The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center provides an array of mental health services from couples counseling to individual therapy to help you manage relationships. 

The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center provides an array of mental health services from couples counseling to individual therapy to help you manage relationships. 

Opposites Attract, But Can They Actually Work?

            We have all heard the saying, “opposites attract.” There are solid psychological reasons to believe that this is true (we’ll return to this later). Many of us may have experienced this firsthand. Yet, how do we work with real differences once we are actually in a relationship. In my work with couples I often find that the same differences, which make someone irresistible in the courtship phase of dating, often make them annoying and unbearable in relationship. To give an example: perhaps, I am a very fiery person with boatloads of drive and initiative. I am attracted to someone who seems so calm, solid and down-to-earth. Initially, this works great! I come to their house on the weekend where they cook me dinner, rub my shoulders and soothe me with soft music. Heaven! I tell all my friends I have never felt so relaxed and grounded with anyone in my life. My new love appreciates me because my passion enlivens them, and my drive means that after the relaxing evening we go out kayaking together on the weekend – something they would never think to do on their own.

            This is all well and good when we are dating. Soon it has been so expansive and wonderful we move in together, or get married, or have children or all of the above. At some point we will likely cross a threshold of merging our lives in which our difference starts to appear more often as a problem than a solution. Now the grounded quality I found so soothing is mostly boring and stifling. They never want to go kayaking anymore or even leave the house! I can’t make it home for dinner most of the time because of meetings. They are always disappointed and hurt by how busy I am. And on and on. People in this situation tend to become more and more entrenched in claiming their uniqueness (“Yes, I am a passionate person with ambition!”) while pushing away the value they once held in the other’s difference (“It’s not my fault you are so lazy and boring!”). What happened to the resources we once found in each other, and how can we find those riches again?

            There are a few things to pay attention to and ways to approach this common dilemma that may help. First, one way to prevent this is to really gauge your comfort level honestly as things are progressing. Beware of merging too much or too quickly for your individual needs or the particular needs of your unique relationship. There are no one-size-fits-all ways to have relationships or timelines for steps in relationships. Just because your friends are asking over and over again when you are going to move in together, or your parents want you to get married and have children does not mean that is the right thing for your relationship. Maybe you are the kind of person who just wants your own space. Maybe you would like to live next door in the same apartment building. Maybe you really just don’t want to have kids, or be married, or be monogamous. If you feel ambivalence around taking a big step toward one another, take time to really explore your misgivings. Give space to both you and your partner’s assumptions about what you are “supposed to do” in relationships before you zoom past an important boundary. Be especially attuned to you or your partner acting out of should’s and supposed to’s! You could end up resenting each other for societal pressures placed on either or both of you.

            What if part of the difference is that you feel ready to move in/get married/have babies and your partner doesn’t? That may be a false dichotomy in which both of you are more ambiguous than you seem on the surface. It can be easier to become stubborn in a position and let the other person’s opposition save you from facing your own doubts. You may be able to achieve a creative compromise. If you move in to the same apartment but have separate rooms, for example, or maybe you want to live next door, or down the street. Can you go through a commitment ceremony without jumping into legal marriage – try hand-fasting it only lasts a year and a day! The point is to keep exploring and maybe seek couples therapy to help you explore your positions. Creative compromises can be found to more so-called, “deal-breakers” than you think if you are willing to bend and to admit your own doubts and ambivalence.

            Moving toward an opposite in relationship is exciting at first because it shakes us out of our rut. We are offered new possibilities, new ways of thinking and being. Yet, as this process of coming together continues, we may start to lose touch with our own core self. Some part of us eventually catches on that this is happening and then starts to pull back, saying, “Wait! Don’t forget about me!” At this point arguments begin or misgivings arise to defend the sense of self from getting swallowed up by the other. By the time you are making big decisions to change your relationship you may already be experiencing the first inklings that your partner’s differences are sometimes not the cutest. Pay attention to these intuitions. Paying attention doesn’t mean you can’t work it out or that the difference dooms you. Still, it is worth a conversation, or even several. Awareness of the imperfections in your relationship may feel like a buzz-kill of the love-drug you are feeling. Yet, awareness can introduce you to your best friend for getting the gold out of your differences – curiosity.

            After the honeymoon phase’s hazy glow has started to wane, novelty is an important ingredient to keep relationships vital and healthy. According to relationship guru Esther Perel, maintaining desire in particular is dependent on keeping newness alive in relationships (check out her video here). The right combination of differences and robust curiosity is an almost eternal spring of newness. Let’s go back to the first example of the very driven person with the more mellow one curiosity about how they got so mellow might unearth the fact that they used to be a wreck of anxiety and then found meditation. You will learn a lot more about them and also maybe discover you want to try meditation for yourself. As they become curious about your intensity and how it works they might find a deep creativity lies behind your vigor and push themselves to find a new relationship with an old creative drive they had let go. Soon they are building cabinets in the garage and far less annoyed with you being busy.

            This all sounds a little too perfect, and in a way it is. This is hard work. Both people must be strong enough in their sense of self to accept the ways such curiosity may move them. Your partner’s curiosity may start poking around at ways of being associated with old wounds. Defensiveness is bound to come up when we feel someone is trying to change us. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to start asking hard questions of ourselves about which changes might be beneficial, versus which are simply not healthy or possible. And this brings us to some of the possible psychological advantages of the attraction of opposites.

            We are all born with a great deal of potential. Our personalities as young children are often more emotional, more creative and just more dynamic than those we end up with as adults. The process of socialization asks us to behave in certain ways and not in others. There are general rules for most – don’t punch the kid next to you, do smile when you meet a new teacher, engineering is a more readily encouraged a career path than calligraphy. Then there are specific rules in families – dad has to always win arguments, it is your job to keep things funny when people start fighting, you must be an engineer, etc. As we become the people we are told to be (or decide to rebel against it) we make choices that foreclose on other parts of our gigantic, flexible, emotionally volatile kid personality. But, that is tough.  As we swallow the various characters (archetypes) that are unacceptable to the outside world, we stuff down the emotional vitality with it, the two become entwined. A big soup of potentials and feelings for later discovery by the perfect partner.

            One day (maybe once upon a time) I meet someone who was made for me. They were sent messages that led them to suppress some of the opposite parts I was and express the ones I shoved down. They got to be the artist who cried. In fact, maybe they had to be that and to repress an inner engineer, because dad couldn’t handle another engineer in the family. All of those parts of me, which I was asked as a kid to surrender, get very excited. Big emotions start to jump out of my stomach and heart - all of those potentials singing out to see the person they were meant to be. I fall in love with this person because as my opposite, they are bringing me back the parts I have lost. In some relationships this may work pretty easily. I will more or less “out-source” the disavowed parts through living in relationship with this person. I will be asked to go to art museums and care about interior decorating. Even if I complain some part of me will love it, because I am being drawn to live a fuller expression of my being.

            Yet, if I had to repress something vital to me or I was asked to do so in a particularly damaging way, this whole process may be much more painful. Let us say I was a naturally very gifted artist and I was told it was for my survival, or the survival of my family, that I have to give it up to do something more practical. Then, meeting an artist may be very compelling and I may be very attracted to them, but I may also resent them or think less of them unconsciously. In relationship, meeting difference like this can be explosive, passionate and very difficult to navigate. If you notice primal emotions of rage, shame or jealousy coming into your conflicts with your partner over the ways you are dissimilar, I strongly suggest you find a couple’s therapist, or other counseling support for the relationship.

Differences in personality can become even more complicated if you add the always present socio-political factors into the equation. What if I was told art was an impractical career because of my race, gender or economic status and my new artist partner is also opposite me in that way. If I was told I cannot pursue art because I am a man, and I am now partnered with a male artist, I may hold feelings of both jealousy and superiority over him. If I am a Black man told to be extremely measured and careful in my expression of anger for fear of police brutality and racial profiling, and I pair with a White woman who is frequently exploding in rage, I may feel an unimaginably complex range of emotions with no idea how to express any of them. There will likely be a stifling fear of breaking the rules my parents assured me would literally save my life. Yet, strangely there is also a kind of cathartic draw to watching someone else enact my forbidden thing. If they can get away with it could I someday?

So, the depth of the work of relationships is no Disney movie. We meet in others very often the things we have not been able to find acceptance for in ourselves. Still, meeting these things in the outside world and finding a way to love them in another person is a magical process, by which ideally, we can learn to love more of ourselves. Opposites attract for a reason, and if you are willing to push yourself a little at a time to reach across to the other side, they can also definitely work.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and blogger for The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and blogger for The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center.

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