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Opposites Attract, But Marry?

Opposites may attract, but a new study casts doubt on the old saying and suggests that like minds have a much better chance of getting married and living happily ever after.

Researchers found newlywed couples were much more similar in terms of attitudes and values than they were different. In addition, the more similar the couples' personalities were, the more likely they were to report being happy and satisfied in their marriage.

"People may be attracted to those who have similar attitudes, values, and beliefs and even marry them — at least in part — on the basis of this similarity because attitudes are highly visible and salient characteristics and they are fundamental to the way people lead their lives," write researcher Shanhong Luo and colleagues of the University of Iowa.

But researchers say personality characteristics such as neuroticism, anxiety, extraversion, and openness may take longer to emerge and be accurately interpreted by others and play a more important role later in the relationship.

Do Opposites Really Attract?

In the study, which appears in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers assessed a group of 291 couples who had been married less than a year on a broad range of personality characteristics, attitudes, and relationship-quality indicators.

Using this couple-centered approach, the researchers attempted to answer two main questions. First, do people tend to select romantic partners that are similar or opposite to them? In other words, do opposites attract? And, second, how does spouse similarity relate to marital happiness?

The results suggest that opposites may actually detract from long-term marital happiness, even though they may play a role in attraction.

The study showed that couples were strongly similar in terms of political attitudes, religiosity, and values than randomly paired couples, which suggests that people seek mates that share similarities on major issues.

But upon closer inspection, researchers found that compared to randomly paired couples, married couples showed little or no similarity on personality-related traits such as anxiety and avoidance, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, which suggests personality differences may attract.

However, when researchers looked at marital happiness, they found that people who shared personality characteristics with their spouse were more likely to be happy and satisfied with the marriage. But similarities in attitudes were not associated with marital happiness.

"Once people are in a committed relationship, it is primarily personality similarity that influences marital happiness because being in a committed relationship entails regular interaction and requires extensive coordination in dealing with tasks, issues and problems of daily living," write the researchers. "Whereas personality similarity is likely to facilitate this process, personality differences may result in more friction and conflict in daily life."

Researchers say the results suggest that similarities and differences in attitudes and personality may play different roles in relationship development with each factor playing an important role at different stages of the relationship.

Sources: Luo, S. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2005; vol 88: pp 304-326. News release, American Psychological Association.

By Jennifer Warner
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
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