Don't waste time on 'promising' relationships

by Dorian Minors

May 15, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt: Opposites attract. But birds of a feather flock together. The question is, which one wins out? The short answer is both, but opposites attracting is much more dangerous. It gives rise to 'fatal' attraction.

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Opposites attract. But birds of a feather flock together. The question is, which one wins out? The short answer is both, but opposites attracting is much more dangerous. It gives rise to ‘fatal’ attraction.

When what got us excited becomes the reason we want things to end<

Since 1995, Diane Felmlee has been reviewing what couples like and dislike about each other. She found, that often, people are attracted to characteristics that are unique, extreme and different from themselves. However, alongside this finding was the fact that often when this kind of attraction was present in a relationship, the relationship would begin to crumble for those same characteristics that were initially so exciting.

Why us ‘good’ people fall hard for those ‘bad’ ones

Think of a man who loves the ‘nurturing’ nature of his parter, but then complains that she ‘smothers’ him. Or the woman that loves her partner’s spontaneity, but soon worries about his ‘impulsiveness’. Think of the common trope of the ‘good girl/boy’ falls hard for the ‘bad boy/girl’ phenomenon that confuses so many of us. Confusing because no matter how many times we warn our friend, they never see the end coming. This is the nature of a fatal attraction.

## But why? Seems counter-intuitive right? Why would we be attracted to something that’s going to shatter what we build? Well, we might find the answer in dialectical theory (one of the seven kinds of relationship theories you might like to hack). Essentially, in relationships, we face opposing needs. Desires for autonomy (freedom and independence) but at the same time connectedness. Desires for predictability but also the desire for novelty. It’s thought that fatal attraction is the product of these opposing needs. We start, attracted to someone for one thing (spontaneity goes along with our desire for novelty), but soon our desire for predictability becomes more important and that spontaneity becomes problematic.

But of course, we could likely manage the disillusionment that comes from our expectations being unsatisfied (and expectation management is very, very important in a relationship). When this becomes a problem, is when these things build up. Michael Cunningham talks about ‘social allergens’. Think of someone tapping a pen on a table near your work desk or in an exam. At first it doesn’t bother you. But over time, it becomes your whole world. Why won’t they stop? You’re going to murder them. Or at least snap the pen.

This same thing happens in relationships. Initially something doesn’t bother you, or may in fact, excite you. But over time, as it goes on, you begin to be annoyed by it. You begin to have less and less tolerance. And eventually, it can become so distressing that it ends the relationship. Social allergens, it may not surprise you to learn, are one of the four most common causes of relationship conflict.

How to make those ‘promising’ relationships work (or avoid them)

Similarity is one of the most key factors in relationships. It’s been found that these same ‘fatal’ characteristics become far less problematic when we see them as similar to characteristics we possess. So finding those commonalities, instead of focusing on the differences is going to mitigate the effect. Opposites might attract. But that attraction might not last. Birds of a feather flock together forever.

Social allergens can be beaten. It’s a simple matter of talking it out before it becomes a problem. Is something that used to make you happy starting to get boring or annoying? Well it might be time to raise that with your partner as a concern.

And finally, the more extreme the attraction and the characteristic, the more of a problem it will be. Relationships that start intensely tend to crash and burn with the same intensity (if it crashes and burns). The more one is drawn to an extreme quality in a partner, the more likely things are to fracture if one becomes disillusioned with the quality.

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