You and your crush have been dating for a few months now, and you’ve agreed to take the next step by committing to a long-term relationship – then you hear something that catches you off guard.
They want to quit their job in a year and live off the grid, while you have planned on working in the city and staying close to your family. How did you miss this crucial information? And what now?
“When people first fall in love, where they first feel infatuation, sometimes logic goes out the window,” said Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Innovation in Social Science at Boston University. “There’s lots of data showing that logical thought patterns sometimes get lost in the fray when someone really is very attracted to a person or they’re feeling the throes of passion.”
Depending how far into a relationship people are, not having assessed certain areas of compatibility early on can have difficult emotional and practical consequences, said Jeremy Nicholson, a Massachusetts-based social psychologist and contributor for Psychology Today.
If you discover you and your partner are incompatible, “you’re either in a relationship with somebody you love but makes you miserable because you can’t have a healthy relationship with them, or you break up with somebody that you’re deeply in love with,” Nicholson said. Even though having conversations about priorities early on seems difficult, in the long run, it’s actually much easier on your emotions, he added.
Additionally, as commitment increases, the practical aspects of partners’ lives often get more intertwined – “particularly financially,” Nicholson added. “So it becomes a bigger problem for you if you haven’t had these conversations and then they’re spending the rent money, and you both might be homeless.”
The dissolution of a relationship “also can be expensive, like when you have to divorce. Cohabitating and then finding a new apartment is very disruptive,” Carr said. Sometimes “it really can create difficulties for people and their family and friends when a serious relationship dissolves. So, I think it’s important to jump in cautiously and have as much information as possible.”
By the time you’re considering committing to a serious relationship with someone (or multiple someones), you probably already know their Covid-19 vaccination status, political affiliation or religious beliefs. Here are questions you should ask yourself and your love interests to assess red flags and overall compatibility each step of the way.
When you’re considering commitment, ask yourself why you’re with this person, what benefits you’re gaining and what about them makes you happy, Carr said. “Sometimes the answer is, ‘Well I’m lonely, and I need someone.’ (But) that’s not really sufficient grounds for throwing oneself into a relationship,” she added.
“Couples I work with – who are new and just getting to know one another – don’t often attend as well as they should to their emotional compatibility, the degree to which they’re really comfortable with one another, or whether they’re just infatuated and attracted to one another,” said John Duffy, a psychologist specializing in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
Emotional compatibility is feeling like you can share anything with your partner, versus feeling guarded and as if you have to put on a facade, Duffy added.
“Willingness to commit is fairly easy,” Nicholson said, but does your partner want to commit to a short-term or long-term relationship? And what do they even mean by a long-term relationship?
For some people, that looks like having a partnership, getting married or raising children. Is that relationship monogamous, open or polyamorous? Do you – and do they – like the idea of living together one day?
In addition to knowing the type of relationship you want, it’s important to know how well you align from a practical standpoint on other values, finances and sexual activity.
Watch for value- or character-based red flags early on, such as a lack of financial generosity – evidenced by behaviors including not appropriately tipping waitstaff – excessive spending or extreme restriction. Paying attention to early signs of financial compatibility will pay off if you decide to cohabitate, Duffy said.
“It also shows up in other areas of relationships over time,” such as how generous they are with their time and attention, including when it comes to your physical needs and desires, he added.
Some people have lifestyles or medical conditions that might influence what they need from a partner. Does the person you’re planning to commit to have a substance misuse issue or sobriety journey for which they’ll need support? Or will you, and have you communicated that?
How does your partner treat family members, people of different genders and people with whom they have strained relationships? Have they revealed signs of violent or aggressive behavior, such as road rage or snapping over an insignificant event? Do they argue using healthy and open communication, or does it feel cold and abusive?
“Part of the growth is disagreeing in a healthy way and learning and growing from that – growing together, even, from disagreements and finding your way back to making up with one another,” Duffy said. “That’s a really important issue to look at when you’re gauging the potential longevity of a relationship.”
Determining sexual compatibility includes asking what types of physical intimacy are and aren’t OK. “That can be everything from toys to oral sex to all kinds of foreplay … then we get into fetishes and fantasies and things like that,” Nicholson said. “If somebody needs a particular thing and the other person can’t stand it, then that’s kind of a red flag that either needs to be worked through or the relationship might not be able to progress.”
Regarding sex, the main questions are what types of activities both partners enjoy, and how often each person wants it, Nicholson said. People also differ in their beliefs about whether having one’s sexual needs met is solely their partner’s responsibility. Also, what’s your partner’s sleep routine like, if they have one at all?
“The bigger the disparity there, the more they’re going to have things to work out,” he said.
“It’s in people’s best interest to discuss sexually transmitted infections as soon as they become sexually active,” Carr added. Couples should discuss sexual health, including birth control and who will be responsible for it and any presumptions about that.
If your loved ones aren’t supportive of your partner, will you protect your relationship and set boundaries? What is your partner’s relationship like with their own family?
These days with dating apps, you might know something about a person’s life goals – such as whether they want children – early on. If not, for adults, between three and six months of being together is when having discussions about children is worthwhile, Duffy said.
Sharing a home with a partner can bring up additional considerations in each important area of compatibility.
When it comes to finances, assess a partner’s ability to be conscientious and follow through, Nicholson said. How do they plan to pay off high debts? Do they have a savings account?
Determine whether “they’re living an immediate, impulsive lifestyle, or whether they’re able to delay gratification, save and basically plan for the future,” Nicholson added. Also consider who’s going to pay for what and why, whether contributions depend on each person’s salary, and if you want to maintain separate or joint accounts.
Expectations about household chores can become contentious if not discussed sooner rather than later. Sometimes people make assumptions based on their cultural background or beliefs about gender roles, Nicholson said. Partners should get a sense of each other’s existing beliefs, then discuss what they’re comfortable with moving forward. Carr said she typically recommends each person does what they enjoy.
Asking questions about long-term career goals is also critical, Carr added. If your partner foresees a major shift such as moving for a new job, are you expected to move with them? Which person gets to have the shorter commute and why?
Many of the same compatibility assessments done for cohabitation also apply to marriage, but in the latter case, the expectations become more serious, Carr and Nicholson said.
You might be able to be somewhat flexible with someone’s spending habits while living together, but if they’re accruing debt and you’re going to marry them, their debts will become yours, too, Nicholson said. As your life becomes increasingly tied to theirs, you must be sure you’re comfortable with who they are and what they do, because you’ll be affected more than before.
Also, “it’s very difficult to change people,” Carr said. “As people age, they become an amplified version of their younger selves. So if there’s a trait in your partner that agitates you when you’re 25, that trait will get larger and might be far, far more annoying when one is 50 – so really ask yourself about the good, the bad and the ugly and what you’re willing to accept and not accept in a relationship.”