Does Romantic Compatibility Mean Different Things To Men And Women?

Researchers Zsófia Csajbók and Peter K. Jonason discuss why we might have to leave the myth of ‘opposites attract’ behind.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 5, 2023

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences defines twenty-four ways partners can be compatible with each other, and how compatibility preferences differ by gender.

I recently had a conversation with Researchers Zsófia Csajbók of Charles University in the Czech Republic and Peter K. Jonason of the University of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński in Poland to understand why compatibility with your partner matters a lot more than how much you want them.

What prompted you to study compatibility and similarity in relationships?

Peter: It is a nearly 100% neglected area of research and it is the most complex side because other traits are about individuals whereas compatibility is about the couple's suitability.

Zsófia: It has been known for a long time that couples tend to be more similar than dissimilar in most traits, it is only that the level of similarity varies in each trait. This is probably true for many reasons, for example, similar people tend to understand each other better and have a more satisfying relationship.

However, what the most important features are, along which couples can be similar/compatible, has not yet received much attention in research. Another novelty is how these features are perceived (i.e., which of these factors are crucial to be very similar on and which are not so crucial).

In other words, although research has already demonstrated countless times that couples end up being similar to each other, here we explored how the individuals perceive these features (i.e., along which dimensions) and to what extent they think these need to be similar to have a compatible relationship.

What was the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most critical finding?

Zsófia: Using a large pool of 153 characteristics along which couples can be compatible, the participants indicated how much they want their partners to be similar in each of these for either a short-term or a long-term relationship. 

We crunched the numbers and found that there are 24 ways to be compatible with your partner which is an unusually high number of dimensions to get to. Typically, when you ask people what kind of partner they want, we receive from two to a maximum of 14 factors depending on the research methods used.

But this time it was a different question, we did not ask what kind of partner they want. The questioning focused on their relationship and how well they would function as a couple. Apparently, there are many ways to be compatible with each other, which can be a positive thing.

According to the participants, the most important factor to be compatible in a relationship is having similar opinions on important issues such as sexism, abortion, death penalty, and gender roles. But lifestyle, romanticism, morals, conformity, residence, appearance, empathy, humor were also highly expected to be compatible.

We also found understandable context differences. For example, lifestyle, morals, and food preferences were more important to be compatible in a long-term relationship than in a short-term relationship. Similar intellect and appearances were more important in a short-term relationship than in a long-term relationship.

Men and women also differed. Having similar activities and emotions were more important for men, while having similar lifestyles, opinions, morals, conformity, appearance, and empathy were more important for women.

Considering the results of your study, why do you think people still gravitate towards euphemisms like 'opposites attract'?

Peter: Maybe yin-yang, fire-water kind of thinking or even the idea that differences spice things up, as in creating drama, and drama is good for people who are increasingly boredom prone.

Zsófia: I personally think that this can be traced back to everybody's childhood experience. People feel the thrills of dating someone who is matching their expectations about how a relationship should look like. Sometimes this childhood experience consolidates a pattern of dating 'opposite' or dissimilar partners. 

For an admittedly simplified example, sometimes a timid and shy woman is attracted to rogue guys because of her experience with her often absent father. This pattern or relationship schema really depends on everybody's specific personal history.

I do think, however, that these relationships are more difficult to maintain. Probably the reason why we see the majority of couples to be similar is the survival bias. Those who are very dissimilar to each other will have already broken up by the time we could measure them. 

The good news is that these relationship schemas or personal theories of how a relationship should look like are possible to be recognised and overcome if they cause significant suffering.

Otherwise, I agree with Peter. Some people find drama more natural and cozy than others. But this is probably rooted again in what people experience as "normal."

Your study produced four distinct findings with regards to compatibility as defined by different sexes and love styles. Could you take us through each of them?

Zsófia: Participants desired more similarity in characteristics which are important for raising children, and this was especially true for women who bear the majority of this burden. This is in accordance with the parental investment theory meaning that people want to ensure the convenience of raising children with somebody who agrees with them in the most important areas of life that affect living together, especially in a long-term relationship.

This is also supported by the result that women were more pragmatic in their love style which is again in accordance with the parental investment theory. This is the theory that says since women invest more in raising children (including a 9-month long pregnancy and a long breastfeeding period), they have to be more picky. 

Indeed, women exercise this choosiness, and this is mirrored in their elevated pragmatic love style (i.e., practical view of love, looking for a suitable partner) compared to men. Interestingly, men were higher in agapic love style (i.e., all-giving, self-less) than women, which was also associated with higher preference for dissimilarity. 

Probably agapeic men's increased preference for dissimilarity often does not get realized, because women have more mate choice power (being the choosier sex), and, therefore, eventually the couples end up being similar. 

Alternatively, these men might be more prone to singlehood as their preference for dissimilarity is not adaptive. This is all very tentative, though, since our sample size of men was small.

What advice would you have for people looking for a long-term partner? 

Zsófia: It's very simple, think about what you like to do and do that. You will more likely meet similar and compatible people around activities you do anyway. This is also more beneficial long-term, because you don't have to force yourself to do something you don't like to do. Let's see two examples:

  • In the first example, Sara doesn't like hiking but she signed up to every possible activity including a hiking club to meet someone. She meets Tim during one of these hiking trips. Tim rightfully thinks Sara likes hiking since this is the place they have met, but Sara is unhappy with their hiking dates since she didn't like hiking in the first place. 
  • Let's see another example, Rob, who likes cooking and signed up for an advanced cooking class. Rob meets Lisa in this class and they quickly realize they like to share cooking projects at each other's homes. They have a good head start in the beginning of their relationship when they don't know each other well yet, but they have some activity they can bond over and that gives them good memories to hold on to. Cooking can be a long-term shared passion that will serve them even when their relationship goes through a rough patch.

What would you say to someone who finds the idea of a partner similar to themselves boring?

Zsófia: If somebody finds the idea of a self-similar partner boring, I would ask them to consider what makes them happy, excited, fulfilled, and what gives them a sense of purpose. Chances are that their friends share these ideas to some extent, which is why they are friends. 

This is similar in romantic relationships. It is difficult to get on well with someone who has zero interest in what we are enjoying. Of course, people don't have to be (and won't be) exactly the same as their partner, and differences can indeed introduce a special flavor and new passions into their lives.

However, some key elements will be inevitably similar as how the mating market operates is forcing couples to be similar rather than dissimilar. People tend to meet their partners around the activities they do, such as school, work, and hobbies. 

This increases the chances that they will be more similar as they live in the same area, study the same things, have similar occupations, etc. Also, highly attractive people tend to couple with other highly attractive people, that is again introducing a tendency for similarity. 

On the other hand, it is true that by online dating and Tinder gaining more influence on the mating market, people have more chances to meet others from increasingly different backgrounds than ever before. It does not mean, however, that it is easy to manage relationships where people have different experiences and life expectations.

Would you have any words of wisdom for a person who keeps picking wrong people in their search for a long-term partner?

Zsófia: Looking back, thinking through all your past and current relationships, do you see a consistent pattern of your mate choice? If you recognize that you have a type that is not beneficial for you, you have already made the most important first step to change. 

The good news is that it is possible to desensitize these maladaptive preferences and gain new ones that serve us better. Some people need the help of a psychotherapist to explore and manage these changes. It can be immensely helpful to have someone who can give you an outsider's perspective on your relationship tendencies.