Do Opposites Really Attract?

Posted on December 30, 2014

Photo: flickr

Studies have found that people are more likely to be attracted to and pursue romantic relationships with individuals who are more like them across a broad range of personal characteristics, including age, religion, political orientations, and certain aspects of intelligence. Consider a research paper that came out earlier this year, in which an international team of economists found that better educated people tend to marry other better-educated people — while individuals with less formal schooling tend to partner with people of comparable educational levels.

So here's what the researchers did. They recruited couples in romantic relationships and gave them a battery of tests five times over the course of a year (approximately every two months). When the study began, there were 174 couples — which included one gay couple and one lesbian couple. Seventy-four percent of the sample was white, and their ages ranged from 18 to 25 years. They were a relatively committed group, as 93 percent of the couples were in exclusive relationships and 3.3 percent of the couples were engaged. The slim remainder of the sample characterized their relationships as ‘‘casual.’’ Relationship length at the start of the study varied, ranging from less than one month to seven years, with an average of almost 17 months.

To assess similarity, Hudson and Fraley referred to the Big Five Personality traits. Participants rated themselves and their partners for: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability (the opposite of neuroticism), and openness to experience. They also completed a measure of relationship satisfaction.

The researchers crunched the numbers and uncovered some fascinating results. Partners that were similar to each other in terms of agreeableness and moderately similar in terms of emotional stability were more satisfied in their relationships. By contrast, sharing the traits of extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness did not predict relationship satisfaction. Thus, sharing similar personality traits doesn't necessarily mean a relationship will be more satisfying. That is, unless you perceive that you are similar. Hudson and Fraley found that partners who see themselves as similar have more satisfying relationships, regardless of whether or not they actually are.

But Hudson and Fraley took their investigation an intriguing step further. Given that attachment fundamentally shapes how people function in romantic relationships, they wanted to test whether adult attachment style influences the association between partner similarity and relationship satisfaction (the participants also completed an attachment questionnaire).

Attachment develops from the relationship between infants and their caregiver, with particular respect to responsiveness and availability. The effects of early attachment are far-reaching, establishing how we perceive ourselves and others as we grow into adults. In broad terms, individuals who experience loving and consistent early caregiving develop secure attachment, while those who receive harsh and/or inconsistent treatment from their early caregivers develop insecure attachment.

The results were striking. Highly avoidant people seemed to be most satisfied with their relationships when the personalities of the partners were moderately similar. The researchers interpret this finding as possibly refelcting a level of “counter-dependence” with which avoidant people are comfortable. Put another way, an optimal balance of similarities and differences may help avoidant people keep intimacy at bay. But for highly anxious people, it was a different story. They experience greater levels of relationship satisfaction with partners who are either highly similar or dissimilar to them. Hudson and Fraley speculate that similarity offers anxious people the feeling of “oneness” that they crave with their significant others, while dissimilarity may encourage “reliant dependence” on their partners. For the anxiously attached, having a dissimilar partner may be a way to compensate for one's own shortcoming, say the researchers.

So, do opposites attract? Again, it's complicated. But here's a thought. It has been said that the happiest couples never have the same character — they just have the best understanding of their differences. Perhaps that keen observation is fodder for a future study.


Source material from Psychology Today