Do Opposites Attract? Examining The Science Behind Attraction

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You're not alone if you're confused about who you're attracted to. Dating can be exciting, overwhelming, and frustrating -- sometimes all at once. A therapist or relationship counselor may be able to help you identify the qualities in others that lead to happy and successful romantic relationships. In addition, they can help you set healthy boundaries and potentially develop friendships. The first step to understanding whether opposites attract is to look at the science behind attraction and how to find support if needed.

Some traits are more important than others in relationships

Behind the phrase "opposites attract"

Opposites may attract if you're working with magnets. However, with people and relationships, it can be more complicated. The age-old saying "opposites attract" is translated into many different languages in many cultures. However, "birds of a feather flock together" has also been used for years. Modern science continues the exploration of attraction, aiming to pinpoint which phrase is more accurate regarding human interaction.

You may have watched Belle (Beauty) fall in love with the Beast on TV, a creature that she was seemingly different from in almost every way. Perhaps you noticed the underprivileged Cinderella swept off her feet by the rich and titled Prince Charming. You may have rejoiced when Ariel the mermaid searched for ways to marry Prince Eric despite her lack of legs. Media is often filled with portrayals of people who are "wrong" for each other (as deemed by societal standards). Aside from that, these movies romanticize the rich and the poor. 

Although over 80% of people believe opposites attract, this popular notion isn’t necessarily true. Being opposites doesn’t always draw you to a romantic partner; instead, you may be attracted to personality traits, similarities, and biological cues.

Aspects of attraction 

Below are several theories of attraction and research backing them up. 

Personality traits and pairings

In the 1950s, sociologist Robert Francis Winch led a study on mate selection to answer the question, "Do opposites attract?" During his investigation, Winch interviewed married couples and examined their relationships, personalities, and desires.

Based on his research findings, Winch argued that to make a marriage work, aspects of one's personality, especially socially related traits like aggressiveness and assertiveness, should complement each other. For example, an outgoing husband would be content with a more introverted wife. Winch's research suggested that it's not that opposites attract but that some traits are complementary. 

Further research on complementary personalities suggests mixed results. A few studies parroted Winch's findings, but many have found that opposites do not attract. People are drawn to those who have similarities with them. Still, Winch's study on complementary notions was accurate, as later research suggests partners prefer their spouses to express certain personality traits they do not exhibit.

For example, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships by Markey and Markey found that aloof or standoffish husbands were less satisfied with their marriages when their wives were also aloof. These men preferred their partners to be warm on the affiliation scale. Wives on the "colder" end of the affiliation scale also preferred warm partners. In this way, opposites may appeal to one another. 

Despite these findings, the conclusion wasn't the same for dominance and submission. The Markeys' results indicated that submissive wives were happiest when they had partners who were also submissive. This pattern continued through the rest of the research. Outgoing partners preferred outgoing partners and affectionate partners appreciated and desired affection. 

Birds of a feather

Opposites may not attract in every situation. Similarities in age, intelligence, religion, and education level have been proven to be the foundation for a healthy relationship. Couples who differ in race, culture, life goals, and other significant areas may still have these traits in common, which can increase connection. 

A 2013 study by eHarmony mirrored these findings. An investigation of the matchmaking site's matching system results showed that even when opposites are initially attracted, their similarities in personality lead to a long-term relationship.

As psychologist Dr. Leslie Beth Wish states, the formula for a healthy and happy couple is "common values and ethics." However, there are certain personality traits that people are attracted to regardless of their personality types or beauty. 

Getty/Halfpoint Images

Kindness as a magnet

You may have heard the saying, "Nice guys finish last." However, this idea may not be accurate.

A 2014 study conducted at Huazhong University in China found that having a positive attitude, being honest, and being kind increased the attractiveness of one's face. During the study, men were split into groups and shown women's faces with no descriptors. Another group was shown the same faces, but personality traits were assigned to each woman. 

The findings indicated that the standards of beauty for the second group of men were swayed by the positive descriptors regardless of their personalities. This study shows that humans are attracted to those who are willing to put in more effort to be kind, regardless of their prior judgments. 

A 2010 study looked at attractiveness in body types. During the experiment, men were separated into two separate groups. One group was provided only pictures of female bodies but no other non-identifying information. The second set of men was provided with positive personality information for some photos they viewed and harmful for others.

The first group presented a narrow view of the attractive body types. The second group's perception was broadened by the information about who was kind and who wasn't, leading them to identify a greater variety of body types as appealing. 

Are pheromones part of attraction? 

A significant amount of research focuses on how people choose partners. However, some new studies examine whether certain people are biologically attracted to each other based on pheromones. These invisible scents have not been proven in humans but have been observed in animals. 

The search for human pheromones has gone on for many years. A pheromone is a chemical secreted in sweat. Scientists have long thought that pheromones played a role in sexual attraction, and new evidence is arising to potentially prove this connection. 

In one study, women judged men's attractiveness by smelling their t-shirts. In another, men could sense a woman's fertility through smell. The participants were attracted to various scents, suggesting that beauty may be based on scent, even if specific pheromones have not yet been identified. 

Why would opposites attract? 

Although research may disprove the idea that opposites attract more frequently, many couples worldwide are quite different. In some cases, individuals in a relationship may even be polar opposites. These couples may wonder what drew each other to fall in love. In addition, some individuals might be attracted to those who are unhealthy for them, going for people who cannot meet their needs. 

These types of relationships may be different from organic relationships. In some cases, people who seek connections but have a traumatic past may form trauma bonds, affecting how they approach relationships. These people may struggle with self-esteem, confidence, and healthy relationship boundaries.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

In these cases, people may make decisions based on "attractions of deprivation." They might experience a deep drive to seek out love and approval from their partners, even if the partners can't provide it. Their fear of abandonment may create conflict or make it difficult to walk away from certain situations, even those that are not ideal. They may go in and out of relationships with people with nothing in common, trying to make these people fit. However, they may struggle to be comfortable in healthy relationships or with people who reciprocate their needs. Attachment styles can also contribute to this behavior. 

Getty/Jordi Salas
Some traits are more important than others in relationships

Support options for identifying compatible partners and mental health

Finding a partner may not only be about attraction; It can also mean looking for someone you're compatible with in order to find long-term relationship success. The relationship may be more short-term if you are attracted to people who don't meet your needs. Learning to identify healthy individuals to connect with can be challenging, so some people turn to a therapist to discuss attraction, love, connection, and ways to keep the passion alive in long-term relationships. 

If you face barriers to traditional in-person therapy, you can also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. Like a face-to-face therapist, an online therapist can use strategies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you understand your reasons for seeking out partners who don't serve you, develop the confidence to communicate your attraction to someone, or find closure in a relationship that abruptly ended. Through online therapy platforms, you can attend sessions convenient to your schedule from a preferred location with an internet connection. 

In a 2022 study, 60 participants aged 21 to 69 years old (30 couples) were divided into two groups, in which one group received face-to-face couples therapy, and the other took part in videoconferencing couples therapy. After six sessions and a three-month follow-up assessment, it was determined that there were no differences in therapeutic alliance between groups. Results highlighted improvements in relationship satisfaction and mental health for both groups, indicating the promise of online therapy as a practical resource for people seeking support for their relationship-based challenges.


Whether you're striving to identify more compatible partners or hoping to resolve a challenge in your relationship that stems from having opposite opinions, core values, or backgrounds, consider reaching out to a therapist. A counselor can help you develop healthier relationships or your current partner to strive for healthy attachment. You're not alone, and support is available.
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