Why do opposites attract?
July 16, 2006 5:16 PM   Subscribe

Do opposites really attract? And if so, why? What is it about opposites, specifically personality types, that makes some relationships click?

My best friend is very extroverted, social and can barely keep her mouth shut for more than a minute. Her boyfriend is the more shy, reserved type. And yet they've been together for more than 5 years.

I've seen this pattern over and over again, where one partner is the outgoing, talkative type, and the other is a quiet homebody.

Why do opposites attract? I have too little relationship experience of my own to answer this question substantively, so I'm turning to you guys for a better answer to something that continues to puzzle me over and over again.
posted by Esther Festers to Human Relations (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What you've observed is true, but I think as an exception to the rule that opposites really don't attract. The reason why talkers and shy types work well together is that the opposition is actually a great kind of compatibility. Two talkers end up competing with one another, and two shy types ... well, not being shy, I have no idea what happens behind close doors between two shy types, but I have to believe it's boring.
posted by MattD at 5:22 PM on July 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sometimes it's not just XX is talky and XY is not or whatever. Sometimes it's XX is good with money and XY hates dealing with it. Even people who are largely "the same" in social situations are typically complimented by their SO in other ways -- good/bad with money, dom/sub in bed, social/shy, good cook/burns water . . . it's about having a more full array of "skills" as a couple, maybe about being made comfortable in a particular facet of life by your partner's facility at dealing withi whatever that part of your collective life is. And it's more important to some people than it is to others. Some shy people would be driven totally batty by a very, very social partner.

In sum, it depends.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:33 PM on July 16, 2006

I have no idea what happens behind close doors between two shy types, but I have to believe it's boring.

We play video games. :)

I think MattD is right that compatibility is part of it. Anecdotally, though, I've noticed a lot more couples that are not opposites than couples that are. Your friends are probably more like you than unlike you -- why should your SO be different?
posted by danb at 5:33 PM on July 16, 2006

I think part of it might be that when someone very hyper & social is in a relationship with someone who is more introverted, the social partner can sometimes bring some more fun & excitement into the introverted homebody's life, and the introverted homebody can bring some stability and calmness into the social person's life.
posted by tastybrains at 5:43 PM on July 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As has been said, it's mostly about complementary qualities, rather than pure opposites. Where one is strong, the other is often weak, in a continuous chain of give-and-take that seals a couple together like a zipper.

Besides which, as my darling Australian terrorist (aka S.O.) pointed out just the other day, "What use is it falling in love with someone just like yourself?" You know yourself already, know what you like and don't like about yourself, and furthermore, already have to live with yourself 24/7.

That said, the fundamentals such as beliefs, lifestyle preferences, and modes of showing affection generally need to be similar if not the same in a relationship for it to really work. Not always, but usually it's very difficult to resolve when one person is X religion and wants to stay faithful and have kids and a house in the suburbs, and the other person is Y religion and wants to swing and stay childless and live downtown.
posted by po at 5:44 PM on July 16, 2006 [4 favorites]

I have no idea what happens behind close doors between two shy types, but I have to believe it's boring.

We have wild OMG BRING THE MIDGET AND PEANUT BUTTER IN THE ROOM NOW sex and play video games.

Seriously, opposites probably attract because they're opposite, but not TOO opposite. An extrovert might be endlessly fascinated by the quiet, wise thoughts of an introvert while said introvert might be thankful for the people person who deals and sells his paintings so he can continue quietly working and thinking of wise things to see.

And the sex ain't bad either.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:13 PM on July 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

While I don't think any personality theory captures the complexity of it all, the ennegram compability matrix has some interesting comments. MBTI is similar, but usually focuses less on dynamics btwn opposites/interaction.
posted by ejaned8 at 6:58 PM on July 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Someone here is bound to say that the adage is based on an observational error, that the fact of opposite types being together is so more notable than . . . well, the opposite . . . that the incidence becomes exaggerated. This time, I want to be that person.

Of course, my wife would never, ever have been this pushy, but somehow I love her just the same.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:19 PM on July 16, 2006

The same reason most people cringe when they hear themselves on an answering machine or a home video.

My girlfriend and I are very much alike. We're both low maintance, no fuss, outgoing types. But she has no interest in my gaming hobby and I've never even tried to follow her jogging. She's a disaster in the kitchen and I'm the chef. It's a matter of filling in each others' blank spots.

On the other hand, I have a roommate who is VERY much like me and I can't stand to be around her 90% of the time. She's personable, interesting and unbearably irritating. I think it's because she is so much like me.

Oh, and like the other posters said, the sex is AWESOME and FREQUENT. It's not like it's been with anyone else, but that's a different Ask MeFi, I think.
posted by GilloD at 8:20 PM on July 16, 2006

I have no idea what happens behind close doors between two shy types, but I have to believe it's boring.

Are you kidding? Shy people can actually be very communicative. They're just not communicative with people they don't know.

It's quite a feeling of freedom to have someone you can always talk to if you want to, because you know them well enough to share anything -- yet at the same time you aren't obligated to, because they understand exactly how introversion is.

I once told an introverted girlfriend that being with her was as good as being alone, and she took it as a compliment, as it was intended.

And yeah, the hawt secks.
posted by kindall at 8:34 PM on July 16, 2006 [3 favorites]

I think my husband was attracted to me because I was so outgoing. He is more reserved, and I am the social butterfly. I love to have a lot of friends around, I feel that I have a good sense of humor, and I am very outgoing.

I was attracted to my husband because he was intelligent, responsible. I swear I would be bankrupt if he didn't come into my life. He is a great money manager, and knows how to reign me in.

Our political and religious beliefs are very similar, and our philosophy on raising children is the same.

I feel that I have a very decent marriage with a lot of love and respect, but I would seriously warn very social types about dating a shy homebody. It took me years to accept that I would never have fabulous dinner parties that I envisioned hosting. Nor would my husband be the type to pal around with my girlfriend's husbands. It still makes me sad, and I can't help to wish that my husband was more social. I think a great, underlying friendship, and compatibility in areas that are important to you is essential. People seldom change.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:48 PM on July 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

my fiance and i are sorta opposites attract, i'll give my anecdotal evidence for you.

I'm the smart guy who got straight A's (on the tests) and didn't even have to study. I also didn't do homework so i usually ended up getting C's. It's not that i'm lazy, just not very unorganized. Well, not organized at all. I can do all sorts of complicated programming & math, but have me pay a bill on time is never gonna happen. I don't like to plan my schudules - i'm more of a "we'll figure it out when it comes" type person.

She got straight A's because she studied & worked hard. She pays her bills early, she plans everything in advance, and she's very thorough. Her house is spotless, her car is clean.

So it works out for us: she pays the bills for us and brings organization, and i provide erm.. fun, spontenaity, and adventures.

We're pretty different, but i see it as we complement each other. And it makes us both pretty darned happy.
posted by escher at 10:10 PM on July 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

Opposites attract because the two people complement each other.
posted by gramcracker at 10:32 PM on July 16, 2006

This is great, all the personal anecdotes are providing me with a lot of insight into this, thanks for asking this!
posted by invisible ink at 10:35 PM on July 16, 2006

You could try looking up the Myers-Briggs personality model for an angle on this opposites thing, as it profiles people according to where they sit on four binary poles.

For example, Escher (above) describes pretty much exactly the poles of the J-P binary opposition (roughly: J = anal-retentive planner, scheduler & list-writer; P = ultracoolo spontaneous, flexible, adaptible, go-with-the-flow person).

That, however, is only one of the four opposites, and it could be worth wondering whether I, for example, as an INFP could ever deal with an ESTJ? If you wanted, you could have some fun reading up on all 16 possible profiles, placing the opposites against each other, and imagining how they would interact. (This is more fun than it sounds. Seriously, give it a go)

For what it's worth, I at the moment my working theory is that the N-S opposition is the most critical of the four for relationship matters, as it delineates abstract from concrete thinking, and nothing annoys me more as a bit of an abstract theoriser than a concrete thinker who cannot ever see the wood for the trees.

And now for something completely unrelated: I happen to live in one of the main gay & lesbian enclaves of Sydney, and I am often amused by a "twinning" principle whereby a startling number of gay & lesbian couples adopt the same shoes, clothes, hairstyle, accessories etc. Obviously, this is an appearance thing, and says nothing about the personalities involved, other than they seem to want to go out with somebody who is their physical mirror image.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:01 AM on July 17, 2006

She completes me.
posted by jimdanger at 3:08 AM on July 17, 2006

Also, know that "birds of feather flock together". Every useful saying has a useful counterpart :)
posted by XiBe at 4:35 AM on July 17, 2006

I knew a couple that seemed as different as night and day: one was a charismatic extrovert, huge personality, the definition of outgoing. The other was a nice, quiet churchmouse. Then I went to a party where the churchmouse was there, and the extrovert wasn't. This churchmouse was anything but! When they're together I guess the churchmouse turns off to balance the extrovert's high velocity and high volume. Who knows how that works for them, but I question being in a relationship where one has to disappear for the other to exist.
posted by saffron at 4:56 AM on July 17, 2006

Hmm...actually, I just split up with someone because we were too opposite. He is super outgoing, I'm more quiet and reserved (mostly around people I don't know well).

When we were having our (mutual) breakup talk, he brought up Memorial Day weekend. We had gone to an outdoor event that he was photographing, and then back to his apartment complex for an all-apartment picnic. I had a TON of fun, met a few cool people, got a sunburn, etc. He told me later that it seemed like I was miserable because I was "just sitting there" while he was hopping around, talking to everyone, taking pictures, etc. (No, he didn't abandon me all day, but he was off doing his own thing for chunks of it, which was fine with me.) Thing was, I was "just sitting there" with the other low-key types, having a great time talking about music, movies, and our plans for the summer. I felt bad because he felt bad, but there was no reason for him to feel bad in the first place because I was having my best Memorial Day in years!

At the end of our conversation, it seemed like he spent our time together worrying if I was having fun, and I spent it having fun. But since I wasn't doing jumping jacks while singing "woo-hoo! this is so much FUN!" he didn't realize. Since he was SO different than me on a social level, it seemed to him that I was just being polite for his sake. For some people, "thanks, I had a great time today :)" isn't enough.

So no, in my (very, very limited) experience, opposites do not attract. I agree with GilloD's idea of filling in each other's blank spots.

Also, us shy people aren't boring. We're just quiet until you get to know us. You should see me around the friends I've had for a few years.
posted by AlisonM at 7:43 AM on July 17, 2006 [2 favorites]

yeah, what AlisonM said
posted by indigo4963 at 8:58 AM on July 17, 2006

Confirmation bias.
posted by knave at 2:29 PM on July 17, 2006

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