Do Opposites Attract?

Experts say having more of the right similarities is more helpful in a relationship.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
5 min read

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."

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."

"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.

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."

Yet -- Ickes points out -- matching people is now a growth industry. Susan K. Perry, PhD, a social psychologist and author of Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way, is also a psychologist for an online dating service. Perry says, "People tend to look for almost a clone of themselves. They are very specific -- too specific."

In the real world, Perry says, you may find more appeal in someone who is different in some ways. "The key is, which ways?" she says.

What might be a bad way to be opposite? "I'd say if one was an avid sports fan, watching and playing, and the mate only likes to read, that couple might have difficulties," Perry says.

What if one was detail conscious and the other was "big picture" oriented? This might be a better set of opposites, she says.

Bottom line: If the people's values and ways they want to spend time are different, this could lead to "big trouble," Perry says.

As for looks, people think they deserve more than someone inferior in looks, she says.

The study cited above showed people take their own inventory and compare it against possible mates. Do people really do this? "I don't think so," Perry says. "A lot of people don't bother. They make up a shopping list instead."

While in the "market," do they evaluate the goods carefully? "People don't know how to see traits and extrapolate to the future," Perry says. "You don't notice a guy leaves a small tip every time and think, 'Uh-oh, he's stingy.'"

Once people do notice the differences, that's where the changing comes in, Perry says. One tries to change the other (this can eliminate the opposite traits that were tantalizing in the first place).

Do "likes" have more stable relationships? There is a huge body of research that says yes to this. "But stable isn't always happy," Perry points out. "So much depends on the willingness to be tolerant of the differences. It helps if one person in the couple is more easy-going than the other."

Genetically, finding someone different in many ways means a diversity of genes and healthier offspring.

"You need a certain amount of strangeness," concludes Perry. "Some people spend 30 years fighting over elections -- and canceling each other's vote every time."

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.