Birds of a feather flock together, but also, opposites attract? Both of these axioms have wide-spread use in our culture, either as cute cliches or as thematic elements in popular media. Given that there is no huge culture war waging on which of these is more accurate, I’m going to hazard a guess that most people are comfortable accepting that both can be true given a certain context. Oftentimes when I’m working with clients they are keenly aware of what type of partner they are looking for, and even more aware of which traits they are looking to avoid. But when we look at boundaries, it can be helpful to look at this from the other perspective, namely, who are you attracting?
Why is this useful to think through? Let’s use an example: Ricky is just a super swell dude. Like, so nice. Everyone knows he’s nice. Ricky keeps having a hard time dating. He dates, but it never seems to last, and Ricky is bummed because he tries to be the best boyfriend. Ricky knows what he’s looking for, someone who likes nature, and dogs, and has a good sense of humor. And Ricky dates those people! But somehow, it still doesn’t work. So let’s give the perspective a switch and look at who Ricky is attracting. Everyone and their mother knows Ricky is a nice dude, so using our “opposites attract” axiom, Ricky is going to attract some not nice people. Like a bad biker chick. Or, since we’re talking real-life and not Hollywood, probably someone who is fairly high-maintenance. Ricky is super nice, and sweet, and helpful, so he will attract someone who will use/need lots of help. This may not be a malicious thing, it might be mundane and rarely come up, but where it breaks down is when Ricky needs help (maybe with a new stressor at work) his boo isn’t available or doesn’t have the mental resources to be helpful, or on the malicious side, she just isn’t interested in what is going on in his life if he’s not being helpful. Whether mindless or malicious, these interactions add up to an unbalanced relationship that might not last.
Alternatively, Ricky might date that more “birds of a feather” super sweetheart who is also just so, so nice. And they are both so nice that neither of them can stick up for themselves, and so they never fight but oddly neither of them is happy because they aren’t getting what they want from the relationship. Not doom and gloom from the start, but another scenario where negative interactions likely build up over time to create major dissatisfaction.
Doing this exercise, we have added to our list of dynamics to watch out for in pursuing new relationships. We know what Ricky wants, we know what he doesn’t want, and we also can look at some potential bad fits for who might want Ricky, but not for inherently healthy reasons. This is also a great way to shake loose some new insights into what type of baggage we might bring to the table, so we can be increasing our own awareness, which is always a plus. Our Ricky example allows us to add some insight in that Ricky might want a partner who, like him, is super nice, but also needs someone who, complementary to him, is a good communicator and can speak up about wants/needs/boundaries. So within that “birds of a feather” partner we get a flavor of “opposites attract” to have healthier potential partnership. Two thumbs way up.
The more insight we gain in who we mesh well with, along with insight into ourselves about who meshes well with us, means we can go into relationships with more confidence about finding a good fit. We also have awareness for what areas to address in current relationships by using this same technique. So, this isn’t just for people in the dating game! By looking at patterns of who we are attracting into our lives, we can gain insight into some of our own patterns and where we might need to do some personal work. We can do this when we’ve been married for 20 years and still likely find some new insights. We can do this with our work history, our friendships, pretty much any relationship because it’s fairly likely that the same patterns will emerge because we ourselves are the common denominator in all of those relationships. So, when someone says, “Oh, you’ve got a type,” we can dig into that and learn some really useful things about ourselves and about the different patterns in our relationships. And when this all gets to be a lot unpack, or you can’t make sense of it, reaching out to a professional can be a helpful next step.