Much of relationship compatibility comes down to a fuzzy concept that’s variously referred to as “chemistry”, “clicking”, or just feeling good and comfortable in the other’s presence. This is infamously difficult to predict by any other means than actually spending time around the other. OKCupid-style dating sites, with their extensive batteries of questions about values and preferences, are good at predicting a match in values and preferences but almost useless at predicting this kind of compatibility.
What I think is largely going on is that it’s about compatible patterns of emotional association. Each of us has deep in them various patterns of emotional associations that are hard to predict by an outsider because they seem to follow little “sensible” logic: rather they are formed by a combination of a person’s life experiences and their inborn temperament. Somebody fears abandonment and will freak out whenever they hear an expression that their parent used when angry; for another person that very same expression was used as one of affection, and has the opposite meaning. (Or the same expression might be associated with both fighting an affection: there’s a possibly apocryphal tale about a couple who made sure that whenever they’d been fighting so that their children had witnessed it, they’d make sure to call each other “love” and “dear” to let the children know that they still cared about each other. This lasted until the day that their kids came running to them, complaining that “He called me ‘love’!” “She started it, she called me ‘dear’!”…)
These are relatively superficial examples: typically the patterns go deeper and subtler. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that some of the people with whom I’ve had mutual attraction have exhibited sub-clinical signs of something like avoidant personality disorder, and I feel like exhibiting sub-clinical signs of AvPD has also been the case for myself. There have been few obvious signs of this at the time, but whatever those subtle signs were, some intuitive part of each of us picked up on them, thought this person is like me, and felt attracted without the rest of our minds knowing more than I feel good around this person.
Many failed relationships can be explained as a pattern of emotional compatibility that was a match in one situation (such as when you were going out on dates) but a mismatch in another (such as when you tried living together). Sometimes exactly the same traits cause opposite emotional reactions in different situations. Someone who is hard-working and has lots of impressive achievements can feel like a very appealing partner when you’re just getting to know each other, but feel much less desirable when you realize that they will never have much time for you and that their work will always come first.
The discouraging implication – for those of us who are single or otherwise looking – is that even if you manage to hit off on a date, that’s no guarantee of long-term compatibility. The encouraging implication is that we may already happen to be friends with someone who could be our dream partner: we just haven’t realized it yet. The yet-again-discouraging implication is that it’s pretty hard to find out who that hidden dream partner might be, without spending a lot of time in their presence.
“Love” is a word with many meanings, but maybe the deepest form of love is when you come to genuinely care about the other, in the same way as you care about yourself. Not just caring about the other so that they’ll like you in return, but putting intrinsic value on their well-being, the same way you put intrinsic value on your own well-being.
You ultimately get here, I suspect, by having enough smoothly-going interactions to experience increasing synchrony. Situations where your patterns of emotional association are so compatible that each of you intuitively acts in a way that promotes positive feelings in the other. My guess is that you start caring about the other as much as you care about yourself because some part of your mind comes to actually believe, on a level of emotional logic if not fact, that the two of you are the same.
This feeling of two people becoming one may actually be correct in a very concrete sense, as studies of people who co-operate and like each other show that their behavioral patterns, body language and spoken language, and neural patterns tend to become synchronized with each other. I am once again reminded of this quote from Michael “Vassar” Arc:
> In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. […] People with whom you are interacting […] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]
The opposite of synchrony, when things get really bad, is described as “walking on eggshells” or “being constantly unsure of what the other wants”. It is when the other person’s emotional associations are so out of sync with yours that it feels like anything you say or do may trigger a negative response, or when they really crave from you some behavior that would trigger in them a specific positive response – but you don’t know what that desired behavior would be. Because your patterns of emotional association are dissimilar, you have no idea of what is expected of you, and have no way of intuitively simulating it. “Put yourself in the other’s shoes” does not work because the two of you have different-sized feet: the kinds of shoes that feel comfortably tight to you feel excruciatingly small for your partner, and vice versa.
If a situation gets described as walking on eggshells, it has likely to do with a pattern of mutual incompatibilities that has become self-reinforcing and spiraled out of control. He is expecting a bit of peace and quiet and time for himself; she does not realize this and seeks his company. He tries to make her back away but she doesn’t understand the signals, until he lashes out in frustration. She experiences this seemingly-out-of-nowhere reaction as inexplicable rejection and is shocked to silence for a while, until she can no longer hold it in and bursts out – at which point he is shocked by this seemingly inexplicable hostile reaction that to him came out of nowhere. Afterwards, she feels insecure about their relationship so she pursues mutual closeness more aggressively, while he feels like his independence is at risk so he tries to get more distance. The pattern repeats, getting worse each time.
It does not help that having a negative emotional association triggered is experienced as a threat: it is not actually a matter of life and death, but the way people often react, it might as well be. The ideal thing to do at this point would be for both to draw deep breaths, mutually work to dispel each other’s reactions of panic, and figure out what actually happened and what both meant. The thing that commonly happens instead that both are in too much pain to think clearly and do everything they can to just make it hurt less. This often includes blaming the other and trying to make them admit that they were in the wrong, so that the other would promise to never do anything like that again.
Besides the other obvious problems in using this as a persuasion tactic, there is the fact that even if one partner did manage to force such a promise out of the other, the other still does not know what exactly triggered the reaction in the other. In other words, one person has promised to avoid doing something, but they don’t actually know what it is that they’ve promised not to do. They may know some specific things that they should avoid, but not understanding the emotional logic behind that rule, they are likely to do something else – to them seemingly different – that will trigger the same reaction. And when that happens, their partner will be even more upset at them, because “they broke their promise”.
This is why some people feel that a relationship having explicit rules is a warning sign. Not because having rules would be a bad thing by itself, but because needing to have codified rules means that one of the partners doesn’t understand the other’s emotions well enough to be able to avoid trouble just on an intuitive basis. In the worst case, the number of rules will bloat and get out of hand, as more and more of them will need to be added to cover all the different eventualities.
On a more encouraging note, it’s not actually necessary to solve all the incompatibilities. It’s possible to get away with just accepting that in some situations you will always have incompatible emotional patterns, and then have both partners tacitly avoid getting into such situations. Successful couples don’t actually resolve all of their problems: rather they just get good at dealing with them. In the meanwhile, couples who feel that they should be able to agree on everything end up worse and worse off.
Many if not most people crave a feeling of being understood. They want to feel that their desires and emotions are both understood and also accepted by the people who are important for them. Possibly this desire is so strong in us because of everything above: mutual emotional understanding allows us to have relationships (romantic or otherwise) where things just work, and where each partner can trust the other to understand the emotional logic driving them and can trust the other not to accidentally set off any emotional landmines. It may also be the reason for the thing I mentioned at the beginning of the article, where I’ve experienced mutual attraction with people who share some of my psychological issues: an intuitive part of our minds looks for emotionally similar people.