By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Is it possible for opposites to achieve long-lasting love? This is an age old question that peaks my interest for many reasons both personally and professionally. From the time I started dating, I’ve often found myself attracted to my polar opposite – or better and for worse. Likewise, I’ve counseled many couples who are drawn to their opposite because of strong chemistry but find day to day married life a struggle due to conflicting interests and needs.
So what does this all mean in terms of a couples staying power? Recent research suggests that the happiest couples become more similar over time. Indeed, birds of a feather also need to flock together. In fact, many of the couples surveyed didn’t believe their long-term relationships were boring but they actually grew to enjoy a lot of the same interests and passions through the years.
Perhaps the key to staying happy is to have a strong desire to learn and grow with your partner. In other words, to learn to use your experiences together to help you grow closer. This may sound boring, but some couples find that adapting and changing in their relationships is actually one of the most exciting aspects of being part of a couple. Maybe that’s why many marriage and relationship experts say the happiest couples think in term of “we,” not “me.”
In his Huffington Post article ‘Opposites Attract’ Or Birds Of A Feather,’ Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. posits that while opposites often have an intense attraction, these matches don’t always last. Pillemer’s landmark study is worth our consideration. In fact, it’s comprised of over 500 people married over 40 years. He writes, “The research findings are quite clear: marriages that are homogenous in terms of economic background, religion, and closeness in age are the most stable and tend to be happier. Sharing core values has also been found to promote marital stability and happiness.”
In my opinion, the take away from Pillemer’s research is to arm yourself with knowledge and beware of the risk factors of dating someone who appears to be your opposite. It’s a good idea to recognize that if you marry someone with drastically different values, you will face complex issues that could put you more at risk for divorce.
According to many experts, another crucial aspect of long-lasting love is chemistry. So I adapted this list from Mira Kirshenbaum’s book “Is He Mr. Right?” One of the central premises of her groundbreaking book is that chemistry is the best way to figure out if someone is right for you. Surprisingly, she’s not just talking about sexual chemistry but also the feeling that you enjoy being around your partner and have fun together.
5 Dimensions of Chemistry according to Mira Kirshenbaum:
1. You feel comfortable with each other and it’s easy to get close. In other words, you feel that you can be yourself.
2. You feel safe in the relationship. This means that your partner doesn’t have significant mental health issues, can take care of himself/herself; and you feel free to express your thoughts, feelings, and desires openly without fear of rejection. That you can be honest and it’s okay.
3. It’s fun to be together. Kirshenbaum writes, “Couples who do have this dimension of chemistry going for them have a shortcut to intimacy and a buffer against the stressful times we all face.”
4. You have real affection and passion for each other. This is where sexual chemistry comes in and it should go hand and hand with affection.
5. You feel there’s real mutual respect. You accept, admire, and respect each other for who you are. According to Kirshenbaum, if you don’t have respect for your partner, it will eat away at chemistry until you have nothing left.
Truth be told, it’s important to have both chemistry and compatibility. This means common values and life goals, whether you feel comfortable with each other, have fun together, share common experiences, and pretty much “get” each other. Compatibility is essential for a relationship to last.
For instance, Jena came to my office stating that her live-in boyfriend Tom had been complaining about her being too shy and a homebody. When I asked her view of things, she said “I guess I’ve always been introverted and I hoped that Tom and I would learn to compromise but he’s a social butterfly who values his freedom. I’m happy curling up on the couch with a good book on the weekends.” Jena and Tom appear to have incompatibility in term of their personalities and core values and interests.
Unsurprisingly, when couples have vastly different core values and life goals this can make for a lot of friction in a relationship. When I pointed this out to Jena and Tom they agreed that his adventuresome, extroverted nature and need for freedom conflicted with Jena’s introverted and private nature. While Jena was ready for a permanent, long-term commitment, Tom simply wasn’t there yet. In the end, they both agreed that tying the knot given their differences could only increase the likelihood of a breakup in the future.
But what about couples that share core values and life goals but simply have polar opposite personalities and interests? My advice is to weather the storms and use your differences to add spark to the relationship. In other words, if you’re outgoing and high energy, marry someone who understands that even if they are quiet and a homebody – as long as you share the same vision for your relationship. Dr Pillemer notes that some differences can spice up a relationship. In other words, differences don’t necessarily have to tear you apart as long as you accept them, share core values, and maintain mutual respect.
The key is taking responsibility for your own behavior and honest communication with your partner. Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman reminds us that friendship is the glue that can hold a marriage together: “Couples who “know each other intimately [and] are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams” are couples who make it.”
Here are tips to help you deal with differences between you and your partner:
• Don’t give up the things you love to do such as hobbies or interests. This will only breed resentment.
• Support one another’s passions. Accept that you won’t always share the same interests. Respect your partner’s need for space if they want to go on a vacation without you, etc.
• Resolve conflicts skillfully. Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy a relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at the risk of developing stagnant relationships.
• Couples counseling can be a beneficial way to improve communication if both partners are motivated.
• Avoid the “blame game.” The next time you feel upset at your partner, check out what’s going on inside yourself and pause and reflect before you place the blame on them.
In sum, be sure to listen to your partner the next time you are in a challenging situation with your partner and try to learn from their perspective. Don’t take love for granted and adopt a mindset that differences can spark passion and interest. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness but working together with a partner who is willing to grow is twice the fun!
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).