What happens when opposites attract?

Mental Health

Sparks often fly when opposites attract, but why is that, and how can we navigate the inevitable challenges that come with this romantic pairing?

The shy one and the confident one, the driven one and the relaxed one, the creative and the logical, the clean and the cluttered, open and closed, adventurous and timid, hot and cold – we all have an idea of what ‘opposites attract’ means when it comes to relationships. It’s a trope common in the media we consume, and handy phrases like this one are often thrown around to explain seemingly unlikely pairings.

“Attraction is based on a huge number of biopsychosocial factors which make a simple response difficult,” says psychotherapist Bhavna Raithatha, when asked why two people who are seemingly polar opposites come together? “There are many factors that influence the attraction between individuals. Veteran relationship therapist and researcher, Dr Harville Hendrix suggests we all have a blueprint or an imago of the kind of person we want to be with. This imago, or image, is informed by early childhood influences in our lives that will have left a significant impression.”

The biological (our genetic makeup), social (how we were raised within our social communities), and psychological (how our experiences have shaped us) factors inform why people are attracted to each other, how long they might maintain the relationship, and what causes relationships to fail.”

When it comes to ‘opposites attract’, it’s easy to rationalise how there’s a benefit to individuals who might even each other out. Bhavna points to literature and film for examples.

“Think of the classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast, using the old trope of delicate, feminine beauty, innocence and gentleness, against the malevolent, self-centred, emotionally-stunted and vilified Beast,” Bhavna says. “This is a most unlikely pairing, with the glorification of kidnapping of Belle and holding her hostage leading to the development of Stockholm Syndrome, where eventually she falls in love with her violent, murderous captor, makes him see the error of his ways, and literally makes him human again. I digress…”

But it’s an interesting digression that prompts another, closer look at these ‘opposite’ couples we have idolised – is there more going on under the surface? When you Google ‘movies couples who are opposites’, you’ll find lists citing Pride and Prejudice, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Dirty Dancing among others. All examples which beg the question, are we really talking about couples who are ‘opposites’, or are they simply pairs from different social backgrounds – with some gender norms thrown in – but who ultimately share the same core values and desires? As Bhavna dives back into the workings of attraction, it seems this dynamic may be more likely.

“Studies by social psychologists such as Bandura, Byrne, et al. suggest that attraction is significantly more likely between individuals who share more similarities than differences, we are more inclined to pick those that look similar to us and hold similar values and ‘mirror’ us,” Bhavna explains. “Evolutionarily, this benefitted and supported the survival and wellbeing of the tribe in the wild.”

You are two universes coming together, each with glorious intricacies and individuality

Of course, all that said, there will almost certainly be those who are genuinely the polar opposite of their partner, or at least look that way on the surface – and that can be in characteristics both major and minor. But our differences really can be our strengths.

“People who are opposites (and, again, we need to define what exactly this means for us) can bring a lot to the table. They will bring skills, experiences, thoughts that may benefit the couple and eventually the family,” says Bhavna.

“We, as individuals, are born with an innate desire to grow and evolve, and this is fulfilled by new experiences, challenges, and achievements. This momentum is necessary for positive mental health and avoiding stagnation. Think about how you felt the last time you tried something new. Partners who are opposites of each other can harness their individual traits and be stronger together.”

On an evolutionary level, opposites can bring strength and opportunity for growth and expansion to the tribe. Think about your friendship circles; are there people there who are nothing like the rest of the group, and to whom you wouldn’t have given a second thought to, but who are very dear to you? Why? What are they bringing to the tribe that is lacking?”

It’s true that when we tune in to experiences outside of our own that we enhance our lives. But that doesn’t mean that committing to a relationship with someone with radically different ideas is without its hurdles.

“As with any situation in life, there is a different side to the coin,” says Bhavna. “Opposites can be very difficult to navigate; naturally, we all want to have our way for our own reasons. This is where complementarity dynamics are hugely successful, we can sing from the same hymn sheet, overcome minor niggles, clear any disagreements for the greater good of both, and get on with life.

“With opposites, however, you first have to decide which denomination the hymn sheet belongs to, whether you’ll be singing gospel or thrash metal, who will be leading, for how long, and why…  Giggles aside, you are two universes coming together, each with glorious intricacies and individuality, with dreams, hope, experiences, and may not be so ready to acquiesce to the needs of the other. I see a lot of conflict in couples who are opposites because they are often clashing about many things.”

So, if some of these problems are ringing true with you, what can you do about it? As Bhavna sees it, the first step should be to identify each other’s strengths and to build upwards from there.

“Name your differences, celebrate those that are positive, and help each other with the negatives that impact the relationship,” she advises. “Talk to each other. Respect each other. Commit to making it work, or have the courage to end it respectfully before jumping into the arms of another. Whatever is not fixed will keep coming back up.”

We, as individuals, are born with an innate desire to grow and evolve, and this is fulfilled by new experiences

Bhavna also recommends seeking therapy and learning the skills you need to become confident enough that making comprises doesn’t feel like you’re losing out, and instead they feel like a gift that you are bringing to your relationship.

“Remember why you got together: what attracted you about each other, why? This is where conscious dating comes into play. What was your dating practice, did you communicate and ask questions? Did you share your negotiables and non-negotiables? Did you actively ignore red flags in the hope that they will change when they see just how fabulous you are? They won’t. Remember, we are all trying to do the very best we can.”

Let’s face it, Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy probably argued about who does the washing up, the Beast and Belle might have fallen out over different interior design choices, and Sandy and Danny might fall on different ends of the political spectrum – that or they end up quibbling over a pair of leather trousers.

As always, it’s important to let go of the idea of perfection when it comes to relationships, recognising that we’re complex people with complex needs, and the key to serving them is communication. After all, opposites attract for a reason and, when given the space and respect they need, our differences can be our most valuable strengths.


Bhavna Raithatha is a psychotherapist, coach, supervisor, critical incidence debriefer, and trainer. Find out more by visiting Counselling Directory.

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