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Do Opposites Really Attract?

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You like the movies, and he likes TV. You make the bed, and he steals the covers. You take two steps forward, and he takes two steps back. But you come together because opposites attract. Right? Not exactly. Despite the success of Paula Abdul’s catchy 1989 hit, the complexities of human attraction continue to befuddle the biologists, psychologists, and romantics who dare to ask the perennial questions: why, when, and how are we attracted to people so different from ourselves?

Certainly opposites can attract—look at James Carville and Mary Matalin—but it would be ill-advised to mate with every person you were ever attracted to. (Remember that singer/songwriter/poet/waiter from college?) If you’re a little bit country and he’s a little bit rock and roll, are you headed for relationship meltdown?

What Does “Opposite” Really Mean?

Wait for it, wait for it … people are complex. There, the cat’s out of the bag. If two individuals are described as opposites, it’s likely they are not diametrically opposed in every respect. When we talk about opposites attracting, we’re often talking about the habits, backgrounds, and traits of individuals as opposed to their core values. A homebody bookworm may be able to cultivate a successful marriage with an extreme sports enthusiast, but it’s unlikely someone who values honesty at all costs will last long with a partner who believes in diplomatic discretion.

It seems on some dimensions, opposites are doomed from the get-go. A couple with completely dissimilar attitudes toward sex are setting themselves up for failure on the biological, psychological, and practical levels. On the other hand, diverging on particular traits may benefit a relationship. An introvert may find that her extroverted honey encourages her to discover new passions and meet new people. And in other cases, dissimilarity can be inconsequential beyond initial attraction. I’m a blonde mostly attracted to brown-haired men. However, it’s unlikely that the color of my boyfriend’s hair would affect the longevity of our relationship. (Unless he decided to go blue, which would be another story.)

The Biologists Weigh In

Evolutionary biologists studying the science of animal attraction (including humans) have found that, for the most part, opposites don’t attract. A study conducted in 2003 with 978 heterosexual adults in Ithaca, New York, showed that mate choice could be predicted by self-perception on a number of attributes. If a man perceived himself as highly attractive, he rated a potential partner’s attractiveness of GREater importance. If a woman identified herself as wealthy, it was important to her to find a mate of means. In other words, models seek models and trust fund babies seek trust fund babies. So much for the stereotype of sugar daddies and trophy wives—a pairing of strategy, perhaps, rather than animal attraction, but a popular theory among evolutionary psychologists.

Other studies have shown that people find faces similar to their own more attractive and that women prefer the pheromones of partners who are genetically similar in some ways, though not all. After smelling t-shirts worn by male subjects, female participants preferred the shirts worn by men with genomes that were similar to their own except in a part of the genome that affects immune system function, where the women preferred genetic difference. Researchers believe this hard-wired preference discourages inbreeding, an extreme instance of being much, much too similar to a partner (in a dueling banjo kind of way), and increases resistance to disease in offspring.

In nature, mating and attraction boil down to propagation of the species. Human offspring require a relatively extended period of parenting. A couple that exhibits similar traits is likely to have less conflict and stress and a more stable and long-lasting pair bond through which to successfully raise offspring.

The Psychologists Weigh In

Dawn Lipthrott is a psychotherapist in Winter Park, Florida, who works with couples based on the Imago theory of relationships. She sees differences between mates as a positive opportunity for personal growth. If we’re attracted to our opposite, we might be recognizing a trait that we’ve suppressed or need to work on ourselves. One area where Lipthrott often sees the magnetic attraction of opposites: extroverts and introverts. “It’s not just about how outgoing you are or how you like to be around people, but it’s also how you process and how you communicate,” Lipthrott says. The key to opposites riding off into the sunset is “how [they] handle the difference rather than the difference itself.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Ducharme doesn’t deny the allure of someone different than you, but warns the novelty can wear thin “Opposites can seem very attractive because they seem to fill a gap, but when that difference is really big, it can backfire.” Ducharme recommends picturing your relationship as two overlapping circles. “The combination that works best is when you have a lot of things that are very similar, and the things that are different are represented as small holes throughout, so they fill each other out. But if the holes are big, things fall through. You really have to fill those big holes yourself.”

In her Connecticut practice, Ducharme has noticed three areas where opposites are set on a collision course: sex, finances, and child rearing. Perhaps you’re attracted to the extravagant gifts a potential partner lavishes on you, but if you’re a frugal McDougal, his generosity won’t seem as attractive when you’re married. Advises Ducharme, “You have to look at, what does this trait mean, and can I live with it in the long-term?”

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You Weigh In

Outwardly, Charlotte GREgorie and her husband Doug are as different as night and day. Doug is super athletic, calm, quiet, and laid back, while Charlotte is a high energy, extroverted, self-described obsessive couch potato. “However, when we find things that we like doing together,” says GREgorie, “it makes it all the more fun. I honestly cannot imagine being married to my male twin. For one, I would never get a word in. And two, I think it would be boring to hang out with myself all day.”

Lindsay Whittle echoes that sentiment. She dated a man a lot like her for over a year. They had similar family and socioeconomic backgrounds, shared a circle of friends, even looked like siblings. “Where was my challenge?” she wonders today. That relationship met its demise, and Whittle has since moved on to someone she never would have seen herself with. “It’s eye-opening,” she says. “More than surface or mundane opposite interests, we tend to see the world in different ways.”

Not everyone, however, would aGREe. Jessie Yancey has been married for three years. “I am not quite sure what my opposite would be,” says Yancey, “but I am pretty sure I would not be attracted to it. In my own self-serving way, I love that my husband and I like the same things: same shows, same activities, same academic subjects, same art, same jokes, same people … it makes life pretty easy! The stuff we don’t aGREe on—politics, social plans, the dog—is more annoying to me than intriguing.”

The answer to the question, do opposites attract, seems to be yes, no, and maybe so, and for good biological and psychological reasons. Not clear-cut, but when is love ever clear-cut? Next time you find your straight-laced self irrationally lusting after the free-spirited artist next door, or filtering for specific traits on your eHarmony dating profile, remember Dr. Ducharme’s Swiss cheese circles metaphor. Are you simply experiencing an animal attraction to your neighbor’s sweaty t-shirt? Are you missing out on Mr. Right by looking for Mr. You? You might have to do your own experiment.

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