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Compatibility, in a romantic relationship, is one of those esoteric criteria we all seek despite struggling to clearly articulate exactly what we mean by it. While each of us may have our own definitions, people usually agree on the most important consequence of compatibility in a relationship – it makes the relationship easier:

  • easier to build
  • easier to sustain
  • easier to keep the relationship healthy

Instinctively, most of us evaluate our compatibility with a person on the basis of how that person makes us feel. The feelings we usually look for can be placed in 3 broad buckets –

  1. Chemistry or how well we ‘click’: This is largely experienced in terms of how spontaneous and effortless our interactions with this person tend to be.
  2. Charm or infatuation: This is related to how often we tend to think about them even if we’re trying not to do so.
  3. Depth or degree of vulnerability: This is a measure of how safe and comfortable we feel about sharing the private, less-understood or even harshly-judged sides of our self with this person.

This instinctive understanding is a great starting point & possibly all that we ever need if (and it’s a big IF) we have all the time in the world to find a compatible partner through trial and error. But if you’ve been on the dating trail, you’d have realized that instinct isn’t always enough, especially in today’s dating world where the pool of potential partners can literally extend to millions of people.

Even if that were not the case, our instincts are still likely to fail us. Why?

  1. Build vs Sustain: At best, our instincts help us evaluate how easily we can build a relationship with a person. It doesn’t reveal how easy it’d be to sustain that relationship with that person and more importantly, how easy it’d be to keep that relationship healthy.
  2. Output vs Input: Our instincts are better at focusing on the “output” of an interaction with a person and not on the “input”. On a given day, let’s say the first date, how much chemistry, charm or depth we experience might be influenced by various factors that have nothing to do with the person. This makes it harder to trust our feelings unless we go on many more dates to figure it out by trial and error, thereby lengthening the period of courtship before we can know if they’re compatible with us or not. To make things worse, once we’ve gone on enough dates with a person, we’re likely to stick with them even if our instinct starts telling us that we’re not compatible. This is because of a cognitive bias called ‘The sunk cost fallacy‘.
  3. People changing vs Circumstances changing: Contrary to what most people think, relationships rarely fail because of people changing. They fail because of circumstances changing. The people involved were always the person who’d think and act differently under different circumstances. We just didn’t know. Our instinct, at best, can understand them accurately in the circumstances under which we have interacted with them so far. It is bad at predicting who they’ll be when the circumstances change.

Given these shortcomings of an instinct-only approach, you might be able to appreciate why instinct does way better in evaluating compatibility when supported by experience or intelligence. Ideally, both.

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