Compatibility Is Overrated
By Rabbi Shmuley
I spend a lot of time counseling couples, both married and dating. If they are a troubled couple, the advice they usually seek is whether or not they should stay together. A month ago I sat with Harry and Denise. Married for four years, with a two- year-old daughter, they both looked miserable during our session. They were also unusually quiet, having long since passed the stage where they could muster the strength to argue. “The truth is,” Denise told me with reddened eyes, “it’s been a long time since Harry and I made each other happy. We’re both really depressed. Maybe we should go our own separate ways, but there’s our daughter to consider.”
There’s a single question I ask that serves as the sole criterion for whether or not a couple should stay together: do you still love each other? If there’s any affection left, even if it’s buried under a mountain of pain, the relationship is still viable. This is not to say that there aren’t other important factors in a relationship. Children are extremely significant, as are, to a much lesser degree, considerations of finances and social pressures. But none of these constitute sufficient grounds for the couple staying together once they have ceased loving each other.
The unique thing about love is that it creates compatibility between two people who would otherwise have nothing in common. I’m one of those strange guys who don’t believe that compatibility is important in relationships. In fact, compatibility is a myth. It is love that brings them together and creates compatibility.
My kids and I are utterly incompatible. I like writing essays, they hate doing their homework. I love smoking cigars, they run out of the room the moment I light up (on the rare occasions that my wife doesn’t shoot the fire extinguisher at me first). I love watching football, while my kids want to watch cartoons.
Yet the strange thing is that this thing called love can create compatibility between me and my kids. It has me crawling on the floor, with them hanging onto my back and pulling out the last black fibers of my hapless beard–and me actually enjoying it. It can cause me to sit and do their homework, amid the humiliation of not remembering a thing about multiplication and division tables. And it can even get me to speak in strange languages as I try and communicate with a young kid. But without love, my kids and I are utterly incompatible. We have nothing in common.
The same is true of my parents. Divided as we are by a generation gap and the issue of my always being right and their always being wrong, my parents’ tastes are utterly different from my own. Yet our love for each other creates communication and a joyous relationship. Because they love me, they take an interest in my life, even in those areas where they would otherwise have no interest.
Similarly, love, attraction, and affection, not compatibility, are the glue that keep a man and a woman together. In the 1980’s, Shere Hite published an important finding in her “Hite Report on Male Sexuality.” She discovered that most modern men date and marry women based on compatibility rather than attraction. Thus, 94 percent of male college graduates will only date and marry women with a college degree. The trend extends to women as well. Ninety-three percent of women will not date or marry a guy who earns less money than them. (That’s why it took a heck of a lot of persuasion to get my wife to agree to marry a rabbi.)
But who are these modern men and women kidding? Is the fact that you both love action flicks sufficient grounds for marriage? Are your similar tastes in music going to keep you from killing each other once you have to share an apartment? Will your common love for Tabasco sauce create the passion that will keep you from boring each other to distraction? And will the fact that you both voted Democrat in the last election dissuade you from cheating on each other?
One of my students who was an inveterate womanizer called me from Peru to tell me that he had finally met the woman of his dreams. “That’s it,” he told me. “I’m going to be an honest man. I’m finally going to get married.” When I asked him how he knew, he answered, “Well, you know how much I love riding horses? Well, this woman I met, she just loves it too.” When I told him that sharing a passion for sitting on the ass of a horse does not make a marriage, he remained unconvinced.
I believe that all this modern emphasis on compatibility is designed to compensate for the dwindling attraction between the sexes. Men and women today are so overexposed to each other that all mystery has been lost. Guys and girls are no longer as curious about each other, as nature designed them to be.
When I was 18, at an all-male rabbinical school in Jerusalem, there was a women’s seminary just down the road from us, and we would watch 700 girls passing by our window going to school every morning. I still remember how we felt then, as the daily parade passed us by. It was not lust that we felt but wonder. To us these women were magnificent and glorious creatures whom we desperately wished to discover rather than conquer. We knew that one day a woman would enrich our lives, without quite knowing how. The curiosity was boundless.
But in a world where men watch Tampon commercials and women know every side effect of Viagra, curiosity is diminished. The holistic attraction that’s meant to compel men and women toward each other, the appreciation for masculine and feminine energies, has lost its potency. In the absence of love, we have fallen back on compatibility as the basis for relationships. And in doing so we have forgotten perhaps the greatest secret of relationships–namely, that love creates compatibility. Love smoothes over the rough edges that would otherwise have a man and a woman grating on each other. Love can bridge the quantum gap that exists between two strangers and is potent enough to sew them together as one flesh.
This is not to say that some elements of compatibility shouldn’t be present in a relationship prior to the couple deciding to marry. It is to say that our understanding of compatibility shouldn’t be trivialized. Having shared values, common beliefs, mutual respect, and a mutual direction in life is compatibility enough, even if you don’t share the same appetite for sushi.
Oh, you may still have one question. It was the question that Denise asked me at the end of our session together. “Well, Shmuley, how do I know if I still love Harry?” I responded with a series of questions: When you get good news, is Harry the first person you wish to tell? When you see him in pain, do you immediately desire to comfort him, even if your relations are strained? When you’re separated for long periods of time, do you find your thoughts drifting to him? Do you still take pride in his achievements as if they were your own? And when you look at your baby’s beautiful
face, do you still see any part of your husband in her? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are still in love.
So take heed. If you want to save a faltering relationship, even if your love for each other is buried deep within your heart, like the quiet fire burning deep within a coal, you can still fan it into a flame with the following three easy steps. First, forgive each other for any pain caused. Second, think only good thoughts about each other. Remind yourselves of all the good times you’ve had together; make yourselves laugh out loud. And third, treat each other the way lovers treat each other: Hold your tongue when you have something nasty to say. Offer each other extravagant compliments. And do nice things that warm each other’s hearts.