It’s a myth that opposites attract, says Matthew D. Johnson, Chair & Professor of Psychology and Director of the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory, Binghamton University, State University of New York.
“Love stories often include people finding partners who seem to have traits that they lack,” he writes, “like a good girl falling for a bad boy. In this way, they appear to complement one another … The question is whether people actually seek out complementary partners or if that just happens in the movies.”
“As it turns out, it’s pure fiction,” Johnson adds. “There is essentially no research evidence that differences in personality, interests, education, politics, upbringing, religion or other traits lead to greater attraction.”
In a 2012 study, psychologists Matthew Montoya and Robert Horton found an irrefutable association between being similar to and being interested in another person. “In other words, there is clear and convincing evidence that birds of a feather flock together,” Johnson concludes. “For human beings, the attractiveness of similarity is so strong that it is found across cultures.”
Arranged Marriages Shed Light on the Topic
The case for similarities attracting is supported by truths about arranged marriages. According to Utpal Dholakia PhD, regarding Indian arranged marriages, when a marriage is arranged “prospects come vetted.” They are matched in characteristics such as social class, religion, caste (still today for Hindus), and educational attainment, which signals similarity and that such likenesses may be important predictors of longer-term marriage success.
Marriage arrangers routinely pair people with similar values and lifestyles. High levels of satisfaction over the longer-term are reported by people in these marriages.
A study concludes that over time “the love experienced by Indian couples in arranged marriages appears to be even more robust than the love people experience in ‘love marriages.’”
Why does the myth persist?
Given all the evidence to the contrary, why does the myth that opposites attract persist? We may take our similarities for granted because they’re not as obvious as our differences. Consequently spouses may give more weight to differences like introvert/extrovert, emotional/intellectual, planner/spontaneous person, and so on.
A way to make sense of this apparent contradiction to the opposites-don’t-attract conclusion is to differentiate between “opposite” and “different.” The studies mentioned above which conclude that it is similarities that attract looked at characteristics such as attitudes, personality traits, outside interests, and values; traits which reflect one’s essential self.
The complementary dissimilarities, which may stand out in compatible couples, are secondary in importance to their essential similarities. More examples of such less significant contrasting traits: optimist/worrier, morning person/night person, and adventure seeker/security seeker. These differences are not deal breakers when they occur in a respectful relationship that’s supported by the presence of key similarities.
Sometimes secondary differences cause conflict. But by appreciating each other’s dissimilarities, spouses can grow by dealing successfully with the resulting challenges that may arise. So how do couples who are basically compatible in the important ways manage to stay happy together when faced with a difference that can be frustrating?
Managing Irreconcilable Differences
Psychologist John Gottman found in his extensive research that 69 percent of problems in marriage do not get solved. But in good marriages many problems are managed. Gottman says that couples can live with unresolvable conflicts about perpetual issues in their relationship if their differences are not deal breakers. It’s not the presence of conflict that stresses the relationship; it’s how the couple responds. Dealing with differences positively and respectfully can keep a marriage thriving.
Couples who stay together happily learn to manage their differences. Sometimes it’s as simple as agreeing to disagree, such as when spouses support different candidates for elected office or favor different political parties. In other situations, it’s about finding a way to manage a difference. A conflict about differences where there is a willingness to put the relationship first can result in a good resolution. The key is to be aware of, accept, and respect differences that need not be deal breakers.
Caroline and Kyle Manage Differences
Caroline and Kyle are compatible in the important ways. They share the same religious background, educational level, and important values. They both like living in their quiet town in upstate New York. One big difference was that Kyle wasn’t wanting to become a parent and Caroline longed for a baby. Kyle loved Caroline and put their relationship first. He decided to go along with her wish. He explained his decision philosophically by saying, “If you have children, or if you don’t — you will regret it.” It turned out that they both found parenting fulfilling. Now their son is married, and they adore their young grandchildren.
Kyle and Caroline have a security seeker/adventure seeker difference. He likes staying close to home. She loves to travel. They manage this difference well. She doesn’t try to convince Kyle to act against his homebody nature, which would cause him to resent her for pressuring him. He doesn’t try to force her into his stay-home mold by insisting that stop taking trips.
Their solution: Caroline travels with women friends who share her interest in visiting places like Argentina, Denmark, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Kyle misses her when she’s gone but is glad to have a happy wife.
Kyle and Caroline manage this difference, not by trying to change each other, but by accepting it and creating a solution that fits for both of them.
Some Differences Cannot Be Negotiated
Not all opposites or differences can be managed. Some potential deal breakers are:
- Different religions
- Different spending styles (e.g., one is frugal; the other spends wildly)
- One wants children; the other doesn’t.
- One has an addiction or a mental or physical condition that the other cannot tolerate.
- Different lifestyles (e.g., one wants to live in urban area; the other in a rural one)
- Different core values (e.g., one wants fame and fortune; the other wants a quiet, contemplative life)
- Different ideas about fidelity (e.g., open marriage versus traditional marriage)
Having Enough Commonality Is Important
Spouses with similar values, enough compatible interests, and good character traits are more likely to have lasting, fulfilling marriages. When differences arise in a good relationship, instead of judging their partner as “wrong,” partners listen to each other and express themselves respectfully. They put their relationship first and find solutions that work for both of them.