One Friday night, I found myself wedged in the corner of a pub garden studying the face of a man who had been a stranger just 15 minutes prior.
“Steady on,” he laughed, accidentally sloshing his pint of Guinness as he set our drinks down. It was then I observed that he had “it” — you know, whatever “it” was — something also not lost on some curious onlookers around us. He was easygoing, well dressed, and smiled through crinkly blue eyes. When delighted at something I’d say, he threw his head back with laughter, and during lulls in our conversation his eyes tracked across my face, lips curled in an amused smile. We were getting along sublimely, a fact then superficially confirmed by a drunk bystander who interrupted us to say we made a good-looking couple. At the end of the night, after walking me to my bike, we kissed and he asked if he could see me again.
It felt like one of those rare stellar first dates. But when I debriefed with a friend the next day, it elicited an unexpected response: “He seems cute and you’ve got chemistry, but… You don’t seem that compatible? Would you even bother with a second date?”
But what about the lingering eye contact, how we’d been at the same festival this summer, the way we both loved dogs but cringed at the way people used them as cuteness currency on dating apps, how we both loved Shane Meadows and rewatched This Is England ’90 at least twice a year? What had I missed?
Okay, so he was a vegetarian and wasn’t particularly interested in traveling. We had also brushed upon the topic of exes and he had mentioned that he was a chronic people-pleaser, to the point where he refused to engage in any sort of conflict. But was this grounds for culling? Was compatibility always endgame criteria that trumped connection? It seemed such a shame when chemistry like this was a rarity in the dumpster fire of dating apps. It turns out, I haven’t been the only one contemplating the age-old debate of connection vs compatibility lately.
“Compatibility is following your head and connection is following your heart.” “Connection is quick while compatibility is something you discover as you get to know them.” “Compatibility: similarities in how you argue, live, morals, love. Connection: the bond you feel when you spend time together regardless of compatibility.” These are just some of the hundreds of comments on TikTok user Amber Akilla’s (@amberakilla) recent viral video, which has reached 650k views, discussing which is more important in dating. From the comments section it seemed that everyone was as confused as I was.
“I think the reason we can get connection and compatibility mixed up — especially now, in this hyper-fast, instant gratification society we live in — is that when you feel good or excited about someone, you can assume that it is a good fit because you feel good, but is it a dopamine high?” says Akilla in the TikTok. “If you get too attached to the feeling and don’t allow space to make a note of any incompatibilities or red flags then you start to get into muddy waters.”
A good connection — instant attraction, sexual chemistry, surface-level commonalities, even the way someone smells — can create a positive feedback loop where you make each other feel better and better and to hell with everything else. It’s only years down the line that you’re granted enough clarity to register the blaring incompatibilities that mean you probably should have never even dated in the first place (hindsight is a very fine thing).
These can be differences in communication/arguing styles, political views, spending habits, life and travel plans, differing family goals, ideas on monogamy. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but “Go forth at your peril” is what I would say to anyone willing to overlook these things. For me, this high connection/low compatibility point on the matrix has always been on the exploding geyser-level of disastrous, whereby the time you’ve realized it’s wrong, your heart (and pheromones) are already tied up with the other person. What follows is a mess.
Then again, does knowing that we want to avoid this make things any less complicated? “Ultimately, it’s important to use both your head and your heart when it comes to finding a partner,” says Jessica Alderson, cofounder and relationship expert at So Syncd, a dating app that matches compatible personality types. “Just because someone checks all your boxes on paper, it doesn’t mean you’ll have a strong connection with them. Similarly, just because you feel an intense connection with someone, it doesn’t mean your personalities, values, goals, and lifestyles will be compatible in the long run.”
The truth is, we need both. “Compatibility without connection is like having puzzle pieces that seemingly fit together but lack the interlocking mechanisms. The pieces easily drift apart because there’s nothing keeping them together,” says Alderson. “On the other hand, connection without compatibility is like having two completely different puzzle sets that don’t fit together at all. It might be fun and exciting at first, but eventually, the differences will cause friction and tension.”
It makes sense that the older we get, with a few failed relationships under our belts and the more we take stock of how precious our time is, the more cutthroat we may often be in dating, as understandably we have less energy to expend on someone who doesn’t tick all the immediate boxes. But could we also be cutting ourselves off from the potential of something meaningful in the process?
“While compatibility plays a pivotal role in fostering connections, it’s not necessarily the be all and end all,” says Chantal Gautier, relationship expert, sexologist and senior lecturer at the University of Westminster. “Celebrating differentiation is equally important — finding a balance where individuals can be (emotionally) connected without becoming enmeshed or losing their sense of self, identity, and autonomy.”
This sense of self is of the utmost importance. Namely, discerning what you require for your own happiness and identifying your own dealbreakers. “If you are sure you want children and a potential partner doesn’t, that can be a valid reason to end things,” says Alderson. “But if you’re ending something because they don’t have the same taste in movies as you, it might be a sign of being too rigid and limiting your options. It can be beneficial to keep an open mind and not let the idea of compatibility limit your dating pool unnecessarily. It’s rare to find someone who is a perfect match in every aspect, and it’s important to be open to growth and change within a relationship. Just as a connection can grow over time, as you open each other’s eyes to new thoughts, ideas, and experiences, you may find that you become more compatible.”
When it boils down to it, compatibility is about the long-term potential of two people — and it’s up to each individual to discern. Looking back at my date, it wasn’t about him being a vegetarian. His words were, “I haven’t eaten meat in five years; it’s disgusting.” My friend rightly pointed out that it came across as narrow-minded and morally superior, which would piss me off in the long run (whether or not I continued my lifelong love affair with bacon). I loved traveling, and in previous relationships prized geeking out on creating itineraries with my partner and getting wine-drunk together while exploring somewhere new — would I be happy to give that up, or alternatively, get frustrated at having to continuously coax them onto a plane with me? I had also dated people-pleasers before and while I couldn’t fault them for being something they couldn’t help, it had been hard to trust someone who didn’t prioritize their own desires and needs.
It’s beneficial to remember that the perfect person doesn’t exist. You’re never going to have 100% connection and 100% compatibility. In fact, half the excitement of falling in love (and staying in love) with someone, is the liminal space in which a person can still surprise you and teach you something new. Ultimately, your date’s red flags may appear to be lovely, neutral bits of fabric to another person, so it’s about figuring out whether they are deal-breakers for you, and if they are, remembering that compromising on them ignores fundamental incompatibilities that no amount of love can overcome.
Rather than getting too bogged down on things like connection and compatibility, Gautier encourages us to ask ourselves alternative questions when getting to know someone, questions that perhaps aren’t so black and white. “Do you feel comfortable and safe with the person? Do you feel understood by the other person? Do they ‘get you’, your quirks, your values, and your perspectives on life? Is there ‘chemistry’? Is there mutual respect for each other’s individuality? Is communication open and effortless? Does the person make you laugh? There is no universally right or wrong way in what individuals should prioritise or seek in their quest for ‘connection’. Certainly, the experience of feeling connected is highly subjective and deeply personal, varying significantly from person to person — we know that unexplainable feeling when it just feels right.”