In relationships, do opposites truly attract?
When it comes to lifestyle choices, Jane Turner and her partner of two years couldn’t be more different.
“I’m really into wellness, so for me that includes natural eating, mostly Paleo, and no sugar,” she says. “My partner on the other hand loves all things carbs and sugar, and bread and pasta are his preference.”
Whilst Turner rarely drinks, her partner drinks every day and goes out more socially. For a long time, he was also a smoker.
And the differences in terms of lifestyle don’t stop there.
“Generally I exercise more than he does, Sometimes he just drinks coffee and reads the news while I do yoga.”
Turner admits that sometimes her partner feels like she’s judging him for his unhealthy habits – which she says isn’t true – and he sometimes gets annoyed because he feels he’s missing out on eating what he enjoys.
Despite this, she says that their differences are mostly not a big deal and it’s just a matter of compromise on both of their behalves.
“We accept each other for who we are,” she says. “We fell in love with each other for reasons totally separate to diet and exercise and that still forms the backbone of our relationship.”
With more similarities than differences she says they laugh a lot, communicate well and want the same things from a relationship.
“We’re supportive of each other being happy, and if that means occasionally going out for a burger with him, then so be it. I don’t necessarily like burgers, but it’s nice to share in something that he likes.”
So is this the norm for couples that have different lifestyle habits? Or is Turner’s relationship an exception?
“The saying ‘opposites attract’ is true because, when we find something different and intriguing, we can become attracted to it,” says health psychologist, Marny Lishman.
She says that we can be attracted to opposite looks, sense of humour, point of view, exercise habits, careers, and personality traits.
She also says that ‘opposite’ qualities are often part of the initial excitement of a new relationship.
“The feeling of doing something different, adventurous, and a bit outside of our comfort zone is what makes opposites attract,” she says.
“But, in order to keep the spark alive, they’re often the differences that need to remain.”
Despite this, Lishman agrees that, for some, the initial attraction of being different may wear off in the long term if one partner wants to do more of what they like.
She says that this can be the case if lifestyle habits are the differing factors.
“To a small degree couples need to have similar lifestyle habits,” she says. “Problems can arise when one partner feels like the lifestyle habits of their partner are more important than them.”
She also notes that opposing lifestyle choices can mean that couples end up spending more time apart than together.
“Couples are generally more compatible if they have common interests and a better understanding of what the other person is doing or going through,” she says.
But that’s not to say that these issues can’t be overcome, providing the couples are open to change.
“As long as the foundations of a relationship are reasonably compatible, such as values, basic energy for life, and personal habits, lifestyle differences shouldn’t have a massive impact,” says Lishman. “In fact it could lighten things up.”
Relationship counselor, Susie Tuckwell, agrees that couples can make lifestyle differences work if they want to, but says the key is about respect and communication.
“When a particular behaviour becomes “controversial”, such as differences in exercise frequency, it’s often enlightening to ask if there’s a meaning, a value, or a history behind yours or your partner’s position?” she says.
She suggests asking yourself what does it mean to you or your partner to be “healthy” or “unhealthy”, or to be a vegan, a non-drinker, a marathon runner, or a meditator?
By doing this, Tuckwell says it’s easier for couples to unpack what’s going on, and understanding each other’s motives and values greatly helps in developing respect and kindness towards each other.
However, she advises that for some people, certain things are simply non-negotiable and strongly held beliefs may be hard to shift.
“If you come from an alcoholic family, it may be truly unbearable to live with a drinker. Whilst committing to veganism may not be easy to reconcile with a fridge full of chops,” she says.
To assess your long term compatibility, Tuckwell suggests asking yourself, “How much difference can I tolerate?” and “Do I require my partner to be like me?
She also recommends considering “What of my partner’s habits are worthwhile in my view, and are there any I dislike or even secretly despise?” and ‘Is this just a fad that my partner will grow out of?”
Whilst Tuckwell admits that compromise can help to a certain degree, she says it’s also important to respect and acknowledge when differences are too hard to bridge.
“A shared commitment can be very bonding, but remember, your partner is not necessarily wrong if they don’t share your particular hobbyhorse,” she says.
“People can make almost any lifestyle differences work if they want to, but the fewer things that have to be continually negotiated, generally the easier life is.”
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