October 9, 2009

Can two wild, impulsive, spontaneous lovers find happiness together?

by Roy F. Baumeister, Eppes Eminent Professor of Psychology and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University, and author of The Cultural Animal and Psychology Today's Cultural Animal blog.

What mix of partners makes for the best relationships? For decades, research has pitted two theories against each other. The similarity theory, which is the usual winner, holds that the smaller the differences between two people's personalities, the better match they make. In contrast, the theory of complementarity says that opposites attract; therefore the bigger the difference, the better.

What about self-control? In recent years, evidence has pointed toward many benefits of self-control. This raises a challenge for the similarity theory. Can a good relationship form between two people who are similar precisely because both lack self-control? Or would complementarity make a better pair, such that one partner is disciplined, organized, and reliable, while the other brings spontaneity and a carefree attitude to the romance?

Several recent studies by Kathleen Vohs, Catrin Finkenauer, and myself have begun to sort out the answer. We assembled dating couples, married couples, and even pairs of same-sex friends, measured their self-control levels, and looked at how the combination of self-control scores predicted their satisfaction with the relationship.

The difference between partners' scores predicted nothing. Neither similarity nor oppositeness produced a good relationship. These results contradicted both theories.

Rather, it was the total of the two scores that predicted success. The more self-control both partners had, the better they got along. This was true for friends, dating couples, and long-term spouses.

We did find that in romantic relationships (though not the same-sex friends), partners tended to be more different than similar. Thus, in terms of self-control, opposites do seem to attract - but oppositeness does not make for a better relationship.

Thus, to return to the question of whether two people with low self-control can find happiness together, the answer is that the odds are not good. They might have a very exciting and fun-filled fling for a short time. However, their prospects for a satisfying long-term stable relationship are poor. Over the long run, two people with good self-control share the best chance of a happy love relationship.