While the mother determines in large part what qualities attract us in a mate, it's the father—the first male in our lives—who influences how we relate to the opposite sex. Fathers have an enormous effect on their children's personalities and chances of marital happiness.
Just as mothers influence their son's general feelings toward women, fathers influence their daughter's general feelings about men. If a father lavishes praise on his daughter and demonstrates that she is a worthwhile person, she'll feel very good about herself in relation to men. But if the father is cold, critical or absent, the daughter will tend to feel she's not very lovable or attractive.
In addition, most of us grow up with people of similar social circumstances. We hang around with people in the same town; our friends have about the same educational backgrounds and career goals. We tend to be most comfortable with these people, and therefore we tend to link up with others whose families are often much like our own.
What about opposites? Are they really attracted to each other? Yes and no. In many ways we want a mirror image of ourselves. Physically attractive people, for example, are usually drawn to a partner who's equally attractive.
Robert Winch, a longtime sociology professor at Northwestern University, stated in his research that our choice of a marriage partner involves a number of social similarities. But he also maintained that we look for someone with complementary needs. A talker is attracted to someone who likes to listen, or an aggressive personality may seek out a more passive partner.
It's rather like the old, but perceptive, saying on the subject of marriage that advises future partners to make sure that the holes in one's head fit the bumps in the other's. Or, as Winch observed, it's the balancing out of sociological likenesses and psychological differences that seems to point the way for the most solid lifelong romance.
However, there are instances where people of different social backgrounds end up getting married and being extremely happy. I know of one man, a factory worker from a traditional Irish family in Chicago, who fell in love with an African American Baptist. When they got married, their friends and relatives predicted a quick failure. But 25 years later, the marriage is still strong.
It turns out that the woman was like her mother-in-law—a loving and caring person, the type who rolls up her sleeves and volunteers to work at church or help out people in need. This is the quality that her husband fell for, and it made color and religion and any other social factors irrelevant to him.
Or as George Burns, who was Jewish and married the Irish Catholic Gracie Allen, used to say: his marriage was his favorite gig, even though it was Gracie who got all the laughs. The two of them did share certain social similarities—both grew up in the city, in large but poor families. Yet what really drew them together was evident from the first time they went onstage together. They complemented each other perfectly: he was the straight man, and she delivered the punch lines.
There are certainly such "odd couples" who could scarcely be happier. We all know some drop-dead beautiful person married to an unusually plain wallflower. This is a trade-off some call the equity theory.