Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Understanding Compatibility

There is so much more in love than black and white. - Amos Lee

Someone I know posted this book excerpt on their Facebook.  Then I saw it re-posted multiple times.  I think it must ring true for a lot of couples, and I found a lot of encouragement from reading it and also this article: Did I Marry the Wrong Person?  I know that Christianity these days carries a lot of negative connotations, politically and socially, but I do think that many Christian values as they relate to marriage offer success for all couples.  For some of you - if you head over there for a peek - it might sound a bit preachy, perhaps you will find too many biblical references if you read all the way through to the end.  But do me the favor of reading at least the first few paragraphs.  For your convenience I have re-posted the book excerpt that initiated my response here.  What was entirely validating about this was that I have been having these exact thoughts for some time, without being able to put them into words.  I have been trying to use this philosophy to support myself in my own marriage, but also to offer encouragement to friends I know who are still on the hopeless search for "Mr. Right."  This is my response.

How our culture misunderstands compatibility.
excerpt from The Meaning of Marriage, by Timothy Keller
In generations past, there was far less talk about “compatibility” and finding the ideal soul-mate. Today we are looking for someone who accepts us as we are and fulfills our desires, and this creates an unrealistic set of expectations that frustrates both the searchers and the searched for.

In John Tierney’s classic humor article “Picky, Picky, Picky” he tries nobly to get us to laugh at the impossible situation our culture has put us in. He recounts many of the reasons his single friends told him they had given up on their recent relationships:

“She mispronounced ‘Goethe.’”
“How could I take him seriously after seeing The Road Less Traveled on his bookshelf?”
“If she would just lose seven pounds.”
“Sure, he’s a partner, but it’s not a big firm. And he wears those short black socks.”
“Well, it started out great ... beautiful face, great body, nice smile. Everything was going fine—until she turned around.” He paused ominously and shook his head. ”... She had dirty elbows.”

In other words, some people in our culture want too much out of a marriage partner. They do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love and consolation, a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch describes it. Rather, they are looking for someone who will accept them as they are, complement their abilities and fulfill their sexual and emotional desires. This will indeed require a woman who is “a novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling,” and the equivalent in a man. A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put—today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.

There is nothing about love that is black and white.  It is a life-long process of discovery, and we will never truly understand the multiple forms love takes or comprehend its deepest depths.  I can say what I'm about to say because I am what people refer to as "happily married."  I hate to kill your Hollywood romantic-comedy, once-upon-a-time love story scenario -  but for 99.9% of people, that isn't how it goes.  If you are not ready to become less selfish and more self-sacrificing, you are not ready to marry anyone.  If you are sitting around waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Just Right to knock on your door, or if you're serial dating for the same purpose, you're probably looking for the Wrong Thing.  No one is ever going to be perfect.

I have an issue with commitment.  Now, don't jump to conclusions.  My issue with commitment was pretty localized to relationships.  I am not afraid of hard work, I can be a very dedicated friend, I was very committed to my education, and in fact, I like to think of myself as loyal.  When it came to love and marriage though, I never thought I would find someone who would a) meet all my incredible standards and expectations b) be able to handle my stubbornness and c) that I would like longer than 2 weeks, for that was about how long my attention span lasted.  For a large part of my life I never expected to marry, and I really struggled with the concept of, what I saw as, "settling" for someone.  For someone so theatrical and so inclined to romanticize everything, I was very logical about my approach to love.  I just didn't think there was a recipe for Mr. Right that would suit my tastes.   

I cannot really tell you why my husband was any different than any other man, or how I came to "know" that he was the one for me, except I think that I had stopped having expectations about who was right.  The facts that I do know are that I met him immediately following my final year of college, which was completely focused on me and me alone.  I wasn't looking for a relationship.  I was solely pursuing my education and my career, and I was learning so many things about who I was. . . alone.  I also know that when I met him, I immediately felt like I could trust him, that he was an innately good soul who sincerely wanted to always do the right thing.  And although I find him sexy, I wouldn't say sparks flew or his eyes sparkled when he smiled.  It wasn't his hot bod or bulging arm muscles.  He wasn't afraid of me... I didn't seem to intimidate him... I just wanted him to take care of me, and I thought I would be pretty good at taking care of him.  He made me feel okay about being alive in this world, like I wasn't meant to go it alone any longer.  I think when you find that kind of love, you think of it in the absolute simplest terms: do I want to live without this person?  After two months, we reached that first "bump" in the road: the possibility of long-distance.  And when he decided to come with me where I was going instead, I was relieved.  I think that was the beginning of "knowing."

Go ahead and laugh, but that's the beginning of our love story.  We met on a road trip and we've been traveling together ever since.  We've had a lot more bumps in the road, and our first year of marriage has been chock full of challenges that many newlyweds don't have to face.  There were many times in our relationship, before and after marriage, that I think we both wondered if we were "compatible" or "right for each other."  We argue a lot.  We like to do things in completely different ways.  We don't really have a lot of hobbies in common.  But I'm coming to understand: that's okay.  Most days now, those conflicts don't worry me.  I'm not frightened when I don't LIKE the person I'm married to every hour of every day.  I don't understand how anyone could have that expectation, and I certainly don't expect it of him.  I feel like it would be impossible to love and appreciate everything about someone all the time.  There are going to be things you just can't stand, that irritate you often.  Again: that's okay.  Those are the things that keep you learning, and make a relationship interesting.  Battling obstacles is what we are meant to do; struggling makes us grow.  If it were simple and easy, trust me, we'd be bored.  We might battle and struggle, but at the root we do also love.  Just because things are hard, doesn't mean we made the wrong choice.

I probably sound like a dream-crusher, but I don't believe in soul-mates.  And if there is someone out there who can reeeeally connect with and reflect my soul in the way you imagine a soul-mate would, I wouldn't want to marry them!  How painful would that be?  So many people have confused standards about who to spend the rest of their lives with. We approach love so selfishly: wanting someone to make ME happy, wanting someone to fulfill MY dreams.  I feel so lucky to have found someone who loves me, but doesn't expect me to stay the same.  He accepts me, not just as I am, but as who I want to be.  We both want to be better people, and marriage is a commitment to never stop trying to become those people.  I hate hearing that "people grew apart."  While I have compassion for that situation, and admit it can happen to anyone, it's something that you allow to happen.  What that means to me is "you just stopped being committed to growing together."  You learn from your mistakes, but you shouldn't flee from them.  We don't outright deserve to be happy in love, rather it's the result of our own personal effort.

Let's be straight about something: I very much believe in love.  I believe that you fall in love and that some loves last longer than others.  But love lasts because you work at it, not because you don't have to work at it.  And if that's not black and white, I don't know what is.

“The truth is, a successful marriage is not the result of marrying the “right” person, feeling the “right” emotions, thinking the “right” thoughts, or even praying the “right” prayers. It’s about doing the “right” things -- period.”
- Mark Gungor


  1. This is a really nice complement to what I've been talking about...because I'm pretty much right there with you on all of it. (Even though I totally have the romantic-comedy-fantasy...I am, actually, able to be realistic most of the time.) Excellent. I'm going to link on FB.

  2. I think you and I are more kindred spirits than we ever knew. (-: And a shame we didn't hang out in college.


    1. most likely true on both accounts! although, I wasn't very nice in college, and that might be why we didn't hang out :/

  3. This post is spot on. Brava, Mrs. White! And I think you have also nailed why so many marriages fail. I've long believed there is no "The One" for any of us, but that the two spend their entire lives becoming "The One" for the other. Kim and I are married six and a half years now, and we are still learning about each other and growing closer together. It's working through/surviving the struggles and frustrations that build a marriage, not just the romantic "moments" (tho those are awesome as well). And most successfully long-married couples I've interviewed on the topic have much the same sentiment. Self-serving romantic fantasy seeks a happy *ending*, but mutual sacrificial commitment built from love creates the foundation for an incredible *story.*

    1. Nice turn of phrase there at the end. I am encouraged by other couples with similar philosophies. I had to do a bit of growing up to realize my selfish and unrealistic expectations of love were just that - unrealistic. But I'm beginning to feel that the real thing is so much better.

  4. Excellent post, Laurel. I think about this very issue quite often. I've been with my boyfriend, B, for nearly five years; we moved in together last fall and have talked about marriage. We're really different from one another, and I sometimes find myself wondering just how the whole relationship still works between us. Are we _really_ right together, given that we are pretty radically different people? He's not my soulmate, but he teaches me much about calming the hell down (I have a major problem with being high-strung and dramatic, if that is not plainly evident). But I know that he has seen me at my worst and is willing to stay, and I can say the same for him. I think I'm just rambling, though . . .

    There might be an analogue between this issue--the search for perfect partners and perfectly happy, fulfilling marriages--and the fact that so many of us in the contemporary U.S. seem obsessed with being happy 100% of the time. We expect, quite unrealistically, that everything should be sublimely positive all the time, although life simply does not seem to work that way. I began to feel significantly more at peace with life in general--my relationship with B, my other relationships, my academic goals, whatever--when I realized that I didn't have to expect a constant state of glee either from myself or from others.