What do you need to make a marriage work in the long term? It’s a question that we hear a lot—and one that seems constantly up for debate. Some people will immediately fall back on the old standbys like communication and trust, while others maintain it’s spark and spontaneity that keep you going in the long run. But there’s a much more basic component that doesn’t get as much attention—compatibility.
We often assume that compatibility is a prerequisite for a long-term relationship. That you need to, at least for the most part, like the same food, want to visit the same places, enjoy the same kind of movies. But new research shows that the relationship between compatibility and long-term success is actually far more complex.
Dr. Ted Hudson told Thrive Global that his research found that “there’s no difference in the objective compatibility between couples who are unhappy and those who are happy.” That is, it’s not actually compatibility that has to do with long-term happiness. What he found was a much more interesting connection. Here’s why compatibility may not be the most important thing in your relationship.
Hudson didn’t find that compatibility determined whether or not you were happy in the long term. Instead, he found that unhappy and happy couples view compatibility completely differently. Happy couples were more likely to think that compatibility actually did not matter very much at all—that they were committed to making their relationship work, despite potential incompatibilities. They maintained that it was that commitment that helped the relationship survive over time.
Interestingly, unhappy couples were far more likely to value compatibility as important—and they often pointed to a lack of compatibility as the source of their unhappiness. So while unhappy couples acted like their fate was out of their control—and due to some predetermined incompatibility they couldn’t change—happy couples were more likely to say that relationship success was within their control and that it was something they had worked toward.
Why Being Too Compatible Isn’t Always A Great Thing
Although you surely need some compatibility to make a relationship work, this research suggests that it’s not the most important thing. And in fact, it’s easy to see why being too compatible could be a bad thing. We all know those couples who are so in sync—they wake up together, travel to work together, attend all of their social gatherings together. They have the same hobbies, the same taste in food, and many of them even start to dress the same, and look the same. They are, if anything, too compatible.
A relationship needs a little incompatibility. On the most basic level, it helps keep you independent—you can go and do things that you love but your partner doesn’t, whether it’s yoga or a book club or trying a new restaurant with friends. That gives you both space and keeps you functioning as individuals. But a little incompatibility also provides some mental stimulation. You don’t want to spend your whole time fighting with your partner—but do you want to spend every second agreeing with them? It’s healthy to see other points of view, to debate, to agree to disagree. And if you're too compatible, you miss out on a huge source of relationship bonding—and personal growth.
But Don’t Ignore A Total Lack Of Compatibility
While it’s easy to see why compatibility may not be the center of your relationship, it’s important that you don't romanticize the total lack of it, either. You’ve probably seen a toxic, dysfunctional couple who describes their relationship as “fiery” or “passionate" when it’s really just damaging or borderline abusive. Even if you’re not fully compatible on everything, your relationship should feel like a safe space—and not a battleground.
What’s most important in a relationship is really going to be down to your own needs and wants. Some people might favor passion over routine or understanding over excitement. Your own priorities and needs will shape what matters to you in a partner. But if you’re not totally compatible, that’s OK. Not liking the same movies or having the same sleep schedule isn’t the kiss of death—in fact, it can be healthy in your relationship. As long as it’s a safe, nurturing connection and you’re both willing to work on making it last, that’s what should matter in the long term.