Most of the research on relationship success tells us that compatibility between partners is essential. Living a long and happy life with a partner usually depends on the similarities partners share. If two people have the same definition of "clean," the same definition of "on time," and the same definition of "expensive," they are less likely to experience conflict and therefore more likely to live comfortably together. They will experience compatibility.
But what about "hard wired" differences like those that come with being male or female? Or, the "hard wired" differences that come with temperament and personality? What about the apparently natural inclination for opposites to attract? What about the desire to encounter something new and interesting--something different--that adds life and spark to the inevitable boredom that threatens to overtake long term relationships? It seems no matter how much we seek compatibility, we will inevitably find pockets of incompatibility as the relationship develops. Sometimes those pockets of incompatibility generate a gnawing disappointment. But, they can also create interest and curiosity. If allowed, points of incompatibility can be the source of substantial personal and relational growth. It's a cliche, of course, but pain and gain are, indeed, tied to each other.
Because people don't ordinarily see a therapist when they are in the throes of major compatibility, the couples I see come with a pointed and painful experience of incompatibility. Listening to people describe their discomfort with differences, it quickly becomes obvious that at an earlier point in their relationship the differences were not experienced as painful. Rather, they were often a source of interest and growth. So, what makes a thing that generated interest turn into a thing that only produces annoyance and frustration?
Three things contribute to the movement from interest to annoyance. First, there is an inevitable loss of imagination and curiosity that comes with a long term relationship. Second, the diminished space that comes with accumulated responsibilities like children and mortgages leaves less and less room for differences. And third, there seems to be a natural erosion of respect that accompanies relating over a long period of time. Disappointments and misunderstandings acquire a weight over time that makes carrying them comfortably very difficult. It's hard to maintain respect for someone you begin to see as making your life harder than it needs to be.
So, what's the best response to incompatibility? Assuming the incompatibility doesn't create a dangerous situation, the answer seems fairly straightforward. Begin by cultivating imagination and curiosity. Ask yourself, "What makes him do that?" or "How does doing what he does work for him?" or "How does my response to her make her more or less likely to continue doing the thing I find annoying?" Second, look for ways to create constructive emotional space--create room for differences. One way this can be done is to remind yourself that he/she is not doing something to you. For example, my partner's cleaning something after I've already cleaned it is not something she is doing to me. Rather, it's something she's doing for herself. Finally, act in ways that deserves respect and notice the ways your partner deserves respect.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Most of us get to a place where all we want is someone more like us than not. However, remembering that growth only comes with risk and difficulty can shed a kinder light on incompatibility.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.