Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together maybe pulling you apart.

Do Opposites Really Attract?

What you should know when trying to fit a square peg into a round hole

I recently had lunch with a friend of mine (I’ll call him Matt) who’s been active on the dating sites for quite some time. Matt told me that the night before our get together he met a woman (I’ll call her Sally) that he thought was “the one.” Matt wasn’t quite sure how Sally felt about him but he assured me that his primitive instincts were exceptional and that he felt “a good vibe.”

A common story except for the fact that I’ve known Matt for over 30 years and the woman he described in detail didn’t seem to have anything in common with him. Matt loved to go to rock concerts—Sally didn’t. He was an avid reader—she wasn’t. Sally was a corporate capitalist—Matt was an old hippie. Sally had children—Matt didn’t. Sally liked to shop—Matt was incredibly thrifty, if not downright cheap. Sally liked a man who worked with his hands—Matt used a lot of hand lotion. He preferred a feminine woman—Sally prided herself on her athleticism and toughness. Matt didn’t appreciate a smoker—she smoked. Sally drank with the best of men—Matt didn’t drink. I could go on and on but I think you get the point: These two people seemed to be as far apart as the earth and the moon. Why would they get within a hundred miles of one another?

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I can’t answer for Sally, but I can offer a plausible hypothesis for my friend’s behavior. Matt’s first two marriages appeared to be complete mismatches. Like Sally, both wives were overachieving, obsessive compulsive personalities who relentlessly pushed him to join them in their quests to conquer the world. Matt, on the other hand, hated his job…and all work for that matter. His favorite song: “So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star.” Matt was born retired. Not surprisingly, Matt’s wives soon became fed up with him and threw him out. Matt was legally entitled to receive alimony from each of these women, which would have put him one step closer to a beach. But he wasn’t even motivated enough to pursue this route to nirvana. Matt certainly had a penchant for choosing women who would ultimately become disappointed in him, and the results were often sadomasochistic.

I know what you’re thinking: Your buddy was a lazy gold digger who preferred to feed off of hardworking women. But it was more complex than that. I suspect part of the problem was hereditary. Matt’s father was a critical, financially irresponsible man who was never easy to please. Although not a big wage earner, he lived well beyond his means: He always drove a fancy car even though his credit card balances were apparently beyond their limits; he often frequented expensive restaurants; and he had a beautiful home but his salary as the manager of a small department store was relatively meager. I believe his wife was helplessly subsidizing most of his whims, but not happily as I recall.

Point is: Matt was never good enough for his father but yet he spent his entire life trying to “make it big” in order to win his approval. But the flip side was that Matt didn’t really want to put in the work to be successful. Matt was in conflict: While he aspired to be a “surfer” in the circle of life, he also longed to be a success. It seemed as though Matt’s choice to marry wealthy, driven women served as a psychic compromise to his conflict: a surfer who married well. If it weren’t for the fact that Matt’s solution brought with it humiliation and abandonment, it was actually quite ingenious. He not only lived well, at least temporarily, he developed a veiled way to express his anger towards his father via torturing the women in his life.

I think it is perfectly fine to want more out of life and out of one’s relationship. I also think it’s a good thing to be attracted to difference. But few people understand the true meaning of their differences and the price for this lack of insight can be steep. Matt repeatedly engaged a familiar relational dynamic in which his significant other was disappointed in him—and all parties suffered. But as opposite as Matt and the significant women in his life appeared to be, the irony is that they were probably very much alike. These women chose Matt. Therefore, it would not be much of a stretch to assume that all had histories of being disappointed by significant others dating back to their families or origin. Perhaps this is why they overworked in relationships despite the burden it brought. In truth, Matt was just as perfect a fit for their needs as they were for his need to be successful yet rejected. So, the next time you think about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, consider that the differences you see may be symptomatic of a deeper, unresolved conflict. “Knowledge is power,” so said Sir Francis Bacon.

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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