Which is better in a life partner – Similarity or Complementarity?

Which is better in a life partner – Similarity or Complementarity?

What does it mean to click with that special someone? Would you choose someone who is similar to you? Or would you go for someone who complements your personality? Read an article by our in-house singles’ counselor that demystifies this choice made by individuals all over the world day in and day out.

Many of us singles are looking for the right partner, that one person we would like to end up with. In our quest to find this significant other, we all find ourselves in one way or another, asking the questions: Would we like them to be similar to us? Or do we want someone who ‘completes’ us? Would I like my partner to be as outgoing and open to experiences as I am? Or would I like someone who is more grounded and can ‘bring me back’ to reality when I get too excited? It may seem like there is no one answer to these questions, and the truth is, relationships really are layered, complicated processes and we all have amazingly different ways of working through them.

However, some pointers from extensive ongoing research and theories of interpersonal psychology could provide some relief in understanding what we might be really looking for- similarity, or complementarity.

Do birds of a feather really flock together?

Let’s look around and for a moment, consider our close circle of friends – these five people who we enjoy spending our time most with – they could be friends we have chosen, or even be colleagues at work or members of our family. What is it about them that makes us want to be around them? The simple answer is – we have things in common. Yes, birds that flock together in most cases have at least the same kind of feathers.  Similarity is the first thread in the fabric of a relationship. Some of these common ‘first threads’ that attract two people to each other are physical characteristics, interests and attitudes, socio-economic background and IQ.  If you find this true in your friendships, this is most likely to be true in your romantic relationships as well. Several studies have shown that happy couples in longstanding relationships were initially attracted to each other based on similarity in the mentioned areas.  From a psychological perspective, when similar people are attracted to each other, there is more validation of beliefs from each other, and therefore a reduced risk of conflicts.

Or do opposites attract?

Let’s face it. Variety is attractive. We like seeking out things that are different from us. In a globalized world as ours, we aspire to travel and experience cultures from across the world. While travel and exposure may be a relatively new addition to our experience of the world, our need to experience the new to grow and feel complete is much more ancient. The same need could play an important role in how we approach relationships. We might want to be with someone who has had a different experience of life than ours so we can learn from them, seeking collaboration. Further, quite a bit of research has shown that sometimes certain complementary types of personality can make the right ingredients for a strong relationship.

For example, a recent study at the University of Groningen, Netherlands found that women tend to desire men who are more socially dominant and financially secure. While this could understandably go against feminist principles, an explanation from an evolutionary perspective is that women would like to pick a mate that would, in the long term, be emotionally and financially capable of raising an offspring. From a psychological perspective, when people are attracted on the basis of complementary features, there is a certain need for gratification, security and a seeking of self-validation through one’s life partner.

So what is it that clicks, then?

If only the answer to that were as easy as one statement. When we look at longstanding couples, similarity and complementarity seem to serve different functions in making theirs a successful relationship. While characteristics of similarity such as background, age, attitudes and physical attractiveness seem to bring people together in the first place, complementary characteristics such as dominant-submissive relationship roles and varying life experiences seem to serve as factors that hold the couple together in the longer run. In other words, couples are attracted to each other based on similarity and over time they develop ways to complement each other.

On the other hand, relationships starting off on a note of complementarity have been found to run a risk of not lasting long. Studies on divorce rates have found personality-mismatch as a leading cause of break-ups. A possible reason why we put ourselves in the danger of seeking the opposite (that we may not be able to handle) is the tempting ideal of ‘two-halves’ that we tend to hold. It is naturally a very comforting idea to believe that the one for us would have all the qualities we wished we possessed, and being with someone like this would make us feel secure and complete.

However, in this we run the danger of forgetting that our partner has faults and frailties just as we do. Relationships are most enjoyed when both the involved people bring to the table their individual sense of self and motivation to be together, similarity and differences notwithstanding. As Sandra Bullock rightly (and humorously) put it, “I complete me. I just got lucky that after I completed myself, I met someone who could tolerate me.”