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We're Just not Compatible

...or maybe what you're doing is just not working...

Sometimes couples will describe their painful and seemingly unending struggles and end up telling me, "Maybe we're just not compatible." Meaning nothing will work except splitting up. .   

What does it mean not to be compatible? Do you share values? Do you enjoy spending time together? Do you admire each other as parents or business owners or artists? Is there a sexual spark? Can you laugh at something together? If you say yes to any of these, compatibility is not the problem. It could be that you've just drifted apart--like so many couples who come to couples counseling. You've fought too many unsuccessful fights or you've stopped talking about the difficult stuff altogether.

Or, to put it more bluntly, you stopped paying attention to the good in each other and let your partnership collapse in negativity.

For sure, some couples are not compatible--either in personality or values. One wants children, the other absolutely doesn't. One has immovable political or social views the other finds abhorrent. One finds Jesus and can't see staying with a non-believer. One stops drinking and embraces recovery while their partner stays in addiction. People change, sometimes radically, and not every relationship survives that.

This isn't about compatibility; it's about how you handle differences and discomfort and resentment. Learning how to express them and how to hear your partner's view, even when you're upset, is the hard work of intimate relationships. There are lots of ways to learn this: books, podcasts, friends, weekend workshops, couples therapy.

How a couple dealt with their first disagreement sets the stage for how they will go forward. Most couples -- most people -- are not set up to handle conflict or express hurt/anger/resentment. We didn't see our parents do it well; we don't find it at work, and we rarely see it done well in the wild. We either bully (shout, talk over, roll our eyes) or retreat (get silent, agree when we don't agree just to stop the fight, withdraw). Those are what Terry Real calls Adaptive Child strategies--what we did to survive our family's dynamic as children. He also calls them Losing Strategies--because the relationship always loses when they're employed.

Just a quick reminder of those Losing Strategies:

  • Being Right
  • Controlling your Partner
  • Unbridled Self-Expression
  • Withdrawal
  • Retaliation

Take a good look at yourself in your mind's eye during the last fight you had -- was that you trying to be right? Were you taking no prisoners with your outsize emotions? Were you telling your partner they really needed therapy? Or did you slam out of the house or retreat into hours or days of silence? Maybe it wasn't your partners; perhaps you just weren't being compatible with your best self.

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