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Dr. Neil Clark Warren

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The Elusive Marital Ingredient

Posted: 11/16/11 12:48 PM ET

Our culture often acts confused -- even shell-shocked -- when the idea of marriage gets raised. This past summer, in my article entitled "On Second Thought, Don't Get Married," I suggested there is nothing wrong with marriage as an institution, and, in fact, when you get it right, there's nothing in the world to compare with it.

But the real culprit, the reason some people are threatening to give up on marriage, is that the way we select our marriage partners has become more and more deficient in the face of ever greater personal and interpersonal complexity. At the crux of my case is the idea that to be happily married "for life," two people need to have -- from the very start -- "broad based compatibility."

Stunningly, my editorial generated healthy discussion and drew hundreds of responses. The idea that a lack of "broad based compatibility" is at the heart of the dramatic marital wrangling in our culture was explored by dozens of responders. Obviously, there is a need for a deeper and better explanation of what I mean by broad-based compatibility.

What is broad-based compatibility?

Everybody gets married because they have some compatibility.

But we have seemingly assumed that if you're really attracted to another person, and if the two of you have four or five things in common (e.g., your sense of humor is a lot alike, you are both hard workers, you read the same books, and maybe you even have the same spiritual orientation), you are sufficiently compatible to have a good long term relationship. But when I talk about "broad based compatibility," I am talking about something much deeper (and broader) than that.

My thinking on this question was initially triggered in 1993 when I wrote to 100 marriage experts in America and asked them to recommend the very best marriage they knew -- the one they admired most for its vibrancy and its stability. I interviewed these 100 couples (and eventually hundreds more) and began to understand what made their marriages extraordinary.

In great marriages, the couples don't just share similar tastes, but they have shared viewpoints, similar values and complementary personalities. For example, if one member of the couple is super ambitious, the other tends to be as well. Moreover, if that same person loves to spend a lot of time with family, so does his (or her) partner. And finally, if he or she is deeply spiritual, the other is similarly built to emphasize spiritual matters.

It became obvious to us that the great marriages have the longest list of complementary traits. One partner reads a local daily paper and the NY Times Sunday paper, and the other loves to do the same. They also both struggle with the same political issues, take a similar level of interest in community fund raisers, and get turned on -- or off -- by the same kind of candidates and global issues. And, if one of them loves to watch the news every night, the other one usually does as well. They may not vote for the same ticket in November, but they have similar amounts of energy about the issues. Finally, if one of them is wild about a basketball, football, or hockey team, the other one is excited about sports too.

The same is true about their values--across multiple arenas. In the great marriages, a partner who likes a clean car and a clean body and a carefully mowed lawn, does significantly better with a mate who appreciates the same. One may like ballet or symphonies a bit more than the other, but it isn't often that one is a true devotee and the other is totally bored by the whole process. They feel comfortable spending about the same amount of money on gifts for friends, they treat holidays and seasonal celebrations similarly, and they have family routines that line up almost perfectly.

On the other hand, my forty years as a marriage therapist have convinced me that narrow based compatibility has seduced more people into marriage -- and then dumped them on the shores of the maritally frustrated and the intensely disappointed -- than any other cause. In my experience, sexual attraction and similar levels of spiritual passions are the most frequent causes.

For instance, if two people are really attracted to one another and they are pulled together by their faith, they sometimes assume they will be compatible in all other areas. But very often they're not! And this is a big reason that the divorce rate is surprisingly high among the highly religious. I suspect it is because they put so much stress on finding a person who is religiously the same as they are -- and then dozens of far less explored, and incompatible variables end up driving them crazy -- and causing them to leave each other. Just because they're both extremely religious, they assume they "just have to be right for each other." But "broad based compatibility" truly needs to be broad based!

Why is broad-based compatibility important?

When the tough times come in a relationship, as inevitably they will, the amount of compatibility or shared characteristics had better be astonishingly broad. Thousands of couples have seriously underestimated all the ways they need to be compatible from the beginning. And their relationship has fallen apart with the first Category 1 marital storm.

Sometimes people think they're setting out on a two-mile trip across a lake, and it turns out the lake is an ocean, and the nearest land is a thousand miles away. What they needed was something a whole lot bigger than a canoe or a sail boat. When the economy turns miserable -- like it is now -- and one of them loses their job -- and their house payment is getting later and later, and savings are dwindling -- this is the when they need a whole lot more than simple sexual attraction, spiritual compatibility or the ability to laugh together. They need the kind of deep values in common, steel like characters that are a lot alike, a high level of industry in common -- and many other shared qualities that will keep them strongly afloat together until the better times start coming around.

Admittedly, finding someone with whom you enjoy the sturdiness of broad based compatibility is unbelievably demanding, and is becoming ever more complex with the wild changes in our culture. But the point is that way too many "marital aspirants" place way too much emphasis on factors like attraction and chemistry (as important as it is) or on spiritual passion (as critical as this is) or on partying and socializing (as meaningful as this can be), and then seem to assume they're ready to think seriously about marriage. This colossal misjudgment is at the heart of America's astounding marital failure rate.

So, there you have it. Physical attraction combined with a fairy tale kind of hope won't provide the kind of foundation that a marriage these days almost always requires. A lot of what makes a great marriage really work is determined by the up-front selection. Get this selection right, and then get ready for a lifetime partnership in this magnificent, if sometimes complicated and ever-changing, state we call marriage. When you get it right on the front end, the result may well be the deepest and most joyful of all human experiences.