on a lot of foundational things, as we talked, we realized our lives were going in opposite directions, so we eventually broke up. Great partnerships share not just a commitment to Christ, but also a common view for your life and future.

At the same time, a great partnership takes more than just unity; you also need to have complementary personalities, abilities, and gifts. Find someone whose personality and gifting complements yours, bringing out the best in each other. Think of every person like a musical instrument, with a different sound, range, and capabilities. The best duets don’t happen when the instruments are either exactly the same or completely opposite, but when their sound and style complement each other, creating beautiful harmonies.

As you look apply this to dating and relationships, don’t evaluate someone by asking, “Who is exactly like me?” Instead, start with, “Are we both committed to Christ, and do we share the same values?” If that’s a yes, then look for the person whose natural personality and giftings complements yours and makes both of you better together.

the path to true compatibility

But even if you find someone and have a great partnership with them, you’ll still have times when you frustrate, offend, and hurt each other. In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul writes about how people with different personalities and gifts get into close relationships, there will always be incompatibilities. But he gives a way forward, writing:

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body...grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

When you feel incompatible in your marriage, you’ll be tempted to throw up your hands and walk away, convince you’re just too different. But in this verse, Paul tells you that the only path to true compatibility is to speak the truth in love, helping each other grow to become more and more like Christ. Real compatibility isn’t found, but forged over time, as each spouse does the hard and uncomfortable work of graciously confronting and confessing sin, leading to forgiveness and and reconciliation through Christ.

So, as you look for someone to marry, don’t get caught up in trying to find some perfectly compatible person. Instead, look for someone who’s pursuing Jesus, complements your personality, and knows how to work through your inevitable differences with grace and kindness. Marriage doesn’t mean you’re the same, It just means your together.