When Do Opposites NOT Attract? Therapists Reveal The Signs

When similarities matter.

by Natalia Lusinski
Originally Published: 

We’ve all heard the term “opposites attract” and probably know couples where that’s definitely the case. But when do opposites not attract? From little things (like your partner is a morning person and you’re not) to bigger things (like having different religious beliefs), some differences can be more challenging than others.

“I think the prevailing research is not that opposites do or don’t attract, but often people with complementary attributes that are different can be a great fit,” Frank Thewes, a private practice therapist based in Princeton, NJ and founder of Path Forward Therapy, tells TZR in an email. “For example, think of a couple where one partner is very social and the other is more introverted — but that helps balance them as a couple. If we take that to the extreme, however, then these ‘opposite’ attributes might not be a good fit.”

Thewes says, in a case like this, one partner may constantly be in need of social interaction yet their partner may not only be introverted, but also have social anxiety. “So this might not be healthy for the individuals or the relationship,” he adds. Of course, you can try to work on your differences, but if they become more a hindrance to your relationship than helpful, you may have to do some reevaluating. Ahead, Thewes and other therapists get into more specifics on the “opposites attract” concept — including when they don’t.


How Opposites Can Attract

Before delving more into opposites not attracting, why do they in the first place? You may be dating someone and like how you two are different, as it makes you appreciate your similarities even more so and the differences are not deal-breakers. “Opposites usually attract because they see qualities in the other person they wish they had,” Keischa Pruden, therapist and owner of Pruden Counseling Concepts, tells TZR in an email. “For example, a ‘Type A’ person may be attracted to a more laid-back person because they wish they could relax more. A frugal person may be attracted to a person who spends more freely, enjoying the fact that someone else can be so free with their finances.”

But the issue is much more complex than “do opposites attract,” Steven M. Sultanoff, marriage and family therapist and relationship trainer, tells TZR in an email. “Most of ‘opposites’ attracting is when both partners tolerate (and even better, accept) their differences,” he says. “To tolerate differences, each partner must not be invested in what is ‘right’ or ‘correct,’ and instead see the differences as ‘acceptable.’ Unacceptable differences often lead to disdain, which is a relationship killer.” He goes on to say that when the “opposites” are not significant to both partners, then opposites can attract. The differences can be perceived as loving quirks.

“For example, if one partner is ‘organized’ but is not rigid, then a ‘disorganized’ partner may see the ‘excessive’ organization as ‘cute,’” he says. “Of course, it goes both ways if the tidy person can see the unorganized as ‘quirky.’” He adds that the perception “My wife is constantly organizing and putting things in their place and I am disorganized” can be seen as a loving appreciation of the difference — even if that difference impacts the disorganized one. He also gives a personal example. “If I sneak into the kitchen to make a sandwich, I may have a knife on the counter and then leave the kitchen momentarily,” he says. “When I return, the knife will be put away — even though I was about to use it. My wife and I are opposites this way. I put things out often as a visual reminder to do something and she puts them away. I see that as endearing. So opposites can attract when there is an environment of mutual acceptance of the differences.”

Plus, a number of mediating variables must be considered, says Dr. Nathaniel N. Ivers, associate professor and chair of Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. “These include openness, the ability and willingness to compromise, respect for cultural and personal differences, emotional intelligence, patience, strong communication skills, assertiveness, and conflict resolution skills,” he tells TZR in an email. He adds that personality differences can create some simple, and not-so-simple, challenges for couples as they learn to live life together. One person may be extraordinarily detail- and task-oriented, while their partner is more in-the-moment and laissez-faire in how they navigate life. “Grocery shopping, prioritizing house projects, and planning vacations are just a few situations in which these preferences may conflict,” he says. “Yet couples who learn to work with, and appreciate, each other's differences will likely find themselves developing skills and traits that benefit them. The organized person may improve their ambiguity tolerance and ability to live in the moment — and the less plan-focused person may develop some helpful organizational skills that may generalize to other aspects of their life.”

How Opposites Do Not Attract

But there is a key way to know if being opposites is problematic in your relationship, Thewes explains. “Where opposites don’t attract — and where serious problems can occur — is when values are opposite,” he says. “If one partner is OK with flirting outside of a marriage and the other isn’t, clearly their values aren’t the same. Likewise, having opposite values about money, raising children, and other important areas can doom a relationship. Values are one area where opposites can be so different that the relationship may not work.” Sultanoff agrees, saying that differences based in central core values will not attract. These can include meaningful political differences, attitudes about spending, organizing, how to treat others, and so on. “If these are meaningful to both partners, it’ll result in great discord when partners are opposites, including passive-aggressive behavior, avoidance of each other, arguments, and general feelings of hostility.”

There are other ramifications, too. “When someone is ‘too opposite’ of another person, the result in a relationship is usually some type of biopsychosocial-spiritual distress,” Pruden explains. “The aspects of the person’s personality that are polar opposite to the other person causes their partner to have biological issues (migraines, gut problems, ‘phantom pains,’ etc.), psychological issues (anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, etc.), social (withdrawal from peers/activities, increased alcohol/substance use), and spiritual (belief crisis, withdrawal from worship).”

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Should You Date Someone Who Is Your Opposite?

So, given all of the above, should you still be open to dating someone who’s your opposite? Pruden says absolutely. “Dating someone who is your opposite opens up your worldview to new experiences and will often bring balance to your life in many ways,” she says. Sultanoff adds that opposites attract when both partners see the opposing factors as relatively unimportant to them. “If someone sees the other person as ‘opposite’ — and yet sees that as part of what makes that person unique — then the relationship certainly can work,” he says. “However, if the differences are on major issues — such as finances, children, religion, family commitments, relationship rules, etc. — then the opposites may sever the relationship.”

And Thewes adds that, at the end of the day, it comes down to how the person makes you feel. “You will have to decide how you feel with that person and if they enhance your sense of happiness,” he says. “If that is the case, then their ‘opposite’ just might be the right person.” Ivers seconds that, saying it depends on how much an individual has to compromise to make the relationship work. “If the opposite characteristics add healthy excitement or comfort to one's life — while requiring reasonable accommodations without compromising core values and beliefs — I believe one ought to be open to dating someone who is their opposite,” he says. “However, I believe there needs to be some overlap in terms of interests. Couples will never share all interests in common, but I do not think they should have no interests in common either. Couples should be able to identify some activities that they both enjoy doing together, even if their personalities differ significantly in many ways.” And he says not to forget about essential qualities that foster healthy relationships, too, both in the person and their partner, such as honesty, respect, kindness, patience, loyalty, communication skills, and empathy.

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