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Oil and Vinegar: Why Opposites Don't Attract

Long-lasting couples must share similarities.

There’s some truth to the notion that opposites attract, but you will see, only on the surface. Couples might come in a tall-and-short pair or a loud-and-soft-spoken dyad. But when it comes to searing and scorching a burning flame, it all starts with a match.

Countless studies have revealed that birds of a feather really do flock together, leaving less room for daters with opposite viewpoints. One only has to peruse the wedding section in the Sunday New York Times once to fully capture the scope of matching and matrimony.

The most salient examples come from those who match on everything, down to the most granular components—in fact, in most instances, the parents even match. Two lawyers, two doctors, or two bankers give away couples who both are pursuing doctorates in medieval history; or couples who both have masters in political science from Lithuania and Latvia, respectively but miraculously, both separately decided to pursue their love of music and are now playing for the New York Philharmonic. Though I can’t vouch for the half-life of these pairings, there is evidence that opposite interests, jobs, and demographics among these pairings are scant.

Liking those who like us in return provides further evidence for balance theory, which suggests that we prefer consistency in our desires, thoughts, and attitudes. We like those who are similar to us because it also affirms that our own characteristics are normal or desirable.

Taking a look at your current circle of friends is further proof—most of the time our inner circle matches us in demographics—age, religion, education, and social class are usually level. This similarity-attraction effect holds true around the globe and is evident in cross-cultural studies across the Middle East, South America, South Asia, and East Asia.

What accounts then, for the exceptions to the matching rule? The other linchpin to the mating game—one’s so-called worth in a relationship, or mate value, plays a role. To an objective observer’s eye, when opposites do seem to pair off, they might be trading mate value assets.

One notable study by the brilliant psychologist/behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, and his colleague found that men who were rated unattractive, but made an income over $185,000, garnered equal attention from men deemed attractive; however, without the income compensation, they were viewed as undesirable mates. Thus, sometimes matching can be a complicated process where people trade one “valuable” characteristic for another in order to level the matching seesaw.

It’s also possible to develop similar interests over time. The earth rotates, seasons change, people inevitably change. Couples who disagreed on issues at the inception of a relationship might come to accept the same viewpoints over time.

Whether your partner agrees with you on certain values will also depend on how strongly you believe in the issue at hand. For instance, Lutz-Sois et al., (2006) found that when neither partner feels strongly about religious faith, disagreement is less important. It’s only when two couples vehemently hold to certain religious ideals that a partner raising an opposing viewpoint will elicit a strong source of contention for a couple.

Think about couples you know and examples are abundant. A couple might be comprised of a devout Christian and an agnostic, but over time one of the parts in this pair might decide to change their religious stance and adopt the viewpoints of the other.

There are also those who make sacrifices in order to maintain equilibrium and convert to a different religious faith for their significant other. Thus, one can either change their religious viewpoint entirely based on growing or learning from their partner or decide that the relationship trumps any type of religious discord and decide to convert. This example holds true for politics and other social attitudes.

Another component to the matching process is desiring those who possess qualities that we don't yet possess but would like to one day attain. In short, we like those who possess the qualities of our ideal selves.

A couple might seem to have different jobs or interests, but perhaps they are striving to become more like the other. If your significant other is a long-distance runner or likes mountain climbing and these are interests that you’d like to attain, this type of mate might be more desirable.

Thus, sometimes opposites might seem like they attract in that we desire those who we strive to become like or those who complement us. Those who are extroverted and loud might fancy someone who is quieter and can tame their antics.

One study found that those who are more confident and sure of themselves like partners who listen and take their advice. However, people who are always searching for advice and guidance desire partners who can act as a glittering lodestar and point life’s compass in the appropriate direction.

Ultimately, we like those who can push us to become the people we want to be and at the same time complement our current characteristics.

It’s a precarious balance of similarities and nuanced differences—but like cooking the perfect risotto, relationships take exacting work and a lot of stirring to ensure a rewarding product. And when reviewing the research and taking note of the strong couples in your life, it becomes clearer why one dating service calls itself "Match."

So if you’re ever concerned that you won’t find someone who shares your most peculiar interests – let the Sunday Times be your affirmation that even those studying coin collecting or still watch Nick at Nite have someone out there on the same page.


Brase, G. L., & Guy, E. C. (2004). The demographics of mate value and self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 26, 471-484

Herbst, K.C., Gaertner, L., & Insko, C.A. (2003). My head says yes but my heart says no: Cognitive and affective attraction as a function of similarity to the ideal self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1206-1219.

Hitsch, G., & Ariely, D. (2007, October). What makes you click? Mate preferences and matching outcomes in the internet age.

Lutz-Zois, C. J., Bradley, A. C., Mihalik, J. L., & Moorman-Eavers, E. R. (2006). Perceived similarity and relationship success among dating couples: An idiograhpic approach. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 865-880.

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