Does Being Similar to You Make Me More Attractive, Darling?

Cinderella's good fortune is possible, but highly unlikely.

Posted Feb 20, 2009

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. Erma Bombeck

Concerning the classical question of whether "birds of a feather flock together" or "opposites attract," there is consistent evidence in support of similarity, but very little evidence supporting opposites. However, significant similarity may reduce attraction. To what extent, then, does similarity between lovers enhance or inhibit romance?

Similarity in background provides the appropriate circumstances for emotional comparison. Thus, we often envy or are proud of those who were born in the city of our birth, or we typically fall in love with a person who is similar to us or reminds us of someone from our past. Like memory, which improves when we are in circumstances similar to those of the original event, emotions also intensify when we confront circumstances similar to those of highly emotional events; for example, a cemetery, a place where two lovers first met, or the site of a battlefield.

Many findings indicate the importance of background similarity for choosing a mate; dissimilarity is often a source of dissatisfaction and conflicts. Background similarity is manifested in many aspects, including education, socioeconomic background, race, religion, cultural background, physical attractiveness, general attitudes concerning issues like desired family size, sex roles, abortion, capital punishment, and so on. Today, education is an important factor in this regard as it both provides occasions to meet other people and it often expresses the status and opportunities of the other person. It was found, for example, that college attendance is a far better predictor of marriage than religion, ethnicity, or even income.

In parental love, too, the perceived similarity is important. Perception that the child is different from the parent often reduces parental love. Likewise, after the death of a child, parental grief intensity is correlated with the child's similarity to the parent. The importance of similarity in parental love is expressed in the fact that when a new baby is born, one of the first questions asked is: Whom does the baby look like? Background similarity, especially genetic similarity, is probably a major factor in explaining why parental love is typically more intense than romantic love, despite the more exclusive nature of romantic love.

Proximity in current position is another important factor influencing romantic love. For example, proximity in socioeconomic status contributes to forming romantic bonds. Although initial romantic attraction depends on the partner's desirability, so that the most desirable partners elicit the strongest attraction, people eventually settle in relationships with partners whose attractiveness is about equal to their own. This does not mean that Cinderella's good fortune is not possible, but the likelihood of its happening is not high.

Similarity, however, is a somewhat vague property. Thus, one can find similarities and dissimilarities between any two human beings. Love depends upon many different factors, and it would undoubtedly be oversimplification to explain it by referring merely to similarity. Nevertheless, some measure of similarity is usually helpful in maintaining love relations.

Referring to the notion of a comfort zone, we may say that our partner should be within the core of our comfort zone; this requirement, which is fulfilled by the similarity factor, ensures that we will feel comfortable with the partner. However, in order to ensure excitement in the relationship, the partner should be able to expand our comfort zone; this may be fulfilled if the partner is somewhat different from us. Opposites do attract, since they may enlarge our comfort zone, but significant differences can throw us out of our emotional equilibrium into discomfort.

In the case of sexual desire, the relationship is more limited in nature, and the issue of background similarity is of less importance; differences and changes are more significant. The longer the sexual relationship endures, the more important the issue of similarity becomes, as these indicate the couple's compatibility.

Romantic partners show strong similarity in age, political, and religious attitudes; moderate similarity in education, general intelligence, and values; and little or no similarity in personality characteristics. For instance, Ryan, a divorcee in her late forties who holds conservative views, said: "I would not be able to marry a man who was a leftist, even if I found him very attractive-although most of the men I have slept with are leftists."

While strong attitudinal similarity clearly plays a part in mate selection, it is the similarity of personality related domains that ought to be considered when selecting a mate. Findings provided by Lou and Klohnen suggest a positive correlation between similarity and marital quality via personality-related domains but not via attitude related domains. It seems that, in fact, people are attracted to-and end up marrying partners with-similar attitudes and values, but the partners often differ in personality traits. However, once in a committed relationship, it is primarily the similarity in personality that influences marital happiness. The attitudinal similarity, which is easier to detect, seems to be more important for the initial stages of the relationship, but personality similarity becomes more important as the relationship increases in commitment.

We tend to fall in love and stay with people who share with us profound similarities, which can be expressed differently in various stages of the relationship; the presence of such essential similarities need not preclude-and may even encourage-differences related to surface manifestations within the basic similarity. Following Chomsky's distinction between deep structures underlying a linguistic expression and its surface forms, which manifest the same meaning in a different manner. Profound love involves deep common structures and different surface manifestations. Differences attract, but only within a shared general framework which leaves ample space for complementary differences. Nina, a married woman, compares herself to her lover thus: "There are so many deep things I find in him that are like me, and this attracts me so much. And on the surface I find so many exciting things that are new to me, and this attracts me to him so much, too."

We may say, then, that people with whom we share a similar background or social framework are those with whom we are most likely not merely to fall in love, but to maintain this love for a longer period of time.

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions, and In The Name of Love