If you’re like me, you were swept off your feet when you first met the love of your life. You swooned. Your heart leaped. And your beloved’s virtues stood out from the vices. Then, a while into the relationship, you start to see the flip side of the coin — all the vices that bug you. Maybe you think to yourself, “Boy, has she changed” or “He’s not the same man I used to know.” But the truth is that she hasn’t changed, and he’s exactly the same man: You’re just starting to see the other side. Things that cause conflict in an intimate relationship are often the flip side of the things that originally attract you. Think about it this way: Virtues contain vices. Strength contains willfulness; stability contains control; spontaneity contains abandon. You get a package deal. When virtues get carried to excess, you get vices. Hence conflict.

Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

What Ever Happened to For Better or Worse? Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

 Are You a Rock or Bird?

Whether you’re in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship, opposites really do attract. It’s not about gender; it’s about personality. When we first met, my spouse described me as “in charge, stable, organized, solid, serious.” After seven years together — don’t let anyone tell you there’s no such thing as the seven-year itch — there was another version: “Controlling, rigid, inflexible, workaholic.” Here’s why: In most intimate relationships one party is a rock and one is a bird. Rocks are closed books; they play their cards close to their chests, keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, are organized, logical, unemotional, and usually have things under control. Birds are open books; they show their cards. They could care less about order and organization. They’re more emotional, playful, spontaneous, flexible, and flow with the moment. They’re often more creative and intuitive than rocks. These differences can be sources of major conflict, but they don’t have to be. When you look at the differences as complementary, it can be a match made in heaven.

A Match Made in Heaven?

Seriously? I can see you rolling your eyes. But my long-term relationship is proof. The truth is that one style is not better or more right than the other. Both bird and rock play important roles and bring necessary attributes for a balanced relationship. The rock provides stability and the bird provides levity. Two rocks would sink from the intensity and two birds would fly off into the wild blue yonder with nobody taking care of business. So believe it or not, the rock and bird are a union made in heaven:

1. If you’re willing to see some value in your partner’s style–instead of thinking it’s your way or the highway–you’ll notice less tension between the two of you.

2. If you’re willing to look for the virtues contained in your partner’s vices–and to round out yourself by incorporating some of those virtues into yourself, you’ll make a big step in improving your relationship

Your Main Squeeze is Your “Tor-Mentor”

Your partner is your teacher, and you can learn a lot about yourself from this “tor-mentor.” I’m much more lighthearted and flexible than I used to be. And my spouse is much more organized and responsible. I challenge you to look at your mate differently today. The following exercise can help you find your mirror message and show you what to do with it:

1. Identify who’s the rock and bird in your intimate relationship.

2. Make a list of your mate’s polar opposites (his or her “vices”) that “bug” you.

3. Extract the positive qualities or virtues contained in each vice on your list and write them beside each of the vices. For example, if he’s a perfectionist, he might be accomplished or people might look up to him. If she doesn’t plan ahead, perhaps she’s mindful of living in the moment and she doesn’t worry about the future.

4. Pinpoint the mirror message–the flip side of yourself that you disowned or never developed–that can complete you and make you well rounded. For example, if he’s a perfectionist and you’re more of a procrastinator, the mirror message might be that you need to up your game. If she doesn’t plan ahead and you’re on the fast track, the mirror message might be that you need to put on the brakes and live more in the present.

5. Put a check mark by each mirror message trait that you can start to develop within yourself.

6. Give this exercise to your main squeeze and have him or her follow the same steps.

After both of you have completed the exercise, you might be surprised at how much more you appreciate the relationship and how much more cohesive it can be. After all, that’s why opposites attract: to bring wholeness and balance to each other. Once you start to look at the differences as a plus, instead of a minus, you’ll inject less conflict and more harmony into your relationship. 


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: https://bryanrobinsonphd.com.