“Opposites attract” is a popular adage that compares two people to magnets who are attracted to their polar opposites. Many relationship experts call the idea of “opposites attract” a myth, while others support it. However, determining compatibility is nuanced, and personality is organic. Knowing which factors to look for will help you decide whether being with someone who is your “opposite” can last. (Estimated reading time: 8 minutes)
“Together, we form a necessary paradox; not a senseless contradiction.”— Criss Jami
Have you ever known a couple that makes you scratch your head because they are so different?
You look at both individuals and can’t fathom what brought them together. Perhaps the polarity lies in their looks, age, interests, political leanings, cultural background, or a combination.
The best explanation you can come up with is one you’ve heard repeatedly: “Well, I guess opposites attract!”
Movies and romantic novels support the idea that opposites attract. We might see a good girl attracted to a bad boy or a shy, reclusive, and brooding man falling for a vivacious and outgoing woman. They look like a good match on paper or onscreen, and their differences keep things interesting.
But can we compare two people to magnets, attracted to their polar opposite? Or is the phrase just a romantic narrative cooked up to meet our desire for fantasy and passion?
Many relationship experts and mental health professionals call the idea of “opposites attract” a myth, while others support it in certain conditions.
Instead of swiftly accepting or refuting it, let’s try to understand the psychology behind the phenomenon.
We can decide for ourselves whether complementary characteristics make healthier pairings or if putting in the effort for a contrasting partner is worth the effort. Often, taking a nuanced approach works best in determining compatibility.
The origins of the phrase “opposites attract”
The idea that “opposites attract” can be traced to the 1950s when sociologist Robert Francis Winch stated it in his paper in the American Sociological Review. After studying the dynamics between spouses, he concluded that people looked for partners with certain qualities they lacked – like a logical person choosing someone emotional to help them open up and feel things more deeply.
Winch said that complementarity, not similarities, makes a relationship work. So if a couple is to have a long-lasting and happy connection, they must have personality traits that complement the other. Like the two opposite interconnected forces symbolized in the Yin and Yang, two people create the whole.
Another research study, done less than a decade later, by social psychology researcher Donne Byrne challenged Winches’ “opposites-attract” hypothesis. Byrne wrote in his paper that “a stranger who is known to have attitudes similar to those of the subject is better liked than a stranger with attitudes dissimilar to those of the subject [and] is judged to be more intelligent, better informed, more moral, and better adjusted.”
Since then, several other studies have provided more evidence supporting that similarity is an essential factor in attraction. Psychology professor Angela Bahn found in her 2017 study that the couples they approached in public spaces had statistically significant similarities in 86% of the variables they measured, including values, attitudes, and hobbies.
Whether opposites attract is still an ongoing debate in sociology and psychology. Still, we can decide for ourselves if it’s true by looking at the issue from different angles and viewpoints.
Why we want to believe that opposites attract
Despite evidence from studies and experts, the classic adage of “opposites attract” still endures and appeals to many people. There are several reasons for this:
First, contrasting characteristics stand out. The differences can seem new and exciting and offer opportunities to discover new worlds. This can happen between people from different countries or professions, for instance, an artist and a race car driver.
Second, even if couples share many similarities, they become more complementary as time goes by. According to Andrew Christensen, co-author of “Reconcilable Differences,” partners tend to move in roles that complement each other over time. While they may be alike in many ways, they find places where they can differentiate themselves.
Third, people who are our opposites may represent the forbidden fruit. They might come from a different race, religion, class, or socio-economic background, which families will need additional convincing to accept.
Lastly, we can mistake chemistry for compatibility. If sparks fly in your first encounter, you may think that it’s a sign that you can have a successful long-term connection when there’s actually a lot more required to form a compatible partnership. Even if we see the differences, the idea of “opposites attract” can be an excuse to validate our attraction.
Do opposites attract?
There is a reason why people are divided when it comes to the “opposites attract” debate: The idea of being opposite to someone is subjective. Personality is organic, and people change with time. Their characters blend with the person they’re with, and the differences interact to the point that you can’t notice them anymore.
“Opposite” could refer to interests such as a preference in music style or book genres. It could also mean that you are a morning lark, but your partner is a night owl. But it could also involve weightier differences such as spiritual beliefs, family values, political views, and financial habits. The ways in which you are opposite to someone are important.
The personalities of the two “opposite” people involved are an important factor to consider in determining the relationship’s success. Those who are flexible, open-minded and willing to compromise have a stronger chance of making things work than those with rigid personalities who are dominating and set in their ways.
Considering these two factors can help determine whether or not a specific couple who appear opposite can make their connection endure through the ups and downs of life.
Why opposites can repel
Besides having personalities and interests that do not mesh well, there are other reasons why opposites could repel.
First, studies show that humans have a natural tendency to seek out friends and intimate partners with whom we share things in common. In other words, we feel more “at home” with whom we share more similarities than differences.
Second, having opposing characteristics and preferences could cause friction and conflict. When both individuals in a relationship have differing opinions and perspectives, they are more likely to disagree and argue. Constantly trying to find a middle ground causes weariness and unrest, and eventually, both people give in because the compromises become too heavy a price.
Third, you have fewer commonalities to bond over. Increased shared interests and topics you both enjoy discussing bring you closer to a person. If couples who appear opposite have little or nothing in common regarding values and hobbies, they won’t have much to talk about. When it’s hard to relate to another person, it’s a struggle to have a good time in each other’s company.
Do opposites attract: what really matters
There are many reasons to not go for someone opposite to you but also many reasons why you should consider it. They can introduce you to a new world and perspectives that can broaden your horizons and consider new possibilities. They get you out of your comfort zone (emotionally and physically), create excitement, and add novelty.
But before taking the plunge, it’s better to know what to look out for. Knowing which commonality is more important will help you avoid all the unpleasant aspects of being with someone who is not like you in the ways that matter.
You can find common ground better if you share core values and goals. A couple that believes in trust, living a healthy lifestyle, and fighting fair can thrive even if one person is an introvert and the other is outgoing. Two people who want to work together to save the environment can stand the test of time even if one is sporty and the other is artsy.
It’s also important to be aware of each other’s needs. The needs need to overlap if you’re looking for a long-term partner. For instance, if they need to travel to a new country every year or have kids, it’s important to address this. Needs have more gravitas than “wants” because the latter is negotiable.
The bottom line is that you have to know the differences between superficial differences that can be worked through and differences involving non-negotiables that can create a deep divide.
How can I make a relationship with my “opposite” work?
So, after careful deliberation, you have decided to move forward with your “opposite.” The positive tension, passion, and excitement is worth the effort. There are a few things you can do to make it work and be living proof that “variety is the spice of life.”
1. Reframe your story
Instead of seeing your partner’s differences as a nuisance you have to deal with, see it as something that you can benefit from. For instance, if they are studious and like number crunching and you’re more athletically inclined, they can handle the family finances.
Your differences can allow you to pursue various interests and hobbies and give you time apart. This healthy distance can make your union stronger.
2. Be curious and open
You don’t have to be completely involved in your partner’s interests that differ from yours. For instance, if they come from another culture, ask them to take you to a restaurant that serves their native dishes. But showing genuine interest by asking about what they’re involved in will show that you care and can challenge you to see things differently.
3. Work on compromise and communication
Like any other relationship, both people must work on compromise and communication. This skill will be crucial in navigating the areas where both of you are “opposites.”
4. Be sure that you’re not opposites in important aspects
Before committing, check in with your partner that your values, goals, vision, and attitude towards key areas in life (parenting, finances, etc.) are in sync.
5. Design a lifestyle that meets both your needs
When you form a partnership with someone, your lifestyles must fit. They don’t have to match but must work in harmony to ensure that both your needs are met. Couples who are “opposites” need to pay extra attention to this.
Often, logic cannot explain our attraction to someone. Other people may look at your connection and won’t see why and how it can work. But I believe that we are drawn to people for a reason. Even if the person we’re pulled toward is seemingly our opposite, we need to explore our interests because it could be a substantial opportunity for growth and evolution.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Do you believe that opposites attract? Are you or anyone you know in such a partnership, and were they able to make it work?
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