Here’s why we’re often attracted to people with qualities that will drive us nuts down the road

  • Gretchen Rubin has found that people with different personality types may be drawn to one another initially.
  • You may find the other person freeing or find that they give you something you don’t have.
  • Over time, your personality may start to clash with theirs.
  • The scientific community is somewhat divided as to whether people with similar personality types are happier in their relationship.

There’s a sentence toward the end of Gretchen Rubin’s new book, “The Four Tendencies,” that struck me as perhaps her greatest insight.

“When we first meet someone,” Rubin writes, “we’re often attracted to the very qualities that, over time, will drive us nuts.”

Preach, Gretchen. How many of us have fallen for someone who’s so fun that they stay out drinking and dancing until 4 a.m. on a work night, only to realize years later that they’re also so fun that they never clean the bathroom or remember our birthday?

Rubin’s observation is situated in her analysis of the four “tendencies,” or personality types, that exist in the world, and how they pair up in relationships. (You can take Rubin’s quiz to figure out which tendency you fall into.)

These are the four types:

  • Obligers
  • Upholders
  • Questioners
  • Rebels

Obligers meet outer expectations but don’t always meet inner ones; they usually need some form of external accountability. Upholders generally meet both inner and outer expectations, meaning they don’t let others or themselves down.

Questioners meet inner expectations; they’ll only do something if they think it makes sense. Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations; if you ask a rebel to do something, they’ll likely resist.

When she visited the Business Insider office in September, Rubin explained how the attractive-now-repellent-later phenomenon works, using a hypothetical upholder-rebel couple as an example.

“If you’re an upholder, you live life according to a schedule. [For example] you never miss your daily run, and you always eat fewer than 30 grams of carbs a day, and you always go to bed by 11. It could be exciting be swept off your feet by somebody who feels very free and not confined.”

So far, so romantic. Rubin went on:

“But over time, your upholder tendency is going to reassert itself, and you’re going to want to return to what is most comfortable to you and your natural perspective on the world. So that can become a tension.”

That’s not to say an upholder and a rebel — or anyone else — can’t stay happy together. It’s just worth being aware of this potential source of tension when you’re evaluating the sustainability of your relationship.

Rubin’s conclusion, based on talking to a range of couples, made intuitive sense to me. But within the scientific community, the question of whether similarity breeds long-term romantic compatibility is a bit controversial.

One 2005 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that married couples with similar personalities — in terms of the Big Five characteristics — were more satisfied with their relationships than couples with dissimilar personalities.

Other research tells a different story. Writing on Psychology Today, psychologist Noam Shpancer cites a number of studies suggesting that couples with similar personalities aren’t necessarily happier in their marriages.

One study he mentions, published in 2007 in the journal Psychology and Aging, followed middle-aged and older couples over a 12-year period. The study found that, while personality similarity wasn’t related to initial marital satisfaction, it predicted a downward trend in marital satisfaction over the next decade.

More research may be necessary to determine the situations in which personality similarity is helpful, and which personality profiles complement or clash with each other. For example, Rubin told us that rebel-obliger couples often make good matches because they share a resistance to inner expectations.

Ultimately, there may not be any definitive answers, except that what you want out of a relationship evolves over time, making long-term relationship satisfaction frustratingly difficult to achieve.

Rubin said: “This is just one of the mysteries of romance. Very often we’re excited by things and attracted to aspects of a person’s personality that maybe complement our own or provide something that we don’t have. But then, over the long term, it proves to be incompatible or very difficult to manage.”

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