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.

Dear Compatibility,

I don’t actually know who you are.

I’ve met you, of course, in one form or another, but if we’re being honest, I don’t know you. I do not know what the complete shape of you looks or feels like. I don’t even know if you truly exist, or if you’re a fairytale we’ve made up.

But I’m writing anyway, because in the worse case scenario, I believe in fairytales.

Reading Love, Eventually, it was this quote about you that resonated the most.

Out of hopefulness, impatience, insecurity or for a thousand other reasons, we too often rush into relationships that are poor fits for us, robbing our partners and ourselves of more promising connections.”

The truth is this: we are all damaged in some way. We bear hope only we can see; hope that goes against all odds, that distorts reality and colours every decision we make. We bear the fears only we see; fears we cannot explain, or stop feeling, despite our best efforts. We bear the scars only we see; scars others have inflicted, scars we do not understand, or do but perhaps have never dealt with for a myriad of reasons.

All this, our thousand other reasons, will shape our relationship with you.

Sometimes, we ignore your existence completely. Not on purpose, but simply because we’ve never really learnt how to shoulder our scars alone. For some of us, the cost of overlooking you is great. We run towards the next, and the next, and the next, from whoever we receive attention and affection, to whomever will help to ease the weight we carry. They fall, almost accidentally, into our laps; and then, almost gratefully, we fall onto theirs in return. When we finally realise you are nowhere in sight, we find ourselves deciding to stay anyway — out of love or a bond that has now formed, because of the children, or the guilt, fear, grief, et al., we feel.

Other times, we believe you are quintessential in a union. We feel for your presence by measuring our partner’s baggage against our own, taking issue with any variation, until finally, we finally walk away. We cite the hole where you should have stood. We are still waiting — still holding out, even now — for you to show up, in entirety, with someone we could fall in love with.

At times, we think it is a choice between love, or you. So we choose. Some make lifelong happiness with their choice; others find it is not enough.

Sometimes, we are blessed enough to be one of two people who falls in love at exactly the same time, only to find you standing there in the middle. And yet, a year later (or two, or ten), you’ve vanished, because our relationship with you is a shifting goal post, changing whenever we do.

There are so many forms our relationship with you takes, Compatibility, in the face of our thousand other reasons. But whichever we choose, there is no promise of a happy outcome. For as there are a number of us who have experienced tragedies in your absence, there are many others who have made their own happiness. And then there are those who’ve had both, and yet.

For this reason, I cannot agree in absolute terms that we end up “robbing our partners and ourselves of more promising connections”, wherever you are absent.

More experiences with — and without — your presence only helps us to see you a little clearer; to understand the balance we are willing to live with in any relationship. And we do this with an acceptance that there are no formulas and no guarantees.

As for me, I have been guilty of abandoning you. You see, I let myself crumble under the weight of my bags. I was not determined enough to work through my emotional discomfort; I was not patient enough wait for the light that would eventually come. I did not face what I had to, when I had to, and by the time I realised, you had come and gone. Because I was not my priority, you weren’t either.

But I look forward with hope, that this was meant to be all along.

“Still, had the possibility of this loving bi-disability marriage presented itself to us years earlier, I don’t think either of us would have been ready. We needed the right combination of fallacies, wrong turns and formative relationships to lead each of us exactly here.”


My relationship with you is far from over. I will make other mistakes where you are concerned, I’m sure.

But only time will tell what the next one is, and whether this time, finally, there will be a happy ending.

Dating in this age: Have we forgotten how to get to know another?

“I just don’t know what I did,” he says to me, over multiple glasses of red wine. The girl he had been “seeing” — whatever that means, he says — mysteriously lost interest.

“Where have the good men gone? I’m not getting any younger.” Another asks, as she hangs her head in her hands, in part despair, part frustration.

“She was interesting. I guess she thought I wanted something more, because she blew me off from the get-go,” she says, as she smiles ruefully at me.

My millennial comrades, blindly stumbling around today’s barren and foggy landscape of blind dates, dating applications and websites, hook-ups and set-ups, in an effort to find a life partner.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat.

We are so purposeful in our interactions, as we manoeuvre through dating in this age. And because of it;

Self-doubt, which taints us long after everyone has gone. If nothing lasting comes out of an interaction, it must be because there is something wrong with us. We did something; we said something; we didn’t do something; we didn’t say something. Round and round we go, fretting in a cyclone of despair.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat. 

Deadlines, which we didn’t even set for ourselves. Married by a certain age, children by another. Top of the career ladder by a certain age, retired by another. And if it is not done by society’s book: what will become of us, for the rest of our life, and in our old age? There is so much fear of deviating from the norm, that we neglect to live on our own terms.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat. 

Expectations, which crush two, but mostly you. Two weeks of texting — surely, we have a great connection. A great first date — surely, he / she will follow up with a phone call. Five months of casual dating — surely, something permanent must come of this, or it will all be for naught. A year of exclusive dating — surely, marriage!

Sexualised everything. Dating applications and website have made it all too convenient and easy. Those who seek real connection find it increasingly difficult to meet a like-minded individual. There’s a rift in the dating world: hook-up or forever, with nothing in between.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat. 

It is not supposed to be this way.

Perhaps a better outcome can be expected, if only we switched our focus to forming genuine connections with others, regardless of the variation of the relationship we find ourselves in.

When we do not value every interaction, we lose so much more, with others, but more importantly, within ourselves.

Kismet, a friend called it. Serendipity, another whispered. We are all on our own journey in this never-ending expanse of space. We seek out company; for light, for warmth, for comfort. Sometimes we cross paths with another; both are in the perfect time and season. And suddenly, a new world forms. Some slide out of our grasp, despite our efforts, to continue their own journey in another direction. Yet others stay with us, at a slight distance, but still sharing some of their light, warmth and comfort.


Lover, friend, best bud, acquaintance, soul mate, future life partner — who knows? But one thing is definite: we will never find out, if our every interaction is purposeful.

All hail the robot nation

Singapore has been lauded for having one of the top education systems in the world – our students topped global rankings in maths and science – yet it is not without cost. Our education system has shown a troubling preoccupation with grades, and isolates those who are wired differently. Now, we struggle to reverse this in the face of a changing economy.

An ABC report on the stress young children face is not far from the truth at all. Children who should be encouraged to discover their unique strengths are instead consecutively stuck in a classroom, after-school enrichment and tuition classes, in an attempt to top the class, or the school, or the cohort. During weekends, they shuttle between other forms of extra-curricular activities, that range from dance, music or sport. Even these activities are conducted purposefully: with a goal of passing a grade exam, or being able to make it into a sport program in one of the nation’s top schools. How is a child to discover what really makes him or her tick if we take the enjoyment out of it all?

But that’s not the only drawback to our education system.

Many children with varied abilities fall through the cracks and are left behind. Those who may excel at different things — and not core subjects like mathematics or the sciences — tend to lose interest quickly and don’t do as well overall as their counterparts. Because of this, they have to take a longer, if not harder, route to university. Most of these students will have to go to other institutes of higher learning (ITEs, polytechnics), where only a small top percentage of the cohort qualify to enter a government-subsidised university. Singapore is in the midst of expanding university places, but junior colleges remain the most direct route to a university.

Now, this would not be such a problem if the minimum expectation from the Singapore workforce was not a degree from a government university. But we’ve all got it in our heads that this is the only mark of a truly successful individual, and everyone else is second-rate at best.

It’s really a chicken-and-egg problem.

Parents will go to any length to ensure their child excels through primary school, to qualify for a good secondary school, to qualify for a good junior college, to qualify for a good university.(A ‘B’ in Mathematics? Accepted in a school that was second or third choice? They will fail at life. End of the world. For everyone.) And of course the paper-chasing workforce, for a long time, has only served to perpetuate this culture.

Everything we’re currently doing from the education standpoint is great — changing the curriculum, ensuring that every school is desirable, tweaking exam systems, creating more spaces in universities, etc., — but we should also tackle this problem from the other end of the stick (or, at the other end of the chicken’s reproduction system, if you will). Why?

Well, Singaporean parents are practical people. They know which industries pay the most and they know what qualifications future employers in these industries want. It is to be expected that they usher their children on this path to “success”.

And since we cannot change the definition of “success” overnight in people’s minds, perhaps we need to send a strong signal to all those in the education system — parents, teachers, students — that other types of professions are just as viable and respectable.

One way to do that is to implement minimum wage or income supplement specifically in these industries. For example, in the culinary arts, publishing or stage production. I am aware the markers for success will only show up after a long time, but anything is worth a shot at this point. I’m also aware that something like this may cause a disruption in the businesses’ operating costs, but a funding model (e.g., part employer part government) can be worked out to minimise impact on one party alone.

And this will also help adults who are looking to change careers. I mean, there’s no point encouraging Singaporeans to pursue their dreams via SkillsFuture if the industry they’re hoping to move into pays peanuts.

The Stanford Sexual Assault

Before I go on, I’d like to state in no uncertain terms, that all forms of assault, including rape, is wrong. Secondly, the Standford rape victim, Brock Allen Turner, should have been sentenced to more than 6 months of county jail and probation. Personally, I think the punishment, or lack thereof, and the reason behind it (the judge felt that a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on him as Turner was a champion swimmer who once aspired to the Olympics) is simply shameful. I wonder–what would’ve made the judge take the case more seriously? If Turner had murdered or severely wounded her after the rape? Or if Turner had raped her with a body part instead of his fingers? The fact that I have to wonder about this is indication of the type of world we live in.

In the recent years, movements like SlutWalk have gained traction and popularity. Their goal? To tell the world that no victim should be blamed in the event of a sexual assault. Specifically, she should not be held accountable for any assault to her because of what she chooses to wear. Activists say: “Do whatever you want; wear whatever you want; you should not be touched in the first place. And of course, in a philistine effort to drive their point home, scantility clad women take to the street once a year in a protest march. While their intentions are good, they are, however, incredibly naive.

It is this same naivety I felt ran rampant in the letter the Stanford victim read to Brock Turner. She said: “I was drunk and unconcious but you should not have touched me in the first place.” She is absolutely correct, but, she is also being incredibly idealistic.

Your attorney has repeatedly pointed out, well we don’t know exactly when she became unconscious. And you’re right, maybe I was still fluttering my eyes and wasn’t completely limp yet. That was never the point. I was too drunk to speak English, too drunk to consent way before I was on the ground. I should have never been touched in the first place.

Yes, having ideals is a great thing. Mindsets must change so boys like Brock Turner don’t assault women. Mindsets must change so these boys blame themselves instead of substances. They must change so men don’t blame their victims for their actions, like we saw in the Delhi rape case. Every movement that aims to educate the world; every assault case that goes viral, every individual who is punished for his or her violence–makes a small difference towards the end goal. Causes like these make the world a better place, and we should support them.

But this is what I take issue with. In their bid to strive for their cause, they neglect reality. The reality is this: it is going to take a lot more time and many more generations before we see beliefs shift. Meanwhile, we live in a imperfect world, in which, despite our best efforts, people do things they’re not supposed to be doing. While no one has the right to assault you, many won’t take your right seriously. When we neglect to mention reality in the struggle for our cause, we send the wrong signal to women everywhere.

We should be talking about what we can take responsibility for in order to protect ourselves, while we wait in (joyful) hope for the world’s enlightenment. We should teach our children that while there is an area beyond our control, there is another that we do have control over. We must ensure they take responsbility for their part in the latter.

For example, in the past, when I’ve visited India, I’ve always taken care to dress conservatively (neck to ankles). I wouldn’t dare to venture out alone at night. Why? Because I understand the environment in which I am operating. Most people who’ve heard me say this have been outraged. “You should not have to compromise! You should not be raped, regardless!” Sadly, I do have to compromise, and sadly, if I did not, there is a high chance I would be raped. I know my rights; but that doesn’t change a damned thing. I have the right to walk around Bangalore in a bikini if I wanted to. But should I, knowing that I am in an environment that I’ve no control over? Probably not. By thinking this way, the circle of responsbility meets with the environment that is within our control.

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Of course, assuming responsbility in no part prevents a negative outcome, but it goes a long way in reassuring us that we did all we could, with the little we have.