How the compatibility myth is harming modern relationships

Paisley Gilmour
·6-min read

From Cosmopolitan

“We got on really well, but he’s vegan and doesn’t drink. And I just didn’t feel a spark, so it could never work,” my friend said wearily, after another unsuccessful first date. “We’re clearly not compatible.”

For anyone hoping to find a long-term partner, compatibility is a familiar concept. From date one you search for clues as to whether this person is “right” for you – someone who likes the same obscure films, also spends their weekends hiking in the countryside, has the same political leanings and who could give you a run for your money as life and soul of the party. It’s been drilled into us that “The One” exists; that there’s one person out there who can fulfil our every need, tick every box and be our best mate, lover and co-parent. And how will we know when we’ve met this person? We’ll just know because we’ll feel undeniable “chemistry”.

But these assumptions about what constitutes romantic compatibility might not be the best basis upon which to decide whether a relationship gets the green light. They’re based on tired old myths and a (monogamous) relationship model we’ve been sold since the dawn of time by romantic comedies and love songs. With so many of us never making it to a second date, and the number of marriages gradually decreasing, could it be time to have a rethink about what romantic compatibility actually is?

Photo credit: Nick David
Photo credit: Nick David

Myth 1: You need to have common interests

Liking the same things isn’t actually important for long-term compatibility.“Having the same interests can be superficial and boring,” says Geneviève Zawada-Gresset, a matchmaker on Channel 4’s Married At First Sight. “If you’re in each other’s pockets all the time it can be suffocating,” she adds.

Simone Bose, a relationship counsellor for Relate, agrees that it’s healthy to have separate hobbies. “As long as there are one or two things you like doing together, having common interests really doesn’t matter,” she says. Compatibility is more about respecting each other’s passions and giving each other the space to enjoy them.

Myth 2: You should be similar

Compatibility is often mistaken for similarity, but you can have different personalities and still be compatible. “You could be bubbly and your partner could be less sociable. That doesn’t matter as long as you complement and grow through each other – with them becoming a bit more sociable through you, and you learning to have quieter times,” Bose says. Ultimately, what matters is being your authentic self. “You must be accepted by your partner without them wanting to change you, and vice versa,”she adds. “If you feel self-conscious or stupid around them, or fear they’ll laugh at you, something’s not right.”

Photo credit: ljubaphoto
Photo credit: ljubaphoto

Myth 3: You must share the same politics

No, you don’t need to see eye to eye on politics and religion (as long as you’re not clashing every time you talk about Brexit). Your basic, core values are what actually matter. “These include your ideas about family, how you live your life, what you spend your money on and how you treat people,” Bose explains. Zawada-Gresset adds that for true compatibility, your goals should also be aligned. “If you’ve got someone highly ambitious and somebody who’s not at all, that can be a turn-off. Your ambition levels have to match.”

Myth 4: It's all about chemistry

It’s time for us to stop searching for “chemistry”. According to Dr Amir Levine, a neuroscientist, therapist and author of Attached, that so-called “spark” is just “a biological system based on attraction and not compatibility”. Furthermore, using chemistry to gauge whether or not someone is right for you long-term is “super risky”, according to Dr Meg-John Barker, an academic psychologist and author of The Psychology Of Sex. “For a while, those big chemical responses shut off fear, shame and difficult feelings. We have that ‘in love’ period, which feels safe and exciting. That’s partially because our survival responses are tuned right down,” they explain. It’s when that period ends that the issues arise. “It becomes a lust-led thing and doesn’t last,” Zawada-Gresset says. Attraction can grow over time,
so that initial “spark” isn’t important. Instead, strong friendship is a solid base for healthy, long-term relationships.

Photo credit: Renell Medrano / Refinery29 for Getty Images
Photo credit: Renell Medrano / Refinery29 for Getty Images

How to find someone truly compatible

Rethink the relationship model

Dr Barker says you must figure out what a romantic relationship means for you. The current model assumes our partner should be everything to us. But, Dr Barker says, no one person could ever fulfil all those needs and expectations. For example, it’s OK if certain friendships fulfil needs that your romantic relationship doesn’t. Another answer? Either decide which elements are dealbreakers and which you’re willing to compromise on, or consider alternative relationship models like non-monogamy.

“With one person you could be sexually compatible and love doing the same stuff, so they could be the person you go to museums with and have sex with. There could be another person you cohabit with, and with whom you have very similar life goals. If we could let go of all the myths about the kind of relationships we should be having, then we could have these amazing relationships where different needs are met by different people.”

Photo credit: Kevin Kozicki
Photo credit: Kevin Kozicki

Take it slowly

Unlike “chemistry”, compatibility isn’t immediately apparent. This is why the experts say you need to take your time to get to know someone. Zawada-Gresset has a three-date rule for her clients, and believes it takes at least that long to know if you could be compatible. “Sometimes people are judgemental and overly analytical. They look for the imperfections and reasons not to date someone. I’ve seen so many clients wash their hands of someone after the first date. And by the third date, they’re ready to propose.”

As Dr Barker points out, slowing things down can be hard because we have to dismantle a whole way of conducting relationships that has been instilled in us by popular culture. “This might sound like a radical suggestion, but I wouldn’t start an erotic or a romantic relationship or cohabit with someone after less than a year of knowing them. The best thing you can do is form a friendship first.”

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