Relationship Compatibility

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How “True Compatibility” Creates Fulfilling Relationships: With Dr. Karin Sternberg

By David Webb, Expert Psychology Author

Karin Sternberg, Compatibility and relationship expert

Relationship expert Dr. Karin Sternberg explains the psychology of why “true compatibility” is the secret to creating deep connections and fulfilling relationships.

Dr. Karin Sternberg is a renowned cognitive and personality psychologist who along with her husband, Dr. Robert Sternberg, has spent years studying and writing about relationship compatibility. The Sternberg’s groundbreaking research findings on compatibility have been shown to be valid in 25 countries around the world.

Vera’s mission is to make the world a happier place by helping people build more compatible and rewarding connections, and that’s why we are delighted to have Dr. Karin Sternberg as a scientific Advisor.

I’m sure you will find the following interview I did with Dr. Karin Sternberg as enjoyable and insightful as I did.

David Webb
Chief of psychological content at Vera

David Webb: You mention on your website that True Compatibility is the secret to creating the deep connection that enables strong and fulfilled relationships to develop. Could you briefly explain what True Compatibility is?

Dr. Karin Sternberg: True Compatibility entails that you are compatible with your partner in three domains:

Core components of love

The first domain is what we call the core components of love (which refer back to our triangular theory of love, for those of you who are familiar with it). Those three core components are intimacy, passion, and commitment. They’re mostly unconscious, so we do not really know what we want and if we have what we want.

You experience intimacy with someone when you care deeply about them and share your thoughts, feelings, and dreams with them.

Passion is not only of a sexual kind. But you also experience passion when you can’t stop thinking about someone and crave to be with them.

Commitment is a decision to either remain in a relationship, regardless of how hard things get.

What matters most to your happiness is not what your partner feels but rather what you think they feel.

Every relationship you have can be described in terms of these three core components. For example, when you fall in love with someone and experience both passion and intimacy with that person, you have what we call “romantic love.” If you get married and at some point, your intimacy with, and passion for each other get lost, all you may have left is commitment and what we call “empty love.”

Your satisfaction in a relationship depends not only on what you want from, and in your relationship, but also on what you feel you’re getting from your partner. For example, if you want lots of intimacy and passion in your relationship but are not getting it from your partner, you’re bound to be unhappy.

We can go into depth with our analyses here and consider a relationship from several different viewpoints: What do you want to experience in your relationship, what do you get, how do want your partner to feel, does your partner feel like you want them to feel for you, etc.

Interestingly, there’s a lot you can do by just looking at one partner. What matters most to your happiness is not what your partner feels but rather what you think they feel.

Essentially, we’re compatible with our partner in terms of the core components of love if we want the same things and feel that we can give each other what we each want.


Love Stories

The second domain is our love stories. Our love stories encompass all the ideas and beliefs we have about what love and relationships should be like. Our love stories represent the essence of our life and experiences—we see our parents’, relatives,’ and neighbors’ relationships, we create our own relationships, and we read books and watch movies, for example.

Our love stories influence what kind of a partner we’re looking for, how we interact in our relationship, how we interpret our partner’s actions, what we’re hoping to get out of our relationships, our dreams and hopes, and much more. If we end up with the same kind of partner in similar dysfunctional relationships again and again, our love stories are likely to blame.

People usually have more than one love story, and their love stories are arranged in a hierarchy, with more desirable ones for us nearer to the top of the hierarchy.

In our research, we have identified the 26 most common kinds of love stories, but obviously everyone’s love stories are unique. True compatibility in terms of your love stories means that you and your partner are living and enacting love stories that are a good fit for each other in that they are either similar or that you play complementary roles. For example, you may both have business stories, where what matters to you most in your relationship is that your household matters and finances are organized and well taken care of. You know who earns the money, who takes care of the kids, and how to run your everyday life smoothly. But you do not crave a lot of passion in your life. Your love stories are compatible with each other. But if one of you craves a relationship with lots of romance and passion (which the partner cannot or does not want to have a part in), then your stories are not really compatible and one or both of you will end up unhappy.

But again, our love stories are largely unconscious, so people usually do not know what they want in a partner and how to figure out if a partner is a good fit for them in terms of their love stories.

We have assessment instruments and are currently creating webinars and online courses to help people become aware of their love stories (and in the case of dysfunctional stories, change them) so that people can figure out what really matters to them for a happy love life and find a partner who is truly compatible.

Lifestyle factors

The third domain is one that we call lifestyle factors. That domain is usually accessible to people’s consciousness, and it includes a lot of variables that online dating companies ask about in their dating profiles. Lifestyle factors include variables like age, religion, culture, political attitudes, whether you want to have children and how you intend to raise them, and so on. These factors can, but do not necessarily have to, play a role in your relationship satisfaction. It all depends on how important a certain factor is for you: For some people, it is very important to have a partner who shares their religious beliefs, for example. For other people, religious beliefs are not important. For a happy and successful relationship, you need to be compatible in those factors that matter to you. If you do not agree on whether or not to have children, for example, you’ll not be able to create a relationship that is fulfilling in the long term.

David Webb: You also mention that compatibility is not what the media and common sense makes us think it is. What are we made to think it is and why is this a problem?

Dr. Karin Sternberg: Usually, when we think of compatibility and who is an attractive and promising partner for us, we think of variables that matter for short-term relationships but that are not really predictive of successful long-term relationships. For example, we may consider the chemistry between partners, or someone’s looks or financial prospects.

But looks, money, or chemistry do not help us create a long-term relationship that will weather life’s storms and fulfill us for the rest of our lives (or however long we intend for our relationship to last).

Ultimately, because these factors are easily accessible and more conscious, we fall back on them and believe they show us the way to a good partner. We do not (and mostly, cannot) consider our needs in terms of intimacy, passion, and commitment as well as our love stories, simply because we usually are not aware of them. So essentially, we’re not looking for the right things if we have a long-term relationship in mind.

David Webb: You’ve stated that compatibility in styles plays a major role in successful relationships. Of the 13 styles of thinking you identify within your theory of mental self-government, which would say is the most important compatible thinking style?

Dr. Karin Sternberg: There are many styles, but let’s just consider two. People who have a legislative style like to do things their own way. People who have an executive style prefer to be given guidelines or even to be told what to do. Two people with a legislative style are likely to find each other to be exciting, but they may clash because they both want to do things their own way. Two people with an executive style are likely to seek guidance as to how to live from elsewhere—perhaps by keeping up with neighbors. One person with a legislative style and one with an executive style can do well, because their roles are complementary. The risk is that the executive person comes to resent the direction of the legislator, or that the legislative person becomes bored with the executive person.

David Webb: Could you tell us something about your research into the concept of love stories and why they are so important as far as long-term happiness within relationships are concerned.

Dr. Karin Sternberg: Matching services utterly ignore stories, and yet they are so important! Consider just two stories, the business story (love is a business) and the fairy-tale story (love is a fairy tale). How do you think a person with a business story will get along with a person who has a fairy-tale story? One will be looking to start a business, the other to start a fairy tale. No matter how much they each love the other, their stories just don’t match. If you want to create a happy long-term relationship, you need to have a love story that is compatible with your partner.

Sometimes people start out with compatible stories, but their stories change over the course of their relationship—they may change jobs, they find new hobbies, and they create a family. But if you’re aware of your love stories, it’s possible to find a way back together.

Likewise, some people have dysfunctional stories. They keep ending up with the same kind of partner who’s not good for them. Their suboptimal partner choice has its roots in their love stories; they just don’t know it. Becoming aware of one’s love stories can help people recognize what is not going well and empower them to change their love story so they can create healthier and more fulfilling relationships.

David Webb: What is the triangle of love?

Dr. Karin Sternberg: The triangle of love is the combination of intimacy, passion, and commitment one experiences in a loving relationship. Intimacy alone can be considered to be friendship. Passion alone is infatuation. Commitment alone is empty love. Intimacy plus passion is romantic love. Intimacy plus commitment is companionate love. Passion plus commitment is fatuous or foolish love. And all three together-intimacy, passion, commitment—constitute complete or consummate love.

David Webb: You and your husband Dr. Robert Sternberg have conducted groundbreaking work which has been validated around the world. What would you say has been your most durable scientific finding?

Dr. Karin Sternberg: Our single most important finding is that the best predictor of couple satisfaction in the long run is match—that the couple matches in their patterns of intimacy, passion, and commitment; and that they match in their patterns of love stories.

David Webb: What led you to pursue a professional interest in the science of relationships?

Dr. Karin Sternberg: I first began studying relationships when I worked on my PhD. I was researching hate at the time, but as we all know, love and hate can be closely related. My work on hate led me to begin researching and writing on love as well, and soon my focus turned to love rather than hate. I have always been very interested in applying psychology to make the world a better place, and relationships are something that is of interest to pretty much everybody. Relationships have the potential to make us very happy, but oftentimes, they lead to much despair and unhappiness. Over time, many people have inquired about our work on relationships, which led me to my current efforts of making our work more widely available to anyone who might be interested.

David Webb: What projects are you currently working on?

Dr. Karin Sternberg: In terms of love and relationships, I am working on several projects that span the entire life course of relationships.

First of all, I am developing an online course that will help singles and those who are dating explore their unique (and unconscious!) love stories, desires, needs, and potential dysfunctional patterns so they can determine who makes a great partner for them and find their true love fast while avoiding years of heartbreak and duds.

This course will be followed by a course for people who are in a relationship but feel they have lost their way and would like to reinvigorate their relationship and become that happy couple again they once were.

I am currently finishing up a package for those who are not sure if it makes sense for them to stay in their relationship. We’ve found that many people are in a situation where they need help to decide whether their relationship can be saved and how to best move forward. This package will help them understand what True Compatibility is, and what True Compatibility looks like in their unique situation. It comes with a scientifically validated relationship assessment that visualizes their relationship from several different viewpoints, as well as a workbook to help them make a decision about the future of their relationship. It also includes a guide to improve their relationship based on their diagnosed shortcomings, a checklist of things to consider before they break up, as well as a bonus assessment projecting the future of their relationship.

About Dr. Karin Sternberg

Dr. Karin Sternberg is a social/personality psychologist based in Ithaca, NY. She has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, as well as an MBA with a specialization in banking from the University of Cooperative Education in Karlsruhe, Germany. She completed some of her doctoral research at Yale University and her postdoctoral work at the University of Connecticut. Afterward, she worked as a research associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and School of Public Health.

She has held a grant from the National Institutes of Health for the development of a cognitive training program for seniors. Karin teaches at Cornell University (most recently, child development), and is writing a child development textbook that will be published by Oxford University Press in spring 2023.

Karin’s interest focuses on the application of psychological/behavioral research with the purpose of improving people’s relationships and lives. She helps people improve their romantic relationships at, and writes about mastering life and love on her Psychology Today blog. She has written and co-edited a number of books on love, and, together with her husband Robert J. Sternberg, has developed the concept of True Compatibility.

Dr. Karin Sternberg

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