What’s ‘familiar’ about a mate may not always be immediately evident, however. “People may feel chemistry with someone who treats them in a way that’s familiar because it’s a dynamic they know,” says Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist and author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships. A woman who grew up with an alcoholic father, for example, may end up with a wild-man artist, who’s similarly unpredictable but (hopefully) in more positive ways. So, don’t be surprised if your relationship echoes some dynamic from your past.
A better match, say experts, are people whose personalities are complementary but not complete contradictions. “Sometimes a really high-strung person will calm down around someone who’s laid-back, or maybe the person who has a lot of energy is a motivating influence on the person who’s mellow, and it’s really good for them both,” says Firestone. Likewise, personalities that are too similar can miss out on new experiences. “If two people are very risk-averse, they might never pursue opportunities that they should,” points out Hamburg. “And on the flip side, two people who are high risk-takers might get themselves into trouble. But if you have one who’s more risky and one who’s cautious, then through a dialogue the couple might be able to make better decisions than they would if they were the same.”
Complementary couples do run the risk, though, of falling even deeper into their differences. “When a person dates someone who plays a balancing role, he or she tends to polarize: The quiet person gets quieter, and the talkative person becomes the spokesperson for the relationship,” points out Firestone. “He may start to think that he’s a whole person only when he’s with her, and vice versa. And when people do that, the quality of relating tends to deteriorate.” So, couples should be careful to treat their partner’s strengths not as a crutch, but as an opportunity to watch and learn new habits and skills to move outside their comfort zones on occasion.