They’re messy, and you’re neat. They’re a saver, and you’re a spender. They’re a free spirit, and you like things to run on a schedule. You’re a homebody, but your partner always wants to be out with people. The idea that opposites attract has been around for centuries, but is it true? And, whether it’s true or not, how the hell can you find a way to happily coexist with someone when there are so many places you don’t align? Today I’m answering all those questions and teaching you my three-step process for getting out of the feeling of being opposites and back to those feelings of attraction, so stay tuned!
Before we start, I want to be clear about a few things.
- We’re talking about opposites in romantic relationships today, but these tips will absolutely work in other types of relationships, also.
- I’m not talking today about any opposite situation where your partner is abusive. If the opposite is that you’re a people pleaser and your partner is dominating and critical, that’s a different episode you should be listening to.
- I’m assuming you’re already fully committed to this person and aren’t deciding if this opposites thing is a deal breaker. If you’re deciding whether or not you want to actually get married or not, I would highly suggest you listen to my episode called The 10 questions to ask before getting married or moving in together or Is This Relationship Worth Saving.
So Why Don’t We Talk About This Stuff First?
I’m assuming you’re already deep in a relationship with this person you feel is opposite of you in some important way. You’re either married, have kids together, or maybe you’ve just been together for the last twenty years, and you’re not planning on going anywhere, no matter what. So, you’re sitting in this relationship with all these differences, or one huge one you can’t get past, and wondering, “How did I get here? How did I not notice this earlier?”
The answer? You did notice it earlier (on some level), but you ignored the warning signs. In the beginning of a relationship, we’ve got that physical attraction or other type of strong chemistry going on that, literally, hijacks our brains. We end up overlooking or missing a lot of valuable information that’s presented to us in the beginning of a relationship. Your partner isn’t suddenly messy or different with money. You’re just noticing it now that those early lust effects have worn off. It takes about two to three years (longer if you’ve been in a long-distance relationship) for these initial wonderful chemicals to dwindle, and that early period is when a lot of couples decide to get married, have babies, or move in together. So, it seems like people changed after marriage or that baby, but really they’ve been this way all along.
By the time this stuff really becomes an issue, we’ve often been with the person for a while, and then we get stuck with unhealthy thinking like, “I’ve already invested all this time; I don’t want to start over with someone else!”
Do Opposites Really Attract?
The short answer is yes and no.
On the “yes” side, it seems that you may be attracted to your opposite at first because the other person seems new and exciting. They’re different, and there’s so much to learn and so much novelty (which our brains love)! Also, your physical chemistry might be off the charts, so you’ve got that lust brain that results in those differences seeming fun or not something to be bothered by. In those first couple of years, those differences may still be intriguing because they haven’t become obstacles in the relationship yet.
It’s also true that if you have two people who are too similar in the wrong ways (let’s say you’re both alphas), then it’s going to be hard to make decisions together, so finding someone who’s more opposite of your personality can feel more tranquil. I think we’re also looking for someone with some opposite qualities because they’re things we want to improve in ourselves, so we like being around that energy.
On the “no” side, much of the research shows that partners without similarities don’t stay together or stay together unhappily. If your partner is super ambitious and all about attaining goals, but you like to live as a free spirit, and goals feel stifling, you’re obviously going to have troubles building a life together. In one large-scale study that analyzed the digital footprints left by people on Facebook regarding things they liked and what they posted about, they found that birds of a feather do flock together. Most people interacted with people with interests similar to their own.
In another large meta-study (analyzing and combining the results of over 240 studies), researchers found that similar partnerships scored the highest in longevity and overall satisfaction. However, those similarities weren’t about each of you liking jazz or loving hiking. Instead, these couples were similar when it came to values, attitudes, and personality traits. So, you might have different backgrounds, but if your values align, you can have a satisfying relationship.
Are you and your partner fighting about money? Learn the seven beliefs about money that are hurting your relationship.
The Three Steps to Opposites Attracting
Step #1: Change Your Mindset
The first thing I’d like you to do is stop saying that your partner is the opposite of you in some way. Immediately when you say that you’re unconsciously (or consciously) assigning negative attributes to your partner, which sets you up on opposite sides and stops you from connecting. What always needs to come first is the deep, abiding belief that you and your partner are on the same team! That means you need to treat them as your respected teammate, not someone who you need to dominate and score higher than.
This means that you need to think of your partner as being complementary, not the opposite of you. It means it’s time to respect and embrace your differences. You don’t love your partner despite the fact that he’s messier than you or even though she doesn’t see the value in saving money. You love this person with all the many facets they bring to the table. Maybe the fact that your partner is messier than you helped you let go of some of your perfectionism. Or maybe the way your partner spends money more easily has helped you see that it’s not all or nothing.
I’d also like you to change your mindset about the right and wrong of it all. It’s not right to be someone who likes saving and wrong to be someone who spends more freely. It’s not right to want more sex and wrong to want less. It’s not right to put away the dishes at night before you go to sleep and wrong to put them away in the morning.
Again, when we think of our partners as wrong, we see them in a negative light while also setting up a tug-of-war over the issue. What you like are your preferences. Your opinions and what you think are facts are only how you prefer things, so don’t make your partner wrong for being different.
What you like has a lot to do with your personal threshold. Maybe you have a lower threshold for a messy kitchen, so you feel like you’re always the one cleaning the kitchen, but it’s really because your partner is comfortable with it messier than you. This means they don’t wipe the counter every time they leave the kitchen and think that wiping once before they go to bed is fine. Meanwhile, you’ve been wiping their crumbs off the counter all day and building resentments. But wiping that often is for you, not them. It boils down to respecting and embracing your partner’s differences. When you do that, it’s easier to find common ground.
Step #2: Decide if it’s a Want or a Need
Now that you’ve changed your mindset, it’s time to decide what you really need. We all have things we want, and we all have things we need, but they’re not the same thing. Needs are things that must be there no matter what. If you need to have kids, raise those kids in a certain religion, be with your parents any time they call, talk to your best friend daily, or own a home to feel safe, then these should be non-negotiables up front.
The problem is that we also want a lot of things, like for our partners to be more health-conscious, clean their whiskers out of the sink, or put away their makeup. These are all wonderful things, but they’re not a need. It’s not a need to have 15 pillows on your bed (why do we women love our pillows so much?). If your partner doesn’t stack the pillows “correctly” on the bed when they make it, this isn’t something to complain to them about. Again, the pillows are your preference, not theirs. Your needs are important, though, and these are what deserve the attention. When we spend a lot of time complaining about wants not being fulfilled, our partners can miss our needs (and so can we).
For example, it’s likely a need you have to be treated respectfully. However, your partner leaving the kitchen a mess doesn’t mean they don’t respect you! When you get upset about the messy kitchen and say that they don’t respect you, you’re not only missing the real conversation, but your partner thinks you’re blowing things out of proportion and likely gets defensive or angry. At the very least, they keep doing it because they don’t think it’s that big a deal. They don’t equate it at all with not respecting you.
But let’s get to the real issue. If you felt fully respected in your relationship, do you think you’d care this much about the dishes in the sink? We assign meaning to these things and then decide they’re proof of something when they’re not. I know this is hard to hear, but it’s important to get this piece!
Think hard about why you don’t feel respected, really. Maybe your partner dismissed your role in raising your kids as not that hard. Maybe your partner said something disparaging about you in front of your friends. Think of the true deal breakers here. Think of the real needs that aren’t being met. Talk about those, not the dishes.
Again, when you tell your partner you feel disrespected and unloved because they left their dishes on the counter, they think you’re crazy and dismiss what you’re saying. They know they love and respect you, so they now think they can dismiss what you’re saying and call you “too emotional” or “too sensitive” or something else that makes you want to scream. But when you sit them down and communicate well about those other things. Then you’ve got something to discuss and problem-solve together.
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Step #3: Communicate Effectively About those Real Issues
Now that you’ve gotten better at realizing what your upset is really about, you can have a loving conversation about that. I’ve already taught you a ton about how to communicate effectively. But I’ll outline a few things here.
If you want your partner to listen without getting defensive or hurt, you need to go into a conversation looking to learn something, not prove something. This means you ask questions relentlessly, and you’re curious, curious, curious. You’re not trying to get your partner to see your side. You’re not trying to get your partner to change. You’re trying to understand all the facets of the dynamic in this situation and come up with a plan together. In fact, I’d even say to ask questions in such a way that you’re trying to convince yourself to adopt their way of doing things!
If you want more sex than your partner, you might ask, “What would you like to see more of in our sex life?” If you’re feeling disrespected, you might ask, “What are the ways that you see yourself showing me respect?” If you feel you need to talk about cleanliness in your home you can say, “I want to hear about what clean means to you in our home,” (and ask follow-up questions to really understand their definition). If your partner doesn’t remember to do things you’ve agreed to, you might ask, “Tell me more about what was happening for you on Friday. I know things got a bit twisted. I really want to hear about your day and how you were tracking things.”
Be open, curious, and loving when you ask these questions, and you’ll have a completely different conversation. You can ask if your partner wants to hear your thoughts about the topic, but I’d encourage you to first share any aha moments you’re having about how they think. Showing empathy and understanding first is a great way to create bonding and mutual respect. I also encourage you to say things like, “What I hear you saying is…” to make sure you’re clear on what’s being communicated.
Now it’s time to come up with a plan together toward a new goal you can both try for. Remember, this road won’t be perfect, so give yourselves some optimism and grace as you move forward. I’d also like to highly suggest having a weekly couples business meeting!
Having regular business meetings is a great way to problem-solve as a team. There are so many moving pieces in any family that it’s easy to seem like we’re nagging one another. Having weekly (or even biweekly) couples’ business meetings will make you happier because:
- Instead of having what seems like a constant stream of nagging, you will have one time and place to discuss all these individual things.
- You’ll have your partner’s full attention.
- You don’t have to worry about forgetting something important.
- There’s accountability. If something’s not done within two weeks, outsource it.
- You’ll have a planned time to deal with bigger issues that often get missed or rushed, which creates frustration and disappointment.
Resources for Do Opposites Attract? What to Do When You and Your Partner Seem Like Opposites
How to Handle Aggressive or Confrontational People
The 10 Questions to Ask Before Getting Married or Moving In Together
Is Your Relationship Worth Saving?
Finding the Spark Again (Or for the First Time)
The Seven Beliefs About Money That Are Hurting Your Relationship
Keeping Score Stops Your from Connecting
Dr. Abby Medcalf TEDx Talk: The Real Reason Relationships Fail
The Complete Guide to Effective Communication in Every Relationship
The Top 10 Tools for Effective Communication in Every Relationship
How to Listen Without Getting Defensive or Hurt
Have a Couples Business Meeting
Research for Do Opposites Attract? What to Do When You and Your Partner Seem Like Opposites
Youyou, W., Stillwell, D., Schwartz, H. A., & Kosinski, M. (2017). Birds of a Feather Do Flock Together: Behavior-Based Personality-Assessment Method Reveals Personality Similarity Among Couples and Friends. Psychological Science, 28(3), 276–284.
Montoya, R. M., & Horton, R. S. (2013). A meta-analytic investigation of the processes underlying the similarity-attraction effect. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(1), 64–94.