are compatibility and complementarity at odds?

Owen Strachan has penned an interesting piece in which he states that perhaps nothing has been more damaging to male-female relationships than the notion of compatibility. He opens with this thought: “Compatibility. Has any concept done more to hinder the development of love?” Such a statement must surely have in mind a narrow working definition of compatibility, something along the lines of a profile and the self-serving search for the perfect soulmate. And I get how that's not healthy. But in complementarian marriage, is the desire for compatibility out of place? In the minds of most, the two terms Strachan juxtaposes would be defined briefly like this:

Compatibility: what is shared between a man and a woman
Complementarity: what is different between a man and a woman

So, do these two ideas live in opposition to one another? We find a carefully constructed story in Genesis 2 that I believe addresses this question directly. It is a story in which God creates man, notes he needs a suitable helper, then commands him to give names to every living creature. The animals parade by: ostrich, camel, alligator. Adam obediently names each one. It must have been a very long line of creatures great and small, as Adam “gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field”. Yet none of them is a suitable partner for him. Though half of them share his maleness, none of them share his humanness. They are beautifully formed, but they are not formed in the image of God.

Imagine Adam’s state of mind as the animals parade past him: “Ostrich: not like me. Camel: not like me. Alligator: not like me.” He becomes increasingly aware that, though surrounded by God’s good gifts, he is in a very fundamental sense, alone. You and I know what the solution to his aloneness will be, but the text takes its time establishing that his state is “not good” before pulling back the curtain. Before Eve can be prepared for Adam, Adam must be prepared for Eve.

And then, after a brief nap, Adam awakes. And there she is, at last.

Adam bursts into poetry:

“Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. She shall be called ishah (woman) because she came from ish (man).”

Don’t miss what Adam is saying. After the animal parade of one not-like-him after another, at last he sees Eve and rejoices that she is wonderfully, uniquely like-him.

Same of my same, same of my same. She shall be called like me because she came from me.”

The Bible’s first word on man and woman is not what separates them, but what unites them. It is a celebration of compatibility, of shared humanness. Ours is not a faith that teaches “men are from Mars and women are from Venus”. Rather, it teaches that both man and woman are from the same garden, created by and in the image of the same God, sharing a physical, mental and spiritual sameness that unites the two of them in a way they cannot be united to anything else in creation. Before the Bible celebrates the complementarity of the sexes, it celebrates their compatibility. And so should we.

To make how-we-are-different our starting point is to reinforce the tired idea that men and women are wholly “other”, an idea that lends itself neatly to devaluing and objectifying, rather than defending and treasuring. It is the very idea that fuels the cultural stereotypes of the incompetent husband and the nagging wife. I push away and discredit what is not-like-me. I cling to and elevate what is like-me. Compatibility is what binds us together, like two Cowboys fans finding each other in a sea of Eagles jerseys.

No one goes on a first date and remarks, “Wow, we had nothing in common. I can’t wait to go out again.” Same-of-my-same is what keeps man and woman in relationship when differences make them want to run for the exit. Same-of-my-same is what transforms gender differences from inexplicable oddities to indispensable gifts. Because my husband is fundamentally like-me in his humanness, the ways he is not-like-me in his maleness elicit my admiration or my forbearance, instead of my disdain or my frustration.

Compatibility. Has any concept done more to nurture the development of love?

So, no, complementarity and compatibility are not at odds. And it is precarious to pit them against one another. Compatibility is the medium in which complementarity takes root and grows to full blossom. Until we acknowledge our glorious, God-ordained sameness, we cannot begin to celebrate or even properly understand our God-given differences as men and women. This is the clear message of Genesis 2, so often rushed past in our desire to shore up our understanding of what it means to be created distinctly male and female. But we cannot rush past it, any more than Adam could rush past the parade of animals that were not-like-him. As Genesis 2 carefully reflects, a world which lacks the beauty of shared human sameness between the sexes is a world that is distinctly “not good”. But a world in which compatibility undergirds complementarity is very good indeed.