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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Relationship Compatibility

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Compatibility in Relationships

Quick Access:
Is Relationship Compatibility Important?

How important is compatibility in relationships?


Online dating use several marketing buzz words separately or in tandem to entice you to use their websites and matching systems:

compatibility, chemistry, passion,
love style, sex type, dating persona

When you read the typical feedback report from questionnaires that purportedly measure these intriguing concepts, it gets even cheesier. Compatibility is a real phenomenon and it is crucially important in relationships. However, scientists are still learning about all the time. No one has the perfect answer yet, so don’t be fooled by the claims of any dating site that might say otherwise.

Most people have a simplistic idea about compatibility, which draws from the apparently contradictory theories of similarity (“birds of a feather flock together”) and complementarity (“opposites attract”).  A couple of cute kids explain these two ideas really well:

The Similarity Principle

“One of the people has freckles, and so he finds somebody else who has freckles too.”
-- Andrew, age 6

 The Complementarity Principle

“You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming.”
-- Allan, age 10

So, is Andrew or Allan right?  Leading edge research (5,7,8) says that they’re both partly correct. In particular, compatibility seems best defined as the extent to which two people will make for a satisfying and mutually-beneficial relationship based on the similarities and differences there are between their personalities, attitudes and behaviors, idiosyncrasies and demographics. Let’s learn a little more about these ideas with some trivia!

Compatibility Fun Facts!

  • A soul mate view of romance and marriage seems to be particularly strong among young adults. One study10 found that an astonishing 94% of single men and women (aged 20 to 29) agreed with the statement, “when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” Furthermore, these authors found that 88% believed that there was one person “out there” who was specially destined to be their soul mate.
  • Individuals with intentions to use online dating services don’t seem to have unrealistic expectations (3). This agrees with other research that suggests people are realistic (or highly discriminating) when it comes to choosing a partner, whereas they become more idealistic once they’re in a relationship – perhaps to defend against relationship dissatisfaction. Indeed, basic elements of long-term compatibility appear just as relevant to relationships that are Internet-born1, as they are to relationships that start offline. This could explain the absence of unrealistic optimism before establishing a relationship but the presence of such positive distortions after establishing a relationship.
  • Evidence for many advertised compatibility tests is either blatantly missing or lacking scientific standards (2,4,12).
  • Cross-sectional and longitudinal research both suggest that similarity (“birds of a feather flock together”) is a better predictor of relationship quality than complementarity (“opposites attract”). But, it is important to note that this conclusion is also a gross oversimplification. The degree of similarity observed depends on the particular individual-difference domain studied, with romantic partners showing strong similarity in age, political, and religious attitudes; moderate similarity in education, general intelligence, and values; and little or no similarity in personality characteristics (6,13).
  • Psychologists widely accept that love has at least two primary facets known as Passionate-Erotic Love and Companionate Love. Passionate Love is associated with sexual desire for a partner, whereas Companionate Love represents friendship-type platonic love towards a partner9. One psychologist expanded expands this conceptualization in a Triangular Theory of Love and Attachment11. According to this model, the amount of love or relationship satisfaction that a person experiences is due to the strength and interaction of three components: Intimacy (the feeling of closeness and bondedness), Passion (the drives that produce romance, physical attraction and sexual intercourse), and Decision/Commitment (the decision that one loves another and the commitment to continue that relationship).
  • The latest research (5,7,8) shows that (i) variables which define relationship satisfaction form a hierarchy, and that (ii) men and women differed quantitatively and qualitatively on those relationship variables. These findings suggested that men and women in satisfying long-term relationships agreed on what variables impacted their relationship quality, but that men and women didn’t have to agree on the relative importance of specific variables to achieve that satisfaction. In other words, relationship satisfaction appears to be grounded partly in cognitive-behavioral processes, rather than being dependent upon patterns of gross similarity or dissimilarity. In other words, there were clear gender differences on what makes a satisfying and stable relationship. It all boils down to the ability of a couple to seize upon the positives in the relationship and downplay the negatives.

It’s extremely difficult to explore the ingredients for compatibility on a series of “first dates.” Most people meet others through place of employment, through family or friends or just by accident. Thus, people naturally meet others with whom they’re similar. But, similarities alone don’t make a lasting and satisfying relationship. Differences can be healthy – as they can add spice and balance to a relationship. People need access to a large dating pool in order to meet and explore people with a range of similarities and differences in relation to themselves.

The bottom line is that relationships are held together over time because of compatibility, not chemistry, passion, love style, sex type or dating persona. Compatibility is a psychological concept, not an inherently hard-wired and unconscious phenomenon between two people that stems from uncontrollable chemical reactions in the brain.

1Baker, A. (2002). What makes an online relationship successful? Clues from couples who met in cyberspace. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 5, 363-375.

2Houran, J. (2004). Ethics in cross-cultural compatibility testing in Europe: an opportunity for industry growth. Paper presented at the Internet Dating / Online Social Networking Industry Association Inaugural Meeting, Nice, France, July 15-16, 2004.

3 Houran, J., & Lange, R. (2004). Expectations of finding a ‘soul mate’ with online dating. North American Journal of Psychology, 6, 297-308.

4Houran, J., Lange, R., Rentfrow, P. J., & Bruckner, K. H. (2004). Do online matchmaking tests work? an assessment of preliminary evidence for a publicized ‘predictive model of marital success.’ North American Journal of Psychology, 6, 507-526.

5Houran, J. Lange, R., Wilson, G., & Cousins, J. (2005). Redefining compatibility: Gender differences in the building blocks of relationship satisfaction. Poster presented at the 17th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society, Los Angeles, CA, May 28.

6Klohnen, E. C., & Mendelsohn, G. A. (1998). Partner selection for personality characteristics: a couple-centered approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 268-278.

7Lange, R., Houran, J., & Jerabek, I. (2004). Building blocks for satisfaction in long-term romantic relationships: evidence for the complementarity hypothesis for romantic compatibility. Paper presented at the Adult Development Symposium Society for Research in Adult Development Preconference, AERA, San Diego, CA, August 11.

8Lange, R., Jerabek, I., & Houran, J. (2005). Psychometric description of the True Compatibility Test (TCT): A proprietary matchmaking system. Dynamical Psychology,

9Masuda, M. (2003). Meta-analysis of love scales: do various love scales measure the same psychological constructs? Japanese Psychological Research, 45, 25-37.

10Popenoe, D., &  Whitehead, B. D. (2001).The state of our unions: the social health of marriage in America, 2001. New Brunswick, N J: National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

11Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.

12Thompson, M., Zimbardo, P. & Hutchinson, G. (2005). Consumers are having second thoughts about online dating: are the real benefits getting lost in over promises? [Industry Report]. Dallas, TX: Available online at:

13Watson, D., Klohnen, E. C., Casillas, A., Nus Simms, E., Haig, J., & Berry, D. S. (2004). Match makers and deal breakers: analyses of assortative mating in newlywed couples. Journal of Personality, 72, 1029-1068.

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