Sometimes we ask more philosophical questions about the future of our marriages. One of those is that age-old question, do opposites attract? It turns out they do – and they don’t… How confusing is that!
The research actually seems very contradictory over the whole opposites/similarities thing until you start to pull it apart carefully. Which is what Caleb loves to do… 🙂
This topic actually came from a concern from one of our listeners, and we’ve heard it echoed elsewhere – that uncertainty of “our marriage is struggling and we’re just so different. Can this really work out for us?”
Spoiler Alert: Yes, it can! It may just take a bit more work…
Do Opposites Attract?
Let’s try to answer this question. People say opposites attract, but is that the case? Well, when it comes to the methods people use to choose their future spouse, some research suggests that people tend to look for individuals who are similar to themselves and who represent their ideal preferences for a romantic partner.
In 2003, 978 individuals completed a two-part questionnaire. They “first rated the importance they placed on 10 attributes in a long-term spouse and then rated their perception of themselves on those same attributes.”[i] These attributes were grouped into four categories: wealth and status, family commitment, physical appearance, and sexual fidelity.
The results showed that people looked for a spouse who was similar to themselves. This makes it look like people don’t attract opposites until you really look at the four categories.
These categories are based on values, appearance and socioeconomic status. In those ways, we often do do look for someone similar to ourselves.
What Happens When You Marry Your Opposite?
Despite the fact that the previous research supports a “likes-attracts rule”, many people end up married to someone who is their opposite. When we look at the research on whether opposites or similar get along better, there’s some interesting conclusions.
Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer to this question. Some research suggests that similar couples are happier and other studies suggest that too much similarity can lead to difficulties in the marriage. The research is conflicting!
Marrying Your Opposite Can Lead to Lower Marital Satisfaction
One study we looked at said that opposites don’t work as well. The researchers supported the idea that personality similarities are positively related to marital quality.
They measure marital quality and personality in a sample of 291 newlyweds.
Marital quality is the usual stuff like measuring intimacy, how they handle conflict, how agreed they are on different areas of life, etc.
Personality was measured using the Five-Factor Personality Inventory which looks at the five factors of:
- Extraversion: level of sociability and enthusiasm
- Agreeableness: level of friendliness and kindness
- Conscientiousness: level of organization and work ethic
- Emotional stability: level of calmness and tranquility
- Intellect/autonomy: level of creativity and curiousity
The results showed a positive association between personality similarity and marital quality. So, the more similar these newlywed couples were, the greater their marital quality.[ii]
Dissimilar Personalities Can Lead to More Passionate Relationships
However, other research suggests that this is not always the case! A study from 2007 investigated three things in 137 couples: relationship onset (love at firs sight vs. gradually becoming involved), personality (same 5 measure as above), and relationship quality.[iii]
Results of the study showed that “partners who fell in love at first sight…showed more dissimilar personalities”.[iv] However, it also found that “individuals prefer to select partners with similar personalities as themselves, but that they only succeed in doing so when they have the opportunity and time to get to know each other.”[v] Also, “partners who fell in love at first sight did not report lower relationship quality”.[vi]
These findings prompted the researchers to ask the question, if personality trait similarity generally encourages happier relationship, why don’t we find similarity to be related to relationship quality?
Here’s their explanation: this study also measure relationship onset (love at first sight vs. becoming gradually involved) and they found that lovers at first sight with relatively dissimilar personalities experience higher levels of passion!
In comparison, ‘friends-first relationships’ were characterized by relatively high levels of intimacy and commitment.
Remember, these are studies of other couples, not of your situation! There’s a lot more to it than just opposites or similarities or how fast or slow you got to know each other.
Along that line, look at how research flip flops back and forth between a sense of success vs. risk:
- High levels of passion have been found to be positively related to marital satisfaction. That sounds good.
- High level of passion generally include high levels of partner idealization and positive expectations. That doesn’t sound so good (because of the idealization and expectations).
- Positive illusions about one’s spouse and one’s relationship help couples communicate in a positive manner and help couples accept and overcome dissimilarities. This is good.
Personality Similarity Can Lead to Less Satisfaction in Long-term Marriages
Finally, some research suggests that too much similarity in personality can be predictive of negative marital satisfaction in long-term marriages.
Using the same Five-Factor Personality Inventory as above to measure personality, a study compared personalities to marital satisfaction at three 6-year intervals in older couples ages 40-70.
They found that “greater overall personality similarity predicted more negative sloped in marital satisfaction trajectories.”[vii]
Now before any older couples freak out and throw in the towel, remember, this doesn’t NOT have to be you – even if you are unhappy at the moment. This is talking about predicting a “more negative slope” so it was already negative to begin with and it just got a little steeper. It’s not saying your marriage is going to fail because you’re similar.
Let’s keep unpacking this study because it is helpful.
These researchers concluded that age may be a factor in how personality affects marital satisfaction because as couples grow older, they may begin to use differences to their advantage as they are better able to divide tasks based on different skill sets.
For example, they were guessing that couples who had more diverse personalities maybe have a wider range of skills to offer and so might be better equipped to divide tasks and pursue goals that were complementary.
Take a couple in which on spouse is achievement-driven and work-focused and produces a high income while the other spouse is more socially oriented, maintaining relationships outside the marriage as well as taking primary responsibility for raising the family. The researchers figured this couple may face less conflict in getting through a week’s tasks than a couple in which both partners are workaholics or social butterflies.
The complementary couple will presumably argue less about who does what than the similar couple.
But remember, this is just guessing! I think it’s equally possible to say that the couple who is more similar may well choose to do some of those things together and enjoy each other’s company while doing so.
Using Your Differences to Better Your Marriage
The point is that you need to leverage whatever you have (similar or dissimilar personalities) towards learning to create a positive, happy marriage in a way that is just perfectly suited to who you guys are – not whether there are cultural expectations about opposites or similar and whether they attract or repel.
This study of older marriages suggests that it is possible to use differing personality traits to a marriage’s advantage. It also suggests that as a couple matures, they grow in their ability to appreciate each other’s differences and can use those differences to their advantage instead of seeing them as a course of conflict.
It naturally follows then that these skills can be learned earlier in the marriage if the couple is aware of the possibility and dedicated to growing together.
But let’s look at the opposites a little more because I think they have more concern than ‘similars’ do.
There is research that supports the idea that personality differences in romantic relationships can be used in a complementary way to achieve goals that may have been more difficult to achieve without the personality differences.
A 2013 study looked at this. They acknowledged the volumes of research that show that similarity between spouses is a benefit, but explored whether complementary goal pursuit strategies could predict relationship well-being.
The researchers completed two studies of romantic couples.[viii] They get into some very complex terminology, so I’m really going to summarize!
They looked at how spouses moved towards their goals: what they wanted from life.
Some individuals approach goals with a focus on growth and advancement; other individuals approach goals with a focus on security and responsibility.
They looked at HOW people approached their goals, but also WHAT those goals were. Were the couple’s goals aligned?
If the goals were the same, the couples did well even if each spouse took a different route to achieve those goals.
This is so Caleb and me! I am totally about security and responsibility and he is more about growth and advancement.
These things can be very complementary. The researchers found that this allows both spouses to delegate their non-preferred strategy to the other spouse – which lets you do your thing and lets me do mine. But it also means, that as a unit, we are mentally prepared for a range of responses. We want the same goal – we just don’t have to be on the same track to get there!
At the end of the day, there is no threat being opposites and having different ways of doing things as long as we’re open minded about strategy/tactics while sharing the same overall goals.
Turn it Around
If you’re an “opposites” couple and that has been a source of conflict for you, download this two-page worksheet. It helps you find out your strengths and weaknesses and then helps you see where you can complement each other. Turn those differences into something that is complementary rather than a source of conflict!
[i] Peter M. Buston and Stephen T. Emlen, “Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Mate Choice: The Relationship between Self-Perception and Mate Preference in Western Society,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, no. 15 (July 22, 2003): 8805–10, doi:10.1073/pnas.1533220100.
[ii] Shanhong Luo and Eva C. Klohnen, “Assortative Mating and Marital Quality in Newlyweds: A Couple-Centered Approach,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88, no. 2 (2005): 304–26, doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.524.
[iii] Dick PH Barelds and Pieternel Barelds-Dijkstra, “Love at First Sight or Friends First? Ties among Partner Personality Trait Similarity, Relationship Onset, Relationship Quality, and Love,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 24, no. 4 (2007): 479–96, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0265407507079235.
[vii] Michelle N. Shiota and Robert W. Levenson, “Birds of a Feather Don’t Always Fly Farthest: Similarity in Big Five Personality Predicts More Negative Marital Satisfaction Trajectories in Long-Term Marriages,” Psychology and Aging 22, no. 4 (December 2007): 666.
[viii] Vanessa K. Bohns et al., “Opposites Fit: Regulatory Focus Complementarity and Relationship Well-Being,” Social Cognition 31, no. 1 (February 2013): 1–14, doi:http://dx.doi.org/101521soco20133111.