Opposites Don't Really Attract
Why are we drawn to people who are similar to us?
Posted March 11, 2016
Contrary to popular opinion, we “do not” marry our opposites. We might consciously choose someone taller, more assertive or successful, or even someone who seems incongruent with our profession, for example. But this choice is usually a conscious one, lacking depth. If we take the time to examine our relationships on a deeper level, that sameness will appear. I believe it was Woody Allen (Annie Hall) who once said: “Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love.” Well, marriage is like falling in love with someone you already love: Yourself!
Ironically, partners incessantly blame one another for their relationship problems—as if they’re so different from one another—or drastically mismatched: “I’m a Type A and he’s so unmotivated.” “I’m thrifty and he’s a free spender.” “I’m practical and he’s a dreamer.” In my 35 years of specializing in couples and sex therapy, I’ve never seen an mismatched couple. I’ve treated destructive relationships, but none were mismatched.
The harsh reality is that when it comes to choosing a mate there is no free will. We are magnetically drawn to someone just like us—in the ways that really count—the ways that eventually can cause us the most difficulty. As I’ve illustrated in my book Magnetic Partners (Free Press, 2010), we choose people with the same internalized conflict that we possess, and collude with them to maintain it no matter what the cost.
My definition of conflict is different than what you might expect. I see conflict as an internal duality or ambivalence which makes it very difficult to choose one side of the conflict over the other, or to somehow integrate the two in a compromise. For example, you may wish to be successful, but feel uncomfortable in the spotlight, or in a leadership position. You may even have a moral issue with overachieving. I refer to this as a success versus sabotage (big vs. small) conflict. You may want to commit to a relationship but fear losing your freedom. I refer to this as a commitment versus freedom conflict.
Conflict is everywhere, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Greeks, Nietzsche, and Freud all saw the value in it. Wonderful things often come from this sort of tension such as great art, music, and novels. But a misunderstanding of it, or denial that it exists can result in great heartache. Never is this so evident as it is in our most intimate relationships. Here are two examples of two very different couples with very different problems. Even their families and friends saw them as totally mismatched. As a consequence, they have been encouraged to divorce in an effort to find better fits. At closer look, however, I found them to be very much alike…and it was their likeness that seemed to be tearing them apart.
Peter and Kristen looked very different. Kristen was a stylish attorney from a large firm and Peter was a union electrician dressed in work clothes and boots. Kristen was very articulate and polished. Peter proudly asserted that he was a “man of the streets.” He preferred to drive a large truck with a gun rack. Even the couple saw themselves as ill matched on several levels. Primarily, they fought about money: Kristen resented that she made so much more than Peter and that he spent more than she did. She also valued saving for retirement and Peter preferred to “live for today.” Peter felt abandoned by Kristen because of her long work hours. She wanted to make law partner and Peter didn’t see the need to burden their lifestyle. “I have a fear of being poor, but how much money do people really need? I doubt we’ll ever starve. Besides, I want to have fun.”
Peter and Kristen seemed so different didn’t they? Playful and somewhat reckless Peter paired up with serious, responsible Kristen. Now let’s take a closer look: Both Peter and Kristen came from very humble origins and worked their way out of poverty. Kristen never forgot those days of scarcity and the constant anxiety on her parents’ faces. “I want to make as much money as I can, when I can, so I never have to worry about being poor like my parents. It was a terrible and humiliating experience for my entire family.” Peter claimed that he was embarrassed by his family’s economic woes. “I couldn’t really keep up with my friends. Sometimes I couldn’t even afford to go to the movies with them.” Given their histories, Kristen’s behavior made perfect sense; it fit with her role as the neurotic savior. That is, until Peter dropped a bomb in therapy: “Kristen invests a lot. She recently lost over $100,000 in a matter of hours," he exclaimed. "Yeah, I spend more money on goods and services, and I’m not a saver. But Kristen has squandered far more money than I ever have. If she was so worried about money, why all the risky investments? Indeed!
Both partners were very similar in that they exhibited a risk versus security conflict. While they worked hard and made money, Kristen made risky investments and married someone with a relatively small income. If she were so concerned about money, why not marry a wealthier man or invest more conservatively? And if Peter feared becoming poor, why didn’t he save anything? He married well, but often taxed the couple’s liquid assets. In reality, Peter and Kristen were quite alike in their ambivalence regarding security. But what brought them together was tearing them apart. It wasn’t until they realized that they both shared the same disease, that they were able to stop the blame game and work towards a better balanced conflict. Let’s take a look at another case.
Todd had a fascination with the concept of open marriage. His specific fantasy or paraphilia if-you-will, was to visualize his partner having sex with other men. Several years ago he introduced this concept to his wife Susan who was initially reluctant to participate in the dynamic. She called Todd a “pervert” and saw having sex with other men as “gross.” Nevertheless, Todd eventually persuaded Susan to give it a try—and to her amazement—she liked it. Specifically, Susan was to sleep with other men and following each encounter return home and describe in detail her experiences to Todd. This in turn served to arose him.
After two years of open marriage the partners mutually agreed to return to a monogamous lifestyle and to focus on having children. But approximately 10 years later, Susan suddenly began to bring the dynamic back into play without consulting Todd. And this time she refused to describe her encounters. Todd was angry and confused. He wondered whether this was payback for the past but Susan insisted it wasn’t, and I believed her. “I don’t blame Todd for the past. I actually enjoyed myself.” So why did Susan re-open the marriage? Unbeknownst to Susan, she was simply playing the role she had always occupied in her marriage: she had always been the “dominant” spouse. She ruled the house and did whatever she wanted despite Todd’s mild protests. She frequently overspent and put the couple in debt; she went out whenever she wanted to and came home at all hours of the night. And she was dismissive of Todd. In essence, Todd was her submissive.
When Todd tried to stop Susan from stepping out this time she refused and he felt helpless. She also demanded that he watch the children and do the household chores while she was out with other men. Todd saw no alternative but to obey. This begs the question: Were Todd and Susan so different? No! While they played different roles in the dom/sub dynamic they were both very much attracted to it. They both had a power versus passivity conflict that eventually became unbalanced when Susan took it to new heights.
Some of the more popular relationship theories have perpetuated the notion that men and women have problems because they are vastly different. I’m not suggesting that each partner, or men and women for that matter are exactly the same in every way. But I don’t think men and women are from different planets. And it doesn’t help me in working with couples to consider whether one has a larger cingulate gyrus than the other. Focusing on the differences in a couple not only breeds divisiveness and disillusionment, it is also short-sighted and lacking an appropriate depth of understanding. Truth is, when it comes to choosing a mate, we pick with great accuracy. If we can truly understand that we are so much more alike than meets the eye, we may then be able to empathize with one another and join together to ward off whatever problems we may encounter. Are there some differences? Sure, but many of them are cultural and societal driven. Ryan and Jethá’s book Sex at Dawn (Harper Perennial, 2011), challenges the notions that we're monogamous by nature and that women aren't sexually-driven animals like men. Male oppression has helped to perpetuate this myth.
Nevertheless, the realization that we are far more alike than believed is a difficult one to arrive at. Most people don’t like to see themselves. They don’t want to face their flaws and the contributions they make to their own problems. To these individuals it’s much easier—in the short run—to blame their partners rather than to face up to the fact that Walter Kelly was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”