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Attractions That Go Sour: The Good & Bad of Complementarity

What attracts you may also turn you off

Sara really liked Brad. He was strong and decisive, so different from all her other recent boyfriends, and Brad really appreciated Sara’s spontaneity. But now 3 months into the relationship, those same qualities are driving them each crazy – Brad’s strong and decisive now feels like controlling and rigid; Sara’s spontaneity now seems impulsive and dramatic.

We all have heard this – whatever is a strength can also become a weakness; what we are most attracted to in someone is often the one thing that over time drives us crazy. Complementarity in relationships pulls us towards someone who seems to have what we do not, and in good situations this over time pulls us out of our comfort zone and makes our world larger and more flexible. But that same attractive pull also has the ability to go sour.

Here is the morphing from positive to negative of some of the most common traits:

Calm, steady = boring

Easygoing = passive

Passionate = dramatic, erratic

Self motivated = self centered, narcissistic

Spontaneous, adventurous = impulsive, reckless

Sensitive = unstable, needy

Strong, decisive = controlling

Detail oriented = obsessive

You get the idea. How quickly and permanently these turn depends on a few things:

Stress. Stress distorts our perspective, creates tunnel vision. On a bad day when you’re tired and have a lot on your plate, or are worrying about your mother’s upcoming cancer surgery, your boyfriend’s reorganizing of his book shelf can seem to you like like some untreated OCD that drives you nuts. Once you get some sleep, your mom's surgery and prognosis both turn out well, you actually appreciate your boyfriend straightening up even if you yourself wouldn’t be so meticulous.

Idealization. Often there are two sources for this. One is that the other’s complementary trait is one that you are particular sensitive to in yourself. If Brad, for example, actually kicks himself for being a bit too stuffy at times, it’s easy for him to quickly put someone like Sara who is so unlike him on a pedestal – my hero. Similarly, if Sara worries about her struggle with decision-making, she is both drawn towards and envious of Brad’s quick clarity. Like it or not, heroes on a pedestal eventually fall and we then instinctively hyper-notice what is not so great and ordinary.

Other times our idealization comes not from concerns about ourselves, but from our experience with specific others. If Brad had just broken up with someone who was more like him—steady and a bit staid—Sara becomes a welcomed breath of fresh air. Similarly, if Sara is bouncing out of a relationship with someone who was wasn’t dependable or constantly wishy-washy, Brad is exactly the kind of guy she is looking for right now. This rebounding skews our view; the draw increases the danger of swinging too far to the other side.

Childhood wounds. Finally, attractions go sour because of our childhood wiring. If Brad, for example, had a mom who was unreliable or emotionally erratic, he could understandably have been both wounded and wired to be sensitive to such unreliable / emotional behaviors. When Sara, in his mind, starts sliding in even the slightest way in that direction, those old anxieties and hurts easily become triggered. Similarly, if Sara grew up being wounded by control, it’s easy for her to see, and over-react, to that in Brad even when someone else would not. These old wounds both make us hyperalert to being rewounded again, and over-reactive when they are triggered, often setting off the other’s wounds and creating a downward emotional spiral.

Given these potential emotional potholes, the challenge is finding ways to make the most of complementarity without it going sour. Some tips:

Know your sensitivities to stress. What are your top 5 signals that let you know you are stressed? Eating too many carbs, worrying about your weight, complaining about your job, worrying about money, or irritated by your partner’s seemingly obsessive behavior. Knowing in advance that these are symptoms of your stress that usually calm down when you are relaxed can help you not let your head run down that never-ending rabbit hole.

Know your patterns of attraction. Here we’re talking about any tendencies to particularly drawn to and idealize certain traits (the bad boys, the perfect parent?). Expect the person on the pedestal to eventually fall off. The challenge is to try and over-ride your emotional mind by looking ahead to what this person would be like if he or she weren't quite so special.

Be careful of rebounds. If you are coming out a relationship, be cautious; like coming out of a car accident your reaction times and feelings of vulnerability are distorted. Either give yourself more time to grieve and settle before starting up again, or use your rational mind to help put the brakes on those infatuations that seem like an antidote to your past negative experience and current pain.

Know your childhood wounds. Knowing what you are particularly sensitive to in your relationship to others can help you not overreact (stay in your adult mind rather than falling back into the little-kid mind). Ideally, you want to let the other person know what these triggers are early in the relationship (this is part of real intimacy and caring) so they both understand what makes you tick, and know how to not inadvertently trigger you. This is where Brad appreciates Sara’s spontaneity, but also lets her know when it is a bit too much and makes him feel anxious. Similarly, Sara can let Brad know upfront what is for her that fine line between his being decisive and being controlling. She needs to spell this out clearly so he knows exactly what to do or not do to avoid pushing those buttons.

Finally for all this negative talk about attractions and complementarity, it’s important to keep in mind the upside. That the other person is showing and bringing to you a different view of life and living. That his strengths can compensate for your weaknesses, that you can balance each other out and make a good team.

That together you can help each other become a better person.