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Do Opposites Attract?

Experts say having more of the right similarities is more helpful in a relationship.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

She drives a Lexus, he rides a Harley; she's a sports nut, he's a bookworm; he's a Republican, she's a Democrat. Do opposites really attract? Is it good if they do?

It depends what you mean by "opposite." "I believe unresolved patterns attract," says Paul Cutright, author of You're Never Upset for the Reason You Think. Cutright, along with his wife Layne, run the Center for Enlightened Partnerships in Las Vegas. "What most people call falling in love is really falling in pattern," he says. "Relationships are about getting our own needs met, often on an unconscious basis. In other words, we try to find someone who is complementary to us and can help us learn, heal, and grow."

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In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July of 2003, researchers quizzed 978 heterosexual residents of Ithaca, N.Y., between the ages of 18 and 24. First, the participants rated the importance of 10 attributes of a long-term partner, and then rated themselves on the same scale. When the results were tallied, self-perception was more likely to match mate perception.

This conclusion was: "In Western society, humans use neither an 'opposites-attract' nor a 'reproductive-potentials-attract' rule in their choice of long-term partners, but rather a 'likes-attract' rule based on a preference for partners who are similar to themselves across a number of characteristics."

Those People Were Not Married, Though

"I don't really think opposites do attract," says William Ickes, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington and author of Empathic Accuracy. "But the study did not look at marital stability; these young people were not married. Reality is more complicated than that."

Someone once said, Ickes recalls, that if opposites didn't attract somewhat, everyone on the planet would be asexual or gay. "But you look for a complement, not someone identical," he says.

Elements of Attraction

What are some significant ways people can be alike or opposite?

  • Physical attractiveness. "I think we seek a certain level of attractiveness similar to our own," Ickes says. "The Beast looks for Beauty, not the other way around." If unattractive people pursue attractive people, they are not as likely to be successful, so soon stop doing it.
  • Money. If you have zero dollars, you may aspire "to hook up with a mate who's loaded," Ickes says, "but what is the chance this person is interested in you?"
  • Desire for children. If the desire for a family is a source of contention, similarity of desire might be better, Ickes says.
  • Religion. "I know some successful mixed marriages," Ickes says. "If you respect and tolerate the differences and don't use the kids as pawns, you can choose your own [spiritual] path."
  • Class. "How often do you see an aristocrat marry a commoner in real life?" Ickes asks. "That's so rare you only see it in the movies."
  • Education. "Educated people do not tend to marry stupid people," Ickes says. "But uneducated people can be smart. You need to be able to talk, interact, and share world views."

"We are flattering ourselves as social scientists if we think we can intervene in these matters," Ickes laughs. "People who have studied attachment pretty much have learned that if two people are physically proximate and neither does bad things to the other, they can fall in love. They just have to be around each other enough. People do not look at a spreadsheet or checklist."

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