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A wise Russian novelist once said, “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.”

Leo Tolstoy died long before he would have ever even heard about the concept of relationship counseling—never mind the particular philosophies of The Gottman Institute—but I think he would be on board with the insights by relationship expert John Gottman on how to handle the concern of incompatibility in a relationship.

In his decades of research, Gottman has uncovered that compatibility—what most of us consider crucial criteria—surprisingly doesn’t matter all that much when it comes to long-lasting love. Rather, he believes there’s something far more stronger: unity. Let’s explain.

What You Have in Common Doesn’t Make Romance Last

When we are trying to get to know someone, we usually start by asking about their interests, the “what” in their life. While these things are fine conversation openers, what we naturally are trying to do is gauge their answers to see the types of things that we relate to—ultimately assessing how they’re similar to us—and scanning how our lifestyles and interests could potentially mesh and start a life together.

Some of these “what” questions might sound familiar:

  • What shows do you like to watch?
  • What books do you like to read?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What music do you like to listen to?
  • What’s your favorite way to exercise?
  • What’s your political view on A, B, C . . .

Anyone getting first date flashbacks? While these sorts of questions are certainly tried-and-true conversation starters, when it comes to potential relationship harmony, the answers shouldn’t necessarily define the relationship’s potential. Interests wane and evolve depending on the season, and while it’s nice when common interests are compatible, it isn’t necessary for a happy relationship. Rather, what’s more important is how you act together.

Unity Is ‘How’ You Interact

Michael Fulwiler of The Gottman Institute, explains, “Unity doesn’t mean you’re the same. It means you’re together.”

It’s the idea that how you’re together matters far more than what you’re doing together. It’s this “how” that determines whether the relationship is going to thrive.

“How a couple interacts is the single most fundamental aspect to creating a successful relationship,” Fulwiler says. “Meaning, it’s not who you are or what you do that will prolong or help you find the perfect mate. It’s how you speak to each other, how well you get along, and how you move through time together.”

And this how is driven by something far more powerful and longer-lasting than shared interests or personality. “Measures of personality don’t predict anything,” Gottman once explained to Psychology Today. “But how people interact does. Couples need to feel they are building something together that has meaning.” This means couples who truly interact well together see that their relationship has a more important purpose than to be agreeable—and that purpose and big-picture goal is something that they’re strongly invested in. That’s unity.

Couples who focus on unity find it easier to build a sense of emotional connection with each other. And this kind of relationship is motivating—and joyful. “This is the existential part,” Gottman explains. “How much do you respond to each other’s bids for attention? Does your partner turn toward you with equal enthusiasm?”

“We are not looking for our clones,” Gottman adds. Other research backs him up. The famous T-shirt study by Claus Wedekind actually showed that the pheromones we’re most attracted to are from people who are most genetically different from us. We’re looking for someone who can challenge us in our differences, not entertain us in our similarities.

Back to Tolstoy’s brilliant insight: “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.” This kind of togetherness describes one of the most beautiful relationships in Tolstoy’s novels—the love between Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. “He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began.”

Photo Credit: Beth Solano Photography