Do Opposites Really Attract? According to Science, It’s Complicated

Published on: 02 Jan 2021
Multiracial, same-sex couple on an outing in nature

It’s difficult for me to hear the phrase “opposites attract” without humming Paula Abdul’s 1989 song of the same name. You may remember the video — Abdul dances with an animated cat named MC Skat Cat, who wears sunglasses and suspenders and has a goatee. The song’s chorus is: “We come together / Cuz opposites attract / And you know — it ain’t fiction / Just a natural fact / We come together/ Cuz opposites attract.” 

But is it a natural fact that opposites attract? In other words, are humans wired to be drawn to those who are different from them, or is the concept just a romantic myth? 

The Origins of “Opposites Attract” 

Tall and short. Outspoken and shy. Democrat and Republican. Dog person and cat person. Bad boy and good girl. We all know the stereotypes, and we may even know real-life couples who exemplify the “opposites attract” concept. But like anything else in life, the real deal is not quite so…black and white, if you will. 

The idea of “opposites attract” was first posited in psychology by Robert Francis Winch, who studied spouses in the 1950s and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t similarities that made a relationship work — rather, it was complementarity. In other words, if a person is extroverted, they would be better suited to be with an introverted person, and vice versa. Why? The theory went that everyone is ultimately searching for characteristics they lack. So a great couple is one in which the personality traits complement one another. 

There are countless examples in pop culture, but take Rose and Jack from Titanic, for instance. Rose is upper-class, sheltered, and proper, while Jack is a fast-talking artist and hustler who won passage on the ill-fated ship via a card game. Jack shows Rose what life can be if you are able to let loose, while Rose shows Jack the kind of life he aspires to. Though their romance is tragically short-lived, it’s the ultimate illustration of the “opposites attract” trope that it is our differences that spark romantic passion and excitement. 

Birds of a Feather

In actuality, however, people tend to be attracted to one another, especially initially, because of shared interests and attributes. A 2017 study concluded that spouses and friends tend to be similar in most characteristics, including age, race, income levels, education, and attitudes. The name of the study is, appropriately, “Birds of a Feather Do Flock Together: Behavior-Based Personality-Assessment Method Reveals Personality Similarity Among Couples and Friends.” 

How did they determine that this was the case? Instead of relying on self-reported data, which can be difficult to quantify in terms of personality, the researchers studied the digital footprints of 45,000 individuals. 

And that’s not all — a bevy of studies (over 300) have come to similar conclusions, essentially dismissing the entire notion of “opposites attract.” In 2013, the dating site eHarmony audited its users and found that though opposites sometimes made for an initial spark, it was similarities that made for the most successful long-term pairings. Even if couples come from different cultural or socio-economic backgrounds, they tend to thrive when they share similar bedrock values and beliefs. 

Opposite May Not Be Opposite At All 

You may be wondering why this idea of “opposites attract” is so pervasive if it’s not true. One reason is, as stated earlier, some people are attracted to those who are different from them. But this attraction usually proves short-lived, more apt to be filed under the category of “lust” or “infatuation” than “love.” 

Another big reason is that we may not always fully understand what “opposite” actually means. Say you and your partner have been dating for a few years. You’re happy, but you have a lot of different interests. You like indie rock while they prefer hip-hop. You read stacks of novels, while your partner has never stepped foot inside the local library. You are a night owl, while they are up before the sun every day. Your friends might laugh and remark that you’re together because “opposites attract”! But if you look beyond the surface of your personalities, you would probably find you and your partner are a lot more alike than different. 

So you like different kinds of music and have different hobbies, but you may both share a deep relationship with spirituality or grew up in the same town. You may share political views and cultural practices. You may both place more value on experiences than material things. The list goes on — but at the heart of most relationships, you will find a solid foundation of similar values. It’s this solid foundation that keeps the healthiest relationships thriving. 

How to Make “Opposites” Work in a Romantic Relationship

That said, a bit of difference in romance can actually go a long way. They do say, after all, that “variety is the spice of life.” And a dash of tension adds much-needed excitement and passion to long-term partnerships. 

So what’s the answer? Should we be seeking partners that are more like us or possess personality traits that we lack? 

Of course, there’s no one single conclusive answer. Instead, most healthy relationships, romantic or platonic, do best when there’s a balance of similarities and differences. It’s healthy to pursue different interests and pastimes, as well as to spend some time apart, when you’re in a relationship with someone. As humans, we are on a constant path toward self-improvement, and often this improvement comes from challenges to our comfort zone. In other words, having a partner or friend who challenges us due to their unique differences is often a key component of our own personal growth.

If you’re in a relationship with someone you fear may be your “opposite,” try reframing your narrative. Instead of thinking of them as “opposite” to you, think of them as “complementary,” says Manhattan-based clinical psychologist Joseph Cinola in an article for Women’s Health. Simply thinking differently can have a big impact on the way we see our relationships and ourselves. 

In that reframing, you can also choose to see your partner’s differences as a potential path to personal growth. Is your partner always chatting people up at parties while you look on from a corner? Maybe you can ask your partner for some networking tips! 

Two other crucial components to making these types of relationships work are key in any relationship: communication and compromise. If you’re that night owl partnered with an early bird, talk about ways you can compromise by either going to bed early on certain evenings or staying up late to go dancing on others. Or, maybe, you meet in the middle!

If you’re currently struggling to make sense of you and your partner’s differences, couples counseling or individual therapy is a good option to explore. Talkspace couples counseling can open up communication and give each partner the space they need to discuss their differences honestly, in a neutral space. 

Whether you’re more alike or different, it’s always important to talk openly with your partner about your needs and expectations, and remember: it’s not likely you can change a person’s personality, so if you’re worried about a particular difference, it’s probably best to either move on or come up with an action plan on how to address the issue. 

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