Do opposites attract? Sometimes there are more questions than answers
I love my husband, but there’s an issue that never goes away. I’m demonstrative and affectionate and affirming, and Sean…isn’t. My head knows he loves me, but it’s tough for me not to take his reserve, emotional distance and judgments to heart. Is there any research which answers the age old question do opposites attract or whether complementary personalities can cause more problems than they solve?
Sounds like you’ve got a classic Gap going on—where one person prefers soul-searching intimacy, and the other prefers that when he said he loves you (at your wedding), that should stand for the Remainder Of Time. Common in male-female relationships, I suspect the Gap is often based in a specific personality pairing you and Sean may have. So please take the Fisher Personality Test now, and ask/guess your honey’s answers, too.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher—developer of the test,Chemistry.com research maven, and gracious interviewee for this article— collected data on over 28,000 newly dating and 5,000 long-married couples, discerning “natural patterns of attraction” among personality types. Based on her findings and a plethora of research showing that at least half of our personality is inherited and biologically based, Fisher literally wrote the book I’m betting explains the roots of your issue: Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type
Turns out, there are four core personality types, each influenced by a different biochemical, and they dramatically impact the way we love. So look at your two highest scores and Sean’s, and ask yourself whether you recognize your primary and secondary personality types here:
—Dopamine-influenced Explorers seek a Play Mate. Explorers tend to be adventurous, passionate, risk-taking, novelty-seeking, generous, creative, impulsive, restless, intensely energetic, optimistic, adaptive, autonomous, liberal, city-dwelling, insatiably curious—and intolerant of boredom. Explorers may think “layoff” is another word for “I always wanted to start my own company”, or that “dating” is code for “lots of Sexploration”. But an assembly-line job or a too-routine relationship would be their hell. JFK was the quintessential Explorer, but you can find more at a sky-diving outfit near you.
—Serotonin-inspired Builders seek a Help Mate. And if the mere description of an Explorer wore you out, you might just be one. “Pillars of society,” Fisher calls them. They’re most often loyal, calm, confident, conscientious, dutiful, moral, conventional, respectful of authority, conservative, concrete, orderly, cautious (yet not fearful), community-oriented, social, detail-oriented, predictable, persistent, patient, schedule-and-routine oriented, good at managing people, tolerant of repetition— and intolerant of rule-breaking. A true Builder can do the same job every day, and do it perfectly. George Washington was the Builder of a nation. So are many members of the military.
—Testosterone-laden Directors (over 2/3 of whom are male) seek a Mind Mate. They’re outspoken, tough-minded, decisive, to-the-point, thorough, objective, forthright, independent, skeptical, exacting, competitive, bold, analytical, spatially (and mathematically, mechanically and/or musically) skilled, focused, inventive, hungry for knowledge—and intolerant of chitchat. Got a great point to make, complete with a delightful lead-in? Don’t-bore-us, get-to-the-chorus.
Most important for you, emotionally, Directors feel a lot, but they express it less than the other types: They make less eye contact, talk less openly about their emotions, and are more prone to “flooding”—literally losing the ability to engage in emotionally heated exchanges, instead staring silently ahead or even losing their heads in a rage when the intensity of their closely-held emotions is too much. Albert Einstein was a Director; Bill Gates may be, too.
—Finally, estrogen-influenced Negotiators (who represent about 15% more women than men) seek a Soul Mate. They’re variously known as imaginative, agreeable, intuitive, empathic, gifted at coalescing diverse thoughts in a process Fisher calls “web-thinking”, curious about people, avid in reading and writing, and tolerant of ambiguity. Most vital for you, though, Negotiators are emotionally expressive, intimacy-seeking— and intolerant of emotional distance. They want to sing (and hear) the entire song, and they appreciate and desire all the nuance therein. Charles Darwin was a Negotiator; so is Oprah Winfrey.
Which brings us to you and Sean. Nina, I have a hunch that you’re a Negotiator married to a Director—is that right?
If so, the first step towards greater happiness with Sean may well be to accept—perhaps even with some gratitude—that your Gap is, to some extent, here to stay. Because you and Sean might never have gotten together had you been more similar. The Negotiator-Director pairing is the only case where scientists have reliably found opposites attracting, actually preferring to meet one another over the other personality types. For whereas Explorers and Builders are drawn to and happiest with their own kind, the initial attraction for Negotiators is usually towards Directors.
Why? Perhaps complementarity is indeed at work; could be, the trusting nature of the Negotiator is balanced by the skepticism of the Director. Maybe the taciturn Director enjoys emotional release with the soul-searching Negotiator. And/or perhaps the emotional analysis of the Negotiator is healthfully reined-in by the discourse-avoidant Director.
Problem is, we really don’t know; the data for what happens *after* the Negotiator-Director weddings are too scant to make a definitive statement about whether this oppositeness makes more for Happily or Crabbily Ever After.
But what science shows for sure is that nearly every ongoing problem couples have starts with the word “differences”—never “similarities.” What Fisher knows for sure is that “there’s no bad match”—couples of every conceivable personality profile have found joy, and some personality pairings just take more effort and emotional intelligence to work out than others. And what long-term love experts John and Julie Gottman know for sure is that *every* couple, however well-matched, has problems they never solve.
Yet many are happy. Even those with The Dreaded Gap. How can you do it, too? That’s for the next column.
In the meantime, when Sean fixes your computer, analyzes what would really help you at your job, or thanks you for anything, translate in your head: “I love you; you make me really happy, and I would not trade you for the world.” Although Sean’s way is not your way, it can still be a devoted way. Keep some hope alive for understanding, acceptance, and communication that brings you closer even when you remain different. The Gap may be here to stay, but your hurtful experience of it can narrow—no matter what your personalities. See you next time.
The author thanks and acknowledges the following sources:
— Helen Fisher. Author of numerous science-based relationship books, professor at Rutgers University, and the brilliant mind behind the magic at Chemistry.com, Dr. Fisher generously consented to a lengthy interview and to allowing us to take her questionnaire here at Love Science. For those who want to take the Fisher Personality Test in its original locales and gain a deeper understanding of personality and love, please see Chemistry.comand Dr. Fisher’s latest book, Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type.
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All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. & LoveScience Media, 2009, 2013