Healthy Incompatibility

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Recent statistics from the American Psychological Association show that as many as 40-50 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and the situation is similar in a number of other developed countries. Divorce statistics for second and third marriages are even higher. Sadly, many of these divorces were undoubtedly preventable.

The majority of divorcees claim “irreconcilable differences” for dissolving their marriage bond, but this is just an expensive way of saying “incompatibility.” In most cases where incompatibility is cited as an issue, it was evidently not present at the beginning of the relationship. Marriage partners feel it “happened” as time progressed.

The truth is, incompatibility between a man and a woman never just “happens”; it is below the surface all the time. Marriages falter when couples focus on their incompatibility. A century ago, G. K. Chesterton put it this way in his book What’s Wrong with the World:

I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.

These wise words are based on the fact that most marriages occur because “opposites attract.” But when marriage begins, we focus on the “attract.” As it progresses, if we’re not careful, the focus switches to dwelling on the “opposites.” Our point of view shifts, and we start to see our relationship as different. And as we do, problems develop.

Simple as it may sound, the quality of every marriage depends on how we look at our partner. It’s not that beneath the attraction are differences we must somehow try to suppress, but that the differences are often the cause of the attraction itself — not just sexual attraction but the full range of psychological, spiritual, and physical attraction.

A happy marriage is, then, always one of managed incompatibility. We can do what we can to make it easier for our mates to deal with our differences where they are problematic (Romans 14:19), but both mates must concentrate on how they see each other. We must continue to look at the attractive things about the other. In the words of the apostle Paul, whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, “if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

We render this advice useless if we do not see it as the potent marriage problem-solver it really is. If we apply Paul’s words to our relationship with our mate — in constantly looking for, affirming, and complimenting the good things we appreciate about each other on every level — the matter of incompatibility increasingly becomes a non-issue.

The truth is, incompatibility does not destroy marriage; it serves as the healthy tension forming the basis of meaningful marriage relationships. The more we see each other in a positive way and keep our focus there, the more we see attraction and the less we see opposites. We can celebrate our incompatibility — and good things happen when we do.

Genesis tells us that when God created the first marriage partners, “He created them male and female, and blessed them . . .” (5:2). God blessed marriage not as a bond of like pairs, but blessed us as male and female — in our differences.

R. Herbert
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R. Herbert holds a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern languages, biblical studies, and archaeology. He served as an ordained minister and church pastor for a number of years. He writes for several Christian venues and for his websites at and, where you can also find his free e-books. R. Herbert is a pen name.