Why Do People Usually End Up With Someone Who Is In Their League?

We’ve all heard it said that opposites attract, but is this old adage entirely true? Not in the way you might be thinking.

By Keelia Clarkson4 min read

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we? Think back to the days of high school or college, the days when you were surrounded by a sea of teenagers and young adults, all of them with raging hormones coursing through their veins, overwhelming romantic desires, and either total inexperience or minimal experience to boot. Think about the couples you remember from those days, whether or not they’re still together all these years later.

Often enough, the pretty head cheerleader dated the handsome quarterback, the two talented leads in the musical ended up falling for one another, and even two of the smart kids from the mathletes started dating. The way people paired off made sense, more or less. The couples that became official weren’t typically a huge surprise that crossed clique lines, but essentially stayed within them.

It was likely in those days of high school and college that you began to gain a sense of the different “leagues” that people fell into. “Being in the same league” is a phrase that describes two people who seem to be generally well-matched rather than making you wonder how on earth they got together in the first place. For example, a couple that is in the same league physically won’t raise any eyebrows when they enter a party holding hands – they’re both very good-looking, so their relationship checks out.

The term “league” feels immature – a little bit high school, to say the least – but is this idea something that just magically disappears as we grow into adulthood, or does the real world end up playing out a lot like high school, with the majority of people dating within their own league rather than out of it?

First of All, What Does It Even Mean To Be in Someone’s League?

What we’re certainly not saying is that being in a different “league” means a person is beneath someone else or in any way less valuable as a human being. Let’s leave that kind of silly rhetoric to the high school bullies. 

What we’re referring to is the fact that many couples seem to fit well together, whether they’re both incredibly intelligent, are both on the awkward side, both have loads of talent, are both highly driven and visionary, or are both very good-looking. When we spot a mismatched couple, they tend to stick out in our minds. But a couple that’s in the same league? We immediately accept their partnership.

But interestingly, even though we each have a sense of “being in the same league,” we don’t always follow this rule, so to speak.

It’s Not Uncommon To Aim Out of Your League

We’ve all had that friend whose type seems to exclusively be “model,” and essentially nothing else. And while we might’ve thought that friend to be a bit on the idealistic side, it turns out that they aren't alone in their pursuit of someone who’s highly desirable, even more than they are. Studies show that it’s not terribly uncommon for a person to try and snag someone who’s out of their league in one way or another.

In a 2018 study, researchers analyzed the messaging behavior of 187,000 users on a popular, unnamed dating app within four large U.S. cities. Each user was given a desirability rating based on how many unsolicited messages they received. What researchers found was that both men and women, on average, tended to message users who were around 25% more desirable than they themselves were.

Is it difficult to understand the reasoning behind this desirability gap? Absolutely not. What single person doesn’t see someone extra pretty, funny, smart, or accomplished and think to themselves, “Pick me! Choose me! Love me!” However, the same study found that the chances of actually receiving a response dropped significantly as the differences between the levels of desirability increased – which leads us to our next point.

When It Comes to Actual Relationships, People Tend To Date within Their Own League

She’s Out Of My League depicts an awkward “5” guy who gets the attention of a pretty “10” woman. Cinderella shows a young, poor woman who sneaks into a ball, gets the prince to fall in love with her, and ends up marrying him. While it’s not as if these kinds of pairings never happen, they’re also not nearly as common in the real world as they are in the movies.

The matching hypothesis is a psychological theory that argues that people are far more likely to date someone whose attractiveness is either equal or very similar to theirs. Research from the University of Missouri found that two people of similar desirability were likely to enter a relationship, and that their relationship was more likely to succeed. While the matching hypothesis is mostly geared toward physical attractiveness, there are other assets it takes into account, such as kindness.

We need only look to some of the most famous couples to see that often enough, the old adage that opposites attract isn’t exactly true. Beloved Hollywood couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds aren’t only both good looking, they’re also in the same line of work and share a similar sense of humor, making them well-matched on multiple levels. While Amal Clooney isn’t in the acting world like her A-lister husband, George Clooney, she’s a highly successful barrister, is beautiful and intelligent, and has received multiple awards for her work – so Mr. Clooney was hardly settling by marrying her. Prince William and Kate Middleton aren’t a surprising match, either – the two studied the same subject at the prestigious St. Andrews University, so they ran in similar circles. And while Kate wasn’t born into a royal family, she came from a wealthy family that had royalty in its ancestry. It’s safe to say that even famous couples pair up in a way that just makes sense.

Potential Problems with "Marrying Up"

We don’t say any of this to suggest that people should ever only look to date within their “league” so as to not rock the boat too much. The aim here isn’t to separate people into their categories, but instead to encourage self-reflection and healthy goals that don’t center only on our desire to be with a pretty person.

In fact, when we reach unrealistically far beyond our own league, this will more often create a recipe for disaster than it will bring us bliss and contentment. We might think that being with someone whose intelligence leaves us in total awe, or someone whose modeling career is starting to take off means we’ve won the lottery, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Significantly differing desirability and assets in a couple can actually cause insecurities and conflict, and even has a higher correlation with extramarital affairs, according to one study. While one partner feels they could have done “better,” the other one feels unappreciated and not valued by their partner. For a relationship to be healthy, we have to feel some sense of equality with our significant other, at least on a few metrics.

This Doesn’t Mean Every Couple Will Be Perfectly Equal

So do relationships only work when both people are perfectly equal on every level? Absolutely not. Not only is this ultimately limited thinking, but there’s also no such thing as finding a totally equal match. Not every single couple will be equally physically attractive, talented, successful, or sharp. There are bound to be small gaps, even in couples whose overall desirability is similar.

“When feeling positive emotions such as romantic love,” says Aaron Ben-Zeev, Ph.D., “small gaps between partners enhance love since the cooperative concern is associated with increasing the prospects of having a better life. Partners are unconcerned with their inferiority because, in this sense, minor inequality does not humiliate them.”

When we feel generally well-matched with our partner, the smaller gaps won’t bother us too much. We won’t feel overwhelmed with insecurities (“Am I smart enough for him? Why do I feel so frumpy next to him? He’s probably wishing he could break up with me.”), but instead, we’ll feel at peace with what we bring to the relationship.

Closing Thoughts

The word “league” can feel a little icky, especially if it gives you flashbacks to the high school cafeteria. But the reality is people tend to match up based on what they both bring to the table, and often enough, those things are relatively similar. Even in the couples that feel so opposite (we all know an adorable couple where the boyfriend is like a golden retriever and the girlfriend is like a black cat), if you take a second glance, we bet you’ll notice all the ways they’re actually not all that different after all. 

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