by Resmaa Menakem, author of Rock the Boat
Most of us think that the success or failure of a committed partnership largely depends on personality—people’s backgrounds, politics, religion, likes and dislikes, interests, senses of humor, quirks, and so on. But these elements only speak to compatibility. And compatibility doesn’t get at the purpose and opportunities of a committed relationship.
Compatibility is what supports a pleasant and comfortable friendship. The dynamics of a committed relationship are entirely different; they involve fit.
Fit has to do with the mental templates each partner uses to live their life and negotiate the world.
Committed relationships are human growth systems; fit is one of the primary mechanisms through which these systems function.
My wife and I have very different personalities. But, as I’ve learned over the years, we’re a perfect fit. We push each other to—and beyond—our limitations. We can’t see beyond those limitations on our own, because they’re usually wrapped inside our virtues.
In every couple, both partners' strengths, weaknesses, traumas, fears, hopes, and desires fit together and are interlocked. This fit is why the two people have come together. It’s also why they keep sailing into emotional bottlenecks. (Sometimes, when there is trauma in one or both partners’ personal histories, a therapist can be enormously helpful in recognizing how fit operates for that couple and in helping them unhook the trauma.)
If you look at a couple and wonder, Why the hell are they together? or What in the world do they see in each other?, it's because of those things that interlock—but that might not be visible to a casual observer.
As one of my mentors, Dr. James Maddock, used to say, the rocks in one partner's head always fit perfectly into the holes in the other's. This is no accident. It’s how committed partnerships work.
If the only thing bringing you and your partner together is compatibility, it’s similar to hooking up with someone because they have what you feel are attractive looks or a talent for making you laugh. It may support some brief good times, but it won’t provide a foundation for a long-term relationship.
If all you want is a fling, then finding someone who’s compatible will probably do. But if you want a real relationship with another human being, you’re going to be motivated by fit, whether you realize it or not.
My client Roseanne is an emergency room doctor at a big urban hospital. Her work in the ER is fast-paced, unpredictable, and chaotic. Her shifts can run from 8 to 14 hours, and her schedule can change from week to week. Roseanne comes from a well-educated, upper-class family; both her parents were university professors. When people first meet her, the first word they often think is professional.
Her husband, Bart, is a mechanic who owns his own repair shop, which he inherited from his dad. He’s a very hard worker, a good father to their daughter Nadine, and extremely reliable. When people first meet Bart, the words they often think are salt of the earth. Bart isn’t as educated as his wife and he’s visibly uncomfortable in a suit.
When people see the pair having their breakfast together—Bart in his coveralls, Roseanne in her white coat—they wonder how this marriage can possibly work.
But their friends and relatives know better. They see it work every day. Bart and Roseanne fit.
For starters, Roseanne and Bart are intellectual equals. Although his background is working class, Bart is extremely bright and well read. He can hold his own with Roseanne in any discussion about politics, religion, or social issues. Bart can’t have these kinds of discussions with his parents or siblings, so he appreciates Roseanne’s erudition and worldliness.
Roseanne equally appreciates the great stability that Bart brings to the marriage. His repair shop earns a good, consistent profit. Also, no matter how chaotic things get in the ER, and no matter how crazy Roseanne’s own day gets, Rosanne knows that Bart will be in the shop, keeping his regular hours.
I’m also told that, romantically, things get especially interesting. Roseanne relaxes and discards her veneer of professionalism, and Bart reads classic love poems to her.
So next time you go out on a date or are having doubts about your relationship, think about the fit.
Conflict is a natural part of any intimate relationship. Yet most couples either avoid it or try to smooth over their differences. This results in at least one partner compromising their integrity—and stunting their own growth. Gritty, often irreverent, and always practical, Rock the Boat challenges couples not to flee from conflicts, because the emotional stalemate that conflicts produce creates an opportunity for profound transformation. This transformation affirms each partner’s individuality while forging a more mature intimacy, a greater trust, and a deeper bond.
Rock the Boat challenges the idea that conflict between partners is unhealthy or something to avoid. Instead, it encourages both people to stand by what they need and who they are—but to do so with compassion rather than competitiveness or vengefulness. This is the purpose of an intimate relationship: to create an atmosphere where both people learn to grow up and mature in their relationship by appreciating each other’s individual needs in a caring and mature way.
Author Resmaa Menakem, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy, addresses key factors in making this happen, including accepting discomfort and uncertainty; honesty and openness about sex, money, kids, and in-laws; recognizing when conflict might escalate into violence or abuse; and, when appropriate, finding and working with a good therapist.
Rock the Boat is not about ideals, or what we hope or imagine relationships to be. It's an honest, unflinching look at what actually works.
Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy and domestic violence prevention. He has served as the director of counseling services for Tubman Family Alliance, a domestic violence treatment center, and as the behavioral health director for African American Family Services in Minneapolis. He is a former radio talk-show host who has appeared on Oprah and Dr. Phil as an expert on domestic violence and couples in conflict. From 2011 to 2013, Resmaa was a family counselor for civilian contractors in Afghanistan, managing the wellness and counseling services on fifty-three U.S. military bases.