A Christian Perspective on Staying Happily Married When Incompatible
A square peg and a round hole are incompatible from the start. They are not “capable of living together in harmony”1 (the meaning of compatible). The emphasis is on capable.
Compare the situation in which a man and woman have already lived together in a five or twenty-five year marriage and then get divorced because they are incompatible. How did they come up with that?
“If a square peg doesn’t fit a round hole, neither the peg nor the hole is to blame. . . We must take care that focusing on fault - which is proper for the courtroom - doesn’t carry over into interpersonal relationships."
— Jeffrey Bryant
We can make several guesses.
- They were always incompatible but they did not know, because they had not taken the compatibility test.
- They were always incompatible and they knew they were, but they married for reasons other than “existing together in harmony.”
- They were compatible until an irreparable change happened to one or both of them, rendering them incompatible.
- They choose to label themselves incompatible because they do not want to name the specific reason for their pending divorce.
Anyone of these guesses may be right. The question is whether a couple can recognize their incompatibility and still choose to live together peaceably and happily. A wise couple can.
(1) Confess Dislikes
Timothy Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage states that “some people in our culture want too much out of a marriage partner. They do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love and consolation.”2
“Two flawed people.” So where does one get the idea that the other person would be completely likeable? There are bound to be some dislikes on both sides, which can be magnified to the point of incompatibility; or, with an understanding that both individuals have faults, the incompatibility can be disregarded in exchange for an adventure in learning to love.
Because the dislikes may remain (everything from dislike of seeing a spouse wearing certain color to the way he or she spends money), it is helpful to know them and confess them just so the surprise does not become a reason for argument. Barring destructive habits like abuse or dangerous threats resulting from mental imbalance, most inharmonious actions can be discussed, and some may even be understood.
(2) Maximize Likes
Justin A. Lavner and Thomas N. Bradbury studied 136 marriages. All the couples were satisfied with their relationships at the start and throughout the first 4 years. In the 10-year follow up, those who stayed married had healthier “interpersonal exchanges.”3 They enjoyed stronger and better commitment, communication, emotion and social support.
Early in the marriage, the atmosphere is set for the kind of marriage it will be. The more effort put into enjoying the likes, the less impact the dislikes will have. Marriages become happier when couples intentionally make it so, by practicing habits like the following:
- Commending and strengthening the qualities they like in each other, instead of nagging about qualities they wished for
- Expressing gratitude for the number of similarities instead of regrets over the difference
- Reliving the occasions when love instead of indifference was the controlling factor
- Counting the benefits instead of the inconveniences of the marriage
- Laughing instead of complaining about situations in which your incompatibilities made things awkward.
People who make it a habit to be happy, also know how to share happiness. The dislikes of happy spouses may never disappear, but in time they will be remembered less and less.
- Incompatible Spouses Share Their Secret to Unity
Amanda and Rob Moody met in the Air Force. Amanda was 18, Rob was 20. They both describe themselves as immature, career driven, and selfish. They judged one another even more harshly. Read their amazing story of their happy marriage.
(3) Agree to Disagree
The Serenity Prayer is fitting for every situation in life, and most fitting for marriage. In essence, the spouses who pray this prayer believe that the reasons for disharmony can remain, without making them miserable.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.4
In marriage, it is wise to pray this prayer in stages. First, as individuals, for the serenity to accept the things he and she can and cannot change; then together when they seek courage to change the things they can and the wisdom to know the difference.
It is not enough to clarify thoughts and intentions with God, and leave the spouse guessing. Praying together, whether it be the Serenity or any other prayer, helps to foster a spirit of unity, and makes it easier for spouses who agree to disagree.
(4) Take Regular Relationship Check-Ups
"Couples are usually most compatible the day of their marriage, and things go downhill from there. . . Trouble is, most couples stop trying to be compatible as soon as they're married."5
Therefore whether or not a couple begins the marriage being compatible, it is wise to take regular relationship checkups.
There are various other check-up tools accessible online which can be used occasionally to identify areas which need to be improved, and areas in which there is growth.
People who choose to be in relationships might as well choose to stay happy in them. Happiness is not automatic. A little guidance helps.
Try a Check-Up Exercise
Created by Emma K. Viglucci, Founder of Metropolitan Marriage & Family Therapy, PLLC, this exercise measures marriage health and detects areas which need attention.6
Many divorces happen because the spouses want an easier marriage. The spouses cite incompatibility, discord, conflict of personalities, irreconcilable differences only to find that there are many marriages with similar elements which survive happily.
Happiness in marriage begins with the knowledge that inner peace or harmony is an individual responsibility. Individuals who pursue personal happiness also focus on supporting happiness in others. Marriages remain happy because the spouses are wise and intentional in sharing happiness, not because discord is absent.
Incompatibility Survival Poll
Do you think that marriage can survive incompatibilty?
1. Oxford Dictionaries: compatible - © 2014 Oxford University Press
2. Keller, Timothy: Relevant Magazine; You May Never Marry the Right Person (January 5, 2012).
3. Lavner, Justin A.; Bradbury, Thomas N: APA PsycNET; Why do even satisfied newlyweds eventually go on to divorce? Journal of Family Psychology, Record Display Vol26(1) February 2012
4. Neibuhr, Reinhold: Urban Connection, The Serenity Prayer
5. Harley, Dr. Willard F. Jr.: Marriage Builders,Inc. How to Survive Incompatibility (© 1995-2014)
6. Viglucci, Emma K: Metropolitan Marriage and Family Therapy, How Does Your Marriage Rate? (© 2006)
7. Olson, David H. Ph.D.: Fireproof Couples Quiz (© 2005 - 2014 Life Innovations, Inc.)
8. Arizona Family Therapy and Wellness Center, Inc.: Relationship Check-Up Quiz (© 2012)
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Dora Weithers