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Compatibility: What Qualities are Needed to Get Along? The Little Things Will Ruin Life Every Time

Updated on December 7, 2012

Recently I spied a tattooed couple. Tattoos are not uncommon these days. What drew my attention was the number of tattoos. His entire back was covered and she had them up and down her arms and legs. The tattooed couple was not alone. She carried a small baby—no tattoos as yet. I will admit I am not a big fan of tattoos, but I have become used to seeing them more and more, and these were rather stylish and well done. Still, I wondered why anyone would want that many. Then I was struck by a thought. In a world where there are so many divorces, where so many people marry the wrong people, these two are probably very compatible.

In one of her novels, British author Elizabeth Goudge wrote that people who disagreed on “the eternal verities of life” could live together comfortably so long as they agreed on how wide the window should be open. Statistics do not entirely agree with the late Miss Goudge. Of the types of “mixed” marriages that fail—ethnic, racial, religious—it is the marriages of mixed religions that seem to fail the most often. Still, she had a good point. Those irritating little day-to-day habits can drive mild mannered people to madness.

Let’s start with a basic, food. In an age geared to take-out, this may seem to be a moot point. He can order what he wants and she can order what she wants. But folks still do cook and judging by the number of cooking shows and the very full grocery carts I see, they cook a lot. Even here people might think one can always make extra side dishes. If he likes the peas and she likes the carrots, how hard is it to make both?

The problems arise from what each was raised with and it is not necessarily differing ethnic dishes. Some spouses, particularly those who love to cook, love to learn how to do those dishes from the other side of the family. The real problem is more subtle, arising from the quality of the texture of the food. If she comes from a family that is careful about overcooking, the vegetables need to be just a little bit crisp and the pasta al dente, and he comes from a family where everything is cooked to mush and anything less than that seems raw, the couple has a predicament.

When my mother was in high school she used to go to the Harvard Dental School for her dental work. The student who worked on her teeth used her for his big exam. When he passed he took her out for a celebratory dinner at an expensive Boston restaurant famous for its steaks. It was also known for its unflappable, if slightly supercilious waiters. One felt one should genuflect to them.

Everything went well for the first few minutes—until they ordered their dinners. My mother was mortified when her companion said to the waiter, “I want steak, but please, burn it. Really burn it. That’s the way my mother made it and I can’t eat it any other way.” The waiter cringed, but true to the standard of the restaurant, held his head high and said, “Of course, sir.” My mother said nothing, but felt sorry for the waiter. What would happen to that waiter when he went back to the kitchen and tried to tell the cook?

Fortunately, this was not a romantic relationship. Even for love my mother would have refused to feed this fellow burned food. She would have gone to the mat to try to re-train him to eat unburned food. But those quests are usually doomed.

Another irritating topic can be chores. Not necessarily who does what, although there may be serious disagreement over that. Less obvious is the manner in which individuals go about their work. Let’s say he is like the television character from MASH, Charles Emerson Winchester, The Third. Winchester prided himself on doing one thing, doing it very well, then moving onto the next thing. This type always, always, always has to finish a specific task no matter what. He may have trouble being married to a woman who accomplishes her work in stages.

For example, she plops a basket full of clean laundry at the foot of the stairs to take up later. She knows there are other items she wishes to take up—soap for the bathroom, a couple of library books, a replacement bulb for a lamp—so she will place them all in the basket and take them together. That way she only has to make one trip up the stairs. She will get around to taking up that basket three hours later. That drives him crazy while his inability to ever shift gears drives her crazy.

Many housekeeping tasks can give rise to differences born of the families they were raised in. His mother thinks the boast of a floor being so clean you can eat off is ridiculous. “My children do not eat off the floor. In fact I don’t want the dog to eat off the floor. I’m going to put his bowls on a stool. Bending down all the time to eat and drink is probably a strain on his back and neck.” Her mother can’t walk past the tiniest speck of something on the floor without sweeping or picking it up. If the floor looks dirty while she is cooking, she will try to wash the floor and cook simultaneously. And she has notions about dishcloths. “Let the dishes air dry. The hot water has gotten rid of the germs. I don’t want them re-infected by cloth.”

There are so many things a couple can differ on. If one is tidy and the other is not, that can be a problem. Differing tastes in music may not matter—until they travel together in the car. Speaking of travel, a true recipe for disaster is when the four-star vacationer, in love with upscale restaurants and rooms with a view, marries the outdoorsy ‘Let’s hike the Appalachian Trail’ type.

Cars can be a particular sticking point since they are so expensive, even in two-car families, and even when one side is willing to concede. Scenario. He has always liked sporty cars, but he figures his new wife, particularly as children come along, will want something roomy, probably an SUV. She can then carry the kids and their friends and all their goodies everywhere, not to mention shopping, laundry, etc.

He sighs, but realizes that the SUV is practical. He begins to ponder the advantages—all those large objects he can carry in it. If he wants to work on the house, he can carry lumber and other building supplies. As the children get older, he can take them kayaking and camping and bicycling. The SUV can carry the kayaks and the tents and the bikes to wherever they want to go. He is feeling pretty happy about that SUV.

Then he finds out she does not like SUVs. She likes mid-sized sedans. In fact, the idea of a large vehicle that can be stuffed with stuff does not appeal to her at all. She believes that the larger the vehicle, the more stuff appears to fill it. Own a smaller vehicle, it forces the driver to choose what is really necessary. He is now miffed. Trading his beloved sports car for an SUV was one thing—but for a sedan.

To return to our tattooed couple, the compatible pair, I can picture them as a little old couple on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. I see them debating whether they should each get one more tattoo to commemorate their years together. For this couple I do not see a fifty inside of a gold circle. I see, perhaps, swans, birds that are said to mate for life. Or intertwining names of their great-grandchildren. Or, if they are sentimental, an image of the tattoo parlor where they got their first tattoos together.

But how much does anyone want to bet that, in a fit of generational revolt, their children will refuse to get tattooed?

© 2012 Teddi DiCanio


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