The question of whether similar or dissimilar personality traits are a source of romantic attraction and marital satisfaction has been debated for years. Do opposites attract or do birds of a feather do well flying together? Maybe both for a while….
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, couples with similar traits actually 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.
The Early Years
In the early years, couples 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.
The Mid-life Years
In mid-life, couples 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 childcare 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.
Long-term married couples with similar traits also report less marital satisfaction than those with opposing traits. Sometimes when the world of demands drops 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.
Reconsideration of Personality Traits
Maybe when things are not going well in the stage of life we are sharing with our partner, it is worth considering what personality traits we each bring to the table. Maybe given the demands of the time, it is not that we are out of love–maybe we are out of sync. A reconsideration of how our similar and different personality traits are working can be a step toward constructive problem solving vs seeing each other as a problem.
I was 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 has been to stay home as she had done, but that he had tried something new for both of them. He had loved it and kept wishing that she were 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.
It would seem that both similar and opposite traits attract and satisfy — but may have to be adjusted at different times and in different ways.
- Does this fit with your experience as a couple?
- Interested in seeing how you and your partner match up on the “Big Five Personality Traits?”
- Take this online test and make your own Statistics!