The Limitations of “Compatibility” for Marriage

August 17, 2016

Brad Hambrick

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Brad Hambrick

Too often we treat compatibility as it were a noun (something two people share – like a cupcake or eye color) instead of a verb (something two people do – like synchronized swimming or conversing). There is a big, often overlooked, difference between compatibility as a noun and as a verb.

When I hear commercials for dating sites or listen to marriage seminar speakers talk about compatibility, I often get the impression that these tests are like the bloodwork done before an organ donation. They allege to tell a couple if they are compatible with one another in some absolute or scientific sense. That is good advertising, but not an accurate assessment of reality.

Think for a moment. Over the course of human history every combination of husband personality traits and wife personality traits has combined to make excellent marriages. Equally true, every combination of personality traits has ended in painful, bitter divorces. Simply put, compatibility is not the make or break issue for marriage. It may not even exist in the way that the concept is popularly presented.

Are these tests bad? No. They usually do a good job in letting couples know what common challenges they will face based upon their values and preferences (less mystical words for “personality types”). From my experience, rarely is a couple surprised by what they find, and furthermore, any of their friends could have given them a similar assessment.

Should couples take these tests? Sure. They’re fun and usually provide a neutral language to discuss differences that would normally come out during an argument (a time when couples assign moral language – “good” and “bad”—to their differences).

So what’s my concern? My first concern is that a heavy emphasis on “compatibility” during the dating process opens the door to an “irreconcilable differences” excuse for divorce. The fact is we change over time. Who we are when we are dating is not who we will be on our 10th, 20th, 30th, 40th, or 50th anniversary. What happens to the marriage covenant when “compatibility” fades? What happens when the timid young professional becomes a confident leader in his/her field? What happens when the confidant young athlete ages out of being dominant with physical prowess and becomes insecure? What happens when we scored 23 out of 27 on our eHarmony test in our 20’s and only 13 out of 27 in our 40’s?

My second concern is that “compatibility” emphasizes personality matches over growing in godly character as the foundation of a good marriage. When we think we have what it takes, most people coast or look for new challenges.

Let me offer a contrast to the fact that every combination of personalities has made for both great and disastrous marriages. There has never been a good marriage between two prideful, selfish, lazy people. There has never been a bad marriage between two humble, other-oriented, servant-hearted people.

I know those two categories don’t exist in absolutes. We are each a combination of prideful-selfish-lazy and humble-other-oriented-servant-hearted. But hopefully you get my point. Character is the better predictor of marital success over personality traits.

Does this mean any high character person can marry any other high character person and have a great marriage? I would say no. “Spark” and “chemistry” are important to marriage and should not be neglected. But I would say that two high character people without “spark” would have a better marriage than two people who ignore the importance of character with “spark.”

So what is the take away? Learn all you can about your spouse or dating partner. Use personality tests to get to know one another if you like. Be able to predict every foreseeable difference you may have. But do not begin to think that “compatibility” is something you have. Remember compatibility, if the word is to be redeemed, comes from pursuing the same thing of eternal value together – Christ, His character, and His glory.

Join the Conversation

What have you observed about the utility and limitations of personality tests in premarital counseling?

Brad Hambrick

About Brad Hambrick

Brad is Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as an adjunct professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad has been married to his wife, Sallie, since 1999.