I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why opposites attract and whether or not my experiences are unique. Even in grade school, I remember being attracted to Daniel, a quiet blonde who sat near me in my 5th grade science class (I’m an extroverted brunette) and pondering why I was irresistibly drawn to him. Truthfully, most of my partners have had differences that run deeper than physical appearance. At times, the magnetism ends up feeling more like a tension. For instance, both my first and second husbands love gardening, while I’m happiest at a social gathering. Needless to say, these differences have presented challenges in both of my marriages.
In the Huffington Post article ‘Opposites Attract’ Or Birds Of A Feather,’ Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. posits that while opposites often have an intense attraction, these matches don’t always last. Since Pillemer’s landmark study is comprised of over 500 people married over 40 years, his findings are worthy of note. He writes, “The research findings are quite clear: marriages that are homogenous in terms of economic background, religion, and closeness in age are the most stable and tend to be happier. Sharing core values has also been found to promote marital stability and happiness.”
In my opinion, the take away from Pillemer’s research is that you don’t necessarily have to avoid dating someone who appears to be your opposite. But you need to recognize that if you marry someone with drastically different values, you will face complex issues that could put you more at risk for divorce.
Author Sandy Weiner explains that chemistry is essential for a relationship to last, because without it, you have a nice friendship. However, Weiner concludes that it’s important to have both chemistry and compatibility. She writes, “This is about common values and life goals, whether you feel comfortable with each other, have fun together, share common experiences, and pretty much “get” each other. Compatibility is essential for a relationship to last.”
What I’ve come to realize is that while popular opinion tells us that opposites attract, few authors describe how polar opposites play themselves out in terms of personalities and emotional needs. One exception is Ross Rosenberg, a codependency expert. He writes, “It’s not uncommon for people with codependent traits to be attracted to narcissists. Codependents – who are giving and consumed with the needs and desires of others – do not know how to emotionally disconnect from romantic relationships with individuals who are narcissistic—individuals who are self-centered, controlling, and harmful to them.” Rosenberg notes, “The inherently dysfunctional “codependency dance” requires two opposite but distinctly balanced partners: the pleaser/fixer (codependent) and the taker/controller (narcissist).”
Rosenberg describes opposites as “human magnets” who are irresistibly pulled toward each other, not so much by their conscious decisions or intentions, but rather by their opposite “magnetic field.” He writes, “Such partners with complimentary magnetic roles are irresistibly drawn together and locked into a relationship that is nearly impossible to resist or break free of.” He posits that couples who are opposites are immune to breakups due to the amorous nature of their relationship magnetism – unless one partner moves in a healthier direction, and the other one doesn’t follow.
For instance, Sarah came to my office stating that her live-in boyfriend Tony had been complaining about her being too busy with classes and social activities. When I asked her view of things, she said “I guess I’ve just really changed over the past year. It’s not that I don’t love Tony, but I want to pursue other interests that require that I be out at night, like graduate school, and he doesn’t seem happy for me. I’m not ready to get married and be a mom yet and Tony wants to settle down.”
When Sarah called to ask if I would meet with her and Tony together, I agreed to one session, in order to hear Tony’s view of their situation and to assess whether or not their relationship was in jeopardy. It seemed clear from the moment they sat down that Sarah’s and Tony’s values and goals were very much at odds with one another. Tony’s desire to start a family wasn’t in sync with Sarah’s desire to pursue an advanced degree and to be a social butterfly.
Unsurprisingly, when couples have vastly different core values and life goals this can make for a lot of friction in a relationship. When I pointed this out to Sarah and Tony they agreed that Sarah’s adventuresome, extroverted nature and need for freedom conflicted with Tony’s introverted and conservative nature – plus his eagerness to get married. While Tony was ready for a permanent, long-term commitment, Sarah simply wasn’t there yet. In my opinion, tying the knot and having children under these circumstances could only increase the likelihood of this couple facing divorce.
But what about couples that share core values and life goals but simply have polar opposite personalities and interests? My advice is to weather the storms and use your differences to add spark to the relationship. In other words, if you’re outgoing and a spender, marry someone who understands that even if they are quiet and more conservative with money. Dr Pillemer notes that some differences can spice up a relationship. In other words, differences don’t necessarily have to tear you apart as long as you accept them, share core values, and maintain mutual respect.
The key is taking responsibility for your own behavior and honest communication with your partner. Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman reminds us that friendship is the glue that can hold a marriage together: “Couples who “know each other intimately [and] are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams” are couples who make it.”
Here are tips that can help you deal with differences between you and your partner:
- Don’t give up the things you love to do such as hobbies or interests. This will only breed resentment.
- Support one another’s passions. Accept that you won’t always share the same interests. Respect your partner’s need for space if they want to go on a vacation without you, etc.
- Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy a relationship. Learn to resolve conflicts skillfully. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at the risk of developing stagnant relationships, according to author Kate McNulty.
- Improve communication with couples counseling if both partners are motivated.
- Avoid the “blame game.” The next time you feel upset at your partner, check out what’s going on inside yourself and pause and reflect before you place the blame on them.
In closing, be sure to pay close attention the next time you are in a challenging situation with your partner and examine the part you play. Keep in mind Dr. John Gottman’s guiding principle of adding more positive interactions – a five-to-one ratio. In other words, for every negative interaction with your partner, add five positive ones. Don’t take love for granted and adopt a mindset that differences can spark passion and interest. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness.
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