It’s everywhere in movies, books, TV. You’ve probably heard it said by your parents or even grandparents. The idea is decades old… “Opposites Attract.” And we love this idea. I loved this idea. I was the nerdy, unathletic band geek who hoped to be the love interest of the cocky bad boy with a hot face and a good heart deep down inside. But do opposites truly attract? Well, I guess the answer is…it depends.
But do opposites truly attract? Well I guess the answer is…it depends.
Many social psychology studies have been done with couples of all shapes and sizes, including divorced and still married couples, in an attempt to figure out the answer to this question. Which is more true, “opposites attract” or “birds of a feather flock together?” And the results are…inconclusive. Some studies found that yes, opposites attracted to an extent. Another study showed that the couples who fit the “opposites attract” mold were more likely to be divorced than the couples who were more similar. Still other studies observed couples whose traits made them complementary, rather than total opposites. That study showed that, for example, people with dominant personality traits often chose a partner who was more submissive, and vice versa. Those particular traits worked better in complementary roles, rather than two dominant or two submissive people as a couple.
Here is what I’ve distilled from this information, as well as from my own experience as a counselor. Opposites might very well attract, initially. But the couples who experience long-lasting, satisfying relationships tend to have more similar values. The key is that some things can be really different and still work, and other things need to be similar. The idea of couples having complementary personalities makes sense to me too. Let’s break down these three ideas a little more in-depth.
Opposites Initially Attract
Opposites do often attract, at first, and the modern dating system contributes to this idea. Take the idea of sifting through matches on an online dating profile. Yes, we often look for someone who has similar values overall, but the opposite characteristics are fun. I’m loud and gregarious, he’s quiet and mysterious. Sounds intriguing. I’m the shy book nerd, he’s a confident athlete. Hmmm.
We like new personalities at first. And look at romantic movies. The leads are always total opposites. They always start by bickering and not getting along, they end up falling for each other, somebody’s shady past or secret threatens to destroy their relationship, they work it out, happy ending. You never watch a movie about two responsible accountants who meet, date for a reasonable amount of time, get married, and have a satisfied and financially stable life.
…And then life happens
Anyway… when the opposites attract, the relationship is a lot of fun at first. But the pair often realizes that while they find the other attractive, they are not necessarily going in the same direction long term. We even romanticize this idea, like in The Notebook. Noah and Allie fight constantly, because “that’s what we do. We fight.” Classic scene, right? They talk about how they drive each other crazy, they don’t agree most of the time, etc. But yet they have this beautiful, romantic 60 year relationship. The problem is this: if they truly never agree, they are going to have trouble making a LOT of decisions throughout those 60 years. How do we raise our kids? How do we discipline them? Will we even have kids? Where will we live? How will we manage our money? Retirement? Travel? Whose family for which holidays? The list is endless, but pop culture doesn’t show us that part of love because it’s not deemed exciting or romantic. So we start to believe that the initial spark of “opposites attract” is all we need to end up with a lifetime of happiness.
For the Long Haul, Birds of a Feather Flock Together
The yin to our great question’s yang… birds of a feather. Although there are mixed results from those social psychology studies, overall, birds of a feather seems to more accurately predict long-term success in relationships, especially marriage. This doesn’t mean that you and your spouse should be exactly the same (we’ll get to complementary soon), but it does mean that important values and the answers to a lot of those questions I mentioned above should line up. It means that maybe an anti-gun pacifist and a military veteran might have seriously different views on topics they’re very passionate about. It means that two boisterous, dominant personalities might butt heads more than they agree. On the flip side, birds who are already flying in generally the same direction will find it more natural to keep flying together.
Complementary Traits and Roles
Complementary traits and roles are where successful couples have wiggle room to still be very different. Certain traits simply feed well off other traits, as long as they’re working together. For example, let’s go back to the dominant/submissive pair and say the man is dominant and the woman is submissive. If both members of the couple are highly dominant, there will likely be a power struggle. If both members are submissive, they may have trouble making decisions and moving forward. If the man (for example) is extremely dominant and the woman is extremely submissive, that’s not good either. That’s the combination usually seen in situations of domestic violence.
But the last combination is this: If the man leads and initiates to the woman, while also respecting her independence and autonomy, the woman can feel free to be in a joyfully submissive role. NOT because she doesn’t have any power, but because she does not have to jockey for position. She can feel safe, knowing that her man is taking care of her and looking out for her best interests. She can have an equal voice in decision making, because her intelligence and autonomy is already a given. She can focus on her own responsibilities, knowing that her man is responsible enough to take care of his. It works.
Birds with Mostly Matching Feathers
Striking a balance between two complementary traits is important in so many different areas of a relationship. It’s important for couples to have their own hobbies, friends, and passions. And it’s important for us to support our partner in those things. It’s great to have one spitfire personality meshed with a solid rock of calm and collected. We need partners who can balance us out! But we also need to be able to come together at the end of the day and agree on what is important. The biggest values for most people can be distilled down to these: family, money, politics, religion, worldview, purpose. If you and your partner can have quality discussions about those areas and decide you are moving in the same direction, your relationship has a much better chance of success.