“For nobody else, gave me a thrill – with all your faults, I love you still. It had to be you, wonderful you, it had to be you” — “It Had To Be You” by the immortal Frank Sinatra
This has been one of my favorite songs for some time. I imagined dancing to it at my wedding. The lyrics have a great tongue-in-cheek element. It isn’t the most romantic of love songs, as he basically sings, “You are a pain in the ass, but there was no one for me but you.”
So what makes two people work in a relationship? With a staggering divorce rate, an increasing number of couples who choose cohabitation over marriage, and the rise of niche online dating websites, it feels like it is an impossible task to find a person to grow old with.
As I find myself at the end of another relationship, I can’t help but think about the beginning. As John Smith says in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (‘Cause I like to keep things highbrow) “I guess that’s what happens in the end, you start thinking about the beginning.” I’m not just thinking about the beginning of this one, but about the beginning of everyone. Why was I drawn to that person? Why did it not work? Were we not compatible enough?
My most recent ex-boyfriend and I had chemistry, but did we have compatibility? We never got the chance to find out, but for this blog’s sake, let’s say we did have the chance to discover our levels of compatibility. What might we have unearthed? Would my lack of outdoorsiness have really turned him off to me? Would his lack of romantic gestures and chivalrous behavior start to wear on me? Perhaps chemistry would only have carried us so far.
Chemistry and compatibility – how exactly are they defined?
Let’s start with chemistry. We have all been there. You walk into a room, you scan the crowd, lock eyes with an attractive individual, and then shazam- chemistry begins to simmer. If you’re lucky it will continue to heat into a rapid boil, and where that goes is beyond the realms of this column.
Whether you are looking for a one night stand, or desire something long-term, most people would agree that there needs to be the element of chemistry, some level of sparkage that draws you two together. It could be purely physical, or it could be something that develops after you get to know someone better. I have experienced both kinds of chemistry: the instant gratification from seeing a person who fits my physical preferences, and also the kind of chemistry that is slower to develop. There have been men with whom I had no initial physical attraction, but I was so drawn to their personality that attraction developed nonetheless. Chemistry is the primal draw that sometimes cannot be put into words.
Compatibility is different. According to the dictionary, compatibility is “existing without conflict, harmonious, well-suited, consistent with one-another.”
In my 20s, compatibility meant perfection. If you had asked me what I was looking for a man, I would have answered with things like:
- Attractive- preferably tall, dark, and handsome.
- Likes the same things as me
- Someone with whom it is easy to be in a relationship
- That perfect feeling that I have found “The One”
As I grew older and wiser, I learned that those are, for the most part, superficial and unrealistic expectations in a partner. While I do want honesty, trustworthy, smart, funny, and attractive, I’ve learned that A) more specifics are needed and B) there are far more important things than what he looks like and whether or not we share all the same likes and dislikes.
In my 30s, I now answer this question as follows
- Share a similar sense of humor
- Share similar religious and political views
- Have enough in common to sustain lasting and engaging conversation
- Have our own interests
- Wants children and has the same ideas on how to raise children
- Handles conflict well, does not shut down, maintains open conversation
- Likes my family, or at least is willing to hang out with them occasionally
- Takes opportunities to make me feel special and beautiful
- Compatible sexually- understands the concept and importance of foreplay and doesn’t shortchange me, and also listens to what I want him to do
- Attractive in his own way, and has a somewhat healthy lifestyle
- Challenges and supports me to be better, do more, and find success
- Puts up with my bullshit
- I can put up with his bullshit
- Works through our bullshit together
- And together, we will ride off into the sunset with our bullshit
Okay, perhaps I should strike the last one off the list, because the older I get, the more I understand that there is no golden sunset into which we can ride and disappear. Real life happens daily. It is unavoidable, it is inconvenient, and it has the ability to wreck your plans.
The things I listed above mostly fall into the compatibility category, except for the bullet about sex. Take out sexual attraction and chemistry, and these are all things I share with my best friend, who happens to be male. I need all fingers and toes to count the times people have asked me “When are you two going to get together? You are perfect for each other.”
I always tell them the same thing, “I just don’t see him that way.” Chemistry is the missing link in our relationship. I don’t feel a spark when he walks into a room. I can’t imagine being romantic or sexual with him for even a minute without feeling a little weird. But I think he is the most wonderful man in so many different ways, despite that all-important shazam being absent.
Yet, I seem to find shazam with men that, perhaps, I should not touch with a 39-½ foot pole. So when it comes to chemistry versus compatibility in romantic relationships, how important is one or the other, what balance is needed to sustain a relationship, and is this something that can be worked on by both parties, or is it either just there or not there? I did some research and interviewing to find out.
I’m going to start with the people in my life who answered my question:
“I think they can both survive in the short-term, but I feel like both are required in order to sustain a good relationship. Everyone’s needs are slightly different. I think some couples who are really compatible can do with less chemistry, whereas others can’t. I think a relationship can happen when people aren’t compatible, it just might not be the most fulfilling for them, even if the chemistry is there.” –MM, 30s, married eight years, no kids
“After 35+ years with my man I find that I love him more today than yesterday. A deep sustainable love. But…. This has grown due to our compatibility and common likes and dislikes. Lots of disagreements, arguments and trust is involved for that foundation. It’s like a garden. You tend to all of it, or it dies.” –NO, 50s, married over 35 years, no kids
“It can be incredibly hard to sustain happiness if compatibility isn’t stronger than the chemistry, because in the long run you want to end up with someone who respects your needs and/or shares the same viewpoint… and that creates the deepening of the relationship… not butterflies in the stomach.” –SB, 30s, divorced, currently in a LTR, has kids
“I think the longevity is more of the willingness of the individuals wanting to stay in a long-term relationship. Chemistry is the easy part. There are always moments of dispute but we work it out. We look for ways to have fun and get away together when possible. We also allow each other to have breathing room and enjoy our individual life too. It’s a hard balancing act but life is like work it is never easy. [Relationships are] not easy. It’s hard work. Even when you find the right person.” -BC, 30s, married with kids
“I can count how many women I’ve felt chemistry with on one hand, and it usually seems to be a one way street. Compatibility is more important to me now. Compatibility means I’m seeing who someone really is –warts and all— and feel comfortable and relaxed around her. Similar view of the world, similar reactions to life’s ups and downs, similar values, etc.” -MT, 40s, single, no kids
“I think most new couples would say “we have chemistry” but as the honeymoon phase wears off and it turns to compatibility—the relationships that last find a new way to keep the chemistry. Compatibility is two people who can put up with each other’s bullshit without affecting chemistry.” -Anonymous, 30s, single, no kids
First, a big thank you to those who answered my question. Second, most recipients seem to have the same conclusion that chemistry is the easy part, but compatibility is the harder part. But why is this the case? Is it harder because of individual characteristics of each person, or is harder because you have to find two people who will put in the work to be compatible?
Now I’m going to turn to my internet research. ‘Cause you know that everything you read on the web is true!
In an article from The Independent, author Amy Loudan writes, “Essentially, compatibility is the similarities between lifestyles and values that make the relationship work without too much forcing or compromising on anyone’s part.” She then discusses the ever so indescribable chemistry as, “intangible, unspoken connection that results in feelings of lust, sexual excitement, and romance. There’s no real logic to chemistry, but when you have it with someone, you just feel it.” Further, she seems to echo the opinion of MM: “In most relationships one may be a higher priority than the other and likewise, the absence of one may be a ‘dealbreaker’ for some.”
Loudan’s article finishes with, “until you give someone a chance, you’ll never know whether or not you’re a good match –compatibility or chemistry wise. Love operates on so many levels, including both biology and behavior.” If love does operate on multiple levels, perhaps chemistry and compatibility are factors that have no real measurement, and relationships just work or don’t work, not because of any real match percentage, but because two people click in an unexplainable way.
Is it really unexplainable and unmeasurable? According to Your Tango, there is a definitive way to measure compatibility. “Are you Compatible? An 11 Point Checklist Challenge,” by Nicole Johnson, starts with “Dating can be an emotional, exhausting process.” This is not news to anyone who has attempted to navigate the dating world, and he or she likely has the battlefield scars and stories to share. Johnson claims that using the 11 Point Checklist will help fellow daters limit what she calls “dating fatigue.” Be proactive, she says, and use her tool to figure out if this person is worth your time, and do this ideally within the first few weeks.
Her eleven points are as follows: chemistry, lifestyle, intelligence, appearance, energy, economics, health, humor, politics, religion, and marriage/children. None of these seem unreasonable, and she gives an explanation following each factor. Johnson ends her article with the warning that compatibility cannot be forced or fabricated. “Hold yourself accountable for the choices you are making; do not ignore the red flags! By screening people in the aforementioned categories, you will never be tempted to date someone who is not aligned with your standards.”
I wonder if she minds me turning her list into a laminated check-off sheet I can bring with me when I start dating again. I can find an opportune time to say, ‘Scuze me while I whip this out,” and then flash my checklist card in front of my date. “Alright, good sir, let’s go over these one by one.”
In the words of Lili Von Shtupp, “How womantic.”
I’m sure this is not what Johnson is implying. I think her checklist is a good idea, but I do raise concerns with her timeline. Can you really judge a person that quickly? I worry that by hurrying to check things off your list, you might be missing the heart and soul of the person you are scrutinizing. Or maybe that is just the hopeless romantic in me talking. (See blog entry titled “What Does Romance Have To Do With It?”)
At this point in my research, I was feeling on board with the idea that compatibility does come down to certain specific factors. Certain likes, dislikes, lifestyle choices, behaviors have to be inline to make a relationship work. Maybe the ex was right, and the fact that I am not outdoorsy would have been too much for him to deal with, because he really wants to share that with his partner. I can’t blame him for that, as I once stopped dating a guy because he didn’t drink alcohol. Is that the same thing? I should note that I really wasn’t attracted to Mr. Sobriety in any other way, so perhaps I am just using booze as an excuse.
I could conclude the article here… but wait! There is more. My next exhibit will turn everything I have presented to you upside down.
According to Psychology Today, chemistry and compatibility are both misunderstood and misused.
Psychology Today interviewed a variety of experts to get to the bottom of “The Truth About Compatibility.” According to their findings, we are “looking at love all wrong.”
Compatibility does not hinge on some personal inventory of traits. Compatibility isn’t something you have. It’s something you make. It’s a process, one that you negotiate as you go along. Again and again. It’s a disposition, an attitude, a willingness to work.
In the next paragraph, they absolutely skewer chemistry:
Chemistry is an alluring concept, but much to frequently people use it to absolve themselves of the need to consciously examine their approach to one another. As if the muse of love will alight on their shoulder and sprinkle fairy dust on them, and then they will suddenly open their eyes and behold The Perfect Mate—without prying open their own heart, embracing an unwavering willingness to see the other in a positive light or doing the hard work of exploring, knowing, and respecting another human being.
Eek. So much for the shazam.
Next, the experts weighed in, and I’ve included snippets from each:
Compatibility is overrated. The similarities or personality traits that attract people to each other may not hold up over time. You might be attracted to someone because you both love to ski, but then one of you blows out a knee… Values about money and children run very deep and are important. The surface ones—antiques, sports, travel, and gourmet coffee—don’t matter. –William J. Doherty, marriage and family professor, University of Minnesota
My research shows that there is no difference in the objective level of compatibility between those couples who are unhappy and those who are happy … People overemphasize the effect of personality or values. And they underemphasize the extent to which easy, congenial temperaments aid marriages. –Ted Huston, psychology professor, University of Texas
People assume compatibility as a baseline requirement, then want more….I think you can have an even more fulfilling relationship if you respect each other’s worlds, and learn a little bit from each other. You really do want someone who challenges and spars with you. –Nancy Slotnick, dating coach
Couples need to feel they are building something together that has meaning. How does a relationship support what you see as a mission in life? This is the existential part. You must also connect emotionally. How much do you respond to each other’s bids for attention? Does your partner turn toward you with equal enthusiasm? You need to ask questions and constantly update your knowledge of one another. –John Gottman, founder director of the Relationship Research Institute.
The biggest reason people get divorces is they grow apart. –Raoul Felder, divorce lawyer
Personality is important, but no one really knows how to match personalities up… Relationship skills, on the other hand, can always be improved, and they’ll help any two people—with any two personalities—to get along together. –Robert Epstein, Psychologist
People must look for the best in each other. –Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, author of The Committed Marriage
There is no such thing as a compatible couple. All couples disagree about the same things: money, sex, kids, time. So it’s really about how you manage your differences. If there is chemistry, then the whole courtship is about convincing yourself and others that you are compatible. But, really, you create compatibility. And then, eventually, maybe in 25 years, you become soul mates. –Diane Sollee, founder and director, Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education
People might agonize and think ‘Do we have the same likes and dislikes?’ But people are too aware of how powerful self-fulfilling prophecies are. We have expectations in a relationship, and we tend to make them come true. –Lisa Diamond, assistant professor of psychology and gender studies, University of Utah
I read this article multiple times in order to really grasp the message that compatibility is not a science, compatibility is not the matching of interests or similar personalities, but rather compatibility is something that two people create together. Compatibility is forged by two people who are ready, able, and willing to be in a long-term relationship. These are emotionally available people who strive to see a person for who they are, not what they can or can’t do, what they look like, or whether they share all the same things. This is when love and respect are truly formed, and this is how two people create a life together.
At the end of the day, compatibilty is what you make it to be.
Mind = blown.
Over the course of researching and writing this piece, I have been musing about how I will apply this to my dating life. I realize I need to have a greater awareness of myself and the person I am evaluating. I must be fastidious in seeing them for who they really are, and not for what I want them to be. Sure, I can date someone who shares my love of afternoon cocktails, and maybe we both love prosciutto and brie, and the sex is passable, but what else do we have? What will sustain us in the future? And more importantly, does he genuinely want the same things that I do, and is ready for that kind of future?
I am looking for love. Inconvenient, ridiculous, passionate, comfortable, respectful, genuine and real love. I read somewhere once that love is about really being seen and known, and I am tired of running into others who say that is what they want, and then when things are inconvenient, they take those words back. I am looking for someone to work hard with me, because in 40 years, I want to sit on my porch swing, holding wrinkled hands with my guy, and watch our grandkids play on the lawn. I want to build a life with someone.
Maybe someday, I will dance to this at my wedding.
Why do I do just as you say
Why must I just give you your way
Why do I sigh
Why do I try to forget
It must have been that something lovers call fate
Kept me saying “I had to wait”
I saw them all
Just couldn’t fall ’til we met
It had to be you, it had to be you
I’ve wandered around, finally found somebody who
Could make me be true
Could make me be blue
And, even be glad just to be sad thinkin’ of you
Some others I’ve seen
Might never be mean
Might never be cross
Or, try to be boss
But, they wouldn’t do
For nobody else gave me a thrill
With all your faults, I love you still
It had to be you, wonderful you
It had to be you
‘Cause nobody else gave me a thrill
With all your faults, I love you still now
And it had to be you, it just had to be you
It had to be you
Until next time ~ B