Relationship Compatibility

relationship compatibility

Relationship compatibility is a subject that gets a lot of attention at Nice Girls Nice Guys. In fact, you probably can't get through a full page without some mention of it.

That's because compatibility is absolutely essential for the success of any long-term relationship!

Most people have heard about relationship compatibility and have a vague idea that it's important. But many don't know what it really is. They think it's something indefinable like "chemistry."

Well, we're going to demystify relationship compatibility right now! That way, you can understand which factors actually contribute to relationship success.

Similarity vs. Complementarity

There are two schools of thought about relationship compatibility. Chances are you've chosen a side, too. Either you're on team "birds of a feather," or you believe "opposites attract."

In social psychology terms, these competing relationship compatibility theories are referred to as "similarity" and "complementarity."

Just like people, the reality of relationship compatibility is a little more complicated! But here's the bottom line: Relationship compatibility studies support the idea that similarity is the best foundation for lasting love.

This means relationship partners are usually much more alike than different. They have lots of common denominators, to borrow a term from math class!

A huge body of research evidence for this includes Arum, Roksa, & Budig, 2008; Blum & Mehrabian, 1999; Botwin, Buss, & Shackelford, 1997; Bouchard & McGue, 1981; Buss, 1984; Buss & Barnes, 1986; Carter & Glick, 1976; Caspi & Herbener, 1993; D'Onofrio, Eaves, Murrelle, Maes, & Spilka, 1999; Feng & Baker, 1994; Glicksohn & Golan, 2001; Lewak, Wakefield, & Briggs, 1985; Mascie-Taylor, 1989; McCrae et al., 2008; Murstein & Christy, 1976; Phillips, Fulker, Carey, & Nagoshi, 1988; Price & Vandenberg, 1980; Vandenberg, 1972; Watkins & Meredith, 1981; Watson et al., 2004; and Watson, Hubbard, & Wiese, 2000.

What's more, when both members of a pair have a lot in common, they tend to be happier with themselves, each other, and their relationship.

Studies confirming the positive effects of similarity include Antill, 1983; Arrindell & Luteijn, 2000; Barelds & Dijkstra, 2007; Gonzaga, Campos, & Bradbury, 2007; Hendrick, 1981; Luo & Klohnen, 2005; Lutz-Zois, Bradley, Mihalik, & Moorman-Eavers, 2006; Markey & Markey, 2007; Richard, Wakefield, & Lewak, 1990; Rusbult, Kumashiro, Kubacka, & Finkel, 2009; Russell & Wells, 1991; White & Hatcher, 1984; and Zuo, 1992.

That's right! It's just a myth that couples who are too much alike are "boring."

The truth is wherever there's a difference, there's a potential source of conflict. Couples who have a lot of differences are more likely to argue and feel dissatisfied.

In contrast, partners who are similar get along better. They support each other's attitudes and lifestyle choices. So they tend to feel more content in their relationships.

Now here's where it gets complicated: Lots of possible common denominators can contribute to relationship compatibility, and not all of them are equally important.

For instance, research shows it's very important for couples to be similar in political views, religious beliefs, intelligence level, and educational background. But it's not quite as important to be similar in personality.

We see support for this in studies like Buss & Barnes, 1986; D'Onofrio et al., 1999; Feng & Baker, 1984; Luo & Klohnen, 2005; Phillips et al., 1998; Price & Vandenberg, 1980; Vandenberg, 1972; Watkins & Meredith, 1981; and Watson et al., 2004.

Also, while couples who make it for the long haul are usually similar, they're not always happier just because they're a lot alike (Blum & Mehrabian, 1999; Botwin et al., 1997; Lewak et al., 1985; Markey & Markey, 2007; Shiota & Levenson, 2007; Watson et al., 2004; Murstein & Christy, 1976; White, 1983).

In addition, relationship compatibility can mean two different things for men and women (Arrindell & Luteijn, 2000; Max Planck Institute, 2010; Tynes, 1990).

For instance, personality similarities make men feel good but may not always have the same effect on women (Arrindell & Luteijn, 2000). On the other hand, similarity in age seems to benefit women a lot more than it does men (Max Planck Institute, 2010).

Still, on the whole, similarity clearly strengthens relationships! The more common denominators two people have, the better their chances of staying together.

And what about complementarity, the theory that opposites attract and help meet each other's needs?

It turns out there's some support for it but not very much (De Raad & Doddema-Winsemius, 1992; Eagly & Wood, 1999; Markey & Markey, 2007; Richard, Wakefield, & Lewak, 1990).

It seems complementarity may only work in limited circumstances, namely when partners are comfortable with traditional gender role differences.

We all know pairings like this. Think of the older, well-off man who marries a younger woman to stay home and raise the kids, and you'll get the picture.

Unfortunately, complementarity isn't that useful for much else!

It doesn't enhance relationship compatibility when one person is a saver and the other is a spender...or when one person is a churchgoer and the other is an atheist...or when one person is athletic and the other is a couch potato. That just leads to relationship problems.

Yep, in the similarity versus complementarity debate, similarity wins hands down! It's what relationship compatibility is all about.

Relationship Compatibility: Find It or Grow into It?

So now we know that compatible partners tend to be similar. OK. But the next logical question is: Do happy couples start out with this kind of relationship compatibility, or does it grow over time?

If successful pairs are compatible from the start, then it makes sense to pick a highly similar mate. But if relationship compatibility is something couples develop over the years, then it shouldn't really matter what kind of significant other you choose to begin with.

The research on this subject can be confusing if you don't analyze it carefully!

What it shows is that relationship compatibility is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.

That is, satisfied couples tend to believe they're a lot alike whether or not they really are (Gottman, 2003; Murray, Holmes, Bellavia, Griffin, & Dolderman, 2002; Ruvolo & Fabin, 1999). In the same way, dissatisfied couples tend to think they're not very much alike whether or not that's true (Gottman, 2003).

That said, research also shows that people in successful long-term relationships do start out with more common denominators.

They have real, significant similarities that studies can demonstrate (Buss, 1984; Carter & Glick, 1976; Caspi & Herbener, 1993; Feng & Baker, 1994; Glicksohn & Golan, 2001; Markey & Markey, 2007; Mascie-Taylor, 1989; McCrae et al., 2008; Watkins & Meredith, 1981; Watson, et al., 2004).

This also means you can forget about trying to "change" someone! Unless, of course, that someone is yourself.

One interesting study found that relationship compatibility can improve over time when you choose someone who is different from you in a way you want to emulate (Rubsult et al., 2009).

Apparently, people are often attracted to others who have characteristics they would like to have themselves (Klohnen & Luo, 2003; Klohnen & Mendelsohn, 1998).

When you choose a partner who has traits you wish you had, you not only feel better about the relationship but also start to develop those traits yourself.

For example, let's say you're scattered and sloppy and wish you could learn to be neater. If you start a relationship with someone who is very organized, he or she may help you get organized, too, which makes you happier together.

But notice the key to happiness here is that you admire your partner's differences and want to become more like your partner. It's a mistake to assume you can have great relationship compatibility when your partner's differences drive you crazy or when you expect him or her to make up for what you lack!

To continue with our example, if it bugs the heck out of you that your significant other is a neat freak or if you expect to laze around while he or she cleans up after you all the time, neither one of you is going to be a happy camper.

Also, beware of the urge to convince yourself that you want to change when you really don't. It's easy to talk about change, but taking action is much harder! A lot of habits are deeply ingrained and arise from core personality characteristics that are very difficult if not impossible to alter.

Maybe this is why most of us are better off with partners who are more like us to begin with!

Yes, it's definitely worth the wait to find that special someone who is compatible with you from the outset...But you may also discover that your terrific relationship reinforces how much you and your sweetie feel like two peas in a pod!

Relationship Compatibility Checklist

One problem you may encounter when searching for your other half is that you don't have a clear picture of what relationship compatibility is. Sure, you know you and the love of your life should be similar, but maybe you don't know what that looks like.

What exactly are these common denominators you're supposed to have? How should you be alike?

Does relationship compatibility mean the two of you need to dress like Tweedledee and Tweedledum? Finish each other's sentences? Combine your names like Brangelina?

Not exactly...

To clear up any confusion, Nice Girls Nice Guys has created a list of common denominators that studies have proven important to relationship compatibility. When you're deciding whether to get serious about someone, consider how well you match each other on these 20 points.

Know What You Want

Another problem that can stand between you and your happily ever after is the assumption that you shouldn't form a picture of the person you really want to be with.

This is the attitude some individuals have when you ask them what they want in a partner, and they say, "I don't know. I try to keep an open mind about everyone I meet. I don't like to have a set list of requirements."

As noble as this sounds, it's the fastest way to make sure you and your other half don't have good relationship compatibility. If you don't know what you're looking for, you can't find it!

Imagine going shopping without any idea what you were shopping for. You'd waste a lot of time--and maybe money--wandering around, in and out of stores, trying things on and testing things out.

Sure, if you know you want jeans, you should try on a few pairs for size. But it doesn't make sense to spend all day trying on shirts, shoes, and hats and finally leave with a jacket!

Looking for your soul mate is much the same. You need to know what you want before you try to find it!

The Relationship Compatibility Checklist is a good starting point. But everybody has different values, preferences, and relationship needs. This is the time to clarify yours.

Start by making a list of 10-20 traits your long-term partner absolutely must have for relationship compatibility.

Be honest with yourself and don't worry if some of the traits sound petty or silly. Relationship compatibility must-haves are not "right" or "wrong." So no judgment!

Just remember this isn't a wish list. It's a list of qualities you can't live without in a life mate. So you'll want to leave off traits like "fabulously wealthy" or "tall and skinny" unless those are qualities your partner definitely has to have to sustain a relationship with you.

Next, make another list of 10-20 relationship compatibility dealbreakers. These are qualities you can't accept in someone under any circumstances.

Again, be brutally honest with yourself! Think back to some of the things that drove you crazy in past relationships.

Don't make excuses like, "Well, maybe I could deal with it if he/she was really hot." Hotness wears off. And don't imagine you'll be able to handle it "for the right one." The right one won't have any of your dealbreakers. Period.

Ideally, you'll make these relationship compatibility lists before you meet anyone. If you wait until you've met someone, it's easy to be blinded by "chemistry" (read: lust) and lie to yourself about what you really need.

And the longer you date, the harder it becomes to step back from your feelings and be objective about your relationship.

Once you've created your relationship compatibility lists, it's essential that you stick to them. No exceptions.

Think of them as a blueprint for the future home you're going to build with your soul mate. Just like the blueprint for a house, you draw it up first, then follow the plan.

You don't decide at the last minute you'd rather put the kitchen where the master bedroom is, add a staircase to a one-story house, or keep the fireplace but forget about the chimney.

When you know what you want--and what you don't--relationship compatibility becomes less of a mystery and more of a science whose rules you can learn.

Moving On

Because relationship compatibility is a major ingredient in healthy relationships, you'll see it mentioned over and over at Nice Girls Nice Guys as we talk about meeting singles and dating tips.

In case you ever need a refresher on what it's all about, be sure to bookmark and revisit this relationship compatibility page!

Return to Nice Girls Nice Guys Relationship Advice and Dating Tips from Relationship Compatibility


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