It’s a time-honored tale (perhaps a little time-worn, in complete honesty): Two people who appear different in every possible way fall in love and live happily ever after.
Why not? After all, opposites attract, right?
This story line, common in books and movies, sometimes pops up in real life, too. Perhaps you’ve noticed it when your friends sagely acknowledged your crush on someone outside your social circle, or you were surprised by your exuberant aunt’s shy, reserved partner.
But can relationships between opposites really succeed? Do opposites truly attract each other in the first place?
The answer depends on a few important factors, including whether those traits truly “oppose” each other. (Spoiler: Little differences don’t make you opposites.)
Your true opposite would be unlike you in every way, which would probably make it somewhat difficult to get along. So, the use of the word “opposite” in this context is somewhat forgiving.
Perhaps, at first glance, your parents seem completely different: Your mother is short-tempered, forgetful, and dedicated to order, while your patient, untidy father has the memory of an elephant.
They’re also both deeply compassionate, united in their political beliefs, enjoy the outdoors, and prioritize family above everything else.
People can have seemingly conflicting personalities without being total opposites — clearly your parents are, deep down, pretty similar. A better word might be complementary. To complement something means to emphasize its unique and special traits.
Still, you might feel drawn to someone who seems different for a few key reasons.
Opposing traits can balance each other out
Imagine a relationship where both partners prefer to take charge and struggle with open communication. Both partners might need to work hard at getting comfortable with behaviors that didn’t come naturally.
Now, consider a relationship where one partner doesn’t mind yielding in minor decisions but has no trouble speaking up to share how they feel about more important matters. Over time, the other partner might learn to do the same.
Differences often create balance in a relationship while also providing an opportunity to learn from each other and grow. If your partner models good communication habits, you’ll probably pick these up more easily than you would without their example.
How you feel about your own traits can matter. You might feel more drawn to someone outgoing and talkative if you’ve always wished you could open up to others more easily.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking a partner who can do things you can’t. Everyone has different talents, and finding someone to share your life with means you don’t have to try and do everything alone.
Think of yourself and your partner not as magnets, pulled together without any say, but as two separate selves coming together to form a more complete unit.
You see the world in different ways
Life would lose much of its appeal if there were only one way of seeing things.
Encountering someone with vastly different life experience can increase your awareness of things you’ve never considered before. Perhaps their stories or way of life intrigue you, or they offer a unique perspective that challenges your existing worldview.
If you believe in the importance of lifelong learning and growth, you might feel attracted to people who notice things you don’t and offer fresh insight. A relationship with someone who subtly encourages you to consider new ideas and activities can feel invigorating.
Even when you aren’t fully conscious of the reasons behind your attraction, you might feel as if you’re gaining something you’ve always lacked.
Differences can add excitement to a relationship
It’s natural to admire someone with strengths you lack, and this admiration can fuel attraction.
Say your daily routine — work, walks in the park, art class — rarely varies. Then you meet someone who doesn’t plan more than a few days ahead, takes off for spontaneous trips, and eats what they want when they want instead of planning meals each week.
You’ve never considered the possibility of a less orderly life, so your attraction to them confuses you as much as it excites you.
Yet a desire for new experiences isn’t unusual in the least. You might, understandably, feel attracted to people who have done those things successfully, especially if you fear making an attempt on your own.
If your attraction is mutual and a relationship develops, knowing you have their support can make it easier to step out of your comfort zone.
Of course, this is often less a case of being opposites and more a matter of finding your own inner courage and resolve.
You just may not realize it, since your view of your personality is usually colored by the way you view your closest friends and loved ones.
Say you see yourself as somewhat pessimistic, but most of the people you know are extremely optimistic. You might not actually be all that pessimistic, objectively speaking. You only seem that way in comparison to people who never fail to find a silver lining.
Research from 2017 got around this tendency by analyzing Facebook likes and status updates. Unlike a self-report, your digital footprint tends to be more objective (and accurate) since it examines how you behave naturally.
Using the Big Five personality measure, researchers found evidence to suggest strong similarities between thousands of pairs of friends and romantic partners.
So, if opposing traits add balance and excitement, why might people prefer similar partners?
Opposing traits could spark conflict
Partners who have completely different perspectives might end up disagreeing regularly.
Even if your verbal sparring remains civil, ongoing battles can still get frustrating. Constantly trying to find a middle ground can leave you both dissatisfied and unable to truly collaborate.
Differences of opinion that relate to life goals and personal values, such as where to live or how to parent, can be even harder to resolve.
Conflict can also happen over minor differences in habit. Say your night-owl partner disturbs your sleep every night when they finally get into bed, and you wake them up when your alarm goes off each morning.
You both try to be as quiet as possible, but the outcome is still the same: Neither of you get enough sleep.
In either case, this inability to compromise can lead to bitterness and resentment.
You have less to bond over
When considering potential partners, many people take into account shared interests.
Keep in mind you don’t need to enjoy all the same things to build a successful relationship. In fact, taking space for individual activities and friendships is pretty healthy.
But sharing very little (or nothing at all) in the way of hobbies and values can make it hard to relate.
You might struggle to find things to talk about or enjoy together. Eventually, you may spend more and more time apart, since you don’t do the same things or have the same friends.
Similarity breeds attraction
According to a 2012 review of 240 studies, greater similarity tends to lead to stronger attraction.
When you encounter someone with similar personality traits and beliefs, you might feel pretty comfortable with them and secure in the knowledge that you see the world in much the same way.
The more you learn about your shared traits and interests, the more attracted you might feel. Knowing someone likes the same things as you can increase your regard for them — but not just because you have things in common.
People generally view themselves and their hobbies in a positive light, so it makes sense to look at others who share your interests in a similarly positive way.
People who have very different traits and ideas might challenge your worldview instead of reinforcing it. Feeling irritated or annoyed by these differences can make you uncomfortable in their presence — an experience that typically doesn’t boost romantic attraction.
Although you might see yourself and your partner as opposites, in reality, you probably share quite a bit.
The researchers who analyzed personality through digital footprints also compared those results to personality self-reports from the participants.
They found most people believed they were far less similar to their partners than they actually were (likely due to the way people usually compare themselves to those they know best).
Even if you truly have little in common, your relationship can still thrive.
When trying to determine long-term compatibility with someone, it may matter less whether you prefer the beach over mountains or early rising over sleeping in.
Instead, consider where you stand on more significant issues — the ones that truly predict compatibility.
Trusting your partner means you believe they’ll respect relationship boundaries and your commitment. You can honor their need for space without feeling an urge to question or check up on them. Trust also means you feel secure in their love and support.
Partners who can’t trust each other, or who have conflicting ideas about acceptable relationship behaviors, may not have long-term compatibility.
Conflict resolution strategies
Even people who have plenty of things in common disagree occasionally.
When conflict happens, do you:
- take turns speaking?
- truly listen to what they say?
- let them know their feelings matter?
- work together to find a solution that satisfies both of you?
Partners who can handle conflict in a respectful, open manner generally have a better chance of making the relationship work in spite of any differences.
Emotional intimacy might involve sharing vulnerabilities, dreams, and disappointments.
Physical intimacy often refers to sex, but it can also mean hugging, kissing, and casual touching.
In a healthy relationship, you’ll typically have some alignment in sexual interests, but other factors also matter.
If you want more hugging and causal touching, you might feel frustrated if your partner can’t provide this. Similarly, a partner who easily shares their feelings might struggle when you consistently avoid emotional discussions.
Life and relationship goals
Though commitment to your relationship is a huge factor in compatibility, it isn’t everything.
You can truly love someone and want to share your life with them but still be forestalled by incompatible goals.
If you know you don’t want children, you probably won’t date anyone who does want them. When your current partner realizes they do, in fact, want children, you might choose to end the relationship so they can achieve that goal with a like-minded partner.
And someone who wants to sell all their belongings and travel the world? Probably not compatible with someone who wants to buy a house and settle down.
For a relationship to have lasting potential, partners generally need to want similar things for the future — or, at the very least, agree on what they don’t want.
Science has yet to fully decipher the complexities of attraction. At the end of the day, you like who you like, often without really knowing why.
That said, you’re more likely to fall for someone when you have important things in common — even if you don’t seem all that alike in smaller ways.
Exploring those areas of common ground, of course, is all part of the fun of falling in love.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.