I was recently at the New York Film Festival's screening of Yorgos Lanthimos' first feature in English: The Lobster. It's a post-apocalyptic narrative of an awkward romance set in a world with its own rules and absurd constructs (a signature of Lanthimos) that remind us of the absurdity of our own.
Without spoiling too much of the film (but don't read if you're the type not to like any spoilers at all), essentially singles in "The City" are banished to a hotel where they must find a partner within 45 days. As a symbol of their failure, they must forfeit humanity and turn into an animal of their choice. On what basis do these people stuck in this pressure-filled environment partner up? They seem to look for similarities whether physically or stylistically and it makes sense that the characters each have reductive names such as: "shortsighted woman" and "nosebleed man." A common attribute such as having a bloody nose can foster a connection profound enough to solidify a union. Collin Farrell's character David and Rachel Weisz's character "shortsighted woman" both are drawn to each other immediately because they're both shortsighted. They are so similar that they create an entire sign language for just the two of them. The film ends on an ambiguous note of whether someone would go so far to commit to similarities in a partnership that they would injure themselves permanently. The fate of the relationship seems to rest solely on this corrosive act.
During the Q&A portion, someone asked why it was that the characters needed to be similar to fall in love, when the notion is that opposite attract. Rachel Weisz answered pointedly: "narcissism."
My personal dating history is marked with relationships with men that were the polar opposite of me. Since I started becoming more cognizant of what draws me to people romantically and what fosters a healthy relationship, I've come to realize that opposites do attract initially, but they don't sustain themselves unless commonalities develop. Unfortunately, sometimes those differences are unresolvable. A person can never change their background or their core beliefs.
Whilst on the phone with my ex-boyfriend during our final break-up conversation, we said to each other that there was something missing. Inquiring further, he replied that he felt we didn't have enough in common for us both to want to settle down with one another. Things were fine, and we could've continued our relationship, but the passion and all-consuming love that we both felt in other relationships wasn't there for either of us. We were slowly becoming more similar due to shared experiences, but we fundamentally were different people with different priorities. Retrospectively, I believe we both selected the relationship unconsciously for its emotional and physical distance. It was safe, neither of us would get too involved with one another and our friend groups would never intermingle. Was this the hallmark of our own emotional unavailability, fear of intimacy, and perhaps even anti-narcissism (which is just the underbelly of narcissism)? Was it because at that point I wasn't yet comfortable enough with myself to love someone similar to me? I say yes to all.
As I've come to know myself better through various testing experiences in the years since my last serious relationship, I've become so aware of what connects me to others. For me, it's important for someone to have a broader point of view on ideologies, cultures and the world, but be realistic enough to identify issues and understand the details. I aim for betterment whether societally or individually, and I love people who love discussing ideas and aren't afraid to get to the core of things nor to think for themselves critically. To engage with people who are similar to me in temperament means we begin our conversation at an advanced intellectual stage, instead of starting with the basics and having to educate the other on our different perspectives and interests we may not even care about at all. Those types of interactions seem to drag and I worry about boring the other person with my film talk while I struggle to look interested in sports. My ex-boyfriend and I found our dinners getting increasingly quiet as we ran out of things to discuss or questions to ask one another. No one wants to be that couple at the restaurant.
Consulting psychological studies, it seems that when someone is similar to us, they become the favored in-group: "We have a built-in propensity to form close bonds with these individuals because they make up our community: They're the people who care about us, protect us, look after us," according to Rori and Nom Brafman, authors of Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work, and Everything We Do. Not only do they become the in-group, but similarities "bring out the best in us... making it much easier to form a connection."
We commonly see those whom are of similar levels of attractiveness or education paired up. Power-couples form with both parts equally successful and ambitious that they are awe-inducing. How did these people find each other, their perfectly matched "lobster" so to speak? They're absolutely two peas in a pod, and so much of our social consciousness is built on valorizing these soulmates.
In my intimate relationships class in college, I distinctly remember a study that measured lengths of relationships and found that people who were more similar tended to stay together longer and have more fulfilling relationships. According to Psychology Today, "we like those who are similar to us, because it also affirms that our own characteristics are normal or desirable," but perhaps it's not enough to have someone who is exactly a carbon copy of you. I tend to avoid these relationships, because there isn't enough to foster growth. The perfect partner should be similar enough to be in the "in-group" in the areas that matter to you, but who also has enough to supplement a complementary reaction. We want enough of a different perspective to keep things interesting, but not enough that we're looking in fundamentally opposing directions.
Finally, another study conducted in 2010 built on this idea of similarities and claims that we look for qualities of our "ideal selves" in our partners. I tend now to be attracted to men who have succeeded in areas that I haven't but wanted to, and I find that men who are drawn to me tend to value the areas I'm accomplished in. This is both speaking to our differences as well as our similarities. Taken to its most negative extreme, that's why the cliche of the gorgeous model trophy wife and the wealthy schlubby business mogul exists. He aggrandizes her physical perfection and she, his acumen and wealth. Both simultaneously cover up inadequacies and fulfill latent dreams.
In The Lobster, when two people announce their pairing in the hotel, they're upgraded to a suite and given a bigger wardrobe. Suddenly they start to dress similarly, engage in all activities together and pursue a very one-dimensional version of a partnership. It isn't until David joins the loners out in the forest does he meet "shortsighted woman", who, although very similar in temperament and even in clothing choices, also has a knack for catching rabbits which David respects as a very difficult task. It's their similarity that ignites attraction, admiration that invokes continual desire, shared experiences that bond, and obstacles that cement the relationship. According to Weisz, "when there's an impediment, that's when you get the most romance,"
It's no surprise that when asked what animal he would ask to be turned into, Lanthimos replied, "a bird." Birds of a feather indeed flock together.