Do Opposites Really Attract? It's Complicated.
We may prefer people who are similar to us, but there are crucial exceptions.
Posted Dec 29, 2014
New research suggests that when it comes to matters of the heart...well, it's complicated.
Studies have found that people are more likely to be attracted to and pursue romantic relationships with individuals who are more like themselves across a broad range of personal characteristics, including age, religion, political orientation, and certain aspects of intelligence. Consider the 2014 research paper in which an international team of economists found that better-educated people tend to marry other better-educated people—while individuals with less formal schooling tend to partner with people of comparable educational levels.
Generally speaking, it appears, birds of a feather romantically flock together. But are they happier in their relationships? It is a curious question—and one that was investigated in a new study conducted by researchers Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley. Specifically, they wanted to examine whether couples that are more similar in terms of personality are more satisfied than those who are more dissimilar.
Here's what the researchers did:
They recruited couples in romantic relationships and gave them a battery of tests five times over the course of a year (approximately once every two months). The study began with 174 couples—including one gay couple and one lesbian couple. Seventy-four percent of the sample was white, and their ages ranged from 18 to 25 years. They were a relatively committed group, as 93 percent were in exclusive relationships and 3.3 percent of the couples were engaged. The slim remainder of the sample characterized their relationships as ‘‘casual.’’ Relationship length at the start of the study varied, ranging from less than one month to seven years, with an average of almost 17 months.
To assess similarity, Hudson and Fraley referred to the Big Five Personality traits. Participants rated themselves and their partners for extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability (the opposite of neuroticism), and openness to experience. They also completed a measure of relationship satisfaction.
The researchers crunched the numbers and uncovered some fascinating results. Partners who were similar to each other in terms of agreeableness and moderately similar in terms of emotional stability were more satisfied in their relationships. By contrast, sharing the traits of extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness did not predict relationship satisfaction. Thus, sharing similar personality traits doesn't necessarily mean a relationship will be more satisfying—that is, unless you perceive that you are similar. Hudson and Fraley found that partners who see themselves as similar have more satisfying relationships, regardless of whether or not they actually are very similar.
But Hudson and Fraley took their investigation an intriguing step further. Given that attachment fundamentally shapes how people function in romantic relationships, they wanted to test whether adult attachment style influences the association between partner similarity and relationship satisfaction. (The participants also completed an attachment questionnaire.)
Attachment develops from the relationship between infants and their caregiver, with particular respect to responsiveness and availability. The effects of early attachment are far-reaching, establishing how we perceive ourselves and others as we grow into adults. In broad terms, individuals who experience loving and consistent early caregiving develop secure attachment, while those who receive harsh and/or inconsistent treatment from their early caregivers develop insecure attachment.
Insecure attachment breaks down into two types:
- Those who are high on attachment avoidance believe that others will not respond to their needs, and correspondingly have a negative view of others. They tend to avoid intimacy, and are ill at ease when they feel their partner is too close.
- Those who are high on attachment anxiety are preoccupied with how available others are, and have a negative view of themselves. They seek out intimacy and contact with others, and can often be cloying or “needy” in their relationships.
(Securely attached people are low on attachment avoidance and anxiety, and demonstrate higher levels of adjustment in their relationships.)
The results were striking. Highly avoidant people seemed to be most satisfied with their relationships when the personalities of the partners were moderately similar. The researchers interpret this finding as possibly reflecting a level of “counter-dependence” with which avoidant people are comfortable. Put another way, an optimal balance of similarities and differences may help avoidant people keep intimacy at bay.
But for highly anxious people, it was a different story. They experience greater levels of relationship satisfaction with partners who are either highly similar or dissimilar to them. Hudson and Fraley speculate that similarity offers anxious people the feeling of “oneness” that they crave with their significant others, while dissimilarity may encourage “reliant dependence” on their partners. For the anxiously attached, having a dissimilar partner may be a way to compensate for one's own shortcoming, say the researchers.
So, do opposites attract?
Again, it's complicated. But here's a thought: It has been said that the happiest couples never have the same character—they just have the best understanding of their differences.
Perhaps that keen observation is fodder for a future study.
Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships. You can find her other Psychology Today posts here.
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