- The idea that opposites attract is little more than a pop-culture myth. Similarities are more likely to predict compatibility, research shows.
- Some ways a couple can overcome fundamental differences include being clear about values and trying not to get upset over the small stuff.
- Learning to accept a partner's differences — for example, by seeing the benefits in their way of doing things — can help one grow emotionally.
The introvert falls for the extrovert. The one who loves to save marries the one who loves to shop. The "glass half full" kind of person finds their "glass half empty" partner. Are these relationships destined to thrive—or doomed to fail?
When Opposites Attract
Magnets? Sure. But as far as human relationships go, the idea that "opposites attract" seems to be little more than a pop-culture myth that carries no real scientific weight. On the contrary, research suggests, it's a couple's similarities that are more likely to predict compatibility and long-term success.
Of course, we all know what it's like to date someone who seems like our mirror opposite in certain ways; surely the idea that "opposites attract" has some truth to it. Then again, this could just be a matter of perspective. Perhaps we're more likely to notice traits in our partners—both negative and positive—that we haven't fully accepted within ourselves. This makes these traits "stand out" and helps us build the story that we are total "opposites."
No matter the truth behind the "opposites attract" theory, there's no question that any couple is going to face occasional conflict because of opposing views, temperaments, or preferences. The question is: Can a couple still make it work when they have fundamental differences?
3 Ideas for a Healthy Relationship with Your Fundamentally Different Partner
1. Be Clear About Your Values. You don't have to agree with your partner about everything in order to have a healthy relationship, but it's helpful if you at least agree about the "big" things. Big things include topics like basic world views, money, sexual intimacy, in-law relationships, and child-rearing. When partners share common ground about these important topics, they'll have a much more solid foundation upon which to build their relationship.
It's never too soon to discuss values. Better to put things on the table early rather than invest time and energy into a relationship only to discover your values, goals, and interests are diametrically opposed (e.g., one person wants children and the other doesn't).
It's also wise to regularly revisit and discuss your values as your relationship unfolds, since values can change over time. Keeping clear and honest communication will help you negotiate any future turbulence.
2. Choose Your Battles. When you see your partner acting differently than you would, pay close attention to how you react. Is this action (or inaction) truly something worth getting upset over? If it's not a deal-breaker, don't let it ruin your day. ("Don't sweat the small stuff.") Decide what you are both willing to compromise on in your relationship without repressing your true selves.
And by all means, stand up for yourself. Example: "Honey, I know how much you love to talk and catch up at the end of the day, but I need a few minutes to myself when I get home to unwind. Can I meet you at the kitchen table in 10 minutes?" Healthy partners are perfectly willing to respect boundaries—just don't create so many boundaries and rules that you end up stifling your relationship.
3. Practice Acceptance. Our partners' differences are gifts when we see them as opportunities to grow emotionally and practice acceptance. Here are a few strategies to help you accept your partner for who they really are:
- Question any story you attach to your partner's behaviors, and watch for when you make assumptions about their intentions, as these assumptions could be false. Example: "When he's late, does that actually mean he doesn't respect me? Is that true? What else could be going on?"
- Find humor: Humor is immensely powerful and can diffuse those moments when you butt heads over the cleanliness of the house, the weekend plans, and other areas of daily life that often come into conflict when partners have different preferences. You may not agree, but if you can laugh about the situation it may feel less challenging.
- See the benefits of your partner's way of doing or thinking about things, even if it's different from yours. For a useful exercise, write down these benefits in a journal.
- Accept your own traits—the positive and negative ones. Our reaction to others is often just projected discomfort over our own traits that we see reflected back to us. The more we accept and appreciate ourselves, the easier it is to hold that energy for our partners.
In the end, most couples have a wide range of similarities and differences, but for long-term success, their temperaments should ideally be complementary, if not the exact same.
This doesn't mean being "polar opposites" in certain things is a death sentence for a relationship, like what happens when a super introvert marries a super extrovert. But it could be that you and your fundamentally different partner will need to put in a bit more effort to find some equanimity and acceptance in your relationship.