Compatibility is not the starting point of a successful relationship

“Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

Some time ago, I wrote about compatibility, and how I felt I had abandoned it in my relationships.

Today, I’m beginning to understand compatibility differently, after listening to Alain de Botton explain why people felt they had married the wrong person. His views are also available in prose for The New York Times.

A few points in his spiel that struck me:

“To love is to have the willingness to interpret someone’s on-the-surface not-very-appealing behavior, in order to find more benevolent reasons why it may be unfolding. In other words, to love someone, is to apply charity and generosity in interpretation.

“We tend to believe that the more a lover is right for us, the less we will have to explain about who we are, how we feel, what upsets us, what we want… We believe a true lover will guess what is in our minds… The root to a good marriage and good love is the ability to become a good teacher… Teaching is merely the word to the skill of getting an idea from one head into another in a way that is likely to be accepted… You need a culture between a couple where two people are going to need to teach each other and also learn from one another.”

“And this brings me to the next reason why you are going to have a very unhappy relationship: You probably believe that when somebody tries to tell you something about yourself that is a little ticklish; a little uncomfortable, they are attacking you. They’re not. They’re trying to make you into a better person. We tend to believe that true love means accepting the whole of us. It doesn’t. No one should accept the whole of us. We’re appalling. What we need to do is to accept that the other person is going to want to educate us.”

“Incompatibility — We are all incompatible. But it is the work of love to make us graciously accommodate each other and ourselves to each other’s incompatibilities.

You know, I’ve always admired the values of humility, empathy and compassion in a relationship, because I believe someone who truly understands how flawed they are, likely finds it easier to relate to the feelings and flaws of another. I believe this leads to all sorts of wonderful behaviors in a relationship, including being able to receive your partner’s words well (what he refers to as “charity and generosity in interpretation”).

But I’ve never thought of the equation as such: humility, empathy and compassion + willingness to teach + not treating your partner as the enemy = compatibility. I’ve always thought it the other way around.

Now, I’ll be honest, this equation is a problem for my state of happiness with someone else. First, I’m famous for running away when I feel most vulnerable (see point 3 below), which then, of course, negatively impacts my ability to teach my partner how I feel and what I need. Second, in a tense or angry situation, it’s hard for me to view my partner as anything but my enemy. After all, I grew up in a war zone — my parents were at each other’s throats all the time — so it’s difficult for me to understand that it is acceptable to be vulnerable and malleable with the person you love, even when you’re blind with rage that’s directed at them.

Of course, this also means that now that I am aware of my many challenges in a relationship, the reasons for them stop being so much of an excuse.

Perhaps it’s time I abandoned my fascination with compatibility, and started to focus on other parts of the equation.

On another note, once you realize that compatibility is not the starting point of a successful relationship, you then have to ask yourself: what makes us fall in love someone? Is it completely chemical? Or is it only about familiarity? Or is this entire process arbitrary?

But that’s something else to think about another day.

And before I sign off, here are some other valuable points I found that he made in his spiel:

  1. We progress through the world with a very low sense of what is actually wrong with us. Our parents, friends and ex-lovers don’t tell us for various reasons — they love us too much, they just want to spend a good night out, or they want to leave us without having uncomfortable conversations.
  2. We don’t spend enough time getting to know ourselves. Until you know yourself, you can’t properly relate to another person.
  3. We find it hard to tell someone that we need them. When we are put in this “undesirable” situation, we fall into certain patterns — we get anxiously attached, or, in my case, avoidant. (This means when you need someone, you pretend you don’t, which then sets the other wondering whether you can be trusted. And this results in a low-trust relationship cycle.)
  4. Love is a skill that needs to be learnt. There is a distinction between “to love” and “being loved”. 
  5. Everyone we love is going to disappoint us. We usually start off with idealization and end up with denigration. Maturity is the ability to see that there are no heroes or sinners among human beings. Good love is tolerance for weakness.
  6. The way we love as adults sits on top of our early childhood experiences. As a result, we seek out partners who are familiar, even though familiarity may be bound up with various kinds of torture.
  7. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about compromise. Compromise is noble. It is a massive achievement in love.

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