Couple Compatibility in Synastry
Pretensions of Omniscience
By Glenn Perry
I recently read a post from a Vedic astrologer who was seeking couples’ birth data in order to conduct a study on couple compatibility in synastry. I applaud good research in astrology. It contributes to our knowledge and helps to restore faith in our beleaguered system.
The gist of this astrologer’s hypothesis is that there is a “karmic connectivity” between couples that can be determined on the basis of “mutual sign linkage.” Allegedly, aspects between charts (synastry) connote specific kinds of karma from past lives. Sign parameters governing compatibility are “given” in Vedic texts, he says. “Favorable factors of synastry” are indicated by planets of one partner being placed “positively” in the chart of the other. The underlying assumption is that there are specific combinations of cross-chart aspects that enable astrologers to reach “concrete conclusions” about the fate of couples.
He goes on to state that “unfavorable factors in a particular union” will cause certain couples to come together merely to get rid of old debts from past lives, which is why “some unions end disastrously or simply linger on painfully.” In other words, these relationships go badly not because of psychological problems and limitations in the respective partners (which conceivably could be remedied), but because the couple has an old debt to work out from a previous incarnation that virtually guarantees things will go badly in this one. Allegedly, Vedic astrologers can discern these debts from horoscopes and thereby predict perpetual, irresolvable suffering for the doomed couple.
Pretentions of Omniscience
I am certainly open to the possibility that couples come together to work out karmic debts from past lives. I believe there is an overarching intelligence that orchestrates connections between lovers for the sake of facilitating their mutual evolution. However, I question whether any astrologer can know how this is depicted in the birthchart, much less what the outcome is likely to be. From my perspective, to claim such knowledge is a pretension of omniscience.
The Vedic astrologer went on to say that the foremost thing in advising individuals about their prospective relationships is to determine which of several suitors is destined to be the life partner. Next, the astrologer determines the future destiny of that partnership, “fortunate or unfortunate.” Of course, it is futile to match someone with the best possible person if “he/she is not destined for that.”
The presumption here is that the astrologer can assess whether someone is destined to be permanently unhappy in relationships, in which case the doomed lover is a lost cause and no amount of good advice will alter “the pattern of destiny.” Whereas some astrological factors assure that people are tied together for a “good and fortunate outcome,” other factors indicate that the couple ties the knot “just for exchanging pain.”
Frankly, I am troubled by this kind of astrology. I feel strongly that we need to exercise humility and caution when advising individuals about their relationships. The great seduction of astrology is that horoscopes indicate a probable fate in such areas as love and marriage. The very notion of an inborn fate naturally invites speculation as to causes. If one believes in reincarnation, which is taken for granted in Vedic astrology, then a logical conclusion is that one’s marital fate has been earned on the basis of past deeds in past lives.
Again, I have no problem with this general line of thinking. My concern is with the presumption that 1) karmic causes can be discerned from the chart of the prospective couple, and 2) karmic outcomes are foreseeable and irreversible. With regard to the latter point, one of the more destructive myths of traditional astrology is that the chart determines the person – or, in the case of couples, the synastry determines the outcome of the relationship. Implicit in astral-determinism is the notion that horoscopes presage an unalterable destiny that the individual/couple is powerless to avert.
A Three-Pronged Challenge
There are at least three problems with this perspective. First, it is presumptuous in the extreme to claim to know anything about past lives on the basis of the astrological chart, regardless of how logical one’s inferences might seem. Past lives are not observable; thus, using horoscopes to make statements about past-life causes and their present-life effects is equivalent to playing God. Astrologers may believe that planetary configurations have karmic implications, but this is different from claiming to know their origins and ultimate outcomes.
Second, any single configuration is invariably nested within the larger whole of the chart. Because the whole predominates over the part, the meaning of any one configuration is influenced by its relations with every other configuration. For example, Venus opposed Saturn in one chart can be ameliorated by making a sextile and trine to Jupiter; in another, it can be exacerbated by forming a T-square to Pluto. Accordingly, assigning fixed, concrete meanings to singular aspects is imprudent.
Third, there is no way of knowing the level of consciousness of a person merely by looking at their chart. As people grow, heal, and mature, they express their charts at progressively higher levels of self-actualization. Emergent properties of consciousness are a product of the relative integration of chart factors. Since integration occurs over time in response to effort and learning, individuals have the power to gradually alter how their charts are expressed.
All of this implies that there is an inescapable indeterminacy to chart outcomes. This is all the more true with couples wherein the level of interactional complexity between chart variables is even greater. Just as with individuals, it is impossible to know the couple’s level of awareness merely on the basis of their respective horoscopes.
As stated, I have no problem utilizing a past-life, karmic perspective in working with couples. In doing so, however, process must be distinguished from content. Consider, for example, a couple in which one partner’s Neptune opposes the other’s Venus. It may be that Neptune opposed Venus imposes certain limitations and requirements that stem from the past-life history of that couple. However, all we can know with certainty is that they will be jointly challenged to coordinate conflicting Venus/Neptune processes—twoness versus oneness, attachment versus letting go, possessiveness versus dissolution, and conflict resolution versus a pretense of perpetual bliss.
Distinctions between these behaviors can be subtle and require more space to articulate than is possible here. Suffice to say that the process of Neptune opposed Venus pertains to the intrapsychic field of the two partners. Whereas each planet signifies a different set of needs, drives, and values, the angle between them (opposition) connotes a co-created belief that predicts the relative likelihood of each planet fulfilling its needs in relation to the other. Ultimately, a relational strategy will emerge for negotiating the challenge.
Whereas process refers to the intrapsychic world, content refers to the external world of people, places, and things—in short, the event world. As always, content mirrors process, but content is unknowable until it becomes manifest. While there are a variety of possible scenarios that could result from this fundamental clash of archetypes, the point here is that the astrologer cannot know how the couple will negotiate the conflict and, therefore, what the outcome will be. How capable are they of managing the tension of opposites? Given the various options, what will they actually choose to do?
As astrologers, we can know the nature of the challenge they face; that is, the process, but we cannot know how successful they will be in meeting it. Content is, and must always remain, indeterminate until choices are made and the outcome is known. Even then, an outcome is never a singular event, but an event-pattern that is capable of evolving toward more satisfying results over time.
A Synastry Example: Neptune Opposition Venus
As an astrologer and marriage therapist for the past thirty years, I have seen firsthand how the same synastric aspect between couples can have radically different manifestations. For example, one couple I treated with a Neptune opposition Venus cross-aspect suffered lies and duplicity and multiple affairs, which is certainly consistent with one meaning of this aspect.
By the time they came to therapy, there were too many nails in the coffin. Divorce was almost inevitable. It was apparent they had colluded in avoiding the conflicts in their relationship from the beginning. Tensions only grew stronger over the years, eventually culminating in both partners having affairs. Not wanting to “hurt” or “disillusion” their partner with their mutual misgivings, they sought solace outside the relationship.
In this particular case, Neptune operated to cloud and deny the real differences between the two partners. As ruler of Libra, Venus’ function is to negotiate compromises, which requires communication, recognition of conflict, and acknowledgment of differences. If this is avoided in the service of what marital therapists called “pseudomutuality,” it can eventually lead to a deadening of feeling, lack of sexual excitement, and mutual withdrawal.
Pseudomutuality is an attempt to preserve relatedness and prevent separation (loss) by maintaining a façade of harmony. Partners pretend to want the same things, have identical feelings, and share the same values. With pseudomutuality, real differences are obscured because they are perceived as a threat to the integrity of the relationship. Differentiation of identity is sacrificed for the sake of a fragile intimacy. Zest, spontaneity, humor, and originality are blotted out in favor of a predictable conformity within narrow parameters. Partners become enmeshed, indistinguishable from one another. “Twin flames,” “soul mates,” and other terms implying eternal and unbounded love are frequently utilized to reinforce the illusion of permanent togetherness and, by implication, the impossibility of separation.
Lack of differentiation and resultant enmeshment is precisely what can happen when Neptune gains the upper hand on Venus and subordinates it to an ideal of unity, bliss, and transcendence of duality. Conflict is denied because it does not conform to the Neptunian fantasy of infinite love and beauty. Venus, likewise, resists the Neptunian imperative for loss and dissolution by maintaining rigid compliance to the wishes and wants of the partner. What results is a false intimacy, which, over time, weakens any authentic attraction that might have once existed.
This is exactly what my Venus-Neptune couple did throughout their marriage. An unconscious collusion to deny differences and avoid conflict gradually eroded their feelings for one another until, finally, their marriage was but an empty shell. It cannot be stated too strongly, however, that such an outcome is not a fait accompli. For the doomed couple had other choices. At a higher level of integration, Neptune opposed Venus can be a very different experience.
A second couple I treated with this same cross-aspect regarded their relationship as a spiritual path. Strongly influenced by the work of John Welwood, they saw their marriage, in part, as a vehicle for cultivating a deeper capacity for compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. They accepted that occasional conflicts and disappointments were the inevitable consequence of being married, and they knew that the idealizing projections that initially elevated their romantic feelings to an unrealistic “high” would gradually dissolve away, bursting their fantasy of perpetual bliss and leaving disillusionment in its stead. Rather than avoid such an experience, they welcomed it, for it opened the door to a deeper, more authentic love rooted in the mutual recognition that they were both flawed, imperfect human beings.
This sort of agreement reflects a more mature, integrated version of Neptune opposed Venus. Rather than cloak their disappointments in a fog of deceit that masqueraded as ideal love, their disenchantment with one another became a catalyst for practicing self-disclosure, sacrificing rigid self-interest, expressing humility, confessing shortcomings, and offering forgiveness. In so doing, they grew over time to embody that more perfect union that Venus-Neptune at its best presages.
In both cases, there was an effort to elevate relationship to a higher plane. The first couple attempted this by denying their differences, avoiding conflict, and substituting fantasy for reality. The second couple achieved it by forgiving their differences, resolving conflict with compassion, and using their relationship as a stimulus to psychospiritual development. The first couple’s relationship dissolved in tragic divorce, whereas the second couple merely dissolved their defenses against loss and opened to the ecstatic pain of undefended love.
These two examples make the case that it is impossible to know how a synastric aspect is going to manifest without talking to the client(s). Invariably, there are lower and higher versions on a continuum of integration. The astrologer’s job, as I see it, is not to predict what will happen in a relationship, but to articulate the nature of the challenge, outline a range of potential outcomes, and support the couple in moving toward an optimal expression of the relevant variables.
After working with several thousand clients over the past three decades, it has been my experience that it is not possible to predict from horoscopes how individuals or couples will approach the challenges they invariably face. Accordingly, to presume on the basis of a birthchart whether a client will or will not marry, or whether they will ever be happily married, or how a specific relationship will turn out, or whom the client should marry, exemplifies hubris in the extreme.
I realize that predicting couple compatibility is a common practice in the east where arranged marriages are the norm. However, marriages can be arranged without the presumption that astrologers can predict compatibility. Even when couples consciously choose one another as we do in the west, we cannot predict long term compatibility merely on the basis of horoscopes, even if many of us presume we can. I have seen too many couples with soft aspects that fail, and others with a preponderance of hard aspects who succeed. One of the happiest marriages I ever witnessed was a couple with virtually no cross aspects.
My guiding principle in working with couples is that if two people are attracted to one another they should make their decision about commitment on the basis of what they know about the other person. Is this a person of good character? Is he or she responsible? I would never advise a client not to pursue a relationship on the basis of astrology, either natal or synastry. However, if my client told me that she just met a man with a criminal record who is currently dealing drugs, I don’t care what the synastry says, I would advise her to get clear about her values and reflect on the probable long term consequences of the relationship.
Vice versa, if a client wanted my opinion on a natal or synastry chart that was full of conflict, I would never suggest that she relinquish the relationship. Instead, I would discuss the challenges and opportunities of the union. My job as an astrologer is not to advise my clients on how to avoid difficulties, but how best to meet them.
Just as there is no way of knowing from a birthchart an individual’s capacity for actualizing the full potential of their hard aspects, there is no way of knowing a couple’s capacity for managing the tensions that will inevitably arise between them. Again, the person is not the chart, and the couple is not the synastry. Advising people to be or not to be in any specific relationship on the basis of astrology is unconscionable, in my opinion. Accordingly, I question the Vedic practice of speaking authoritatively on whom someone should marry; I am challenging the assertion that astrologers can reliably and consistently predict the outcome of a relationship.
The point here is that we need to balance our faith in astrology with a healthy skepticism. Not everything that is written is true, and this is especially so in astrology where shoddy scholarship is the norm. Even a cursory review of the field exposes that much of the literature is contradictory. My own rule of thumb is that the older a claim the more it is suspect. As this principle holds true in virtually every other field of knowledge—medicine, geography, physics, biology, and so on—I find it troubling when astrologers enthusiastically and uncritically embrace knowledge claims from 2000 years ago and immediately begin applying them with clients. I have a word for this: astro-fundamentalism.
There is plenty of nonsense published in modern astrology, too. For example, there are endless books purporting which signs are compatible: Aries does not get along with Cancer; Cancers are not compatible with Capricorns, and so on. Of course, the problem here is that signs are not people. But whole horoscopes are not people, either. We may recognize that a real chart is a map of bewildering complexity; still, the map is not the territory. A horoscope is but a two dimensional approximation of a three dimensional, living, evolving, historical being that can only be truly known through discovery—in this case, discovering who the couple is at their present juncture by talking to them.
The Importance of Right Attitude
In my experience, the single most important factor in determining how an astrological challenge will be met is attitude. By attitude I mean the prevailing intention, feeling, and underlying beliefs that govern an individual’s behavior in specific contexts. Attitudes can be positive or negative, friendly or hostile, confident or fearful, allowing or resisting. Moreover, they can be different in different situations, and they are capable of evolving over time. Suffice to say that one cannot discern attitude from the astrological chart alone.
Some couples approach problems with the attitude that anger and conflict should be avoided at all cost. If one person’s Mars squares the other’s Moon, this type of attitude might result in “gunny sacking,” which means grievances are repressed only to appear later in a toxic emotional atmosphere between the couple. This can lead to passive aggression, sarcasm, covert hostility, and a host of other noxious behaviors.
However, if a couple believes that conflict is unavoidable and even healthy in a relationship, this same cross-aspect may symbolize an emotional aliveness between the couple that leads to greater clarity and enhanced sensitivity. Conflicts are approached with courage and with a willingness to be disappointed because the participants don’t harbor illusions that things will always be good between them. At higher levels of integration, angry feelings can be contained and transmuted into an assertion of vulnerability: “When you break our agreements,” one partner says, “I feel hurt; my trust is damaged.”
In the following scenario, a synastic conflict between freedom (Mars) and closeness (Moon) is openly acknowledged between two newlyweds who know nothing about astrology. The husband wants to do a weekend activity separate from his wife, which evokes feelings of rejection in her. The conflict is discussed, hurt feelings are tolerated, reassurances offered, and a compromise negotiated that allows for both needs to be met.
Husband: I’d like to go fishing with Bob (friend). We’ll probably be gone all day.
Wife: I thought we agreed to work in the yard today, and then have a cookout with my parents. I’m disappointed that you’re breaking our plans.
Husband: I’m sorry, honey, but I thought we were going to do that next week.
Wife: I must admit I’m feeling a bit neglected. I could be imagining this, but it seems like you’re less interested in spending time with me lately. We used to spend every weekend together.
Husband: To tell you the truth; it’s a conflict for me. I feel that since we bought the house, I’ve been neglecting my friends. Of course I want to be with you, but part of me feels restless and wants to spend some time doing guy-stuff that’s no fun for you. I realize I haven’t talked about this, so there’s no way you would know. [Lets this sink in].
Wife: (Sad) Well, I’m glad you told me, because I didn’t know you were feeling that way.
Husband: Please understand: this has nothing to do with my feelings for you. I love you just as much as I ever did, and I love spending time with you; I’m just trying to get a bit more balance in my life (smiles). How about tomorrow we spend the day doing stuff together? Let’s work in the yard and maybe afterwards have a cookout down by the lake, just the two of us?
Wife: Thanks for that. I feel better. I do understand that it’s important that we have some time apart. So yes, yard work and cookout sounds great – tomorrow (smiles back). What is significant in this exchange is that the couple found a way to manage their Mars-Moon conflict that actually enhanced their intimacy. The agreement to have time apart implies that neither partner need fear being engulfed by the other. Permission to be separate (Mars) makes it safer to be close (Moon); it also enhances feelings of appreciation, for the psyche rejoices when conflicting needs are mutually fulfilled. Also, trust is deepened when the couple realizes that one or the other can be angry without jeopardizing the relationship. Knowing that conflicts can be resolved without damage means they don’t have to repress their anger, hurt, or disappointment. This is liberating and enlivening. Of course, for such an exchange to take place both partners must have the right attitude—mutual trust, openness, and faith in one another’s capacity to tolerate negative feelings. As always, attitude is not discernable from the charts of the two participants. If client assessment reveals that a healthy attitude toward conflict is not, in fact, present, it can be taught and modeled by good astrological counseling. The first step is to describe the Mars-Moon conflict at a process level and then inquire how they are handling it. A process description does not assume any particular outcome, but rather articulates the nature of the conflict itself. For example, the astrologer might start by explaining…
Tom’s Mars is squaring Karen’s Moon. This suggests that Tom’s need for independence may sometimes clash with Karen’s wish for closeness. Obviously, both needs are important. Does this ever come up between you? And if so, how do you handle it?
More detail about the conflict could certainly be provided, but this cuts to the heart of the matter and serves the purpose of eliciting further information. If the couple is doing well, then validation is in order, with perhaps further description as to the significance of the challenge and its redeeming value. If they are doing poorly, encouragement is in order, with guidance on how to contain negative feelings, honor both sides of the issue, and move toward a compromise in which conflicting Mars-Moon needs can be equally fulfilled.
The astrologer might say:
It’s not uncommon for couples to equate separation (Mars) with rejection (Moon). In fact, however, the more you can honor and acknowledge each other’s need to be apart, the more closeness becomes possible, for then you won’t fear being smothered by one another. Moon without Mars can be emotionally sticky; Mars without Moon can be abrasive. When the two are working together, you have just the right balance—emotional support for one another’s need to be apart, and the courage to be emotionally vulnerable (close) when the situation calls for it.
Karen, next time you’re feeling neglected, talk about it with Tom, but in a way that does not imply he’s responsible. And Tom, try not to feel guilty about Karen’s feelings. Don’t assume it’s your fault; instead, try to empathize with her point of view while holding on to your own needs at the same time. Vice versa, Karen, try to empathize with Tom’s need for time apart while holding on to your need for closeness, too. These are not mutually exclusive needs; rather, they simply have to be expressed and understood on both sides.
The astrologer could go on to describe how negotiating a Mars-Moon conflict promotes differentiation, deepens intimacy, and increases feelings of aliveness and erotic attraction. If the couple is interested in doing further work, a marriage therapist could be recommended.
This approach to astrology models that hard aspects are actually conducive to marital satisfaction, for they provide the necessary spur to keep things moving on an upward trajectory of mutual growth. Nothing is more deadly to intimacy than stagnation. As with all living systems, the operative rule is grow or die. A Mars-Moon square stimulates the couple to develop a capacity for containment of archetypal tensions: autonomy and closeness, independence and dependence, strength and tenderness.
It is a common assumption in astrology that soft aspects between couples are conducive to marital harmony. This may be so, to some extent, but soft aspects are no assurance of marital bliss. Too much ease in a relationship can lead to passivity and pseudomutuality—lack of differentiation, superficiality, and enabling. In such cases, eroticism evaporates rather quickly and soon the couple may find themselves zoning out in front of the TV, enjoying their gin and tonic more than their yin and yang. Hard aspects, on the other hand, can lead to spirited discussions, mutual growth in awareness, enhanced conflict resolution skills, and a resultant deepening of authentic intimacy. Again, the critical factor is attitude.
Astrologers are often called upon to answer questions pertaining to relationships. Presuming to know whether a relationship is likely to be “fortunate or unfortunate,” telling people who is their “best partner,” or claiming to know that a couple has come together “just for exchanging pain,” may make the astrologer feel supremely important, but it can be damaging to the client. With this kind of astrology, the most you can be is right. Whether or not you have helped your client is another matter entirely. Because astrology is a powerful and somewhat magical tool, it is terribly important that we do not become inflated with our presumed knowledge. As Will Rogers quipped, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble; it’s what we know that isn’t so.” In other words, it’s what we think we know that is not, in fact, true that is potentially destructive to clients. Humility, recognition of fallibility, and openness to uncertainty are among the most important qualities an astrologer can possess. Beyond that, I recommend that astrologers err on the side of hope and express faith that clients’ can manage and integrate their most challenging aspects. Given the demonstrable human capacity for change, such an attitude is not merely optimistic; it is realistic.
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 I am respectfully withholding the name of the publication and the author as I do not wish to embarass either.
 Wynne, L.C., The epigenesis of relational systems: A model for understanding family development. Family Process 23: 297-318, 1984.
 Neptune often requires loss and dissolution as a precursor to the development of compassion, humility, and willingness to surrender to a higher power.
 John Welwood is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist whose books include the best selling Journey of the Heart (1991) and Love and Awakening: Discovering the Sacred Path of Intimate Relationship (1996). He and his wife, Jennifer, lead workshops on conscious relationship and psychospiritual work across the country.
 This is not to impugn the intelligence of astrologers. Many are unquestionably brilliant. However, a consequence of our being banished from academia for the past 300 years has unavoidably led to a lowering of standards in the field. In the absence of standards, a lack of critical thinking and paucity of good research is the inevitable result.
 Enabling refers to behaviors wherein one partner is overly permissive or protective and therefore allows the other partner to continue practices that are destructive, e.g., laziness, gambling, excessive drinking, avoidance of responsibility, violence, and the like.