Do opposites attract?

do opposites attract
Illustrator: Brian Chang

Briana, a lifelong lover of all things “dark,” consumes true crime shows like popcorn. But when she tries to share the gory details with her partner, Michael, not only does he wish she’d stop, he tells her that her passion is “nightmare fuel.”

A time-tested adage states that “opposites attract.” Many relationship books espouse this premise, and “enemies to lovers” has been one of the most popular storytelling tropes for rom-coms and romance novels since way back when Shakespeare put pen to page in the late 1500s for Romeo & Juliet.

In fact, 86% of people in a 2008 study said they were looking for a partner who was their opposite—and yet, as the study’s authors note, most people end up choosing someone quite similar.

What can science tell us about how common couples like Michael and Briana are? Do opposites actually attract? Well, it turns out that it depends on what you mean by “opposites.”

Psychologists say that similarity—mostly—breeds romance

When psychologists study the question of whether opposites attract—and they’ve studied this question a lot—they think in terms of personality and life experience. “Homogamous” couples tend to have very similar backgrounds, values, interests, and personalities. “Heterogamous” couples differ in some of these key areas. At the far end of this spectrum are “complementary” couples, characterized by two partners who are complete opposites.

The overwhelming majority of studies say that homogamous wins—that most people are attracted to people very much like themselves and that these partnerships tend to be the happiest. As San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist Bart Hatler points out, “In spite of the fact that we tend to like the idea that opposites attract, if a couple has a similar foundation, they will likely have fewer ‘big ticket’ differences.”

But it also may be true that couples can have too much in common. Researcher Manon van Scheppingen argues that studies tend to lump all personality characteristics together as if they are equal. According to the research conducted by van Scheppingen’s University of Amsterdam team, the truth is more nuanced. 

The University of Amsterdam study, which takes into account the different ways in which couples’ personalities can be similar, suggests that there is at least some value in heterogamy. While happier couples tend to have similar levels of agreeableness and openness, it’s beneficial to have some differences when it comes to each party’s degree of extraversion. And if one partner has a trait like low conscientiousness, it’s helpful if the other partner has high conscientiousness.

After two decades working with couples of all kinds, Hatler believes that there can be a real drawback to relationships between people who are too similar. “They may not push each other to grow, expand, and become more well-rounded and flexible human beings, able to accommodate perspectives and ideas different from theirs,” explains Hatler.

Biologists say we’re built to sniff out our immune opposites

Although biologists agree that people tend to choose romantic partners who are similar to themselves—even at the genetic level—there is one exception. Our sense of smell has a variety of effects on romantic attraction, and it turns out that we might be subconsciously using our noses to sniff out partners who can give us the healthiest children, i.e. partners who are our immunological opposites. 

A group of biology researchers designed a study in which women smelled T-shirts that had been worn by various men and then rated their attraction to each unknown person. The women in the study were more attracted to men whose major histocompatibility complex (MHC group) was different from their own. The MHC group of genes is linked to our immune system; the researchers speculate that these genes also contribute to our individual smell. They theorize that we have subconsciously learned to use our sense of smell to identify mates whose differing immune system genes offer additional protection to our offspring.

Sociologists say culture shapes our beliefs about romance

If our immune systems and a personality trait or two are the only ways in which opposites truly attract, where did this idea come from in the first place? According to Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, before the mid-1800s, marriage was mainly seen as a business arrangement. People usually married partners who would be able to help with a family business. A farmer’s daughter would marry a farmer’s son, for instance, because each already knew how to do the work that would help their future family survive.

But in the middle of the 1800s, changes in the economy meant that a lot of women began staying home to keep house while men went to work outside the home. Women and men started to live very different lives, and a belief arose that women and men needed one another because they are opposites. Men and women each supposedly only knew half of the things that adults need to create a good life—and marriage was seen as a way to unite their complementary skill sets. 

Today, the idea that marriage is about becoming “complete” by marrying someone of the “opposite” sex makes far less sense. The idea of finding a partner who is one’s polar opposite is still a romantic one, though—and so in a different form, it still persists. We might not believe that we need a partner to make us whole, but it’s very appealing to imagine a love that sweeps away the differences between people and opens up the mysteries of a previously unknown world. 

How opposites can create harmony

If you find yourself attracted to someone who is your opposite in a lot of ways, take heart! Just because homogamous relationships tend to be more successful doesn’t mean that a union of opposites is doomed to fail. 

Maximize the Positives

Stay focused on the benefits of having an “opposite” partner:

  • Your partner teaches you new ways of looking at life and opens you up to new experiences. Your life will be richer and more varied because of your partner’s differences.
  • Your partner balances your weaknesses and appreciates your strengths. Someone exactly like you might compound your weaknesses and take your strengths for granted—but in a union of opposites, you really are stronger together.

Minimize the Negatives

Consider these strategies to minimize potential conflicts and misunderstandings:

  • Make an effort to connect emotionally with the things your partner cares about and to spend time doing things you both enjoy. As therapist Bart Hatler advises, “Empathy and vulnerability are key.”
  • Learn when and how to argue. Arguments are a normal part of a healthy relationship, but you should know how to disagree without damaging your partnership.
  • Set and respect boundaries. You and your partner might have wildly different ways of seeing the world, but you each get to define your own limits within your relationship.
  • Learn when and how to compromise. And know that over time, as a 2001 study suggests, romantic partners who start as opposites tend to become more similar in their attitudes and preferences.

According to Hatler, all couples face the same set of challenges: they need to feel secure in their relationship, develop a team approach, learn how to resolve conflicts, and focus on one another’s value, growth, and happiness. When opposites attract, some of these challenges might be a little steeper—but it’s also true that some of the rewards might be a little deeper.

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