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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.


Quick Access:
Major Myths About Compatibility

Are there any myths when it comes to compatibility?

Oh my, yes there are! The problem is that it’s difficult to educate people on the real scoop about the psychology of compatibility because of the overwhelming messaging and fantasies promoted by Hollywood movies, books, and TV shows.

Myth #1: Similarity is best for a couple.

The Real Scoop: A common theme in the academic literature – and indeed a virtual mantra at one major online relationship site – is the principle of homogamy. This bit of jargon refers to the idea that similarity of partners’ characteristics is better than dissimilarity of partners’ characteristics. Dissimilarity of characteristics is sometimes referred to as the principle of complementarity. We all know this debate in the everyday world as “birds of a feather flock together” versus “opposites attract.”

As reviewed by compatibility expert Dr. Glenn Wilson (8,9), and recently echoed by a recent and high profile research study (4), both cross-sectional and longitudinal research both suggest that similarity is a better predictor of relationship quality than dissimilarity. Cross-sectional research means surveying a couple once, whereas longitudinal research involves surveying the same couple of a long period of time. In other words, the first type of research is like a snapshot of a couple, and the latter is akin to a home movie.

However, it’s important to note that this conclusion is also a gross oversimplification. The degree of similarity observed depends on the particular individual-difference domain studied, with romantic partners showing strong similarity in age, political, and religious attitudes; moderate similarity in education, general intelligence, and values; and little or no similarity in personality characteristics (2,6). A comedian said it best with the quip, “If two people are too much alike, then one of them is unnecessary!” That’s actually a very insightful observation. Of course, if two people are too different, then constant disagreement and conflict can ensue.

Partly why this debate has continued is that there are substantial statistical issues that confound the measurement of couple compatibility. When these statistical issues are corrected for with advanced mathematics, a different picture of compatibility emerges (3). Rather than strict similarity or strict dissimilarity, it seems that lasting and fulfilling relationships are ones in which the couple is both similar and dissimilar in ways that are important to them. That’s right, it takes both ingredients of sameness and difference between two people to write an enduring love story.

Myth #2: All relationships start off with physical attraction.

The Real Scoop: Hollywood and romance novels constantly feed this myth. The reality is that relationships generally start differently for men versus women. Men rate physical attractiveness as an important quality in a partner more highly than women, and women give higher ratings to traits reflecting dominance and social status (7). Now this does not mean that men always fall for looks, and women always fall for personality and emotional and economic security.

Often times, good friendships develop into romances. This happens when we grow to like a person in a new way over time because of the intimacy we share with them. In other words, “love or lust at first sight” is replaced with “love at long look.” In these situations, people become increasingly attracted to another predominantly for who that person is inside, as well as for the comfort and other positive feelings the person brings out in you.

Myth #3: Commitment issues underlie all failed romantic relationships

The Real Scoop: It’s fun to joke about how men are supposed to be utterly terrified of commitment and how brides experience severe cases of cold feet when facing the altar. Now, fear of commitment can be a real concern, but you should know that more than mere commitment, money and sex are among the leading sources of conflict and disagreement in intimate relationships (1,5). That illustrious psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud put it bluntly in 1913 when he wrote, “Money questions will be treated by cultured people in the same manner as sexual matters, with the same inconsistency, prudishness, and hypocrisy.” This is why it’s extremely important for couples to discuss practical issues like money management, expectations for sexual activity, and approaches to conflict resolution before they take their relationship to the next level.


1. Goldberg, M. (1987). Patterns of disagreement in marriage. Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, 21, 42-52.

2. Klohnen, E. C., & Mendelsohn, G. A. (1998). Partner selection for personality characteristics: a couple-centered approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 268-278.

3. Lange, R., Jerabek, I., & Houran, J. (2004). Building blocks for satisfaction in long-term romantic relationships: evidence for the complementarity hypothesis of romantic compatibility. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the Adult Development Symposium Society for Research in Adult Development (AERA), April 11 – 12, San Diego, California.

4. Luo, S., & Klohnen, E. C. (2005). Assortative mating and marital quality in newlyweds: a couple-centered approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 304-326.

5. Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., and Whitton, S. W. (2002). Communication, conflict, and commitment: insights on the foundations of relationship success from a national survey. Family Process, 41, 659-675.

6. Watson, D., Klohnen, E. C., Casillas, A., Nus Simms, E., Haig, J., & Berry, D. S. (2004). Match makers and deal breakers: analyses of assortative mating in newlywed couples. Journal of Personality, 72, 1029-1068.

7. Whitty, M. T. (2004). Cyber-flirting: an examination of men’s and women’s flirting behaviour both offline and on the Internet. Behaviour Change, 21, 115–126.

8. Wilson, G. D., & Cousins, J. M. (2003). CQ: learn the secret of lasting love. London: Fusion Press.

9. Wilson, G. D., & Cousins, J. M. (2003). Partner similarity and relationship satisfaction: development of a compatibility quotient. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 18, 161-170.

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