Nailing Down The Perfect Match

Hocus Pocus: Two articles appeared in the New York Times in the last week on couple compatibility. The M.R.S. and the Ph.D. article tracks the changing attitudes towards women’s educational achievements and marriageability over the decades. The early 1900’s through the 1950’s warned that “educated women” were less likely to attract husbands and were cautioned that if they revealed their intelligence in the presence of men, they were doomed. According to recent studies, this is no longer true. In fact, women with advanced degrees today are more likely to marry men who are less educated than themselves, less likely to divorce than their less educated sisters, and receive greater aid from their spouses in the home.

“The Dubious Science of Online Dating” appeared in the Times’ Sunday Review section and focused on research soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest which questions the accuracy of online dating sites who rely on “matching algorithms” to locate suitable mates for their customers. The authors suggest that mathematical formulations based on such variables as similar personality type, ethnic and religious background, and likes and dislikes leave out at least two critical ingredients for compatibility: the quality of the interaction of the individuals which is not predictable from the profiles, and environmental factors including external stressors on the couple such as job loss, infertility and illness. Communication patterns, problem solving tendencies and sexual compatibility, which are significant in predicting successful relationships, emerge only after two people meet. The conclusion the authors’ reach from their research about predictors for successful partnering leaves little doubt that the Hocus Pocus of crunched numbers and cyber pairing just doesn’t cut it. Nothing replaces experience.

Our Cultural Obsession With Couple Compatibility: We are a culture that believes that a good relationship is at the heart of happiness and health. The fact that talk shows, websites and endless news articles attempt to define or map out paths to achieve success in this realm is no surprise. But nailing down the perfect match (we know nothing is perfect, don’t we?) in reality needs to rely more on self-knowledge and an astute tracking of personal reactions to another, along with sound assessments of the quality of the individual sitting across the table from you. The foundation for making a sound choice rests with listening to yourself, knowing your pitfalls, defenses and patterns, and not minimizing the signals inside you that say, watch out while simultaneously looking for signs that the other is capable of self-examination as well.

Time: All of us have heard these words, “I knew I should not have married him/her but…” and then the reasons pour forth. Deposits were made on wedding halls, invitations went out, biological clocks were ticking and loneliness sucked. But how did they get this far along in the process before they allowed themselves to question their decision? I often say to patients, “It is not that you got into an unsatisfactory relationship that is significant. It’s how long you stayed there.” which means simply that somehow denial or avoidance of the importance of their feelings or difficulties prevented aborting the mission sooner than later. What compels folks to choose partners who are not good for them? There are multiple roots but one of the deepest is “fear” that no one else will want them. If the onset of the marriage is going well but problems rear up over time, which they do, fear may foster denial and avoidance again which will delay addressing issues that might be easily fixed in the early years, but will only get more complicated and intractable with time and neglect.

Knowledge: Observing the quality of your interactions with your potential or current mate is the best tool to use in figuring out whether teaming up makes sense. The attribute most promising in a partner is their willingness to look at the nature of the interactions between the two of you with an eye towards improvement as well. If they are not inclined to do that from the onset, this doesn’t bode well for the future when the relationship naturally expands in complications of the shared life. There is useful research available on couple compatibility coming out of The Gottman Relationship Institute and also easily accessible in Tara Parker-Pope’s book, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, which offers useful perspectives on relationship dynamics.

The Informed Consumer: The late CEO of the Syms clothing chain use to end his radio commercials with the slogan, “An educated consumer is our best customer”, though some research suggests this may not be the case for buying suits as “the more informed a consumer or buyer is the more difficult it is to sell them.” But for choosing a life mate, this is clearly the way to go.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

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