Do Opposites Really Attract? - Common Relationship Patterns

Ask any couple what initially attracted them to each other and you’re bound to get a variety of responses, the most common being physical attraction, personality and shared interests and values. Some people will also tell you that for them, it was “love at first sight”.

Why we choose a particular person on whom to give our love, is so extraordinarily complex that no-one completely understands it. It is only when the relationship becomes difficult that a search for explanations frequently leads the couple to examine factors of which they are only vaguely aware.

Despite the Western ideology that we marry for love, our attraction and subsequent attachment to our partner happens in response to strong, unconscious psychological forces deep within us. These psychological processes which come into play in determining our choice are usually far more significant than the reasons which we give for making that choice.

Questions about our choice of partner cannot be answered without uncovering the deeper layers of people’s emotional lives.  To make sense of our partner choice, it helps to identify a number of common relationship patterns which are enacted based on complex psychological processes.

Opposites attract

There is definitely some truth in the observation that people who seem like polar opposites are attracted to each other. The most likely explanation is that, in choosing a partner, some people are attracted to something in the other person that is missing in themselves, or, more accurately, something that is present in themselves, but disowned because it creates anxiety.  A typical and often cliché example is the controlled and logical man who is drawn to the emotional and volatile woman. In this complementary relationship, each is able to avoid expressing the denied part of themselves so long as they have their partner to express it instead.

The following are three of the most common complementary relationships:

Big boots and door mat

The two people in this kind of relationship have unconsciously chosen each other so they can play out a dominant and submissive role. By allowing the dominant person to assume control of the relationship, the other person can avoid the anxiety generated by self-assertion and taking responsibility.

Fire and ice

This type of complementary relationship comprises one person (usually the man in a heterosexual relationship) who attempts to achieve self-sufficiency through assuming an emotionally detached manner and his partner who makes intense and persistent demands for affection. The intensity and the insistence of the woman’s demands for love raise the man’s anxiety and he’s likely to defend himself by becoming more aloof. The more demanding she becomes, the more he uses logic to keep her at a distance, the more rejected and desperate she feels leading to even more insistent demands. This circular pattern is highly frustrating to the couple.

Parent and child

Although there is to some extent, a parent-child dimension in all relationships in that the caring shifts back and forth from one to the other, in a relationship out of balance, all caring is assumed by one person while the other assumes a position of helplessness. The ‘child’ who wants to be looked after, places the other in the position of the parent who must make the decisions, take on responsibility for both and provide love and affection. The ‘parent’ on the other hand is driven to play out this role from a deep seated need to be needed.

Do complementary relationships work?

It is clear that the attraction of opposites is based an interlocking of needs of the two people.  The source of their initial attraction to each other was based on each unconsciously perceiving the other as possessing the denied, and therefore, missing part of themselves.

Such complementary relationships may work well at first, but the dissimilarity of the partners tends to become a problem as the relationship progresses. The ability to complement each other that was the reason for the initial attraction eventually becomes a source of conflict.  Such relationships may also break down if the unconscious agreement to function in a complementary way is not maintained due to changes in one or both partners over time.

Like attracts like

On the other end of the scale, the attraction of two people who are similar is also another common pattern. An example of ‘like attracting like’ is the couple whose relationship is one long fight interrupted by brief peaceful interludes. The issues they fight about may change but the underlying struggle is really over who will control the relationship. Their primary pre-occupation (and also what binds them) is with winning or, more correctly, not losing.

As with complementary couples, a relationship between similar people will be more or less workable (though not necessarily rewarding or fulfilling) as long as their common bond continues undisturbed.  


Material taken from Staying Married (Warwick W. Hartin, 1993).