A recent post discussed the role of similarity in romantic relationships; do “opposites attract” or do “birds of a feather flock together?” Fortunately, the science of relationships has been able to help flush out what could be regarded as conflicting advice about what to look for in a partner.
There is very little research to suggest that opposites really do attract when it comes to romantic partnerships. In fact, romantic partners have been found to typically be similar in a variety of qualities ranging from height and weight to attractiveness to educational, ethnic, and religious background.1 It seems that most of us find validation in keeping company similar to ourselves and we tend to like others who have qualities that are familiar to us.
When it comes to personality (as opposed to demographic or descriptive) qualities, the research gets a bit more complex. Our research,2,3 consistent with a great deal of research addressing nonromantic dyads, suggests that individuals do desire partners similar to themselves. However, in order for couples to be happy – in other words rate their relationships as high in love and low in conflict – couples are best off when one partner is relatively dominant and one partner is relatively submissive. It doesn’t matter which member of a couple – a man or a woman – fills these roles, but it seems that relationships function better when one individual is prepared to “take charge,” and the other individual is prepared to go along, at least most of the time. This “fit” between members of a couple is sometimes called complementarity.
Recently, we’ve found one exception to this finding regarding complementarity in terms of dominance and submission.4 In a study of 72 lesbian couples, those that reported having the most loving and harmonious relationships were the couples comprised of two members who were either dominant or submissive. Why? Well, we can’t be positive, but preliminary examination of this finding suggests that this likely has something to do with the prominent role of equality in same-sex relationships. Research suggests that gay and lesbian couples are similar to heterosexual couples in most ways, except for a premium that is placed on equality in the relationship.5,6 With equality being so important, it makes sense that these couples would not feel comfortable with one member taking charge and the other going along for the ride.
So, it seems that the happiest heterosexual couples are comprised of ”opposites,” but only in terms of dominance. However, happy lesbian couples tend to be birds of a feather flocking together in terms of most traits investigated to date. This is just one more example of everything Hollywood’s romantic comedies get wrong; life and love is complex and rarely captured accurately in 90 minutes.
1Buss, D. M. (1985). Human mate selection. American Scientist, 73, 47–51.
2Markey, P. M., & Kurtz, J. E. (2006). Increasing acquaintanceship and complementarity of behavioral styles and personality traits among college roommates. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 907-916.
3Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2007). Romantic ideals, romantic obtainment, and relationship experiences: The complementarity of interpersonal traits among romantic partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 517-533.
4Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2011a). The Complementarity of Behavioral Styles Among Lesbian Couples. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Interpersonal Theory and Research, Zurich, Switzerland.
5Kurdek, L. A. (2001). Differences between heterosexual-nonparent couples, and gay, lesbian, and heterosexual-parent couples. Journal of Family Issues, 22, 727-754.
6Markey, C. N. & Markey, P. M. (2011b). Leaving room for complexity in attempts to understand associations between romantic relationships and health: Commentary on Wanic and Kulik. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.
Dr. Charlotte Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.
Dr. Patrick Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research focuses on how behavioral tendencies develop and are expressed within social relationships, including unhealthy dieting, civic behavior, personality judgment, and interpersonal aggression after playing violent video games.