Quick personal story.
A few years ago, I met a woman at a real estate conference. (Yawn, right? Sometimes, I wonder how I survived my previous career).
Two things were remarkable about this interaction. One: the woman was an INTJ. Two: she knew she was an INTJ, which in the circles I reluctantly socialize in, is uncommonly rare.
Eager to talk about something other than shopping centers, I struck up a conversation with – let’s call her Liz. And we hit it off. Like, really hit it off. Similar sense of humor. Same way of processing things. She agreed with me on virtually every point, in the sense that what got my goat really got hers. I found myself relaxing in her company because communication is so much easier when someone just gets it.
We swapped business cards, kept in touch and tried to be active friends. A glass of wine after work. Another glass of wine after work.
It lasted for a few weeks. Then….. it fizzled. For reasons I’ll elaborate in a moment but which basically boil down to this: we were just like peas and carrots. Trust me when I say that mutual unrelenting understanding looks great on paper. In reality, when you’re as argumentative as I am, having someone agree with you on all the points is enough to make you want to poke your eye out with a cocktail umbrella. Sigh.
There’s a Reason Opposites Attract
Okay, so everyone’s heard about the old “opposites attract and likes repel” thing. And you’ve probably heard that the truth is a little more complicated. Whatever your experience in this area, here’s a quick rundown of why people who are too similar to each other can potentially run into problems:
You get stuck in the comfort zone/ it’s a case of stolen identity
During my brief friendship with Liz, we both stuck in our comfort zones which happened to be quick meetups in a quiet bar after work. At first, it felt like a relief to find someone who was happy to glug a glass of pinot, dissect the state of the nation, then leave by 8 p.m. so I could be tucked up in bed at a reasonable hour. But around fifth repetition, it got pretty tedious.
At first I thought, I must prefer the company of people who have the potential to surprise and challenge me – people who are more willing to take risks and push me out of my comfort zone. That’s the conventional view as to why opposites attract, and I’m sure there’s truth in it. But actually, it wasn’t the lack of novelty that I found challenging, it was the lack of distance. How could I be the quirky, decisive and perspective-bringing one when she checked those boxes? What was my role in this relationship? Who gave her permission to steal my identity?!
There’s no one to pull you out of the rut
Here’s something I’ve noticed about myself: I like situational friends. By this, I mean friends for specific situations, like book group friends, sports team friends, school-gate friends and neighbors. The key benefit of situational friends is you only ever see them in context and never interact with them outside of that particular situation. Some people would hate the limitations of that arrangement. I find it liberating.
Now, I have no idea whether compartmentalizing your friends is associated with any particular personality trait, but it’s clear that Liz and I quickly fell into the trap of becoming each other’s situational friend, in the “we’re here to bond, dammit, so we can both pretend to have a social life” bucket. And neither one of us was ever going to lead the other out of the rut because that required at least one of us to de-situationalize the friendship. Someone was going to have to step up, let go of old routines and preferences, and adopt a completely new mindset.
Shockingly, neither of us even tried.
You enable each other's faults
Okay, so I can be clueless, a bit of a hermit, curt, skeptical, obsessive, ruthlessly independent and stubborn. I despise making social arrangements and I can go through long periods when I can’t be bothered to put any effort into anything …. I’m sure INTJs can relate.
Liz and I were not friends long enough to get into the stalemate of so-similar behaviors. It was enough that we were both not-needy and hermity, a delicious combination of traits that meant neither of us could be bothered to organize the next play date – hence the fizzle. But imagine if we had remained friends for longer, it would be like looking into a black mirror reflecting back our own personal biases. I can see us now, becoming increasingly competitive, going down increasingly strange conversational rabbit holes, enabling each other’s faults to the point where we both became caricatures of ourselves. Would my experience of myself have been more complete with this person? It seems unlikely.
It’s a cruel joke of nature that we have to let go of our own egos to truly nurture and support someone of a similar personality type. When there are no differences to criticize, you essentially have to criticize aspects of yourself. It gets very personal.
Best Friends Are Often Poles Apart
What does personality science have to say about the old rule of Coulomb’s law? Well, it turns out that my experience was fairly typical. Opposites do attract …. when making friends.
That’s the conclusion of researchers at Keystone College, Pennsylvania, who in the first research of its kind found that close friendships thrived when there were large differences in the Big Five personality traits. So, if you’re quiet and anxious, you’re BFF is likely a spark-plug risk taker who will push you to try new things. Loud and extraverted? You should choose a measured and cynical bestie like me.
(The researchers also found that getting drunk together is the big bonding experience that transcends personality characteristics. Perhaps that scorching observation is fodder for a future article.)
The researchers didn’t speculate why opposing personalities are so good together beyond the old chestnut of “balancing each other out,” but I reckon the potency of the medicine lies in the dosage. We may not always see eye-to-eye with a polar-opposite friend but we’re absolutely in control of when we see that friend. We’re in control of how often we “embrace the difference” to round us out as individuals. That makes it different from a romantic relationship where we see the person every day, even when we’re feeling vulnerable.
Which explains why, in affairs of the heart, we look for similarity. There are more studies concerning who we have successful romantic relationships with and they all show that generally, we’re more likely to stick with partners who are similar across a broad range of characteristics like age, education, religion, intelligence and political orientation. There are outliers of course, but it’s actually pretty rare for an atheist to put a ring on the finger of a devout Christian.
In terms of 16-type personality psychology, typing gurus Barbara Barron-Tieger and Paul Tieger went one step further and put a number on it. Turns out, the sweet spot for creating a successful romantic relationship is having just two letter codes in common. Which is actually more commonality than you might think if those two letters follow the Keirsey temperament sorter. Keirsey focused on observable behaviors when describing his four temperaments (SJ, SP, NT, NF) and largely emphasized the sensing/intuition spectrum, which is a major determinant of how we process the world. Arguably, it’s Keirsey’s temperaments that determine our long-term patterns of behavior, and not whether we’re more or less comfortable in social situations. Hence, E/I commonality doesn’t make much of a difference.
A Thinking Preference Breeds Contempt?
Let’s finish up by saying there could be another factor that confuses the whole “opposites attract” analysis – and that’s the Feeling preference.
A Feeling preference is the great compensator. When someone types F, it means that she instinctively wants to nurture and get along with others. You’re like a friendship’s bottle of glue – motivated to keep people harmoniously together regardless of their similarities or differences. People who lead with extraverted Feeling, that’s ENFJs and ESFJs, are especially welcoming and are thus likely to find some level of attraction with their own and opposing types. Within their friendship groups, everyone is connected and supported and okay.
Anyone who leads with Thinking, on the other hand, is completely focused on his own logic and understanding of how the world works. He may not be that respectful of another’s worldview because, to most Thinkers, the truth is an objective fact. Even with someone of the same personality type, Thinkers can get into a situation where they believe the other person is flat-out wrong about something. Instead of being respectful of the difference like Feelers, his first instinct will be to put the world back into alignment by persuading the other person that she’s wrong. Thinkers have to work very hard to step back and really hone in on the signals that another person’s viewpoint can be trusted.
This is pure speculation on my part but it seems to me that the more shared experiences a Thinker has with someone, and the more they prove themselves in a crisis, the more likely the Thinker is to trust that the other person is capable of being a true friend. So for Thinkers, “clicking” with someone may be less about them being the same personality type, or an opposing personality type, or scoring a two-out-of-four match on the Briggs and Myers scale, and more about them having experiences that mirror your own.
Food for thought?