Study: Similarity breeds contentment

July 02, 1993|By Madeline Drexler | Madeline Drexler,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Sometimes, camouflaged in the dense lingo of academia are the plain facts we need to run our lives. What, for instance, is the secret of a happy marriage? Not surprise gourmet meals, getaway weekends or other nostrums dispensed in women's magazines. Rather, according to one researcher, the secret of marital bliss resides in a simple notion: positive assortative mating. Translation: Marry someone like yourself.

Studies by Avshalom Caspi, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, suggest that while some opposites may attract, they do not necessarily adhere. Indeed, FTC the glue that keeps people together is a common outlook on life.

Such romantic reciprocity begins early. It has long been known, for instance, that people tend to choose mates who have similar physical traits, intellect and temperament. The most stable partners, in other words, often have similar builds,

read the same newspapers and argue at the same decibel level.

The tendency to seek mirror images doesn't stop at marriage; we also choose friends who are like us.

Why are we drawn to our own approximations? "What we seek out are environments where we can feel comfortable to express who we are," Mr. Caspi says. Similarities set off romantic sparks, he says, because lonely singles "seek out a guarantee that there is a basis for interaction." Translation: a future together.

Sameness has even more profound effects in marriage. Having analyzed data from the 1930s to the 1950s in the longest prospective study of married couples available, Mr. Caspi concluded that spouses who remained fairly similar in values and attitudes were more likely to stay together after 20 years; those who disagreed were more likely to split up.

By values, Mr. Caspi meant religious and political beliefs and social and leisure pursuits. Attitudes encompassed opinions about marital fidelity, premarital sex, child rearing, household management and the need for common interests.

Longtime mates don't turn into clones of each other. But, according to Ms. Caspi, they do tend to change in the same direction.

Researchers use an unwitting pun to describe the phenomenon, "mutual niche picking." Translation: Spouses often like to do the same things.

As Mr. Caspi sees it, the phenomenon is circular: Similar partners choose each other, then pursue similar directions during their marriage, causing them to share experiences and thus sustain their similarities. Similar spouses are also more likely to be friendly to each other and happy in their marriages, perhaps because they demand less from mates and don't have to change themselves.

To be sure, some experts disagree with Mr. Caspi. John Gottman, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, says it is not similarity that helps spouses stay together but being able to handle differences. "They need to have the same style of dealing with conflict," Mr. Gottman says.

Still, Mr. Caspi and others contend that a union of opposites is not necessarily a match made in heaven. Take the Prince and Princess of Wales. "There was a good deal of dissimilarity from the outset," Mr. Caspi observes. "Did she ever play polo? Did she care about his obsession with bad architecture? Did he take an interest in her social concerns?"

As Mr. Caspi expressed it: "Spouse similarity co-varies with relationship satisfaction." Translation: Don't fall in love with a cowboy if horses make you sneeze.

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