It’s almost a truism in the psychology of intimate relationships that similarity is a more fertile breeding ground for couples than complementarity. However, we all know of cases in which one partner’s yang perfectly balances another person’s yin. Maybe one partner is shy and reserved but the other can’t get enough social interaction; somehow, though, they seem to enjoy each other’s company. More to the point, their relationship withstands the test of time.
As it turns out, research published in a 2013 issue of the journal Social Cognition supports the idea that apart from whether they initially attract or not, opposites can work well together as a team on mutually shared goals. In two studies on romantic couples, University of Waterloo’s Vanessa K. Bohns (2013) and colleagues investigated whether the way in which couples approach problems to be solved would predict their satisfaction with their relationship.
The theory behind the studies proposes that we have different ways of achieving our desired goals. Known as regulatory focus theory, this is an approach to understanding motivation in which people are classified according to two orientations to pursuing important goals. People who have the promotion orientation seek (as the term implies) improvement or advancement. In contrast, people who tend to take a prevention orientation are oriented toward the safe, secure, and steady path to getting what they want.
You might imagine that these two orientations could easily be at odds when partners are seeking the same goal. Something as simple as planning the week’s menus could become a battleground if one partner wants to experiment with new and perhaps risky recipes while the other wants to keep cooking up the same old same old, which at least will produce predictable edible results. Assuming that both partners have the same goal, namely to have pleasant meals together, this could lead to grocery shopping battles if not outright war in the kitchen.
However, another way to think about people who have opposing ways of achieving the same goal is that the two approaches balance each other out, especially over time. The adventurous partner will provide, literally, some spice but the more conventional one’s work in the kitchen will provide them with nutrition. Couples with these opposing approaches may both be able to satisfy their culinary needs by either splitting up the meal, adding one new dish at a time, or deciding to leave experimentation for nights when it won’t matter if the meal is a flop such as when there’s no one else coming over for dinner.
You can also think of complementarity with regard to goals as delegation of duties. If you know that one person is good at approaching certain kinds of tasks and the other can do others with ease, then it makes sense to divide the work accordingly. For example, if you’re a technophile (i.e. you love technology) but your partner is a technophobe (the opposite), then you’ll be the one to set up the wireless router while your mate does the dusting. If you both decide to do half of each task, then not only will you both be miserable, but neither job will be done properly.
This second example shows how important it is for your personal, if not marital, satisfaction for you to be able to do what needs to be done in your preferred manner. You’re happiest in your relationship when you can pursue the tasks you want to in the manner you enjoy. The happiness you experience then spills over to your happiness in the relationship as a whole.
To test regulatory focus theory, Bohns and her collaborators began by asking dating couples to complete a series of questionnaires on their preferred approach to achieving goals along with measures of their relationship satisfaction, self-esteem, and goal congruence.
The regulatory goals measure tapped their preferred approach with questions such as “How often have you accomplished things that have gotten you ‘psyched’ to work even harder?” (high promotion) and “Not being careful enough has gotten me into trouble” (low prevention). To measure relationship well-being, Bohns and team assessed the respondent’s perception of satisfaction, trust, and commitment. They asked participants to indicate their degree of goal congruence by asking them to answer questions such as whether they and their partner are “on the same page” and “of one mind.”
Consistent with the study’s predictions, couples with a high degree of goal congruence had the highest relationship satisfaction when the partners had complementary approaches to achieving their goals. In other words, as long as partners had a shared sense of purpose, they were happiest when they and their partner provided a balance between adventurousness and stability.
Those were dating couples. You might be wondering how this would all play out with people who were in long-term committed relationships where opposing motivational approaches would have more time to play out. In the second study, Bohns and her coworkers did just that by including married couples who were, on average, in their 40s. Of course, the couples who had divorced were by definition not in this study, so the truly warring opposites would not be available to be tested. However, by assessing marital satisfaction, it was at least possible to examine how well couples from the opposite end of the motivational spectrum would fare.
This second study used a fascinating test to assess shared perspectives, known as the Inclusion of Other in Self (IOS) scale. As the term implies, the test asks participants to state how much they adopt their partner’s interests, traits, and qualities as their own. If you're high on inclusion of the other in the self, you feel that what's important to your partner is important to you. The researchers also included measures of personality dominance and a marital satisfaction scale. Submissive partners would, we might expect, be more likely to see themselves as influenced by their partners and this would confuse the issue of shared perspectives.
As in the first study, the complementarity hypothesis was supported. Among married couples with a strong sense of shared purpose (high inclusion of the other in the self), those with opposing motivational approaches were the most satisfied in their relationships. If you and your partner have a shared sense of purpose, you'll be happier if both of you approach these shared goals in a way that's consistent with your overall style.
These findings have definite implications for your relationship satisfaction, whether you’re still in the initial exploratory phases or have been together for many years and know each other very well. It might infuriate you at times that your partner is too risky or isn’t risky enough, but as long as you both agree on what’s important, your relationship has a better chance of working than you realize. Once you’ve settled on the “why,” you'll be more satisfied when you and your partner can divide up the "how."
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Bohns, V. K., Lucas, G. M., Molden, D. C., Finkel, E. J., Coolsen, M. K., Kumashiro, M., . . . Higgins, E. T. (2013). Opposites fit: Regulatory focus complementarity and relationship well-being. Social Cognition, 31, 1-14. doi: 10.1521/soco.2013.31.1.1