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Balance theory may explain why couples start to mirror each other

By Kristine Keller

The other day I sat on my favorite downtown bench gazing at the throngs of passerby. I spotted gaggles of girls entering my favorite café, all dressed similarly in summer fare - cut-off shorts and gladiator sandals - hair all cascading below their shoulders with the exact same length and volume of curls. I noticed a litany of significant others strolling hand-in-hand taking in the balmy summer night. And I spied a slew of dog owners walking their dogs adoringly, taking a brief moment to chat with other dog walkers. I sat on my bench taking mental notes of these groups when something else occurred to me: All of these aforementioned groups seemed to have an incredible number of external characteristics in common.

They say that after enough time passes, dog owners begin to look like their dogs. The same notion goes for significant others-after enough time passes, they say romantic partners begin to dress alike or take on similar mannerisms. But what the collective "they" don't know is that these couples most likely had similar propensities to begin with. In other words, these couples have started dating because they were "matched" from the start. Though the maxim that opposites attract is everywhere in the media and proverbs, countless studies have provided evidence that birds of a feather really do flock together.

This makes sense given the psychological principle called balance theory. The theory suggests that we like those who like us because we prefer consistency in our beliefs, attitudes, and desires. We also like those who like us because it validates that our own personalities and characteristics are desirable. What's remarkable about balance theory is that it holds true in cross-cultural studies, too. Studies from South America, Asia, and Europe all provide evidence that matching plays a large role in the linking of not only your significant others, but your friends, and social networks, as well.

But then what accounts for the exceptions to the matching rule? Psychologists ascertain that one's worth or mate value is a significant asset in the matching process.One notable study by Dr. Dan Ariely and his colleague found that when unattractive men generated huge gross incomes, they still obtained mates assessed "higher" in value. When income was not taken into account, these men were rated as less attractive. In other words, the evaluators rated the men's income as more valuable than their looks, and this factor leveled the matching seesaw. Thus, matching isn't all about looks ? it can become a mixture of different factors. The crux of the process is that each mate contains the same amount of "valuable" assets.

It's also possible to develop similar interests over time. Countless psychological studies have provided evidence for the notion for the "Michaelangelo Phenomenon." This principle states that we are attracted to those who possess the qualities of our ideal selves. Perhaps you're a leisurely runner but you'd like to run the NYC Marathon, you might inexplicably be attracted to someone who has run the marathon five times. Or perhaps you sing in the shower but have always wanted to tackle an open-mic night-you might be attracted to someone who has the courage to perform in a band every Friday night on the Lower East Side. The "Michaelangelo Phenomenon" states that by dating those who possess qualities that we'd like to have ourselves, we're actually sculpting each other. By learning from the person who contains qualities of our "ideal selves" we may be accruing these characteristics over time. It can be easy in a city like New York to feel swallowed whole and alone. But take comfort in the fact that the psychological process of matching is alive and well and that your match exists. It just may not have lit your flame yet.

Kristine received her master's in psychology from NYU. E-mail her at to request topics for this column.

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