The Question of Opposites

I just finished reading an incredible book called “Truth and Beauty”:  a memoir by the novelist Ann Patchett about her friendship with the late poet Lucy Grealy. Lucy, who had cancer in her jaw since childhood and was perpetually undergoing reconstructive surgeries, was probably best known for her own memoir called “Autobiography of a Face.”

Lucy also had an extremely extroverted, gregarious and difficult personality–unlike Patchett, who represents herself as being quiet, shy and conventional by contrast.

As the woman who recommended the book to me observed, it is basically a love story: theirs was not a sexual relationship, but it was every bit as intimate. She also remarked, rather insightfully, that Ann and Lucy’s friendship worked because they were such opposites: someone with more personality than Ann, she said, probably couldn’t tolerate–much less embrace–someone with quite so much personality as Lucy.

I thought of this today as I talked with my NY best friend S–who is, in many ways, my opposite. (Also, with whom I am now quite fortunate to be on vacation with in London for a week.) We have endless things to talk about–literally, she is probably the person in the world to whom I can, and do, talk on the phone most endlessly–but we have contrasting personalities. Namely, I am more of an extrovert and she is more introverted.

This came up during a conversation about the fact that every single man she has dated has been an extrovert, and almost every guy in my history is an introverted type.

“Maybe that’s why we get along,” she remarked.

We laughed. But it’s made me wonder: is it? Why is it that outgoing people do so often pair off with those who are more outgoing, both in friendship and romance?

On some level it seems obvious: there needs to be some balance. Two people can’t both be the constant center of attention. It’s practical, too: two who are equally shy might never get together in the first place.

But it’s also true that not all relationships have such a dynamic. In fact, the person with whom I think I’ve had the best chemistry–and who, today, I think I should marry–is actually rather outgoing. (I admit: perhaps it as an exercise in justifying that attraction that I am questioning the whole “opposites” thing at all.)

I think in our case, and with others I know–like my parents–neither person falls into an extreme. I’m social and outgoing but not tremendously loud, and neither is he: our temperaments may not be all that different, but there is still a relative balance.

In general I think many of us are drawn to people different than us in various ways: it’s often the mystery that appeals. But I also think we’re attracted by qualities we admire. I’ve written about liking guys who are quieter and more private because that’s something I’m not, but on some level wish I was. I also go for people who are really creative, because I aspire to be as well.

And I wonder if that’s a double-edged sword. My long-term ex was incredibly creative: he was a visual artist, a musician, he wrote and produced constantly. (Im sure still does: why do we talk about our ex-es as though they no longer exist?) It’s one of the main things that drew me to him–but it also made me insecure. He was so constantly creative, I felt dull by comparison.

Granted, I was young–and he was a lot older. I’ve gained a lot of confidence since then, become more self-assured and comfortable with my abilities and who I am. And I wonder if that growth enables me to be with people who are actually more like me: if I don’t need to project my insecurities onto another person.

I’m not saying that being with someone different is a sign of insecurity: certainly that isn’t necessarily the case. Ann and Lucy’s friendship, for example, was certainly a thing of beauty–regardless of what it is that drew them together.

But I do wonder if being able to be with someone who is like you is,  in some sense, a sign of maturity.

One couple immediately comes to mind: friends of my parents, in their mid-50’s, who recently got married. They are extremely alike: both of them big, gregarious personalities. And they are extremely compatible. Would they have been when both of them were younger, and likely less secure in who they were? Would they have been able to appreciate one another without feeling threatened?

Maybe they would have. And maybe not: I may not be sure about the dating rule of “opposites attract,” but I am a pretty firm believer in the one that says it’s really all about timing.

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7 Comments

Filed under Love Life

7 responses to “The Question of Opposites

  1. suzanne

    I’m eating your popsicles. Miss yah xxoo.

  2. I want to eat your popsicles. (why does it sound dirty when I say it?? ) I too miss you… and hey, have you read this response from Lucy Grealy’s sister to Patchett’s book:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/aug/07/biography.features
    worth a read, given our conversations about some of the trials and tribulations about writing stories that have real living people in them.
    ENJOY your time in the London….

    • Dude, we read it together in Dan’s class last semester! But I do need to reread, and actually just forwarded to the woman who reminded me about Truth and Beauty. Which, if you haven’t read, you MUST it is so good!!

      • oops… and I thought the eyesight was the first thing to go. and YES I read Truth and Beauty. which is why Lucy’s sister’s response so floored me. I thought it was obvious that Ann Patchett loved Lucy, including her flaws.

  3. Now I’m kind of in the mood for a popsicle, but back to the topic at hand. I’ve always had such diverse friends and I think what drives me is the chance to learn from different kinds of people. My bests are very different from me in many ways, but we are all outgoing in our own ways. I think we push each other’s limits and that’s why we value each other so much. In terms of dating, I needed someone that was outgoing like me to preserve my social life. I think rather than looking for opposites, looking for complements helps you thrive and learn. Maybe that is a sign of maturity?

  4. Elizabeth,
    I just found your work today and I enjoy reading your writings. I make my living in theatre and am a Chicago native, but in my past, I lived for three years in Albuquerque, so I am familiar with the transitional experiences of going from a big city to “The Land of Entrapment”.

    I also am very interested in what makes romantic relationships work or not, and find people’s stories about the subject (connections, dating, love, LTR, marriage) pretty interesting.

    It was my experience that the process of dating and being in relationships in Albuquerque was a very different process than doing the same in Chicago. They are almost opposite of each other.

    Anyway, after having read this blog, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite phrases: “Opposites attract…and then they attack”.

    From what I’ve seen, commonalities have far more energy in keeping a relationship alive than opposition. Some couple reach a point where their main (or only) commonalities are their children, which is why when the kids are grown, the commonalities are gone and so goes the relationship.

    I wish there was a good slogan for commonalities, (“Enjoying the same thing to do equals relationship glue.”), as there is for opposites, but there’s not as of yet.

    I like what you wrote about dating someone similar is a sign of maturity. Young love is fun, but short lived by design. LTR is either based in family obligations or an mutual investment in shared experiences, intuitive understandings, and common values.

    Good luck with everything at UNM and your open letter to Tiger Woods was really funny.
    -Jonathan

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