Relationships have to be a conscious decision. We must know that there are no perfect people, that there are no guarantees, and that being in a relationship will require us to change in some ways. When relationships are treated in this way, we take ownership of the relationship and of our role in it. We take ownership of our own development.
There’s an overall feeling, for many of us, that we’ll someday meet our perfect person, fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. This does occasionally happen, but it’s certainly not a plan. If you go into a significant commitment and are under the impression that any problems that arise will pretty much melt away—because, after all, you’re soul mates—you’re setting yourself up for disaster. How prepared can you be if your worst-case scenario is “Utter and Continuing Joy”?
Long-term romantic relationships are unique—and not just because you (usually) get to have sex in them. When you spend a significant amount of time with another person, tendencies and conflicts naturally arise. From these conflicts we learn how to disagree with each other, we learn how to make up, and we get to consciously assess if this is a relationship that we want to be in. More so than a parent, a best friend, or a roommate, long-term romantic relationships tease out our hangups, issues, and other idiosyncrasies. And these issues beg to be addressed.
Part of what we learn from looking into the mirror held up by our partner is compromise. No one likes compromise, but everyone in a relationship must endure it to some degree. The degree will vary from person to person, and it is directly proportional to compatibility in determining the success of the relationship.1
Imagine two people who share compatibility of 75%. (How compatibility works is certainly up for discussion.) For the relationship to continue to work, the couple must compromise to make up the other 25%. Similarly, a relationship doomed for failure could have two people who share a compatibility of 80%, but are only willing to compromise 5% of themselves for the relationship.
Sometimes the gap is covered by one person compromising themselves outside a range that they’re comfortable with, but this usually lasts only a short time. Couples sometimes go to therapy in an attempt to make up gaps in either category. It strikes me that therapy is often another way of asking the couple to acknowledge that compatibility and compromise matter, and that relationships have to be a conscious decision. Sometimes this works, but sometimes couples therapy is like using a defibrillator on a decaying corpse.
Compromise and compatibility, compatibility and compromise. Without these two things, and knowledge of our own, a relationship can be nothing more than shallow and short-lived.1It’s arguable, but lessens my point, that compatibility includes the willingness to compromise.