So in your relationship is it a matter of “opposites attract” or “birds of a feather”? The question of whether similar or dissimilar personality traits are a source of romantic attraction and marital satisfaction has been debated for years. There are those who propose a complementarity hypothesis claiming that partners may be more satisfied with those who differ with them on certain personality traits because these partners complement them or offer what they don’t have: she is a thinker; he is a doer.
Reflecting this sentiment, Tim Lahaye in his book Opposites Attract maintains that people with similar temperaments never marry because like temperaments repel — they don’t attract. Similarly, Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want, proposes that “There’s a polarity in the universe physically that is also reflected in relationships, especially when it comes to personality traits. So a high-energy person will be attracted to a low-energy person … Incompatibility makes for a dynamic, powerful, growing, exciting relationship.”
Disagreeing with this, authors Scott Lililenfeld, Steven Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein describe “Opposites Attract: We Are Romantically Attracted to People Who Differ From Us” as one of the 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology in their 2010 book by that title. These authors contend that most studies demonstrate that people with similar personality traits are more likely to be attracted to each other. This similarity-attraction hypothesis seems to hold up across characteristics as physical attractiveness, attachment style, political and religious attitudes, socio-economic background, and level of education, according to Pieternal Dijkstra in his 2008 article “Do People Know what they Want: A Similar or Complementary Partner?”
So do opposites or similarities cause attraction and satisfaction? Maybe both.
A 2007 study reported in the Psychology and Aging by Michelle Shiota and Robert Levenson entitled “Birds of a Feather Don’t Always Fly Farthest,” sheds some light on this.
This study examined the relationship of similarity in The “Big Five Personality Factors” for couples across the years. The Big Five Personality Traits include:
- Openness to Experience (has wide interests, imaginative, insightful) vs. Close-minded
- Conscientious (organized, thorough, planful) vs. Disorganized
- Extroverted (talkative, energetic, assertive) vs. Introverted
- Agreeable (sympathetic, kind, affectionate) vs. Disagreeable
- Nervous (tense, moody, anxious) vs. Calm and Relaxed
The surprising finding is that whereas similarity of these personality traits results in more marital satisfaction in the early years, the “birds of a feather” couples with similar traits report less satisfaction in the middle and later years. Why?
The authors suggest that when couples are in their 20s, 40s, and 60s, relationship goals, life changes and external demands actually call forth a different balance of needs and a different valuing of similar and opposite personality traits.
Couples in the early years with the goals of connection, intimacy, and mutual dreams are fueled by similar traits, the feeling of “getting each other,” of enjoying the similarity of perspective and temperament. Basically, connection as a couple works easier when both are open to new and different experiences or, conversely, when both like the comfort of not having to go anywhere; when both are talkative and can’t get enough of socializing, or both prefer the table for two.
Couples in mid-life with similar traits may report less satisfaction because there is a call for life demands that did not formerly exist. In a sense the world in the form of children, finances, jobs, elderly parents, etc. enter the picture. Often running what seems like parallel marathons, partners who are different often have a better time of multi-tasking than partners with similar traits. If one is more extroverted and enjoys standing on the soccer field, the other who would rather not is home handling the chores. On the other hand, if both are conscientious about work and ambitious about advancement, calling a plumber and arranging child care can become cause for resentment and stress. If neither is too organized about finances, then the setting is ripe for blame and anxiety about who should pay the bills.
- While life is never perfectly captured in research, this study offers couples in mid-life ,or actually at any time that life becomes different and unexpectedly demanding, the possibility of “making meaning” of the stress and strain that makes them doubt why they ever choose each other.
- Realizing that you are having difficulty because you are “similar” can actually change the perspective and enhance the power of the “We” in decision making. For example, you agree you both dislike finances, so you decide to get someone to help; you agree that neither of you really wants to make social plans with the other parents, so you work together to make it happen. Now, when one of you steps outside that similar comfort zone to make something happen in your lives — you know that the other really understands the effort!
Long-term married couples with similar traits also report less marital satisfaction than those with opposing traits. Sometimes when the world of demands steps out, partners either expect their partner to fill in or predict boredom and confinement with one person. The lack of satisfaction often reflects an inability to see self, partner, and life a little differently. This is where the novel experience, the risk, and the belief in re-definitions of your relationship can be life-enhancing.
I was recently giving a program on marriages at a beautiful hotel when a participant came up during the break to share that he was quite angry — here he was in paradise, and his wife was home. Admitting that they were both “the same” in that they had never left their children and grandchildren for even short vacations, he said the plan was to try coming to this conference — but she had refused. He was wondering how to approach the subject at home. I suggested that if he went home angry, the chances of getting back to paradise soon were slim. On the other hand, he might validate that the rule of their marriage had been to stay home as she had done, but he had taken a risk for both of them — and loved it and kept wishing that she was there. I then suggested he ask her to take a small overnight step — not too far from home, no need for a view, just a step toward paradise.
So perhaps both similar and opposite traits attract and satisfy — but at different times and in different ways.
Interested in seeing how you and your partner match up on the “Big Five Personality Traits?” Take this online test and enjoy whatever you find!
For Further Reading:
Shiota,M. & Levenson R. (2007) ” Birds of A Feather Don’t Always Fly Farthest: Similarity in Big Five Personality Predicts More Negative Marital Satisfaction Trajectories in Long-Term Marriages.” Psychology and Aging, Vol.22, No.4, 666-675.