I was struck this week by learning about two couples consisting of individuals who at first glance would seem to be totally incompatible, but who were able to build successful relationships despite huge fundamental differences. The first of these was profiled on the front page of last Sunday’s Washington Post – the successful marriage of a solidly conservative woman and an extremely liberal man. Reminiscent of Mary Matalin and James Carville, whose surprisingly successful marriage has been the subject of commentators ranging from Dear Abby to CNN. The second couple consists of a client’s mother, a pretty severe alcoholic, and her husband, who has been “clean and sober” for 20 years following his bout with alcoholism.

Dictionary.com’s definition is:

“Capable of existing or performing in harmonious, agreeable, or congenial combination with another or others.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition:

“Able to exist without trouble or conflict; going together well.”

Too often the mental emphasis when contemplating compatibility is on the latter parts of these definitions, but the first parts: “Capable of” and “Able to” are just as important, because relationships aren’t always fully harmonious, agreeable, congenial, and without conflict or trouble. In fact, it is the pressure placed on relationships in times of trouble or disagreement that forges the strongest relationships. Successfully and repeatedly navigating turbulence together proves that the relationship is “capable of” and “able to” not just to provide mutual enjoyment, but to weather inevitable storms.

Normally, factors that people consider when contemplating compatibility are numerous and varied in importance depending on the individual. Among the key ones are (not in order of importance):

Sexual fit / resonance (e.g. Is she a prude? Is he too kinky? How experimental is she? Is he asexual? Is she insatiable?)

Types of leisure activities enjoyed (Watching NFL football? Traveling to exotic places? Bridge? Camping? Opera? Biking?)

Career-related issues (Workaholic? Idealistic? Prestige? Influence? Work / life balance)

Attitudes towards money (Stingy? Insecure? Careless? Generous? Spendthrift?)

Importance of birth family (Spending Christmas with my siblings is important; I hate big family reunions; No matter what you think, Mom only has our best interests in mind)

Religion / spirituality (Not just Catholic / Evangelical Protestant / Muslim / Jewish / Hindu / Buddhist but the place / prominence of religion and spirituality in one’s life, and one’s children’s)

Political beliefs

Desire for children

Importance and types of friends

Each individual weights the factors above differently. A guy who is primarily driven by his hormones will accept a lot of non-compatible behaviors from his partner if she / he is a sex pistol. A devout Catholic woman may put up with her poor work ethic and haphazard dependability if he actively shares her faith.

Over the many years I’ve spent working with couples I have come to believe that the most important factors in compatibility aren’t any of the above, but instead are respect, trust, and open communication:

RESPECTing your partner’s right to live life in a way with which you may not always agree, but which on balance provides for individual growth as well as relationship harmony*.

TRUSTing your partner’s commitment to the relationship and your partner’s fundamental integrity.

OPENly COMMUNICATING differences in point-of-view in a non-judgmental way, avoiding hidden agendas and criticism.

But, all of that said, compatibility may rest most fundamentally on that impossible-to-define quality: CHEMISTRY.

* However, when one partner’s choices begin to seriously infringe on the other’s happiness a serious problem almost always arises, or else one half of the couple is enabling the other’s destructive behavior. That is what leads me to believe that the apparent harmony of the sober / alcoholic couple’s relationship cited above is in fact highly co-dependent.