Compatibility, in a romantic relationship, is one of those esoteric criteria we all seek despite struggling to clearly articulate exactly what we mean by it. While each of us may have our own definitions, people usually agree on the most important consequence of compatibility in a relationship – it makes the relationship easier:
- easier to build
- easier to sustain
- easier to keep the relationship healthy
It took me a little over 10 years and hundreds of real-life experiences to evolve this functional definition of compatibility into a set of practically useful and verifiable criteria for evaluating the compatibility between any two romantic partners. However, I shall first attempt to appeal to your instinctive understanding of compatibility before pulling you into the logically rigorous domains.
Instinctively, most of us evaluate our compatibility with a person on the basis of how that person makes us feel. The feelings we usually look for can be placed in 3 broad buckets –
- Chemistry or how well we ‘click’: This is largely experienced in terms of how spontaneous and effortless our interactions with this person tend to be.
- Charm or infatuation: This is related to how often we tend to think about them even if we’re trying not to do so.
- Depth or degree of vulnerability: This is a measure of how safe and comfortable we feel about sharing the private, less-understood or even harshly-judged sides of our self with this person.
This instinctive understanding is a great starting point & possibly all that we ever need if (and it’s a big IF) we have all the time in the world to find a compatible partner through trial and error. But if you’ve been on the dating trail, you’d have realized that instinct isn’t always enough, especially in today’s dating world where the pool of potential partners can literally extend to millions of people.
Even if that were not the case, our instincts are still likely to fail us. Why?
- Build vs Sustain: At best, our instincts help us evaluate how easily we can build a relationship with a person. It doesn’t reveal how easy it’d be to sustain that relationship with that person and more importantly, how easy it’d be to keep that relationship healthy.
- Output vs Input: Our instincts are better at focusing on the “output” of an interaction with a person and not on the “input”. On a given day, let’s say the first date, how much chemistry, charm or depth we experience might be influenced by various factors that have nothing to do with the person. This makes it harder to trust our feelings unless we go on many more dates to figure it out by trial and error, thereby lengthening the period of courtship before we can know if they’re compatible with us or not. To make things worse, once we’ve gone on enough dates with a person, we’re likely to stick with them even if our instinct starts telling us that we’re not compatible. This is because of a cognitive bias called ‘The sunk cost fallacy‘.
- People changing vs Circumstances changing: Contrary to what most people think, relationships rarely fail because of people changing. They fail because of circumstances changing. The people involved were always the person who’d think and act differently under a different circumstance. We just didn’t know. Our instinct, at best, can understand them accurately in the circumstances under which we have interacted with them so far. It is bad at predicting who they’ll be when the circumstances change.
Given these shortcomings of an instinct-only approach, you might be able to appreciate why instinct does way better in evaluating compatibility when supported by experience or intelligence. Ideally, both. That’s the stuff that took me 10 years to acquire.
Without further ado, here are the 7 universal signs of compatibility in romantic relationships:
This is related to the level of detail at which you talk (which usually extends to your thoughts and mental conversations too). Have you ever gotten bored in a class because the teacher is explaining something in too much detail for you to stay interested? Maybe you watch youtube videos at 1.5x or 2x because their speed of talking doesn’t match your speed of thinking. In both these cases, what you are experiencing is the fatigue of consuming content at a level of granularity that is significantly different from your own. The same holds for human interactions too. Lemme give you an example:
[person 1 – low granularity]
“I took a cab to come here & it got stuck in a traffic jam for 30 minutes. That’s why I’m late to this date.”
[person 2 – high granularity]
“You know what happened? I booked a cab at 7:40pm. But that guy cancelled and I had to book another guy. By the time he showed up, it was already 8pm. Then there was traffic as soon as we got out of the building… (2 minutes later) …so we got stuck at a red light for the third time and I was like – Damn! I’m gonna be so late for this date… (2 minutes later) …That’s why I’m late to this date!”
Neither of these styles are good or bad by themselves. But if person 1 and person 2 start dating, it’s only a matter of time before they start avoiding spending too much time with each other. Even when they do, they might find some other way to rebel against this mental effort – like agreeing with everything the other person says or talking too much to compensate for the lack of detail from the other person.
Once communication becomes effortful, it is very hard to sustain the relationship in the healthy zone. In other words, the chemistry fades.
Takeaway: Compatibility survives easier among people who have similar levels of granularity in speech and thought.
While unrequited love is a common theme in movies, unacknowledged love is more common in real life. Even after witnessing countless demonstrations of the other person’s love for us, we may still miss seeing their actions as evidence of their love for us if they’re expressing it in ways that are different from how our own mind is conditioned to receive love. It might make us feel not-loved-enough, even when it may not be the case.
Understanding each other’s languages of love is a great first step in becoming aware of each other’s styles. With time, it might also help us adapt to each other’s styles and improve our compatibility. There are probably hundreds of different ways in which people express and receive love. However, for convenience, the most popular framework groups them into 5 categories:
- Quality time: being fully present with each other while engaging in a mutually enjoyable activity.
- Touch: showing affection via physical acts of touch – hugs, kisses, sex, etc
- Words: verbal display of affection – saying “I love you”, “I miss you” or baby-talk or sharing what the other person means to you, etc
- Acts of service: doing something to help the other person in big or small ways without being asked to do so.
- Gifts: more thoughtful and personalized, the better.
Most people have one or two of the above languages as their dominant style, followed by the others. When the dominant love-languages of two individuals match, their relationship might reach peak intensity very rapidly because neither of them will hesitate to escalate the amount of love and affection they shower on the other, since they aren’t uncertain about how the other person feels towards them. However, when there is a mismatch, it might take longer for the intensity of their relationship to reach its full potential – increasing the chances that they might give up before reaching their peak.
Psst: Here’s a quiz you can take to discover your love languages –
Takeaway: Similarities in each other’s dominant love-languages might accelerate how quickly a relationship grows to its peak intensity.
Insecurities make us cautious and guarded in our interactions with others. While in the long term, some of us might want our partners to help us overcome our insecurities by challenging them, a partner who triggers our insecurities right from the start is usually a detriment to the development of a healthy relationship in the short run. It is harder to be spontaneous with each other if our words and actions have to go through an extra “will this make me/them feel insecure?” filter every time.
A majority of people tend to naturally avoid people and circumstances that trigger their insecurity. However, some of us might not be very good at it, especially if we like a certain level of challenge from our partner. Someone challenging our competence, thereby pushing us to grow, can be incredibly rewarding despite making us feel temporarily uncomfortable. Naturally, such people might expect and even welcome a certain level of discomfort from their partners. This might make them likely to confuse the discomfort that comes from triggered insecurities with the discomfort that comes from challenged competence. If they aren’t careful, they might continue to nurture relationships that make them more and more insecure as opposed to more and more competent.
Being transparent about each other’s insecurities and evaluating the extent to which the other person might inadvertently trigger them goes a long way in preventing a relationship from becoming unhealthy. Contrary to what many movie tropes seem to suggest, the beginning of a relationship is the worst time to try and help someone overcome their insecurities. It is way more effective and healthier to wait until both of you feel reasonably safe with each other before teasing out each other’s insecurities.
Takeaway: A transparent exchange of each other’s insecurities might help avoid having to confront your insecurities too early in the relationship.
Our impressions of a person are highly dependent on the context in which we meet them. The context of dating is only a small region in the much larger landscape of life. How then can we know if the chemistry and comfort we experience with a person during a date will extend into all walks of life?
To know this, we need to understand what kind of contexts a person is likely to chase during the larger non-date part of their life. Most of us are unconsciously driven to chase situations that bring out our best selves or at least, make us feel the most comfortable. If two people differ a lot in the kind of contexts that bring out their best, then their unconscious choices will keep pushing them in different directions. Irrespective of how good our initial chemistry is, it will be hard to share a life together if we’re chasing opposite life-contexts in our lives.
While there are hundreds of ways in which a context can be classified, there are three aspects that are significantly more important than the others:
- The Risk Scale: On a scale of 0 to 10, what level of risk appeals to our best self? A person on the lower end of this scale might prefer easy and comfortable life-situations. A person on the other end of this scale might prefer being challenged and pushed out of their comfort zone frequently.
- The Uncertainty Scale: On a scale of 0 to 10, what level of uncertainty brings out our best? A person on the lower end of this scale might prefer highly stable and predictable situations, while a person on the opposite end might invite ambiguity and unpredictability into their life-contexts.
- The Novelty Scale: On a scale of 0 to 10, how much novelty do we need to feel optimally stimulated? A person on the lower end of this scale might prefer familiar and consistent situations. A person on the higher end might prefer situations that are new and unfamiliar.
A good way of knowing where we stand on the above RUN Scale is to think of all the life-situations in which we felt the strongest, happiest and most driven. More often than not, they’ll reveal a pattern that was present all along, waiting to be discovered. The closer someone is to where we stand on these scales, the easier it’ll be to build a life together without unhealthy conflict.
Psst: If you want a quiz that kinda evaluates the same attributes of a person, you can take the Fisher’s chemical type quiz here – She has her own theory of which chemical types are good matches, but I find that her predictions overlap almost completely with the novelty-uncertainty-risk scale.
Takeaway: Being similar to each other in the amount of novelty, uncertainty and risk we seek in life can greatly improve the ease with which we can build a life together.
Defence mechanisms are our go-to behaviours that come out whenever we feel threatened. The threat could be as simple as a disagreement with a partner or a full-brown crisis affecting multiple aspects of our life. You might already be familiar with some of the popular defence mechanisms – passive aggression, suppression, denial, rationalization, intellectualization and the likes.
Imagine what would happen if both people in a relationship have denial as their go-to defence mechanisms? Any conflicts or problems they face will never get resolved even if they are facing the consequences of their problems all the time. Similarly, rationalization and fantasy would only reinforce the negatives of each other’s defence mechanisms, making it harder for the people involved to resolve their problems in healthy and lasting ways.
When two people have compatible defence mechanisms, they improve each other’s ability to deal with conflicts and troubles. Like suppression and intellectualization, for example. When the ‘suppressor’ starts ignoring the presence of a problem, the ‘intellectualizer’ might help them understand it better by virtue of their tendency to analyse problems obsessively. Similarly, when the intellectualizer is getting caught in overthinking traps, the suppressor might push them to let it go since they’d rather not confront the problem head-on. In this example, each person was kinda soothing the ill-effects of the other person’s go-to defence mechanism.
Usually, we have 3 – 5 dominant defence mechanisms we repeatedly fall back on. While it is hard to add new ones, it is relatively easier to train ourselves to switch the relative frequency with which we use each of our already existing defence mechanisms. Understanding each other’s dominant defence mechanisms helps us identify if there are any compatible combinations among them.
To get you started, here are some common defence mechanisms we tend to use:
- Denial: refusing to accept the truth/reality.
- Suppression: voluntarily trying to forget an unpleasant experience or thought.
- Repression: involuntarily pushing an experience or thought out of your conscious memory without realizing that you are doing so (it may still stay active in your unconscious mind).
- Projection: misattributing your feelings/thoughts onto someone else. Ex: thinking that the other person doesn’t like you when in reality you don’t like them.
- Displacement: taking out your emotions on someone/something unrelated to the trigger that caused your emotions in the first place. Ex: getting angry at your partner because of something that happened at work.
- Rationalization: inventing logical explanations to “explain away” the source of your negative feelings.
- Intellectualization: converting a personal problem/situation into an abstract intellectual problem and focusing on solving that instead.
- Sublimation: channelling your emotions/feelings towards an activity you want to pursue. Ex: channelling your anger into sports.
- Passive aggression: expressing your feelings indirectly through words or action.
- Reaction formation: acting in a way that’s opposite of what your emotions/feelings demand. Ex: being extra nice to someone you don’t want to hangout with.
- Fantasy: avoiding dealing with reality by retreating into imagination.
- Humour: trying to focus on the funny aspect of a negative situation.
- Altruism: feeling better by helping someone else who might be feeling or experiencing the same state of mind as yours.
- Acting out: expressing your emotions through exaggerated actions like yelling or throwing a tantrum.
- Dissociation: separating yourself from your emotions or feelings.
- Avoidance: avoiding the source of your negative emotions/feelings instead of dealing with them.
I’m not going to share which of these defence mechanisms are compatible with which others. However, that should be an interesting conversation to have with your partner or prospective partner in order to discover how your defence mechanisms might be influencing the other.
Takeaway: Having compatible defence mechanisms makes it more likely that your conflicts get resolved in a healthy and timely manner instead of dragging you over into the unhealthy zones.
We all want to feel safe and carefree with our partners. Naturally, it requires us to be able to create a safe environment for each other where we don’t feel judged or embarrassed for who we are. Having a partner who is open-minded and non-judgmental goes a long way in creating such an equation with each other. While we may all judge someone or the other at some point in time, it helps if you are willing to suspend judgment when it comes to each other. At the very least, we should be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt when a situation triggers our judgmental instincts. This is where our values or moral systems come into play. It’s hard to not judge someone who is explicitly violating our most sacred values. Having similar values, at least the ones most important to us, helps in building a safe space between each other where judgment is unlikely to play spoilsport.
While there may be thousands of values people may hold on to, they usually fall into 3 categories:
- Categorical morality: these are actions that you consider wrong irrespective of their consequences. For example: you may think it is wrong to kill someone even if it would save a million lives. Such values are hard to change, making it very difficult to overcome mismatch in these values.
- Consequential morality: these are actions you consider wrong only because their consequences are usually wrong. You might not judge such actions too harshly if they didn’t cause a lot of harm. i.e. there is more scope for resolving incompatible values in this category.
- Circumstantial morality: these are actions you consider wrong only in special circumstances where they are likely to have harmful consequences. For example: unwillingness to tell a small lie in order to save you from being grounded by your parents. Conflicts in circumstantial morals are better resolved by avoiding such circumstances when possible.
Further, most people have a certain degree of moral flexibility that is different for people in their in-group vs everyone else. Some people hold their close ones to a higher standard than strangers. Others may be more lenient towards people they care about. Usually, it is easier for people to understand this dichotomy if their partner has the same in-group inclination as themselves.
I must add though that the larger the number of values you hold close, the harder it becomes for you to interact with another human being without letting judgment creep into your mind. (Personally, I’m always trying to figure out the minimal set of values I can hold onto without compromising my motivation to be a good human being.)
There’s a simple way to tell how safe two people feel with each other – the level of laughter and silliness that flows into the space between them.
Takeaway: Partners who can be non-judgmental, at least with each other, is essential to create a safe space for the relationship to thrive.
Last but probably the most important (and obvious) is the sexual chemistry between the two people. I assume that most people who go beyond the first few dates are romantically attracted to each other at the very least. Given that, the most common discrepancy that could arise is in the frequency with which they crave sex. Having similar libidos can prevent you from being frustrated with the other’s sexual expectations. When you do have significantly different libidos, it is important to explicitly address the difference and figure out ways of avoiding sexual frustration.
Takeaway: Understand each other’s sexual needs and figure out how to accommodate each other’s libido into the sexual dynamics of your relationship.
I find this a tricky criterion (just like Helen Fisher’s chemical type test), but my girlfriend likes it a lot. MBTI personality test describes your personality along 4 key dimensions:
- Introversion (I) vs Extroversion (E): do you recharge by spending time alone or by socializing.
- Intuitive (N) vs Sensing (S): do you use your intuition or sensory information to make sense of the world.
- Thinking (T) vs Feeling (F): do thoughts or feelings dominate your inner mental world.
- Perceiving (P) vs Judging (J): do you interact with the world to understand it or change it.
Based on where you stand on each of these dimensions, your personality can be described by a 4-letter acronym like INTP, ENFJ, etc. According to the MBTI framework, people with similar middle-two letters but opposite end-letters are the most compatible. The logic behind this is simple. The middle two letters indicate how your inner world works and the outer letters indicate how you interact with the external world. Being similar on the inner two dimensions makes it easier to understand and resonate with each other. Being opposites on the outer two dimensions makes us chase different kinds of experiences, adding a certain amount of diversity and novelty into the equation. A good mix of “opposites attract each other” and “likes understand each other”.
Psst: You can take the MBTI test here – https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test
There you go! Those are the 7 criteria that I believe are at play in assessing the compatibility between any two romantic partners. On top of these, each individual will usually have their own personal criteria for compatibility – whether in terms of looks, mental traits or lifestyle choices. No matter what they are, as long as the above 7 criteria are met, you’re likely to find yourself in a highly compatible relationship.
Just one last thing before you go – none of us are ever going to find ourselves in a relationship that’s consistently gonna score a 10/10 on compatibility at all times. So the best use of the above framework isn’t to push away people unless they have perfect compatibility with us. Instead, it is intended to help us understand where we currently stand in our compatibility levels with someone and what areas we can focus on improving in order to become more compatible with each other.
Good luck! 🙂