It’s often said that opposites attract, but there doesn’t tend to be much conversation beyond that statement to contextualize the why or the how. Usually, the idiom is repeated as a reaction to an existing couple that seems mismatched for any number of reasons—food preferences, vacation styles, even astrological signs. That is, only when someone seems surprised two people who are already together seem to make a great match, they may say, “well, opposites attract!”
But sometimes, it seems, the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction, and serve as the sole reason for cutting things off. Like when a friend complains about having nothing in common with someone they went out with (on Zoom or IRL), and cites that lack of mutual interests as the reason for it never being able to work. Why didn’t opposite attraction have a magnetic pull in that case?
According to scientific studies on relationships and to experts themselves, there’s a sweet spot, so to speak, of overlapping interests leading to long-term relationship success when it comes to the question of “do opposites attract?” Below, relationship experts weigh in on science-backed components of what’s important to have in common and what doesn’t actually matter when it comes opposites attracting or not.
The difference between having opposite needs versus opposite wants is crucial
Relationship expert and psychotherapist Rachel Wright, LMFT, and Three Day Rule matchmaker Lisa Elson both say that there’s a difference between having common wants and common needs, and that when it comes to long-term relationship success, only mutual common needs are required. “People often blur these lines,” Elson says, adding that a lack of shared relationship needs are potential deal-breakers. They can vary from person to person, but some common examples may include a stance on having kids, religious beliefs, or wanting to travel versus putting down roots. In contrast, wants, Elson and Wright say, are more of a bonus.
If you’re looking for a long-term partner, what’s crucial is that your needs overlap. (So if you haven’t figured out what your personal relationship needs are yet, that would be the first step.) Having separate interests, though, and “wants” is actually healthy in a relationship and helps each person keep their individual sense of self. “Having different interests supports autonomy,” Wright says. “If your partner isn’t into yoga, that can be something you do by yourself or with your friends; it doesn’t need to be a foundational way of how you operate as a couple.” So in this case, you and your partner can be “opposites” about exercise and mindfulness-practice preferences and still be successful as a couple, so long as exercise and mindfulness-practice preferences are wants, not needs, for both of you.
“So many people swipe left on someone because the interests listed don’t match up with their own, when this really isn’t what matters; it’s the needs that matter.” —matchmaker Lisa Elson
Putting too much stock in overlapping interests, when they’re a want not a need, is often a reason people call it quits too soon or don’t give a potential union a fair shot—especially on dating apps, says Elson. “There’s typically a section where you list off your interests, and so many people swipe left on someone because the interests listed don’t match up with their own, when this really isn’t what matters; it’s the needs that matter,” she says. “Also, many algorithms tend to match people based on common interests, which again, isn’t really what’s most important.”
You can have opposite interests so long as you create a strong mutual bond
A recent study published in the journal Developmental Psychology looked at data from 1,965 couples to find patterns related to long-term relationship success, and the findings support that opposites do attract, to an extent. The results support that sharing intimate thoughts and feelings and feeling appreciated by a partner are just as important for relationship success as maintaining autonomy by having separate interests and being able to make decisions without worrying about the partner being upset. In other words, having separate interests is a good thing, as long as both people in the relationship feel appreciated by each other and communicate well.
“People should first try to reflect for themselves what they expect from a partnership and what they need. Then people should find out what the partners need,” says psychologist Christine Finn, PhD, the study’s author and lead researcher. “Become aware of your own needs, find out your partners needs, and learn to talk about that. Then, decide if changes can be made.”
“You can appreciate what someone else is interested in without being interested in that specific thing yourself.” —psychotherapist Rachel Wright, LMFT
And again, there’s no reason an intimate bond can’t exist, even if a couple is into totally different things. “I like musical theater, for example. I don’t need my husband to be into it, too, but I do need him to be open to sharing experiences with me,” says Wright. “You can appreciate what someone else is interested in without being interested in that specific thing yourself.”
So, do opposites attract and can this attraction lead to long-term relationship success? Totally—as long as each person’s relationship needs are the overlapping middle ground, and you actually enjoy spending time together. If your mate happens to have the same exact books on their nightstand as you do, cool. But if they spend their weekends doing activities you’ve never even tried before, that can be pretty great, too. And if they share your mutual big-picture goals? Even better.