Do Opposites Really Attract?

In relationships, similarities are better predictors of happiness.

Posted Jul 30, 2019

It is an incontrovertible fact that opposites attract—if we’re talking about electromagnetic valence and charges such as those found in atoms and magnets. But in the macroscopic, animate world of intimate relationships, nothing can be farther from the truth. Or, if there is an attraction between two very different people, it will be unlikely to stand the test of time, because compatibility and genuine long them intimacy are usually based on similarities, not differences.

Consider a basic friendship. Who are your friends and how fundamentally similar versus different are they from you? It is unlikely that a super progressive, liberal, nature-loving vegetarian will be best friends with a staunch conservative, climate change denying, recreational hunter and trapper. Even more superficial differences like preferring hiking and tennis to golfing and fishing can be a social chasm that is hard to bridge.

Based on decades of personal experience helping distressed couples, a great deal of corroborating anecdotal information from my colleagues, and sound research evidence (e.g., Gottman and Silver, 2012), here are the major zones of compatibility that can help predict if a marriage or loving relationship will last:

  1. World view
  2. Basic activities
  3. Sexual relations
  4. Fundamental temperament

1. World view. As suggested above, if a couple has diametrically opposed outlooks on life, it's hard to imagine them having a harmonious and minimally conflicting relationship. This is not to suggest that both must agree on everything. Indeed, some independent and differing ideas can be stimulating and enriching for both members of the couple. But when it comes to major issues such as managing and spending money, how to raise children, and strong political views (to name only a few), a like-minded couple will be better off than one with very divergent beliefs and values.

2. Basic activities. Most happy marriages are anchored on a solid foundation of friendship. When couples enjoy many of the same activities, and engage in them together, their overall marital satisfaction is generally good. Just like world view, however, this does not mean that a couple should be joined at the hip! In fact, when both members of the dyad have some outside interests it stimulates and enhances the relationship. This is because spending too much time together can be stifling, and some independent activities provide extra fun for the individuals which, in turn, strengthens the marriage when the individual activities are shared in conversation.

3. Sex. Unsurprisingly, sexual dissatisfaction in a marriage is both common and associated with potentially serious problems. While this is a major issue with many components, I’ll limit my discussion to the less incendiary but more typical problem of desire discrepancies; significantly disparate sexual appetites and turn-ons.

Obviously, if one member of a couple desires creative sex several times a week and the other prefers conventional relations only once or twice a month... well, conjugal bliss will not be likely. The way to assess or manage this crucial compatibility zone is with open and honest discussion. Indeed, one’s tongue is his or her most important sexual organ (not because of its versatility for sexual pleasure, but mostly as an instrument of communication!). Thus the more a couple constructively talks about their sexual relationship the more satisfied with it they are likely to be.

4. Basic Temperament. Temperament is another zone of compatibility where it is desirable to be more alike than different. For instance, a very extroverted person will not do as well with an extreme introvert as they would with someone who has a similar social appetite. Similarly, a very passive person will likely experience conflict and resentment if they are coupled with a very assertive partner. And a highly sensitive person will often feel abraded by a partner who has a skin as thick as a rhinoceros hide!

Again, I am not suggesting that people should seek out only virtual clones of themselves but rather that more they have in common, especially with matters of world view, basic activities, sexual desires and overall temperament, the less conflict they will have, and the more their relationship will be felt as mutually satisfying. 

Copyright 2019 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. it is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified health professional. The advertisements in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me.

References

Gottman, J., & Silver, N.  (2012). What Makes Love Last. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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