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When Opposites Attract: Are Successful Relationships Dependent on Shared Values or Not?

15/04/2015 12:44 BST | Updated 14/06/2015 10:59 BST

'You cannot open a book without learning something.'

- Confucius

Is a vegetarian being in a relationship with a meat-eater like a non-smoker being in a relation with a smoker; or an atheist being in relation with a theist; or a woman being in a relationship with a sexist? On the one hand, one can try and ignore it. On the other, it represents a significant difference in values and thinking. Are such relations feasible in the long run or do they inevitably lead to tension and mistrust? Does one party end up suffering in silence more than the other or are they valuable for encouraging understanding, compromise and compassion?

My Boyfriend's A Meat Eater: Can Vegetarians Mate with Meat-eaters? concludes the latter:

'Many people, not just men, think that what they do isn't going to make a difference. But if everyone had that attitude, we'd still be living in caves. Social change occurs through individual change. "So," concludes Dr Sheehan, "if you believe your man is blocked and has buried sensitivity, he may be worth spending more time with. Most vegetarian men were once meat-eaters. If they changed, so can other men."'

In terms of a smoker with a non-smoker, the issue seems more clear-cut due to the greater impact on the non-smoker of health, social and financial costs (although meat is also pretty expensive financially and environmentally as well). Many of these are hard to laugh off, although 19 Things That Happen When You Date a Smoker does a good job.

What about a woman in a relationship with a sexist? This is much more common as many women are in such relationships due not only to internalised sexism, but also because the vast majority of men still hold sexist beliefs and conduct when analysed. In Tackling Sexism in Relationships:

One of the most delicate contexts in which heterosexual women face sexism is in relationships. Even in the best cases, with genuinely nice guys, tackling the impact of systemic sexism in a relationship may be an uphill battle: from identifying the problem, to articulating how it affects the partnership and finally, to being heard. Let's face it, unless two partners were born somewhere other than Earth, they probably haven't escaped the patriarchal training that each of us receives from birth.

Disputes with partners can be confusing and disappointing, even for women who are familiar with power struggle dynamics. Many women blame themselves, viewing these disagreements as a personal shortcoming in "being a good woman." But if carefully analyzed, relationship arguments around a range of issues - finances, housework, childcare, meeting or not meeting partners' expectations and needs - can be linked back to deep-seated patterns of male supremacy.

However, more controversially is perhaps the question as to whether or not a religious person (i.e. someone who believes in a Creator God or has 'faith' in a religion) can be with a person who doesn't. On the one hand, this may seem like a no-brainer but some, like Dale McGowan, claim that there are specific benefits that are repeatedly experienced in the secular/religious relation, particularly in producing more tolerant, liberal and compassionate individuals.

In The Real Reasons Opposites Attract such differences may, in fact, be what are essential for a passionate, lively and deep relationships.

We are drawn to others out of needs and desires that are unfulfilled in our lives, such as a desire to experience greater connection, security, love, support, and comfort. On the other hand some of those unfulfilled longings have to do with their polar opposites, such as adventure, freedom, risk, challenge, and intensity. While these needs and desires may appear to be mutually exclusive, they not only can co-exist with each other, but in the process, generate a "tension of the opposites" that produces the passion that sustains, deepens and enlivens relationships.

That doesn't mean it will necessarily be easy:

Yet the more we practice being on either side of this process, the more capable we become of developing the kind of flexibility that passionate relationships require. And over time, the process of making the micro-adjustments that great relationships thrive on becomes effortless, natural, and even fun! There is, however for most of us, a learning curve that isn't always fun, and can be,at least temporarily, unsettling. That seems to be the case for any new challenge that we step into. If we can overcome the initial resistance that is inherent in the process of making life changes, the long-term payoffs can be truly amazing and worth every moment of the process.

I think the answer to these questions depends on the individuals, groups or nations. If they are open-minded, self-critical and reflective then there is potential for mutual benefit. Yet, if they are stubborn, closed-minded and self-righteous it could be a disaster. Sometimes the easier ride seems to be the better option. However, let's not forget that being a vegetarian, Buddhist or non-smoker does not automatically mean one is a kind, compassionate person and vice versa. As many meat-eaters love to quote: 'Hitler was a vegetarian'. Yet, surely it's still better to be a cruel veggie than a cruel meat-eater? Two wrongs cannot make a right and the majority of meat-eaters, sexists, Christians etc. do not own the copyright to kindness either.

Relationships are like opening a new book, the beauty of them is one cannot help but learn something. Unless one prefers to stay with familiar, comforting, yet ultimately untrue, stories that is. In which case, you will close it before you even start to read.