The Rule of Complementarity

Some would say that opposites attract, but I would argue that opposites form.  There is a certain rule – let’s call it the rule of complementarity – that influences marital relationships.  As relationships evolve, people tend to move toward opposite poles to maintain balance in a relationship; where one spouse takes a more conservative stance, the other becomes more liberal.  This tendency to gravitate toward some form of equilibrium in a relationship can happen with any number of traits or values such as spending (vs. saving); planning (vs. spontaneity); emotional reserve (vs. emotional expression); maintaining harmony (vs. dealing with disagreement/conflict); humor (vs. seriousness).  Unfortunately, we tend to think that shifting one’s spouse’s opinion is like winning a tug-of-war; the harder you pull on your end of the rope, the more likely you are to get your spouse over to your side.  In most instances, this doesn’t work and, in all likelihood, it will compel your spouse to dig their heels in even further.  Rather than understanding this tendency through the tug-of-war metaphor, I’d suggest that a see-saw metaphor provides a more accurate picture.  The Rule of Complementarity suggests that on any given trait, spouses tend to balance each other out like two people standing on the ends of a see-saw; when one person steps out away from the center – toward a more extreme position - the other person is compelled to take an equal step in the opposite direction in order to maintain balance.

Within the first year that my wife and I married, we took a personality test that, among other things, measured the trait of spontaneity vs. discipline.  High scorers were very disciplined planners who carefully thought through matters before making a decision; low scorers were spontaneous action-takers who learned through trial and error.  On a scale of 0 – 100, with 0 being Spontaneous and 100 being Disciplined, I scored a 2 and my young bride scored a 98.  We were so proud that our score totaled up to a perfect 100!  But, as we were soon to discover, the joke was really on us.  And you can probably imagine what the early years of our relationship were like.  I was a fun-loving, but reckless adventurer who was up for any opportunity regardless of the cost; my wife was cautious and conservative, weighing the financial and temporal cost of any activity.  Her reticence to jump in or go with the flow frustrated me as much as my spontaneity (which she errantly mislabeled as impulsivity!) frightened her.  In fact, this was a source of substantial conflict early in our relationship.  My inclination was, of course, to attack her conservatism while pushing hard for her to join me on the latest adventure.  However, what I found was that the harder I pushed, the more she pushed back; and the more frustrated I got, the frustrated and frightened she got.  Nevertheless, across the first few years of our marriage I did a lot of growing up and learned – predominantly the hard way – the value of a little planning and discipline.  As I grew, genuinely trying to be more responsible, I was surprised to find that my wife began loosening up.  In fact, somewhere around the 7th year of our marriage, I distinctly remember realizing that she’d become almost as fun as me.  Ironically, around that same point in time we were in a situation where we could, again, take the same personality test that we’d taken in the first year of our marriage.  Much to our surprise, this time I scored a 40 (still weighted toward spontaneity!) and my wife scored a 60!  We were still a perfect 100, but we had changed substantially. 

 Across the years, I have seen couples make similar changes in fundamental traits.  Like that imaginary couple on a see-saw, when one person steps in, altering their own behavior, the spouse is eventually compelled to take their own step in order to maintain balance.  So, the next time you find yourself locked into a battle with your spouse – pulling against some trait within them that you don’t like - try taking a couple of big steps in their direction.  You may be surprised by the response you get. 

- Jeff Pipe   

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