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The Great Myth: Opposites Attract

Mona is a veteran writer for Pressenza, columnist for Enrich Magazine, and life coach. She holds webinars on writing and emotional health.

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The Great Myth: Opposites Attract

The first time I read that opposites attract was when I was a little girl. I was reading a comic book, and one of the characters said that opposites attract. At that time, I supposed, based on that comic book, that sometimes it was probably true. But I wasn’t sure it was a “given” for everyone.

Psychologist Matthew D. Johnson, however, said that many people, whether they are married, divorced, single, young, or old, believe in this saying about love, and a great many romance books have been written about it.

Marriage and family therapist Renee Baron, authored the book, Opposites Attract: How to Use the Secrets of Personality Type to Create a Love That Lasts. She used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI™) as a reference to reveal how one can understand personality types. In this way, the person is guided to keeping, or finding a relationship that is calm, enjoyable, and loving.

Johnson has also written a book, Great Myths of Intimate Relationships: Dating, Sex, and Marriage, where he clearly states that opposites don’t attract. Instead, he posits that when it comes to attraction, people choose partners with whom they have much in common.

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Complementary vs. opposite

Studies on the attraction of opposites have been sometimes misinterpreted when the study is cited in feature articles. For example, the article, Do People Know What They Want: A Similar or Complementary Partner? by Pieternel Dijkstra and Dick P. H. Barelds said that people tend to look for someone who is like them or complements them.

Articles based on this study interpret complement to mean opposites. However, the two words actually have very different meanings. Choosing a complementary partner has more to do with making something or someone whole. For example, toast is good, but peanut butter and jam complements it. Or, cereal is good, but when mixed with milk it’s better.

On the other hand, opposite refers to something that is contrary, conflicting, and contrasting. For example, a person with a sweet disposition matching up with someone who tends to bully others, including their romantic partner, is a team of opposites who mesh badly.

Vinita Mehta Ph.D., Ed.M., in her article, Do Opposites Really Attract? It's Complicated, (featured in Psychology Today), cited studies that indicate that people are more drawn to others who “are more like themselves.” This is particularly true in areas like age, education level, intelligence, faith, and political viewpoints, among others.

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Are couples who are similar happier?

Mehta pushed the question further, posing the question: Are couples who are similar happier than couples who are dissimilar? The study, Coregulation by Romantic Partners’ Attachment Styles, A Longitudinal Investigation, by Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley, studied like-minded couples over a five-year period. Hudson and Fraley used the Big Five personality theory in their study, namely:

Extraversion. People high in extraversion are full of vitality. They welcome the company of people, and they relish social get-togethers. On the opposite end, people low in extraversion prefer working alone, and they dread crowds and aren’t very sociable.

Agreeableness. Highly agreeable people are easy to work with because they will gladly hold up their share of the load. They are amiable, kind, well-mannered, affectionate, benevolent, trusting, and more prosocial. A person who is high in agreeableness knows some things are larger than themselves. Because of this, they care about the wellbeing of others and are the first ones to step up on others’ behalf. These people are strongly empathetic. By contrast, disagreeable people are ornery, not cooperative, and self-absorbed.

Conscientiousness. People who are conscientious are more likely to live long, healthy lives, with overall wellbeing. This is because you can depend on them to be true to their word by keeping the promises they make and being true to their commitments. Conscientious people work hard. They are very organized and they have goals. However, they don’t let their goals interfere with the norms and rules of society. They are both self-controlled and impulse controlled.

These two traits enable them to always keep their long-term goals in mind and to work towards them with caution and much deliberation. For obvious reasons, conscientiousness can be viewed as a key ingredient for success, whether in work or in love. It is also a major predictor of health, well-being, and longevity.

Emotional stability. A person who is emotionally stable can sustain their emotional balance even amid difficult circumstances. These people can tolerate the stresses of daily life without becoming furious, uneasy, apprehensive, agitated, frustrated, or confused. The opposite of emotional stability is neuroticism.

Openness to experience. People who are open to new experiences are naturally curious. This makes them receptive to new ideas, new experiences, and new adventures. These people thrive in variety and are easygoing with the unfamiliar. They seek out adventures and are more attentive to what they feel within. They like novelty. This personality trait drives behavior. By contrast, those who are low in openness tend to be incurious and closed-minded. Their comfort zone is limited to familiar routines.

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Peas in a Pod

To further examine couples’ similarities, we are raising the idea of the homogamy hypothesis, heterogamy hypothesis, and complementarity hypothesis.

Homogamy hypothesis. Homogamy in psychology refers to marriage between two people who are similar in important areas of their lives such as culture, ethnicity, geographic location, religion, and the like.

According to Psychologist Donn Byrne, most of us need to have a view of the world that is both logical and consistent. This is why we have a tendency to favor ideas and beliefs that support and reinforce our own. People who agree with us validate our worldview, in this way satisfying this need.

By contrast, people who disagree with us will tend to arouse antagonism and related emotions such as anxiety, turbulence, acrimony, and loathing.

Byrne’s also cited the importance of attitudinal similarity, noting that in some cases, it may be considered more important to some couples than sociodemographic factors like age, ethnicity, family size, sex, socioeconomic status, and marital status.

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Dissimilar partners

Heterogamy hypothesis. Heterogamy in psychology refers to a marriage where the partners are dissimilar in areas such as educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, religion, race, and/or ethnicity. A paper by Richard J. Petts, Ball State University, entitled Religious Heterogamy, and Relationship Stability: A Comparison of Married and Cohabiting Unions, found that:

  1. Couples that live together are more likely to separate than married couples.
  2. If the couple has different faiths, there is a higher risk of separation among couples that live together, especially if one partner is deeply religious, while the other is not.
  3. Petts cited evidence that couples with different faiths who live together are much more likely to separate than married couples who share the same faith.
  4. Overall, religious differences may lead to greater instability for cohabiting relationships than marriages.
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You complete me

Complementarity Hypothesis. There is a line from the movie Jerry Maguire, which says, “You complete me.'' This is the complementarity hypothesis in a single line. Many confuse it with love between opposites. Instead, it is about seeking people who can fill in the gaps in one’s own life.

Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University, said that while sameness matters in attraction, there are also instances where people seek someone who complements them rather than reflects them. He cites Psychologist Arthur Aron who said that similarity matters, but in some instances, it may sabotage attraction. This happens when people feel a need to grow and expand their horizons.

When a person seeks self-expansion, they seek someone dissimilar, but not necessarily opposite to them. They seek someone who will make them whole and complete. They do this by partnering with someone who will promote such growth, someone complementary rather than similar to them.


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Do opposites sometimes attract?

According to Swami, Hollywood has been saturated with movies where opposites attract and live happily ever after. He cites as examples the movie Annie Hall where Woody Allen, a neurotic, falls for Annie's free spirit. Swami also says that some 80% of respondents in a study believe that opposites attract. And yet, psychologists and sociologists have, for decades, said the belief is fictional, and there is no research to validate it.

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Why is there the prevailing belief that opposites attract?

One reason posited is that contrast stands out. We may see partners arguing about the ways that they differ. But it is very likely that these same partners have much more in common than what they are arguing about. It is also highly likely that what they are arguing over is just a sliver of what they have in common overall, and that makes it far more likely that they will find a resolution to this particular difference.

Further evidence shows that spouses may have small differences that become larger over time, but they can work things out, as stated in the book, Reconcilable Differences by psychologists Andrew Christensen, Brian Doss, and Neil Jacobson.

This is because partners who are similar at the start may differentiate to a certain degree. However, this differentiation leads them to grow and become more complementary with time.

Note: Originally published July 2021, Enrich Magazine


Comments

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 16, 2021:

Hi Jo, so lovely to hear from you now. I'm glad you and your husband get along so well due to shared values and beliefs. In fact, I recall that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were so passionately in love, but they were too much alike so it was a very rocky marriage. Maybe there should be not too much sameness, and not too much opposites, but just find that balance in the middle. Thank you for your comment.:):):)

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 16, 2021:

Hi Dashing Scorpio, you have brought up many good points here. Yes, some women do fall for the attractions of the "bad guy". If they're lucky, they will learn from their mistake. But some women never learn and go from one bad guy to another until they're old. I like the Oscar Wilde poem. Great way to conclude what you've pointed out.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 16, 2021:

Hi FlourishAnyway, yes, it's true, toxic relationships are best avoided. Hope that things are going well for you and you are staying safe. I love your music collections and often listen to them while sewing.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 16, 2021:

Hello Umesh, very nice to see you here. Thank you for such a generous and kind comment. I will be checking your HP to see your articles as well. Hopefully, there will be some formats that I can still comment on before it goes to Maven.

Best:):):)

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 16, 2021:

Hi MG, thank you for your visit and your very kind comment!

Jo Miller from Tennessee on September 16, 2021:

Very interesting. My husband is very much an extrovert and I am very much an introvert, but our basic values and beliefs are very similar. We seem to mesh very well.

dashingscorpio from Chicago on September 14, 2021:

"...when it comes to attraction, people choose partners with whom they have much in common."

I believe the above statement is the best course of action for daters.

However it's obvious that some people intentionally pursue those who are unlike them. They may admire them for being different!

Almost everyone for example knows a girl/woman who went through a "bad boy" dating phase.

You could stick her in a room with 5 guys and have 4 of them drop to their knees extending their heart out towards her while the 5th guy sits in a corner sipping a cocktail acting as if she doesn't exist.

That will be "the guy" she wants to get to know!

She sees him as being a "mystery", a "challenge", and she has to prove to herself that she can get his interest. If she learns other women desire him then his stock rises even higher!

As for the "nice guys" she either ignores or puts them in the friendzone.

"Isn't it ironic . . . we ignore those who adore us, adore those who ignore us, hurt those who love us, and love those who hurt us."

- Ellen Hopkins

Everyone has heard the cliché: "Nice guys finish last."

However no one has ever heard of the LONELY "player", "bad boy", "narcissist", "Alpha male", or "gangster". Is that a coincidence? No!

Very few people will openly say: "I'm looking for someone who I can't trust, a person who cheats on me, gaslights me, verbally/physically abuses me, and mistreats me in countless other ways."

And yet there those who have a "pattern" of dating such types!

There are also some people who are drawn to those in the limelight or have some form of notoriety. On some level they believe he/she is "special" and if they choose to date/marry me it means (I) am special.

However as time goes on they may come to realize he/she is a "narcissist" and only view them as being a "fan" there isn't enough room on the stage to have an equal partner.

There are lots of people who are BORED by peace, compatibility, and stability in relationships. They are drawn to "drama", "uncertainty", "obstacles", and "challenges". They feel their most passionate and "alive" when there is "chaos" around them.

Essentially they don't want or expect their relationships to be easy.

Some people will choose people who are their opposite only to invest time and effort into trying to "change" or "improve" them!

A "non-smoker" tries to get their mate to stop smoking.

It would have been easier to have chosen a non-smoker to date!

"Couples that live together are more likely to separate than married couples."

Only because breaking up is easier than going through a divorce!

You also have "married couples" who are separated living in the same house or apart who never bothered to file legal paperwork.

I personally have known couples who are technically married but haven't seen each other in almost 20 years!

Odds are they're being counted among the happily married couples.

Some folks blame cohabitation prior to marriage for high divorce rates. This statement is misleading when you consider the fact the majority of couples in the U.S. who get married cohabitated first!

It's almost like saying people who have two legs are more likely to get divorced than those who have one leg.

If the majority of people who marry (lived together) then the majority of divorces will be made up of people who lived together.

No one who is divorced ever blamed it on them living together before marriage! There are three basic reasons why couples split up.

1. They chose the wrong mate! (They're simply too incompatible.)

2. A "deal breaker" was committed (cheating/abuse/drug addiction..)

3. They fell out of love/stopped wanting the same things over time.

Ideally you want to choose someone who shares your same values, wants the same things for the relationship, naturally agrees with you on how to obtain those things, and last but not least have a mutual depth of love and desire for each other.

Compatibility trumps compromise.

Like attracts like and opposites attract divorce attorneys!

The goal is to have a "soulmate" not a cellmate.

No one is "stuck" with anyone. Suffering is optional.

"Never love anyone who treats you like you're ordinary."

- Oscar Wilde

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 14, 2021:

Oh, thank goodness for this article. Seek an opposite only if you want a toxic relationship or want a divorce.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 13, 2021:

Excellent analysis. Thanks for sharing.

MG Singh from UAE on September 13, 2021:

Very interesting article with logical points.

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