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Do Opposites Attract?

A reader asked:

“Do opposites really attract each other for a long, enduring marriage?”

Dear Reader,

The idea that “opposites attract” is what many (including Paula Abdul) would refer to as common sense. Yet, there is another common sense belief that “birds of a feather flock together.” Certainly both feel right and have an element of what Stephan Colbert would call “truthiness.” This is why relationship science is so important, because it provides the only way to know for sure which of these common sense ideas is true.

Although there are competing common sense beliefs, the existing research overwhelmingly supports the idea that similarity leads to attraction and better quality relationships.1 In fact, if there were a first law of attraction, it would probably be “attraction increases as similarity between partners increases.” Granted, we aren’t looking for clones of ourselves necessarily (that would be creepy and boring). However, when our partner has similar values, likes/dislikes, personality characteristics, hobbies, interests, and background the relationship is more likely to succeed (also see our post on "Where's the Best Place to Meet Someone?"). There is also evidence that thinking about high quality relationships increases perceptions of similarity.2

Now, you may be thinking, “my partner and I are nothing alike, and we’re very happy.” Chances are that you and your partner are more similar than you realize and are just more inclined to notice the differences. For example, are you similar in age? Religious beliefs? Education level? Are you from the same geographic area? These are important similarities that help the relationship that people may overlook.  

Besides, what would true “opposites” look like? Let’s assume that one partner is a devout Catholic who is extroverted, hard-working, and likes to travel, while the other partner is an atheist who is introverted, lazy, and hates leaving their hometown. Certainly these partners are opposite. It is also difficult to see how this would be an ideal relationship that was happy and long lasting. Instead it seems more likely that whenever they did things as a couple one partner would be unhappy which could lead to more conflict. If both partners were hard-working, extroverted, and liked to travel they could both work 60 hour weeks and then relax by partying and taking vacations around the world.

There is some research showing that partners who complement each other’s qualities can be successful.3 Here, partners are not truly opposite but instead have qualities that fit nicely with the partner. For example, if one partner is needy while the other is nurturing, it may work for their relationship. In fact, there is evidence from long-term relationships that among partners with insecure attachment, they were more likely to have complementary attachment styles.4 There is also research suggesting that when a relationship is likely, people prefer a partner who has some dissimilarity.5

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1Byrne, D. (1971). The attraction paradigm. New York: Academic Press.

2Morry, M. M., Kito, M., & Ortiz, L. (2011). The attraction–similarity model and dating couples: Projection, perceived similarity, and psychological benefits. Personal Relationships, 18(1), 125-143.

3Markey, P. M., & Kurtz, J. E. (2006). Increasing acquaintanceship and complementarity of behavioral styles and personality traits among college roommates. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(7), 907-916. 

4Holmes, B. M., & Johnson, K. R. (2009). Adult attachment and romantic partner preference: A review. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(6-7), 833-852.

5Aron, A., Steele, J. L., Kashdan, T. B., & Perez, M. (2006). When similars do not attract: Tests of a prediction from the self-expansion model. Personal Relationships, 13(4), 387-396.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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Reader Comments (1)

I think it's important to note too that, in terms of personality at least, people pair up randomly (e.g., Lykken & Tellegen, 1993). But then people who were lucky enough to pair with someone more similar to them are more likely to be happy in their relationships (e.g., Bentler & Newcomb, 1978; Kurdek, 1991). This likely occurs because they have fewer conflicts of interest. If both members of the couple like order, they will be less likely to argue about mess than couples in which orderliness only matters to one partner. There are some traits that it's better not pair on though. Even highly neurotic people will probably be better off with a less neurotic partner, for example.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJaye L. Derrick
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