WHEN OPPOSITES ATTRACT: Happily or Crabbily Ever After?  

Dear Duana,

I love my husband, but there’s an issue that never goes away.  I’m demonstrative and affectionate and affirming, and Sean…isn’t.  My head knows he loves me, but it’s tough for me not to take his reserve, emotional distance and judgments to heart. Is there any research about opposites attracting, or whether complementary personalities can cause more problems than they solve?    


Dear Nina,  

Sounds like you’ve got a classic Gap going on—where one person prefers soul-searching intimacy, and the other prefers that when he said he loves you (at your wedding), that should stand for the Remainder Of Time.  Common in male-female relationships, I suspect the Gap is often based in a specific personality pairing you and Sean may have.  So please take the Fisher Personality Test now, and ask/guess your honey’s answers, too. 

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher—developer of the test, research maven, and gracious interviewee for this article— collected data on over 28,000 newly dating and 5,000 long-married couples, discerning “natural patterns of attraction” among personality types.  Based on her findings and a plethora of research showing that at least half of our personality is inherited and biologically based, Fisher literally wrote the book I’m betting explains the roots of your issue:  Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type

Turns out, there are four core personality types, each influenced by a different biochemical, and they dramatically impact the way we love.  So look at your two highest scores and Sean’s, and ask yourself whether you recognize your primary and secondary personality types here:    

—Dopamine-influenced Explorers seek a Play Mate.  Explorers tend to be adventurous, passionate, risk-taking, novelty-seeking, generous, creative, impulsive, restless, intensely energetic, optimistic, adaptive, autonomous, liberal, city-dwelling, insatiably curious—and intolerant of boredom.  Explorers may think “layoff” is another word for “I always wanted to start my own company”, or that “dating” is code for “lots of Sexploration”.  But an assembly-line job or a too-routine relationship would be their hell.  JFK was the quintessential Explorer, but you can find more at a sky-diving outfit near you. 

—Serotonin-inspired Builders seek a Help Mate. And if the mere description of an Explorer wore you out, you might just be one.  “Pillars of society,” Fisher calls them.  They’re most often loyal, calm, confident, conscientious, dutiful, moral, conventional, respectful of authority, conservative, concrete, orderly, cautious (yet not fearful), community-oriented, social, detail-oriented, predictable, persistent, patient, schedule-and-routine oriented, good at managing people, tolerant of repetition— and intolerant of rule-breaking.  A true Builder can do the same job every day, and do it perfectly.  George Washington was the Builder of a nation.  So are many members of the military. 

—Testosterone-laden Directors (over 2/3 of whom are male) seek a Mind Mate.  They’re outspoken, tough-minded, decisive, to-the-point, thorough, objective, forthright, independent, skeptical, exacting, competitive, bold, analytical, spatially (and mathematically, mechanically and/or musically) skilled, focused, inventive, hungry for knowledge—and intolerant of chitchat.  Got a great point to make, complete with a delightful lead-in?  Don’t-bore-us, get-to-the-chorus. 

Most important for you, emotionally, Directors feel a lot, but they express it less than the other types:  They make less eye contact, talk less openly about their emotions, and are more prone to “flooding”—literally losing the ability to engage in emotionally heated exchanges, instead staring silently ahead or even losing their heads in a rage when the intensity of their closely-held emotions is too much.  Albert Einstein was a Director; Bill Gates may be, too.    

—Finally, estrogen-influenced Negotiators (who represent about 15% more women than men) seek a Soul Mate.  They’re variously known as imaginative, agreeable, intuitive, empathic, gifted at coalescing diverse thoughts in a process Fisher calls “web-thinking”, curious about people, avid in reading and writing, and tolerant of ambiguity.  Most vital for you, though, Negotiators are emotionally expressive,  intimacy-seeking— and intolerant of emotional distance.  They want to sing (and hear) the entire song, and they appreciate and desire all the nuance therein.  Charles Darwin was a Negotiator; so is Oprah Winfrey. 

Which brings us to you and Sean.  Nina, I have a hunch that you’re a Negotiator married to a Director—is that right?

If so, the first step towards greater happiness with Sean may well be to accept—perhaps even with some gratitude—that your Gap is, to some extent, here to stay.  Because you and Sean might never have gotten together had you been more similar.  The Negotiator-Director pairing is the only case where scientists have reliably found opposites attracting, actually preferring to meet one another over the other personality types.  For whereas Explorers and Builders are drawn to and happiest with their own kind, the initial attraction for Negotiators is usually towards Directors.    

Why?  Perhaps complementarity is indeed at work; could be, the trusting nature of the Negotiator is balanced by the skepticism of the Director.  Maybe the taciturn Director enjoys emotional release with the soul-searching Negotiator.  And/or perhaps the emotional analysis of the Negotiator is healthfully reined-in by the discourse-avoidant Director. 

Problem is, we really don’t know; the data for what happens *after* the Negotiator-Director weddings are too scant to make a definitive statement about whether this oppositeness makes more for Happily or Crabbily Ever After. 

But what science shows for sure is that nearly every ongoing problem couples have starts with the word “differences”—never “similarities.”  What Fisher knows for sure is that “there’s no bad match”—couples of every conceivable personality profile have found joy, and some personality pairings just take more effort and emotional intelligence to work out than others.  And what long-term love experts John and Julie Gottman know for sure is that *every* couple, however well-matched, has problems they never solve. 

Yet many are happy.  Even those with The Dreaded Gap.  How can you do it, too?  That’s for the next column. 

In the meantime, when Sean fixes your computer, analyzes what would really help you at your job, or thanks you for anything, translate in your head: “I love you; you make me really happy, and I would not trade you for the world.”  Although Sean’s way is not your way, it can still be a devoted way.  Keep some hope alive for understanding, acceptance, and communication that brings you closer even when you remain different.  The Gap may be here to stay, but your hurtful experience of it can narrow—no matter what your personalities.  See you next time. 



The author thanks and acknowledges the following sources:

— Helen Fisher.  Author of numerous science-based relationship books, professor at Rutgers University, and the brilliant mind behind the magic at, Dr. Fisher generously consented to a lengthy interview and to allowing us to take her questionnaire here at Love Science.  For those who want to take the Fisher Personality Test in its original locales and gain a deeper understanding of personality and love, please see and Dr. Fisher’s latest book, Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type.

John Gottman and Julie Gottman, authors of outstanding research-based long-term love relationship books And Baby Makes Three and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

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 All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

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Reader Comments (10)

Excellent post, Duana. Thanks for all the wonderful advise.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

"Some personality pairings just take more effort and emotional intelligence to work out than others."

Absolutely. It is so important for us to know ourselves and know our partners: How we tick. WHY we operate that way. How two personalities function as a unit. In my opinion, everyone should be taking personality tests such as Helen Fisher’s, not only to increase emotional intelligence, but also to build on the foundation of communication. I like to think of relationships in terms of the business world...

Let’s say that you are Company A. It is YOUR company after all, and you understand it better than anyone else. You decide one day that it sure would be nice to merge with Company B. But you soon discover that B does not know the "in’s and out’s" of his own company and consequently loses your interest.

Turns out that Company B is actually a perfect match for Company A, but there was a communication gap. B did not have as high of an emotional intelligence quotient as A, so when A asked those Need-to-Know questions, B could not provide the answers. If B had a greater self-awareness, it would have made for a much smoother business transaction.

Same with relationships--the better we understand ourselves and our partners, the easier it is to work out those differences. Not to say it’s going to be easy--but there will be less turbulence along the way. It’s important for us to remember that no action in life comes without an underlying cause. And knowing the cause helps to solve the greater issue.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor

What's peculiar to me is that this is the one area of my life where I have trouble understanding the other person. Usually I understand "too much", ignoring my own needs in favor of the other guy's.. But when it comes to my relationship insecurities, I over-think it all to a ridiculous degree, truly tormenting myself and my spouse. I "get it" in theory -- I just have a hard time believing in my heart. And the heart is, well, what we're so desperately trying to protect.

Thank goodness I have a spouse who lovingly tolerates my insanity.

December 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

I took the personality test and it showed Explorer as my primary and Director as my secondary. I would have to agree. I am not sure I need my mate to be the same but certainly some familiarity in those areas would probably be helpful to have compatibility. I meet couples often who seemingly do not have much in common nor appear to be embracing each other's differences and I think to myself, "How on earth did these 2 find each other?" Its not a knock on them (Probably more of a testiment) but it just seems my heart races when a person shares or demonstrates passions or characteristics that I can relate to.

I am not sure where the balance is required as I am still a work in progress. I laughed while taking the test wondering if past loves would score me the same as I see myself. (That's probably another discussion. Do we see our own reflection?)

There are more crabbily ever after stories unfortunatley for us but if we took the time to assess what is important and what isn't, we may get a better understand on what we are seeking and bringing to the table thus giving us a chance at the very least to manage expectations.

Great discussion as always Duana!


December 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterQuinn

Hi, Taylor, thank you for the insights and excellent analogy. The smoothest path is Similarity--it's just plain easier and more comfortable and more affirming. Similarity doesn't require so much work, so much EQ (emotional intelligence), and so much attention to controlling the automatic tendency to feel injured and retaliate when our ways and our beloved's differ. Similarity is just plain funner. Which is why the column on dating (Settling 101: Traits For A Mate, published just prior to this topic) focused on helping those still-dating to find someone as like them as possible.

(And an English professor friend of mine swears "funner" is a word. So I'm using it.)

That said, you're correct: *Any* pairing can work out happily rather than crabbily, and many do. Knowledge of both Self and Sweetie is the first step--a step made far easier by Fisher's book. Understanding helps us toward the great brass ring of Acceptance as we learn not to take our partner's personality so...well, personally. Because most of us do what we do because it's the way we do it--not to intentionally hurt, ignore or deprive our beloved.

Luckily, we don't have to be born with a high EQ to be happy. Most anyone kind and respectful can do what it matter what their differences are. Our next column will discuss how.

December 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Monica, You're right. Your Big Brain has got it that you and your mate differ--now you just need your tender heart to catch up. Luckily for all of us, the heart does learn; it just takes a lot of experience before the message sinks in.

Understanding how and why you and your mate differ is the first step towards changing your experience and enhancing your connection. As Fisher said during our interview, “That’s the real value of this book—to get insight into all the people you don’t understand, whether you're in a romantic or family or work or friend relationship with them.”

We all know that we can feel ourselves into a way of thinking; what's less obvious (but no less true) is that we can think ourselves into a way of feeling. Understanding and re-understanding and then understanding yet again that our partner's different personality doesn't reflect lovelessness can help us to see the world through their eyes--to see what is and is not love to, and coming from, them.

December 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Q the Explorer/director: As a Negotiator/explorer, I will endeavor to answer your thought-provoking post with something that satisfies your insatiable curiosity and need for knowledge, lol.

It's a fair bet that those who have long known you would "get" your personality type right if they pretended to inhabit the Mind Of Q as they took Fisher's test. Studies show that our friends and family often describe us more accurately than we do.

And one big clue as to whether you are really "getting" your own type right is whether you *like* the description of yourself. Although some people do fill in personality tests the way they'd like to be rather than as they truly are, Fisher finds that most people like the descriptor for their actual type. To wit, Fisher, who is an Explorer/negotiator, once encountered a young woman Director; Fisher assumed the woman would dislike being seen as --well, maybe not too nice, not so accommodating (Fisher, as an E/n, would be extremely nice and accommodating). But she got a surprise; the woman said she did not *want* to be "nice"--she wanted to say exactly, precisely what she meant, and not to sugar-coat. She liked who she was.

As for your queries regarding who pairs with whom, here are some additional thoughts Fisher shared during our interview: When very different personalities wind up partnered, "I think some problems are going to crop up that are going to require more intellectual and emotional energy. In my O Magazine study, Explorers married to Explorers and Builders married to other Builders for 16 years showed extreme happiness; those were the clearest success stories. Just about any other match *could* work, but I don't have the long-term data to tell us [much detail].

"I don’t have any data on it one way or the other how the Director-Negotiator pair works out long-term, but I know they’re the most drawn to one another at the beginning. What I have to do next is find a site where long-term married couples are, and do that study [of how it works out long-term]."

Interestingly, Fisher thinks (and will someday collect data to find out whether) Explorers are likely to have a series of starter marriages, and that the Builders are the "likeliest to marry once and for life."

Perhaps she will collect some questionnaires here at Love Science when she is ready...

December 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Just for fun, here are the few areas where people seem indifferent to, or actually repelled by, similarity during courtship:

--Shared early childhood experiences. Most of us are drawn to those whom we’ve encountered repeatedly, and familiarity can be alluring and trust-enhancing—so much so, singles are well-advised to frequent a few chosen places alone, repeatedly. But too much familiarity from an early age can feel too much like…family. One well-regarded study of Israeli kibbutzim found that children raised together prior to age 6 never married one another. And cultures that arrange marriages when children are quite young, raising them together, are rife with stories of spouses who complain of too much eewww factor (not a scientific term). So if you grew up separately, so much the better for your sex life.

-- Neuroticism. Do you suffer from a glass that is perpetually half-empty—at best? Not to worry. One or both of you can think the sky is going to crash down at any and all moments, interpreting events large and small, positive and negative, as catastrophic happenings that herald the Apocalypse, Now. And the relationship can work just fine.

--Extroversion/Introversion. Are you a Person Who Needs People—but your sweetie would rather spend time alone or with just one or two select others? Turns out, scientists can’t find that it matters whether you and your darling share a penchant for peopling your lives. Large circle of friends? Tighter, smaller circle of friends? You can still be best of friends.

December 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Here is a letter I just received from "Kelly" about her own struggles with Difference in her marriage:
Sadly, the more I look at "my" man, the more I see he's not It for me. It hits me more and more that we have nothing in common and we do not click. I'll always be second to his work. I am his "tag along" and know nothing. Sometimes when I talk to him he looks at me like I spoke to him in a language he had never heard before....
I honestly believe that we are both hurting in this marriage and are very lonely. All I can do is try a little longer but honestly, I have been trying for a long time. I think it's time for me to let go.
For example, he wants to be left alone. I need company. I need people around me. I chitchat with almost anyone. He finds it annoying. Then when he is kindly asked by the waitress whether he's ready to order, he gives her that mean look. If anyone has to ask him to do something (like stand and let them pass in a theater), he hisses at them and glares.
It just makes me want to run and not have to deal with this kind of attitude. I am a human being just like him. He has no right to put me or others down and think he has higher priorities than others.

Anyway, in my opinion opposites can attract, but it's going to be a tough life for both of them. Can they be happy - yeah. But I think that they will never truly be happy together. There is always something special missing and lacking in that kind of relationship.

December 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Kelly,
Many couples happily coexist where one longs for people and the other would rather be alone, or one is more into work than the other. But those people aren't mean and disrespectful.

What I'm saying is, I am not really sure that your personality differences are The Big Problem here. I think your husband just might not be kind and respectful enough. As you know from the "Settling 101: Traits for a Mate" article from two weeks ago-- a lack of *either* of these will outright kill happiness, love and union.

Kindness and respect aren't options, they're necessities, and the lack of either is a Universal Deal-Breaker. Perhaps your husband can learn to be kinder and more respectful to you and to others through your example, through counseling (I recommend finding someone who has training or knowledge of the Gottman's methods), and/or through tips I will give in the next article.

If not, though, I could never recommend your remaining in a loveless marriage with an unkind, disrespectful mate who cannot or will not change. Never. Those are non-negotiables and basic human rights. Truly, I wish you well--however that "well" winds up being achieved.

December 17, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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