Do opposites really attract?

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#31 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

Is it really true that opposites attract? What does that mean for a relationship?

Yes, there is a sense in which “opposites attract.” But as with most proverbs about relationships, much more needs to be said. Clearly, the saying doesn’t mean, “If you want to have a happy and long-lasting relationship, find someone who is radically different from you in every way.”

That sounds like a heck of a lot more work and frustration than most people are willing to endure.

Researchers will tell you that most relationships don’t even get started unless there is some basic similarity and compatibility. Much of the online dating industry is built on that premise; people are matched by their preferences. If you don’t like some of the things I like, or value the things I value, it will be tough to find enough common ground on which to build.

That said, we don’t necessarily want to date or marry someone who is exactly like us. We learn and grow from our differences. It can be as simple and straightforward as being exposed to new perspectives and experiences that we wouldn’t have chosen by ourselves: “I never ate vegetables until I got married. Now I love them.” Or the learning can be deeper and more complicated: “I never understood before what it’s like to be an immigrant in this country.” Such lessons can permanently enrich us.

But some differences can be attractive at first and become problematic later. The key question to ask is this: Does the thing I find attractive in the other person represent the opposite of something I find unattractive or inadequate in myself?

We all know, for example, introverts who marry extraverts. Depending on how strong these tendencies are in each person, there will inevitably be at least some tension around things like how they spend time with each other and with their friends. Still, it can all go well if each is comfortable in his or her own skin, able to say honestly, “This is who I am, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

It’s when we start believing that the other person will somehow compensate for our shortcomings that we tend to get ourselves into trouble:

  • “She’s so vivacious and outgoing; everybody loves her. I’m such a schlub at parties. With her, I’ll finally learn to fit in.”
  • “He’s so successful at everything he does, and I feel like I can’t do anything right. Maybe some of that golden touch will rub off on me.”
  • “She seems to have such a close relationship to God, and I find it difficult to even pray. Just being around her is sure to make me a better Christian.”

And you can probably imagine that the other partner in each of the above examples may have his or her own insecurities that they’re hoping the relationship will fix.

What a lovely dance that can be.

It’s not wrong to admire others for their good or valuable qualities. And it’s good to be realistic about the areas in which we would like to improve. But it’s both dangerous and unfair to expect someone else to fix usor to make fixing someone else a personal project. That road leads to disappointment, resentment, or both.

So yes, being in a relationship with someone who is different from us in significant ways helps us learn about ourselves, about what we can celebrate and what we would like to change. That can be attractive.

As long as we don’t make the other person responsible for that change.

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