What I wish I had known about compatibility

by Kristin on October 28, 2009

in Love, family & community

Photo by Robert Lowe

A friend recently told me she thinks her marriage is over.

These stories always really sadden me, but I felt the effects of this tale deep in the pit of my stomach. As she described the state of her marriage, I felt like she was talking about the marriage I was in a decade ago.

I haven’t written much about that marriage, or what went wrong, for a number of reasons. It’s not that it’s some big secretive drama—it’s just that I feel called to focus on the redemptive, new creation that arose out of the mess more than I feel called to tell about the cumulative unhappiness that fed the mess.

It’s also true that these things are very complicated, and to try to explain what led to a marriage’s demise is almost always to oversimplify it, leaving out many important details, nuances and perspectives.

There’s much to be learned from looking back, though, and much we can learn from one another’s mistakes. As I listened to my friend share her struggle, I realized that what was at the heart of my unhealthy marriage is perhaps more common than I thought. Maybe it’s a story that needs to be told. Maybe it can help someone, somehow.

I don’t know what to tell my friend or anyone who’s in a marriage that seems unfixable. That’s always hard, and always a case-by-case matter.

But to anyone who isn’t yet in a marriage or long-term committed relationship, I will say this: Make sure you know yourself and your partner knows him/herself. Make sure you can each answer these types of questions for yourself, and then talk through how the similarities or differences in your responses might play out in a lifelong commitment.

- I feel content and most fully like the person I was meant to be when I am_______________. (This can and should become a list of many things, in the spirit of the Love List.)

- When I am in need of energy, ideas and a sense of joy, I turn to________________.

- When I am stressed, confused, sad, angry, or faced with a difficult decision, turning to _________________ helps most.

- I feel most loved by others when they __________________. (This question is inspired by the wise-but-cheesy book “The Five Love Languages,” which I’ve written about before, here.)

Now that I think of it, if you are already in a marriage or relationship that you consider to be for life, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to ask these same questions of yourselves and then talk about them together. The ultimate downfall of my first marriage was our fundamental lack of compatibility, but if we had each developed a greater understanding of the other’s perspective and needs, it would have gone a long way.

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  • http://www.flirtingwithfaith.com Joan Ball

    I had a conversation with one of my undergraduate students last week. She is Aremenian-American and in her culture, even in the US, there are many arranged marriages. I asked her if her marriage had been arranged. She told me that hers had not, but she had two older sisters. One had an arranged marriage and the other did not. This is NYC 2009. The one with the arranged marriage has been married for 13 years with three children. They are reportedly happy. The other chose her husband and is divorced.

    This to say, while assessments are fine, I believe that, no matter how people answer these kinds of questions or perceive themselves to be, it is nearly impossible for people to really know what they are made of and how able/ready they are to commit to a lifelong marriage no matter what until the chips are down. No one can predict their reaction when faced with a sick child or other calamity. No one can predict their reaction when their spouses reaction is not what they expected. All of the assessment in the world still leaves commitment of one growing, changing, evolving human being to another growing, evolving human being. Talk about uncertainty.

  • http://passionistablogs.com Passionista

    Thanks for this post. Really makes me evaluate the situation I am in. Truthfully I don’t think either of us have found ourselves, but I know I can answer these questions, not sure if he can.

  • A

    Joan — re: the arranged marriage issue. I am Indian and arranged marriages are widely prevalent there as well. Mine was not arranged, and I am still happily married. I agree that to an extent nobody can predict what will happen, but it’s been my experience that expectations have a lot to do with it. In an arranged marriage situation, the expectations are completely different from the start — the emphasis is more on the social aspects of the marriage, including the family aspects of it, and less on the two people involved and their feelings for each other alone. Also, usually, the matches are made between people of similar backgrounds and economic status so a lot of the issues arising form that sort of thing are completely eliminated…. and I have to say, from what I have seen, it works more often than not..

  • http://www.writeplayrepeat.com Juliana

    Great questions, thank you for posting this. I think one of the most important things in a relationship is to know what you need when you’re stressed out. So much of the fighting I’ve seen in the marriages/ long term relationships of people I know seems to stem from one partner thinking they are giving the other what they need, when really they are adding to their stress. If people can’t articulate how they need to recover from stressful situations, they can’t expect that need to be met.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Joan, I hear what you’re saying about how “it is nearly impossible for people to really know what they are made of and how able/ready they are to commit to a lifelong marriage no matter what until the chips are down.” Clearly I’ve been through a really difficult time in my life with my divorce, but I haven’t gone through something traumatic *with* a spouse—I can’t imagine how that would play out. What I do know, though, is that asking the sort of questions I’ve posed in my blog helps me think through important aspects of compatibility (beyond whether we like the same kind of music and vote for the same political party, which is how I evaluated compatibility at 20). I also know that now being married to someone I’m very compatible with on that level makes going through stressful and difficult times together much easier.

    Passionista, I’m glad you’re evaluating! That’s something I was too afraid to really do when I was dating my first husband. I took the ignorance is bliss approach. Regarding finding yourself, I know I haven’t really “found” myself yet, either. It’s a lifelong journey, not a place you suddenly arrive at one day. I guess by saying “make sure you know yourself,” I should have added “as best as you can in that moment.” If we waited to fully know ourselves no one would ever get married!

    A, that’s a great point about arranged marriages. I’m sure there are some amazing matches that just magically fall into place, but in the big picture, expectations must play a huge role. So arranged marriages often “work” beautifully, but for different reasons and on a different scale than I might be using to evaluate my marriage.

    Juliana, yes! What do I need when I’m stressed, etc. As a child, I became very accustomed to how my mom responded. She’s great at taking the time to really listen and empathize, although at the time I didn’t put that together—she was just my mom. That’s still what I need today, someone to just be with me, listen to me, and communicate that they get how I’m feeling. I don’t need someone to solve all of my problems, and I certainly don’t need someone to leave me alone. (Not only did I never articulate this to my first husband, but I’m not sure he was “wired” to respond in the way I needed.)

  • http://theboldlife.com Tess The Bold Life

    I got married when I was 17 and pregnant and then gave birth to 4 daughters by the time I was 22 years old. That was nearly 38 years ago and we’re still together and happy.

    My advise is get to know yourself first. Get into therapy and figure out your own issues because you’ll be projecting all onto your partner and will think it is him.

    We got into therapy when I was 27 and didn’t quit until our issues were solved. Then we went back for check ups!
    I think when both people are open minded about owning their stuff and willing to say I need help or I am wrong it goes a long way to making the relationship work.

  • http://www.jenx67.com jen

    such wise questions from one who knows. i talk a lot about marriage with my daughter. i think i’m going to show her this.

  • http://www.sarahealy.com Sara

    Kristin — Love and marriage are such difficult topics, yet I think you really hit the nail on the head when you spoke of compatibility. That being said, an arranged marriage as “A” pointed out may be compatible if the couple agree on the reasons for the arranged marriage.

    I think what both you and Tess said is important too. You need to know who you are and what’s important to you in order to figure out compatibility. I was married for 29 years to a great man, but we weren’t compatible. On the other hand, when we got married, I didn’t a clue who I was or what I wanted. I was so young.

    I never thought I’d say this, but I think pre-marriage courses could be good thing, especially for young couples. I’m not talking about the ones that only focus on religion, but rather those that help a couple explore their values. I believe knowing your values and your partner’s values help make a more successful relationship.

    Great thought provoking post, Kristin:~)

  • http://www.etherealjoy.blogspot.com Joy

    Very thoughtful post. Like you–and for similar reasons– I don’t write about the failure of my marriage either. All of the good memories and lessons learned are a huge part of who I am today. Your questions are very necessary in any relationship. I think compatibility is tough in our current world because first you have to honestly know and love yourself so you can share authentically with someone else. Today honest and authentic sometimes seem to be laughed upon rather than revered. Love is amazingly beautiful and wonderful and magnifies life’s blessings tremendously but there are so many ‘issues” surrounding it, many people are almost too afraid to experience it. Requires a vulnerability we are sometimes afraid to stand in (I say we, because admittedly my fears and insecurities still factor in at times!). Thank you for giving us material to ponder:)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Tess, your story is one to be proud of, because I imagine your circumstances brought more than the average number of challenges, which required extra work to overcome. I’m a fan of therapy—personal and couples—and only wish that I had gone much sooner. The tendency is to wait until things are really bad. Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow, as a society, do away with the stigma of therapy?

    jen, I know I ponder these issues much more than I otherwise would *because* I have daughters. I, like you, am constantly trying to think through how I can transfer what I’ve learned along the way to them. I know I can’t completely protect them from pain and heartache, but I think lots of open discussions can go a long way.

    Sarah, what’s difficult about love and marriage, in terms of talking and writing about it, is the wide range of experiences, circumstances and personalities involved. Each relationship seems so unique that it’s difficult to find a universally helpful approach. Promoting pre-marriage courses with a slightly different focus than the usual is a great idea. And they should be taught by teams of people—some who are in solid marriages and others who have been through a divorce.

    Joy, I’m so glad you brought this discussion into the context of our current times. Culturally, things really have changed a lot, and they affect how we relate—some for the better, some for the worse. This point that you made rings true to me, particularly for teens and college age kids in certain circles: “Today honest and authentic sometimes seem to be laughed upon rather than revered.” I wonder how we can help shift that trend, beyond just trying to raise honest, authentic kids (which is certainly a great start).

  • http://adventures-in-the-everyday.blogspot.com/ Michelle

    Kristin– Thank you. As someone who is single and hopes to me married one day, sometimes I feel envious or left out when it seems that most of my friends are all married. But I appreciate your honesty and perspective–your questions and thoughts remind me that it is worth waiting for. I am going to save this post and make sure that I can whole-heartedly and individually answer these questions before I enter into a committed relationship with someone else : ) Thanks!

  • http://www.CreativeGuideToLife.com Susan

    I think I got incredibly lucky. A friend of mine died 2 weeks after I met my husband, and my uncle died 2 weeks after that. I was at a lot of funerals and in a lot of pain. My husband basically told me to take as much time as I needed and that he wanted to stick it out and be there for me. It gave me time to be raw and let go of a lot of issues I had with emotional intimacy. Interesting, that those experiences weren’t the hardest in our relationship. It was going on a 2.5 month road trip, after we’d already been in Europe for 3 weeks before that. Lots of family drama and enormous life decisions ensued. But at the end of the day, I’ve realized we’ve had money and been broke, had successes and failures, had family chaos and celebrations, were lost and had direction — and at the end of the day he’s the only one I need by my side. I always tell my friends that you need to learn how to productively argue and not hold grudges, just as much as learning to accept love.

    Oh, did I mention we also work 10 feet away from each other? :-) That’s not always easy either, but has its rewards.