Compatibility in relationships
23rd December 2015

As 2015 closes out, Sharon my wife of 38 years, and my family are away while I sit in solitude finishing yet another academic paper. My thoughts drift momentarily to the important value of ‘compatibility’ in relationships.

The following list ought not be read as a list of to-dos, or as high-flying goals and expectations, but as ‘quiet’ signposts, and even as unspoken nuances that stay within and which refuse to either triumphantly or loftily create unhealthy expectation, or, to give a reason for giving up hope. Rather, hopefully they may be those intimate (personal) sensitivities that we come to know of through the many tears we have cried, and from happy moments also. They may remind us at best to learn never to abandon a self-cynicism entirely, or to trust our expectations (of self or of others) entirely. Put another way, they may help us to keep looking for that wise neutral ground of neither overestimation nor underestimation. Overestimation and underestimation are in themselves quite tricky and complex. For instance, we can overestimate an idea without overestimating ourselves, etc. The ‘danger’ in our assessment of a thing is, as Charles Taylor puts it, “that we will not be sufficiently bewildered, that we think we have it all figured out from the start and know what to affirm and what to deny” (1999:36).

Compatibility is a process sometimes seen as:

  • when we can each build different things but want, or choose, to share it together
  • when we come to know that our dream is safe with the other
  • when we are not threatened by the other’s dream, but it pulls us in – we feel invited and not excluded
  • when we respect the difference in the other and commit to investing in it
  • the sense that our difference is safe with the other person
  • when the knowledge that the freedom our love gives, encourages the other to risk and explore
  • the sense that the store of conversation is seemingly endless
  • when silences are not awkward
  • when we look forward to coming home to him or her every day
  • the sense that what the other does we can never do as well, but we want to be with them doing it
  • the sense that we complete the other person’s failings and vice versa
  • when the other’s weakness is not a problem to us (having a gift of grace for it, and of our capacity to cover it)
  • the respect we feel when we know that the relationship we have is not deserved.  It feels like walking with the other is a ‘step up’
  • the sense that without the other person we feel less effective
  • the sense that we have met our match - I definitely felt this with Sharon, as I think she did with me (lol not sure for her). Though it seems to me that this singular fact has kept us interested in each other
  • the knowledge that the other is trustworthy relationally

I wish to pick up on the aspect of trust and grace within compatibility. Trust is itself not an absolute criteria. It is recoverable through the decisive choice to begin again at any stage of a relationship. So never give up – it is worth finding the grace for it. Though, I understand, that certain circumstances do exist that make it impossible for a particular relationship to continue. I am sad that this is so. However, there can still be space for continued grace. Keeping a heart of grace, even in difficult circumstance, is the best way to rediscover  trust in this or in another relationship. Grace and trust are inextricably linked, and are a fundamental part of what makes us who we are – in essence, they have a way of finding each other in relationship (I could say more, but I will constrain myself to stating that this is special). Looking back on our lives, we would each probably admit that the people who have made the most impact and impression on us are gracious people. This does not mean, of course, that they did not speak the truth to us, but rather perhaps that they spoke it in grace and love as Paul exhorts us to do in Ephesians 4. This does not mean also that what we call ‘gracious’ is all what being gracious is. I do not here speak of the externals only. For instance, the grace on or in someone might only become clear to us sometimes decades later in our life when we have suddenly ‘grown up’ from a particularly immature attitude, etc. The word ‘grace’ is itself too complex to engage in this short note. I use it here, as i do the word ‘trust,’ in a less dogmatic sense. However, many overlook the powerful legacy-forming potential of grace that produces trust in a relationship, and of the work it takes to build trust through grace. To have trust does not mean that we do not fail at various times. Rather, what it means is that through the grace of another, or of others, or of ourselves, the residue of trust was not torn down. It means that we stood guard over trust, or that others did so for us when we were not able, and somehow that events or people, etc, did not ‘allow’ us to become closed to trust through an absence, or limiting, of grace. Grace-protectiveness over trust does not weaken trust, but is in fact what strengthens it.

If i may take a slightly different tack. For some, this may sound too idealistic and impractical, and even unwise in the possibility it might create for mistrust or unhealthy habits in a relationship. As a pre-disclaimer, I am not advocating that we not confess deeds that violate a relationship, or that we not engage with earnestness the process of reconciliation, or that a culture of ongoing honest open communication is not important. I speak here also, not specifically of spiritual ways (which I embrace in so far as they help deepen love for another). Given these qualifications, I wish to speak about something that I believe has been extremely helpful for Sharon and I. It is that we try to trust both what we tell each other, and what we choose not to tell. In other words, to learn not to push the other to ‘say’ more than he or she has chosen to say to the other is a grace key to going deeper in marital trust. Again, as said, this includes the space also for honest discussion about things as they crop up. What I am speaking of here is to learn to be better at accessing a grace that provides a broader space for the relationship to grow. The kind of people who learn to do this well have a heightened and healthy self-critique. This approach to communication, which might seem contradictory to the value of honesty and practicality, allows the other the space to grow or not to grow, to think, to even pretend about some things, to adjust, or not to adjust, to wait, and yet still to know that each is for the other. For some, as said, this may sound too foolhardy an approach toward deeper love for the other. However, it may show a more practical and real love not rooted in rules or doubt of the other, but in a grace and love that can do a lot to take us deeper into trust through grace. It shows an irenical sensitivity to the other that in fact emphasizes a deeper level of trust and grace in a place of love and tenderness. The lessons we could learn here in tenderness, patience, and sensitivity, and of the love reflected in Christ’s willingness to subject himself to our violence at the cross, may also immensely benefit the way we view others. To choose to focus on the immense benefit of learning how to go deeper in a daily deeper gentleness may be the most practical and real thing to do to allow both grace and trust to grow.  This does not mean that we would simply be satisfied with less for the other, or with the continuation of unchallenged bad habits. Rather, we may find that the attempt at openness of trust creates the climate for trust and grace to continue to draw our hearts toward more amazing spiritual itineraries. We may then find somewhere ahead that after God (the dearest person we know), there stands next to us as friend and lover the one other on earth whom we desire the most to be with.

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