When a couple comes to therapy, it’s not at all unusual for them to complain that they are “incompatible.” Incompatibility is often seen as a terminal condition, a statement that there is something so fundamentally wrong with the match that nothing can be done about it. It has become a social construct that suggests that people need to be more alike than different if they are to get along.
But what does “incompatibility” really mean? The fact is that people can and do have successful marriages even though there are major differences between them. People marry and stay married despite differences in religion, political leanings, or upbringing. Democrats marry Republicans. Jews marry Catholics. There are successful love matches of people with a significant age difference. People marry people of a different race or nationality. Introverts marry extroverts. Neatniks marry slobs. Stylish people marry the not-so-stylish. When such couples “work”, they have found their differences to be enriching and interesting, even exciting.
When people cite such differences as the basis for their discontent, it’s usually code for something much more important. “Incompatibility” usually means an important difference in values, moral code, or deeply held beliefs about rules and roles. Often these issues are extremely painful and threatening to talk about. Rather than confront them, the couple lands on fights about surface issues like who should take out the garbage or whether it’s better to buy fresh or frozen peas.
Ideally, values-level differences are discovered, talked about, and resolved well before a couple decides to marry. But sometimes sexual attraction, loneliness, or other needs get in the way of doing the “due diligence” before deciding to marry. A therapist’s job is to cut through complaints about “compatibility” and to open up discussion about the differences they find so threatening. Often such discussions become the basis for a deeper and richer relationship, not reason to break apart.
There are no “right” ways to resolve values level issues. It is a mistake for a counselor to have preconceived notions about what is correct. Except in cases of abuse, I believe that therapy is not a forum for training couples in our idea of an ideal relationship. Instead, I think it’s our job to provide a safe and supportive environment for a couple to surface values-level differences and to come to a comfortable agreement or at least mutual tolerance about these issues when they can.
When there is no possibility of resolution, they can perhaps come away from the counseling experience with a better understanding about what they stand for individually and what they want in a relationship.
Values Level Incompatibilities are Explored
Couples that succeed are those that have settled on mutual decisions about issues like the following. They are in no particular order – although I’ve found that fidelity and trust issues are what most frequently bring people into my office.
Fidelity: Fidelity and “cheating” are in the eyes of beholders. For a marriage to last, couples need to have a clear understanding of what they expect of each other and themselves in terms of sexual attractions to others. The spectrum of what people believe to be acceptable is huge. Some couples agree to a non-monogamous relationship marriage as long as each is discreet about it.
Others insist that even a close friendship with another person threatens the relationship. It’s crucial that a couple clearly define and be comfortable with what being faithful truly means to them and their willingness to abide by it.
Honesty and trust: Without trust, a relationship can’t last. There needs to be a mutual understanding about the difference between privacy and toxic secrecy. A marriage is sustainable only if each is committed to being worthy of each other’s trust as they define it. Further, and of critical importance, each is committed to engaging the other in a conversation if they want to change their basic agreement about what is and isn’t permissible behavior.
Loyalty to couple: Related to fidelity is coming to terms with what loyalty to each other means. In some cases, there is pointed disagreement that how to respond to the demands and needs of the older generation. Some couples struggle with how they should accommodate the needs of children from a prior marriage or partnership.
In others, there is disagreement about how much time each person spends with their own friends. No good can come of either individual feeling forced to choose between people important to them.
Moral code: Is the couple in basic agreement about what is good and right? Such beliefs are not attached to a particular political party or religion. But social issues have a way of coming home. Personal experience can also be codified into a rigid moral stance that can become problematic in the marriage. Is the couple in accord about when and how to forgive – or not? Do they think people should have second chances or do they believe that people should be required to permanently live with the consequences of mistakes? When does “right” over-rule expedience in their own behavior and their expectations of each other?
Roles: “Little things” can become major issues when couples don’t agree on roles. Fights about how clean is clean, whether to buy a new fridge, or whether to go to the other’s holiday party may be a metaphor for unresolved disagreement about each other’s role in their relationship and who gets to decide what.
Allocation of resources: Strongly held beliefs about how money is earned, spent, and generally managed is often at the root of what seems to be merely a fight about who pays what bills. Major differences in habits and beliefs about how money (and time) is spent need to be hashed out if the couple is to last. Neither can feel like they are being taken advantage of or disregarded.
Parenting: Many a couple that did fine as a twosome hits a major bump in the road once they become parents. The allocation of attention, time and money has to shift to accommodate the demands of family life. Beliefs about parenting roles and how to raise children (including whether and how to discipline them) surface other differences. Without clear communication about the changes once two becomes three (or more), such differences can capsize the couple.
Work/Home Balance: It isn’t unusual to find that a couple hasn’t clearly negotiated balancing home and parenting tasks around one or both individual’s careers. Assumptions about the demands of a career trajectory sometimes conflict with any and all of the other issues.
Incompatibility, then, isn’t a useful construct. Delving into what the term means to a couple is the beginning of important discussions about each person’s basic system of belief and how those beliefs are expressed in the more practical day to day functions of being a couple instead of two individuals. The process of coming to a mutual understanding and agreement about values level issues can be very difficult, even painful, but done well it deepens and strengthens a relationship.