Wednesday, January 25, 2012

This Relationship Corner: The Best Kind of Opposite

Everyone's no doubt heard it: opposites attract. That's true to a certain extent. We are fascinated by people opposite us in lifestyle and personality. It's that exotic other, the greener grass, the road not taken that intrigues us. There's a poetry to it all, being so completely different that the only thing holding us together is our love. It's exciting and keeps things interesting. It's also not likely to last long.

Let me add an addendum: opposites attract but rarely sustain. If they're just looking for a short-term relationship, then being with an opposite can make it a time to remember. However, when two opposites start thinking about the long-term, the most likely result is that their relationship ends. True, it is possible for two people who are completely opposite to forge a relationship and work through all their differences, but it's an incredibly hard, uphill battle and not everyone is ready for it.

I'm not saying that you should only be with someone exactly like you. That can be just as disastrous, which we'll get to shortly. What I'm saying is that when you are thinking about a long-term relationship, you increase the odds of your relationship's survival if you have more in common than you don't. It's also important to have just the right amount and right kind of differences: you two need to complement each other.

Today I'm going to talk about the difference between being opposite and complementing each other, ho you two can still have plenty of exciting and interesting differences while being the same where it counts.

Let's begin by exploring some of the areas in which you might not want to be opposite. These make up your core, who you are on a fundamental level: your beliefs, your values, your relationship expectations, your life goals, and how you see the world. Your core guides everything about you; you base your life around it, and if you truly want to build a long-term relationship, you want to match with someone else who shares your core.

The first core item is what you want out of a long-term relationship. Do you want to get married and have kids? If this is an essential core of your being, then you want someone who shares this goal. Getting together with someone who doesn't want kids or marriage will doom any long-term relationship attempts because your long-term goals are mutually exclusive. Trying to force a relationship will eventually create resentment in one or both of you because someone will have to abandon a core ideal.

Another core item is your beliefs. We live in a very religious world, and most everyone has some kind of religious or spiritual belief. Not only that, we define ourselves by those beliefs. Forming a relationship with someone who has different religious or spiritual beliefs can be very stressful, and the more important those beliefs (or lack of them) to your identity, the harder it becomes to create a family unit. If you are an atheist, for example, it will be difficult to marry someone who is a devoted church-goer. This is a vital part of your partner's life and you won't be sharing it, only viewing from the outside.

However, even if you can work around each other's differences, there's one question that every inter-faith couple must answer: how will we raise the children? Again, this isn't impossible to figure out, but it's very, very difficult. If you don't have an answer that the both of you like, and you both plan to have children, then you'll need to think long and hard about whether a long-term relationship will work.

Another core is your lifestyle. What kind of life do you lead? If you love theater, perform in every community theater that will have you, and spend every spare moment going to shows, then you might want someone with whom you can share this life. If you love the outdoors, love hiking and camping and climbing very tall rocks for no good reason except that they're there, you'll again want someone with you who shares this passion. I'm not referring to passing hobbies, but activities that define you. A long-term relationship with someone uninterested in, or hostile to, what makes you tick will be very difficult indeed.

This is why you need to understand who you are. What do you hold dear? What in your life is sacrosanct? What will you never give up? What long-term goals are non-negotiable? Once you have defined your core, you'll have a better idea whether the person you are with is long-term material.

However, does this mean you have to be exactly alike, that you can't deviate in any way? Certainly not. Differences do make us stronger, but the key is the right kind of differences. Healthy couples have plenty of differences, and these complement each other rather than conflict.

What does it mean to complement? In math, complementary angles are two angles that add up to 90 degrees. In a relationship, to complement means that your strengths and weaknesses make up for each other. It's being different about the same things. It's having your own interests while sharing what matters most.

The best kind of complementary relationship is when your strengths and weaknesses compensate. It's like forming a band. You might be able to sing well but can't play guitar. You team up with a guitar player who can't sing. The two of you have the same goal, being in a band, and you each make up for your partner's weaknesses.

In a marriage, she might be great with balancing the checkbook down to the last penny while he couldn't figure it out to save his life. They are both committed to their financial well-being, but she has what he lacks. Meanwhile, he's a great encourager who makes everyone feel better, while she can easily get down in the dumps. Again, their differences work out well, as when she's sad, he can cheer her up. Together they will make a better life for each other.

A couple might also have the same passion but different interests. If they love theater, she might love acting while he prefers to work backstage, making sure everything runs smoothly. They share the passion to put on a good show, but they approach it differently. Perhaps they both love books and reading, but each prefers a different genre. Again, they share a common love, and their differences will open each other up to new experiences. He would have never read mysteries unless she prodded him, and she got into biographies at his urging. This is how your differences make you stronger.

It's also possible that one of you loves something your partner despises. No matter what, your significant other will never, ever share your love of this. You might love football and he can't understand why anyone would like it. You adore Weird Al Yankovic and she thinks he's the silliest person on the planet and can't believe you went to see him in concert. Again. These differences might seem massive, but they aren't deal-breakers by a long shot. You both respect each other's rights to have individual tastes because your core identities are not wrapped up in these pursuits.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned race yet, and there's a reason for that. There is no reason why two people of a different race can't make a relationship work, so long as they have the same core. If they both have the same beliefs, if they have the same long-term goals, if they share the same passions in life, then their differences will only make those pursuits more interesting. Yes, even today an interracial couple still will have plenty of obstacles, but if you know what's ahead for you and go into it with eyes open, there's no reason you two can't or shouldn't have a long and healthy relationship.

The key to long-term relationship health is to have the right kind of differences while having what counts in common. Everyone's core is different, and what's dangerously opposite for one couple is a minor difference in another. It's up to you to figure out what's most important to you and what's negotiable, because if you do, you're well on your way to a very strong and interesting relationship.

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