THE BLOG

Important Areas of Compatibility

05/19/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016

Many couples come into counseling saying that they have realized they are just not compatible.  One or both partners, but usually the woman, says that these areas of incompatibility are making the relationship hopeless.  However, from my experience, there are usually not too many dealbreaker areas of incompatibility in a marriage.  But there are some.  Here are the five areas of incompatibility that can weaken your relationship.  If you're currently single or dating, this is an important post for you too, as you can be sure to assess your relationship in terms of compatibility in these domains before choosing to marry or have children with a partner.

super compatible, at least from the backs of their heads super compatible, at least from the backs of their heads

1. Attitudes about gender roles

This is a very important one.  It can be very difficult to move forward if, for example, a man thinks that a woman's "job" is to be a wife and mother, and that his role is to be a breadwinner, and his wife wants to work full time outside the home.  Often, women will say, "He just wants a woman like his mom, and I never thought that was the case when we were dating."  Just as frequently, men say, "I thought she wanted to keep working, but it seems she expects me to support her while she stays home with the kids.  I didn't have any idea she wanted that." Often, couples do not explicitly discuss what each partner thinks about gender roles prior to marriage (particularly as they apply to division of labor when parenting), so each partner feels hoodwinked and disappointed.

Usually, each partner's attitude about gender roles stems from early childhood experiences and observations of their own parents.  If compatibility or compromise is to be reached on these issues, it often requires insight-oriented therapy to examine assumptions about gender, including where they came from and how they are currently hurting or helping your relationship.

2. The importance of sex

Note that I don't say "equal sex drives," because, especially in long-term monogamy, and double especially after kids, men usually have much higher sex drives than their wives.  However, couples that really struggle have one partner who just doesn't think that sex is a big deal, and one who thinks it's essential for closeness.  In two marriages where the wife's libido is next to nil, the one where this fact bothers the wife will be much happier than the one where the wife is not at all concerned.  Check these guys' stories out for validation of this.

If you are the partner with the lower sex drive, the least helpful thing you can say is, "It's just sex!  It's not a big deal!"  And if you're the partner with the higher sex drive, the least helpful thing to say is, "Without sex, we're like roommates."  Both of these statements invalidate the other person's entire worldview.  Empathy and validation are key in coming to an understanding in this arena.

3. The importance of romance

Just like how women are more sexual at the beginning of a relationship, men are often more romantic.  This is all biology and makes sense evolutionarily; the man is wooing the woman and the woman is enticing the male, both with the biological imperative to breed with the other (and the woman's imperative is to keep the male around for a couple of years afterwards, to help her raise a baby).   But when one partner, whom I will call "the man" because, let's face it's, it's often the man, decides that romance is silly once you're already married, this can come as a tremendous blow to the other partner, who still yearns for this type of connection.

As I discuss above, the issue isn't so much with couples where the husband isn't romantic "enough," it's when he condescends to the very idea of being romantic or complimentary, and thinks that it is silly for his wife to "need" this.  Often, these types of men were raised in families without a lot of emotional expression, so they are not necessarily "good" at romance.  Instead of trying, and possibly coming off foolish, they deny that romance is important or meaningful.  And instead of realizing that their husbands may just be trying to save face in an arena where they know they may fail, wives often believe that their husbands are just "cold" or incapable of intimacy.

If this describes your relationship, it is often very helpful to have a discussion about romance and the role, if any, that it played in your life growing up. Did you see any romance at home?  Did you yearn for it?  Was it mocked by one or both of your parents or your culture as a whole?  These types of conversations can be a great jumping off point for couples to be able to see one another's perspective about this sensitive issue.

4. The role of extended family

When you have a husband who calls his mom for childrearing advice every day and a wife who prefers to be independent and does not ask her family for much, there can be a great deal of conflict.  This also extends to areas where one partner feels "obligated" to her family in various regards (whether it's weekly dinners, daily phone calls, vacations together) and the other feels that decisions should be made primarily as they impact the nuclear family.  Sometimes, one person has not individuated much from their family of origin, and this can be frustrating for the other partner, who feels they have married a child and not an adult.

This type of conflict can become even worse when one partner's family starts criticizing the other partner, either outright or passive-aggressively, and this person does not defend the partner.  In-law "drama" can sometimes be the death-knell of a relationship, particularly when it is extensive and one partner feels that the other does not understand the severity of the problem.

Both individuals who are enmeshed with their families of origin and those who want a great deal of distance likely have unresolved childhood issues.  These issues emerge at a subconscious level, and are likely informing their attitudes toward the current involvement of extended family in their lives.  Family issues can be very sensitive, hot-button topics, and can benefit from introspection and counseling targeted toward helping a person see the impact of their behavior on their relationship.

5. Finances

If one partner is anxious without a cushion of savings and the other is an impulsive spender, this can lead to an extremely conflictual relationship.  One partner feels stifled and the other feels terrified.  This sort of imbalance can really become toxic if one partner feels financially dependent on the other, such as if a mother takes off work for a few years to stay home with her kids.  Then, any differences in how the partners choose to spend money will become highlighted and can lead to tremendous hostility.  Just as in the other areas, the way that you were raised greatly impacts your views about money and how to spend it.  Conversations about the role of money in your upbringings, and attempts to use empathy and validation in your discussions, can make this area easier to talk about.

Now, even if you are incompatible in one or more of these areas, it does not mean that your entire relationship is doomed.  Counseling can often help partners clarify their needs and goals in relationships, and one or both may be able to become more flexible with introspection and effort.  Never lose hope!  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist That Says "Incompatibility" is Usually Not The Main Issue, It's When Partners Aren't Willing To Change.

For more, visit Dr. Rodman at Dr. Psych Mom, on Facebook, and on Twitter @DrPsychMom.