Why Birds of a Feather Don’t Always Make the Best Couple

A super long post to celebrate my new theme. This time, I get analytical (sort of). I’m writing this without knowing the result – it’s called blogging, after all. The topic is “love relationships”, or more precisely “what makes a successful love relationship?”. The other day I read an article on online dating sites which are usually operating with a match-making algorithm based on the idea that, well, birds of a feather flock together: the more similar the partners are (e.g. hobbies, character traits, values…), the more likely they are to have a long-lasting love relationship. Only it isn’t true.

As the article explains, recent psychological research suggests that it’s not so much about both partners actually liking the same things. What is important is the perception that the other person actually could like the same things. And for a long-lasting relationships, even that point is not all that important. What counts, the researchers suggest, are the “Big Five” personality traits:

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness (self-discipline)
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism (emotional instability)

But the thing is, even when we consider these five traits, prospective partners should be different, rather than similar: partner A should for example score high in “extraversion” while partner B should have a low score here. People who score high in the first four and low in the last category are most likely to have a long-lasting love relationship. The article further remarks that the circumstances of a love relationship (like war and other crises) are often even more influential than the partners’ character traits or interests.

The scientific evidence (or at least the strong suggestions – remember, nothing in science is certain and can always be proven wrong) let me wonder about fiction: do fictional couples have similar character traits? Or do opposites attract? And why do their relationships last – or fail?

Now, of course I could do a representative study of every love couple in every TV show ever produced. Or only of the 2010s. But like you, I don’t have the time for that. So I’m writing a shorter analysis (with the help of the Wikipedia article on the “Big Five”) for the first three couples that came to my mind (meaning: couples that actually exist in the series and are not just fans’ wishful thinking – sorry, Thomas): Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley (Downton Abbey), Don and Megan Draper (Mad Men), and Jack Harkness and Ianto Jones (Torchwood). (SPOILER ALERT, of course)

Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley

Of course, those two start out as not liking each other at all. They see each other as arrogant and it takes two seasons and a Christmas Special to finally get them engaged. If I asked you to put a label on them, most of you would probably choose “opposites attract”. But let’s consider the “Big Five”:

Openness to experience – meaning appreciation for art and openness to adventure. Lady Mary scores rather highly here, in my impression. She enjoys riding her horse (pretty adventurous for her time, I’d say), reads a lot, and is generally rather open to new developments (in contrast to for example her father, but probably not as much as her sister Edith). As for Matthew, well, I’d go for an average score. I don’t see him involved in many adventures (the trenches were not his choice) or in art. >> a tendency for difference

Conscientiousness – do you prefer planned or spontaneous? This is a difficult dimension in that I can’t really place either Lady Mary or Matthew in it. I guess they’re both average: some order is good, but too much of it spoils the fun. Then again, they’re members of the upper class so they were of course expected to behave that way (and if they didn’t their servants would clean up the mess). >> birds of a feather

Extraversion – how much you engage with the world around you. Again, the social circumstances probably predict a lot here. Lady Mary is an aristocrat and this practically equals numerous parties and dinners where she has to talk with others. Still, I get the impression that she rather enjoys herself in these situations, so I’d say that’s a high score. As for Matthew, he enters this world as a middle class man which makes him rather uncomfortable. But as the story progresses, he doesn’t seem to be particularly quiet at the parties, so I’d again go with a high score. >> birds of a feather

Agreeableness – do you care about other people? For Lady Mary, I’d go with an average score. She’s certainly not made of stone, but she’s also not keen on helping everyone around her.  As for Matthew, I’d say he’s maybe even a little bit more concerned with others than Mary, but that’s only an impression. >> tendency for birds of a feather

Neuroticism – how emotionally stable are you? I think they both are really emotionally stable. Have we seen them stressed out? Depressed (mourning doesn’t count)? Moody? Not that I can remember. So they both get a low score. >> Birds of a feather

Conclusion – surprisingly: birds of a feather, with slight differences here and there. Their relationship only ends due to bad luck (okay, Matthew closed his eyes, but he had every right to not expect much traffic on that road).

Don and Megan Draper

Okay, I know, this probably doesn’t count as “long-lasting love relationship”, but at the end of season six, they’re still married and it doesn’t look like this will change anytime soon. Who knows what will happen in season seven… Without thinking, I would put the label “opposites attract” on them, but maybe I’m mistaken. So let’s see about the “Big Five”.

Openness to experience: Don definitely gets a high score here. He’s an ad man, of course he has to be open to new things – although the encounter with the Beatles album indicates that this might change. Megan is also scoring highly here – she’s an actress after all. If we take the Beatles album as an indicator, she’s maybe even scoring higher than Don. >> birds of a feather

Conscientiousness: Don does certainly not thrive in the middle of chaos, if his office desk is any indication. However, he’s also very spontaneous and often doesn’t plan for certain things to happen. If we look at season six, we could even say that this contributed to his fall at SC&P. So he gets an average score. As for Megan… Unfortunately we don’t see much of her work as an actress. I think she pays attention to detail, but she’s certainly not overly orderly. So I’d say she score slightly higher than Don. >> a tendency for difference

Extraversion: Don is a party animal, no questions there. He talks a lot and gets you into his bed just by talking. Highest score possible. Megan, well, if her song for Don at his birthday party is any indication, she certainly doesn’t mind being the center of attention. Also high score. >> birds of a feather

Agreeableness: Tricky category. Don is certainly not made of stone. It’s his job to empathize with people, after all. But below that professional surface, I get the impression that he’s not really all that empathetic. He’s self-interested enough to seduce pretty much every attractive woman he comes across. I settle for an average score, possibly even slightly lower. Megan appears to score higher here (“Jaguar – not my problem” was about the ad campaign, not Ginsberg’s emotions). I’d have to rewatch season four for a final verdict, but I’d go for a score slightly above average. >> opposites attract

Neuroticism: Another tricky category. This might be my imagination, but I see Don as someone who tends to be moody. We also have a lot of death imagery in the series which I would see as a mirror of Don’s emotional state. I’d go for a rather high score in this category. The thing is of course: I doubt that Megan actually notices it all that much. As we have seen in the last episode of season five, Don will pretend that everything’s fine for as long as possible. Megan I think has an average or even low score in this category. She does cry and gets stressed out, but she’s not moody or anything. >> opposites attract

Conclusion: Slightly surprising, a couple somewhere in the middle between birds of a feather and opposites attract. I should probably do an analysis of the Don-Betty dynamic to see how his former wife compares (I have a feeling they were even more different).

Jack and Ianto

Some might say that they have more a sexual than a love relationship, but I think Children of Earth indicates that this was about to change. My gut says that they are an example of “opposites attract”, but I have been wrong before. So let’s take a look at the “Big Five”:

Openness to experience: I think it’s safe to say that Jack is open to pretty much every experience there is (and not only in the sexual realm). Highest possible score. Ianto, well… He works at Torchwood. And he’s dating Jack Harkness (remember how he described his dabbling as “innovative”?). So I think he gets a high score as well. >> birds of a feather

Conscientiousness: Jack is always prepared for the next alien attack, but apart from that I’d say he has a tendency for chaos – just look at his desk. So I’d assign an average if not even lower score. Ianto however is the embodiment of conscientiousness: neat suit, always knows what time it is, always prepared for everything. >> opposites attract

Extraversion: Jack is the embodiment of extraversion. He always gets all the attention and he loves it. Sky high score. Ianto… Well, we hardly see him in large groups outside Torchwood. Still, I think he tends to stay in the background – not because he has to, but because that’s his personality. Which gives him a rather low score. >> opposites attract

Agreeableness: Jack is interested in people, and not just in a sexual way. He goes out of his way to save his team, even the whole of humanity. Maybe not the highest score possible, but he still gets a lot of points here. Ianto – depends. One item for this category is “I have a soft heart.” and given how often we see him crying, I’d say he definitely has one. Then again, he’s not often shown in prolonged interaction with people outside the team, so I’ll settle for an average score. >> tendency for attracting opposites

Neuroticism: Tricky category for Jack due to his immortality. Everyone else would go mad after being buried for 2,000 years and being chained up for a year. Jack however doesn’t seem to be affected at all, but maybe he just hides his emotions. From what we see, his usually relaxed and at ease with his existence, so a low score for him. Ianto as well seems to be emotionally stable. He seemed to be blue for a while after Lisa’s death, but of course he was in mourning. In season two and Children of Earth, he appeared to be relaxed – he even kept his calm when they blew up the Hub! >> birds of a feather

Conclusion: Not so surprisingly, they are very different in many regards, but they also have some similarities. Their relationship was unfortunately doomed because of their work (and stupidity – why did Ianto have to accompany Jack?)

Okay, this post is already light years too long – I apologize. What we see here (I think) is that fiction knew all along what psychology has only found recently. I’m pretty sure there are more fictional couples who are different than couples who are similar (you don’t agree? Comment!). My analysis also shows that our impressions of a couple do not always agree with analytical results: I thought all three examples were attracting opposites, but apparently things are not that easy. Or maybe I misread the evidence? If you’ve spotted a mistake, please comment! And if you are a writer, how about the love couples you’re creating? Are they similar? Different? Personally, I’d say I have a tendency for attracting opposites, although they usually have at least a few interests in common.

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