Why The Opposites Attract Theory Doesn't Really Work

Photographed by Kristiina Wilson.
By Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman

We’ve all heard that “opposites attract." But, we're also told that “birds of a feather flock together." So, which is it? 

Most research indicates that we do prefer to affiliate with others who are similar to us — ones that share our values and interests. But, some claim that when it comes to personality traits, we may be most interested in complementarity. This means that for some traits, similarity is most desirable, but for others, we prefer someone who is our opposite. 

Specifically, researchers have been most interested in two traits: affiliation (warm and friendly vs. cold and hostile) and control (dominant vs. submissive). According to this theory, we will prefer someone who is similar to us on affiliation (warm people like other warm people, and cold people like other cold people) and opposite on dominance (dominant people pair off with submissive people).

However, we might expect that everyone, regardless of their own personality, would prefer positive traits in others. For example, we'd expect both cold and warm people to prefer being with someone who's warm. But, despite our general levels of traits like warmth or dominance, we regularly alter how warmly or dominantly we behave in different situations
So, trying to determine a couple’s compatibility or relationship satisfaction based on general personality traits is difficult: It's why personality-based match-making algorithms don’t work! Research suggests that where traits really matter is how they’re expressed during our actual interactions with partners. 

Jenny Cundiff and colleagues sought to solve this problem by examining the extent to which couples expressed these traits while actually interacting with their partners, instead of focusing on general personality traits.
In two studies, Cundiff and colleagues asked couples to come into the lab to have different types of discussions. These couples rated the affiliation (warmth-coldness) and control (dominance-submissiveness) of their spouses during that interaction, along with their own levels of anxiety, anger, and relationship satisfaction after the discussion.

Both studies found strong evidence for complementarity in affiliation, regardless of the type of interaction. That is, if one spouse was warm, so was the other, and if one spouse was cold, so was the other. 

But, the picture for control was more complicated. In positive or collaborative interactions, complementarity of control occurred — one spouse led and the other followed. For negative interactions or disagreement interactions, the opposite was true — both partners were controlling or both were submissive. In those more negatively toned interactions, it is likely that the two were actually competing for control, rather than one allowing the other to lead.
The results also showed that participants felt better after interactions in which their spouses expressed positive traits. People responded more positively to the interaction when they felt that a spouse's behavior was warm and submissive. Even though complementarity occurred in certain types of interactions, it didn’t lead spouses to feel any more satisfied with those interactions — what really mattered was the extent to which positive traits were expressed.

These results suggest that when it comes to personality traits, it is neither the case that “birds of a feather flock together” nor that “opposites attract." Rather, the answer is different for different traits. And, more specifically, what really matters is how much those traits are actually expressed when we're talking about positive and negative issues with our partners. To make those interactions satisfying, showing positive traits ends up being more important than showing traits that complement your partner’s.