Opposites Attract But Can They Stay Together?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

From the time I started dating at age sixteen, I’ve often found myself attracted to my polar opposite – for 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.

What do we know about a couples staying power if they are opposites? Recent research suggests that it depends on what characteristics you are examining. Actually, some differences spark interest and the happiest couples become more similar over time. In fact, many of the couples surveyed by Dr. Karl A. Pillemer actually grew to enjoy a lot of the same interests through the years even if that wasn’t the case early on in their relationship.

In ‘Opposites Attract’ Or Birds Of A Feather,’ Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. explains that while opposites often have an intense attraction, these matches don’t always last. Pillemer’s landmark study is worth your consideration. 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 be aware 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. 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.

That being said, 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.

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 your relationship. In other words, if you’re outgoing and high energy, marry someone who understands that even if they’re 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, as long as you accept each other, share core values, and maintain mutual respect., your differences don’t have to tear you apart.

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.
• Repair from conflicts skillfully. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at the risk of developing stagnant relationships. Learning to listen to each other, compromise, and give each other the benefit of the doubt will help you to bounce back after a dispute. Take a short break if your argument becomes heated, and remember what drew you to you your partner to begin with.
• 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. Take responsibility for what you bring to the discussion or dispute and remember that we all have flaws.

If you want your relationship to endure the test of time, don’t take love for granted and adopt a mindset that differences can spark passion. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own happiness but working together with a partner who is willing to grow is twice the fun!

Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True in 2020.

**Terry offers coaching to individuals and couples about divorce, marriage, remarriage, or relationship issues. She is also an expert on matters related to children of divorce and the challenges facing adult children of divorce. You can sign up for low-cost coaching here. In most cases you will be able to meet with her within a week.