Monday, July 15, 2013

Do Opposites Really Attract? Complementary Needs Theory of Interpersonal Attraction


The Complementary Needs Theory suggests that people may choose a partner who compliments (or completes) and meets their own personal needs. 

Studies show that complementary interaction between two partners increases their attractiveness to each other. Some studies also reveal that complementary partners preferred closer interpersonal relationship than non-complementary ones. Couples who reported the highest level of loving and harmonious relationship were more dissimilar in dominance than couples who scored lower in relationship quality.

Mathes and Moore found that people were more attracted to peers approximating to their ideal self than to those who did not. Specifically, low self-esteem individuals appeared more likely to desire a complementary relationship than high self-esteem people. We are attracted to people who complement to us because this allows us to maintain our preferred style of behavior, and through interaction with someone who complements our own behavior, we are likely to have a sense of self-validation and security.

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Why Complementary Types Connect?

“I think the most important thing you can ask yourself about a prospective mate is: If this person were not a romantic interest, would they be one of your very best friends?” says Sam Hamburg, Ph.D., a marital therapist and author of Will Our Love Last?

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.

So, why complementary types may fall in love and, what is more important, stay in love?

She’s super-organized; he’s a constant mess. He’s a quiet couch potato; she’s the life of the party. We’ve all seen couples whose personalities seem light years apart. “There’s a lot of chemistry between opposites and the relationship has a lot of passion,” says Firestone. “But eventually they may end up hating each other for the very things that drew them together in the first place.”

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.

Let’s see a clear example of real life situation, when a shy girl who has a good sense of humor might be attracted to a guy who has a good sense of humor too (similar to her) and who is confident (complementary to her shyness). So according to the attraction theory both similarity and complementary traits can be present in the same person and thus they may not contradict each other by any means.

So, according to the theory, individuals have a strong desire to maintain a predictable social reality and by interacting with others who fit in with long-held expectations this allows for the maintenance of a consistent self-image. For example, for the anxious individual, an avoidant partner would confirm their negative self-view by responding negatively to their intimacy-seeking and would confirm their negative expectations through appearing distant and rejecting. Similarly, whilst an anxious partner’s high intimacy and low independence would confirm the avoidant individual’s positive view of self, these would confirm their negative expectations of others as clingy and dependent.  

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Similarity or Complementarity?

While principles of similarity and complementarity seem to be contradictory on the surface, in fact, they may play together perfectly well to justify development of the harmonious relationship. Both principles agree with the statement that friendly people would prefer friendly partners.

The importance of similarity and complementarity ratio may depend also on the stage of the relationship. Similarity seems to carry considerable weight in initial attraction, while complementarity assumes importance as the relationship develops over time. Markey found that people would be more satisfied with their relationship if their partners differed from them, at least, in terms of dominance, as two dominant persons may experience conflicts while two submissive individuals may have frustration as neither member take the initiative.

Perception and actual behavior might not be congruent with each other. There were cases that dominant people perceived their partners to be similarly dominant, yet in the eyes of independent observers, the actual behavior of their partner was submissive, in other words, complementary to them. Why do people sometimes perceive their romantic partners to be similar to them despite evidence to the contrary? The reason remains unclear, pending further research.


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