We all know that technology is changing our lives at an astounding rate. I've
watched with fascination as online dating has gone from marginal to mainstream
almost overnight. It seems that almost every week I meet a couple who met
online coming in for pre-marital counseling. Three years ago, that rarely
I decided I should find out what these services are all about, so I logged on
and took a tour of several popular services. Immediately I noticed they all
had something in common. All of them promised to help you find someone who is
compatible with you. You may be asking yourself, "What's so remarkable about
that? Everyone knows compatibility is important when choosing a mate."
This is one of those times when "what everyone knows" is wrong. These days,
when mental health professionals want to know what a happy marriage looks
like, they turn to John Gottman, Ph.D. That's because he has spent upwards of
twenty-five years observing couples, and he offers us a treasure trove of
information about what makes happy couples different from unhappy couples.
What does Dr. Gottman say about compatibility? He says it will help your
marriageâ€”but only a little. It is not nearly as important as respect,
acceptance, emotional connection, and communication.
How can this be? After all, we all know that conflicts erupt when we want
different things, whether it's what to do this weekend or how to raise our
kids. The truth is, while it might appear that the stumbling block is
different opinions, the bigger problem is really how we communicate those
I once took a dancing class from a teacher who said, "If you see a couple
screw up on the dance floor and then laugh, they might be married, but not to
each other." You could see smiles of recognition all around the room. You and
your partner might share a love of dancing, but that's not enough to keep you
from getting into a ballroom power struggle.
On the other hand, you can disagree about major life issues and still feel
close and connected, if you communicate well. Dana and Steve ran into trouble
after the birth of their first child. Once she was actually a mom, Dana
changed her mind about her plan to return to work after two months of
maternity leave. "My priorities have turned upside down," she said. "Nothing
is as important as being with my daughter during this first year."
For his part, Steve was not prepared to take on the pressures of being the
sole breadwinner. The harder they worked to convince each other they were
right, the more they both dug in their heels. Dana accused Steve of being a
bad parent, and Steve told Dana she was unrealistic.
In counseling, they learned a different approach. They learned how to make it
safe to express the entire range of their feelings on the subject, without
being criticized or having to justify themselves. In this climate of
acceptance, they were able to see that they had more common ground than they
realized. They both wanted to be financially stable AND good parents.
I see the same thing happen in my office all the time. The more people feel
criticized, the more they feel they have differences in values. When they can
communicate safely and respectfully, they discover they have more common
ground than they realized. Not only that, it's easier to find solutions for
the differences they do have.
So, what does the compatibility myth mean for your relationship?
First, don't count on compatibility to get you through. If you are
experiencing that delicious sense of "having everything in common," enjoy it,
but don't settle in for an easy ride. As Dana and Steve learned, life will
throw you curves and you will have to negotiate differences you can't envision
Secondly, you have more control over your marriage than you think. A great
marriage isn't something that just happens, like the weather. It is something
you create, day by day.
So, what about all those happy couples that met online? Aren't they proof that
compatibility tests' work? They might be proof that compatibility attracts,
but that's all. Still, I am optimistic about the future of their marriages.
Not because they're compatible, but because they're wise. They're starting now
to learn the communication skills that will keep them together and happy for
Read previous Relationship Guide articles