The entertainment world sure wants us to think so. It loves to show two very different people falling for each other (from classic movies like Grease and Pretty Woman, to more recent ones like Leap Year and The Hundred-Foot Journey). Think of Paula Abdul’s 80s’ hit, Opposites Attract … “Things in common, just ain’t a one, but when we get together we have nothin’ but fun!” And yet, though it’s an amusing theme, the scientific research shows that it’s actually similarity and kindness that make for healthy, successful relationships.
Studies of married and dating couples have consistently found that people who are more similar in characteristics like personality, emotion and interests are more satisfied with their relationships. Research1 also shows that similarity is a key factor in a relationship’s success and longevity. So, if you are hoping to get married and are currently looking for a partner, these findings highlight the importance of carefully choosing a mate and working to build a shared outlook on life with that person. Seek out people who are similar to you in personality and interests (for example, religion, education, hobbies).
Some of you may be dating or married to someone who is very different from yourself, and that can cause tension in your relationship. Well, take heart! Though it takes work, couples can become more alike by spending time together and learning to appreciate their partner’s personality and what he or she values. Marital researchers call this process “convergence” – merging/coming together. They have discovered that convergence in a marriage can lead to greater satisfaction with the relationship (better relationship quality) and less of a likelihood of divorce.
… couples should create a family environment that includes both of their dreams, where each spouse is open to the other’s opinions and perspectives.
In order to promote convergence in troubled marriages, world-renowned relationship expert, John Gottman, Ph.D. (who says that his research of thousands of couples allows him to predict divorce with 90% accuracy – yes, 90%!), suggests that couples “create shared meanings”. In other words, couples should create a family environment that includes both of their dreams, where each spouse is open to the other’s opinions and perspectives. He has found that happy couples are really familiar with their partner’s world – from what their favorite movies are, to what stresses them out, to what goals and dreams they aspire to.
One of the main factors that Gottman takes into account when predicting failed relationships is how a couple deals with conflict. Essentially, he and his colleagues have found that kindness and gentleness play a big role in a relationship’s success. It’s not that happy couples never have conflict, but that when they are working through problems they are gentle in the way that they approach issues and they take responsibility for their part in the problem.
They’ve also found that it’s important for couples to be able to repair their relationship after conflict. Couples who stayed together were better able to heal their friendship through saying things like “I’m really sorry”, “I blew it”, or “That didn’t go well, can we talk about it?”. On the other hand, couples who were heading for divorce would take the problem and blame it on their partner.
Gottman and his team have highlighted four specific behaviors that appear in couples who are very likely to divorce. They call these the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” because they are a sign of an impending end to that relationship. They include: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Criticism is when a person states the problem in their relationship as a defect in their partner. Defensiveness is any way of warding off a perceived attack, like whining or saying “it’s not me, it’s you!” Contempt, the number one predictor of divorce, is speaking down to your partner with an air of superiority. This includes insults and name calling like “you idiot”, “jerk”, “you’re ridiculous!”, etc. And, finally, stonewalling is when one partner shuts down, tunes out, withdraws from the conflict, and essentially acts like a stone wall while the other is talking to them.
Unfortunately, these four negative ways of dealing with conflict are disastrous to a relationship. To top it all off, according to Gottman, negative things hold more weight than positive things in relationships. He has found that in relationships that work, there are actually five times as many positive things going on as negative. In other words, if you do something to hurt your partner, you actually need to do five positive things to make up for it.
… vow to approach future problems in the relationship with kindness and gentleness …
So, what’s to be done in light of all this research on relationships? Well, as we plan for Valentine’s Day maybe alongside the card, chocolate or flowers that we give to our significant other we can also vow to approach future problems in the relationship with kindness and gentleness, avoiding those four horsemen and working harder to build shared dreams and interests.
And let’s remember, though Paula’s catchy chorus might be permanently etched into the brains of 80s fans… “I take two steps forward, I take two steps back, we come together ‘cuz opposites attract.”…, the science of love has shown that a couple’s similarity, not their differences, is key to a relationship’s success.
1. See the following research studies: GONZAGA, G. C., CARTER, S. and GALEN BUCKWALTER, J. (2010), Assortative mating, convergence, and satisfaction in married couples. Personal Relationships, 17: 634–644. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.
Are you in a relationship with your opposite? Has it been easier or more challenging than you expected?
Images via Milena Mallory