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Do Mismatched Relationships Work?

Disparities can result in challenges, they can also create positive outcomes.


RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Most people believe that compatibility is high on the list of relationship success. Yet, in over four decades of working with couples, I more often observed the opposite.


Though those disparities can result in significant challenges, they can also create positive outcomes. It depends on how important each need or desire is to each, and how they work to resolve the gaps that exist.


For instance, it is very common for a night-owl to partner with an early awakener. Or a super-neat person to end up with someone who is comfortable with clutter. One is attached to future planning while the other wants to live more freely in the present.


There is a common assumption that mismatched people find each other because opposites naturally attract. In my more than four generations of working with couples, I have come to believe that that are deeper reasons for that phenomenon to be so common. In the case of mismatched sleeping schedules, for example, it may be that disparity allowed for greater tribal survival if someone was always awake to watch for potential threats. Or, does too much compatibility predict boredom? Or, do people in some way become more complete by vicariously living through the other partner?


It is important for couples to identify their mismatched characteristics and behaviors and to understand what either hurts or enhances their relationship. When they do, they can commit to negotiating to close the gaps or stretching to see the world from the other partner’s perspective.


There are multiple examples of mismatched areas in intimate relationships, but the 10 following show up the most often in my work with couples:


The 10 Most Common Mismatches

  1. Intimacy. Many people are not automatically compatible in this area, often making the other partner the problem. Intimacy is more than just sexual connection. It is about tenderness, touch, physical and emotional availability, and comfort when it is needed. Couples who recognize their differences in how and when to intimately connect must be able to talk about their different appetites and desires without blame. What would be ideal for each? What differences actually exist? Sometimes a nod and smile, at just the right time, is enough. Sometimes more physical affection is all that is needed. No one should ever have to beg for love, nor should anyone feel obligated to provide closeness they cannot give in an authentic way.

  2. Social Needs. I have rarely seen relationship partners who have the exact same appetite for how many other people they want in their lives, who those people should be, and how often they should be seen. Some people thrive with a few close friends while others want many relationships that don’t require an intimate connection. Couples who work this out agree on the few close friends they care about and still accompany the other to larger social events. Even if they have to separate out at times to meet those disparate needs, they are not threatened by the other’s social interactions, nor want to inhibit them from participating in them.

  3. Responses to Crises. I have rarely seen both partners in a relationship react the same way to a major challenge. One typically is calm while the other is anxious and reactive. More anxious people are highly motivated to act rapidly, while kicked-back people would rather wait to see if the problem resolves itself over time. If they trust each other’s approach and recognize the benefit of each other, they can work as a team. Conversely, if a fixer/responder sees the other as uncaring or unmotivated, and the kicked-back person sees the other as overly reactive and unnecessarily pushing for a solution, they are bound to sacrifice that benefit.

  4. Sharing, Tracking, and Checking In. This often-mismatched behavior is regularly associated with traditional role definitions. Perhaps those people with more male energy do live more in the moment and those with more female energy are more likely to be keepers of the past and future, but there are many who don’t fit that model. There are people who want their partners to track their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, checking in frequently to share what is happening when they are apart, while others just want to be in the moment, leaving the past behind and not worrying about the future.

  5. Problem Solving. This is a frequently overlooked mismatch, even though it is often present. There are people who want to immediately face the problem, figure out a possible solution, act on it, and then regroup if the solution doesn’t work. They are often in a mismatched relationship with partners who want to spend endless hours comparing possible solutions, asking opinions of others, surfing the Net, and weighing every possible way to go before they act. These different ways of resolving an issue can occur over something relatively minor like buying a couch, or with more serious conflicts. Relationships can actually end if the more impulsive partner makes a catastrophic mistake, or the deliberate partner slows things down so much that a crucial opportunity is lost.

  6. Distribution of Resources. Every relationship lives off of its resource pool. Time, energy, money, opportunities, options, love, etc., are all examples of what is available in all relationship coffers. Mismatching occurs when relationship partners have very different ideas about who, when, and why each gets access to those resources and how they are replenished. Unfortunately, the fairness of how that gets resolved is too often dictated by the partner who has more value in the relationship than the other. Unequal power over time can be a harbinger of a dying relationship.

  7. Self-Care. This area of mismatch is not a one-size-fits-all set of behaviors. It is one of those areas where some couples match perfectly and others do not at all. But if there is a disparity in the way each feels about being in shape, eating well, taking care of overall health, curbing the use of alcohol or drugs, one partner often becomes the nag, while the other becomes passive/aggressive in rebellion. One might believe that it is crucial to commit to a healthy lifestyle, while the other would much rather live life in a more hedonistic way. The problem manifests when the person who wants the latter ends up getting sick or unattractive and the other has to adapt to something he or she never wanted.

  8. Escapes. Whether going on vacations, binge-watching TV, partying, changing environments, embracing adventures, or occasional OD-ing on chocolate eclairs, people have different ways of challenging doldrums or exiting life’s challenges. Escapes can be positive when they return people to their everyday lives feeling rested, regenerated, and ready to recommit, but always negative choices when they result in the opposite. In addition, many partners do not use or share the same escape behaviors. One may want to spend a weekend at a spa, indulged and pampered, while the other finds rock-climbing much more satisfying. Some partners tell me they need time away from the other and want their escapes to be separate. Others want only to escape together.

  9. Faith. Spiritual people do best together when they worship the same beliefs and practices. They attend the same sacred places to cleanse and purge, whether a church or a forest. But, more often, I find couples arguing not only as to whether a higher power even exists or, if they do believe that to be true, they see only one right path to get there. If they don’t agree on those basic compatibilities, they may believe that the other is misguided or uninformed and try to convert them to their “more superior” way. Deeply entrenched spiritual beliefs and behaviors too often drive people to mistrust anyone else who doesn’t see things as they do.

  10. Future Dreams. When people first get together, they are likely to focus on their compatibilities and ignore or suppress the ways in which they may be mismatched. As time passes, and life’s challenges mount, many of those initially accepted differences begin to emerge as mutually exclusive needs and desires. One partner, for example, may ache for material things, while the other seeks regeneration through soul-searching. One wants a family, the other prefers to wait and see. Or, saving for a dream house they both once wanted as a high priority becomes a broken dream for one when the other partner changes course and subsequent priorities.

Incompatibilities exist in all relationships. Depending on how a couple manages them, they can be stimulating opportunities for both to expand and grow or increasing irritations that can become deal-breakers over time. It all depends upon the willingness for both partners to be open to the needs and desires of the other without judgment, and to embrace the challenges they present.

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