Opposites Attract, To a Point

He likes Criterion Collection films; she likes X-Factor.

I first met Octavia, the woman who would become my wife, on a Wednesday. I asked her out Thursday. Usually I would have been a lot more bashful, but I had tickets to a Saturday concert, my dream show, the official 2010 Lollapalooza afterparty for The National at Chicago’s House of Blues, and I was freaking out. (My normal concert M.O. was to buy two tickets even if I wasn’t seeing anybody, under the assumption that I’d somehow meet a band-loving, ticket-lacking supermodel shortly before the show. This had led to a lot of scrambling over the years, though, a lot of last-second desperation plays such as the same-day all-friends invitation via Facebook status update—the social media equivalent of the Hail Mary pass.) When she said yes, it seemed like my strategy had actually worked, as far as avoiding being alone that Saturday. I don’t think I planned on anything beyond that.

Before the show we met at Heaven on Seven, a downtown Chicago Cajun institution. The dinner conversation had been decent, but it seemed like she complained a lot, and I wasn’t sure if we had all that much in common. She boxed up her leftovers, even though I was planning on standing close to the stage in the General Admission crush. I’m pretty sure I gave a look of mild disdain—was she planning to hold her Chicken VooDoo for the whole show, or just drop it off at the coat check? I was having doubts if we’d ever bother with a second date. But on our way over, she gave the food to a homeless man, and I realized there was more to figure out about Octavia than I had assumed.

I always thought I’d marry my best friend, someone who liked the things I liked in the same proportions—someone whose iPod playlist and Netflix queue looked like mine, someone with whom I’d have hour-long conversations every time we got on the phone. But something else happened with Octavia—a healthy blend of similarities and differences, two disparate personalities that glued themselves together with a healthy amount of mutual openness and love. I’m into depressing documentaries and foreign-language Criterion collection movies; I met someone who loves X Factor and Storage Wars. We have some areas of cultural overlap (Synecdoche, NY; Breaking Bad, Jay-Z), but all in all I’ve learned that loving each other is far more important than liking the same things.

Before I start reciting the lyrics to Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract,” I should mention some important similarities—faith in God and in the Gospels, mutual attraction and respect, generally healthy lifestyles, a desire to raise a family. And on the substantive differences, we pull each other in positive directions; she nudges me towards keeping a clean house and spending money a little more frugally, and she likes the fact that I set out long-term personal goals and stick to them.

I had heard horror stories from divorced guys. One friend at the altar could only think he was making a tremendous mistake. I had an overwhelming sense that I was making a commitment.

Still, there were many times in our two-plus years together when one voice or another in my interior dialogues almost argued me out of the relationship. Octavia and I both thought it strange that, while we talked daily, we didn’t spend long hours in conversation. During those times when we found ourselves wondering if we were going to stay together, we put in a little more effort (and a lot more love), and things got better.

I’ve also come to realize that, to paraphrase a bumper-sticker phrase often misattributed to Gandhi, I have to be the change I want to see in the relationship. If I feel like there’s not enough conversation, I have to make some; if I feel like there’s not enough affection, I have to give some. And love, when push comes to shove, means actions, not words. On our first Valentine’s Day together, I completely half-assed it, and she was rightfully upset. The next time February 14th rolled around, we were living together, and I’d learned my lesson. I surprised her with French Toast in bed, and flowers that I’d hidden from view the previous night by putting them in a vase down in my condo’s storage locker—and she surprised me by finding out she was 6 weeks pregnant.

It wasn’t exactly how I’d envisioned starting a family, but I had been thinking of popping the question, so I figured it wasn’t a good idea to get worked up about time lines and societally-approved event sequences. I bought an engagement ring that weekend. With a lot of support from friends and family, we planned and pulled off a great wedding in just over 5 months.

I had heard horror stories from guys who’d divorced. I remember one friend saying that when he was standing at the altar, all he could think was that he was making a tremendous mistake. When I was up there in my rented tuxedo, I waited for that feeling to come, but it didn’t; instead I had an overwhelming sense that I was making a commitment.

She’d been struggling with morning sickness (It should more accurately have been called “all the damn day sickness”) and hadn’t wanted to travel too far. Our honeymoon wasn’t what I’d hoped for—we took the train to Grand Rapids and spent a few days tooling around western Michigan. Still, it was fun, and I’m sure we’ll have plenty of adventures to come.

We welcomed our first child just over eight weeks ago, a daughter named Genesis who is, by all accounts, the most attractive baby in human history.

Some things haven’t changed—the little things that annoyed me on the first date still sometimes annoy me. And when I concentrate on those things, they seem larger and more annoying. (I also know for a fact that she can recite her own litany of my annoying traits when it suits her.) But when I concentrate on the things I love about her—her caring spirit, her goofy sense of humor, her gentleness, her willingness to forgive and admit wrong, and her willingness to let me do the same—I realize I really am lucky and blessed. Paul Newman—who, after an unsuccessful first marriage, ended up in a very happy second one with Joanne Woodward—once said of her, “We are very, very different people and yet somehow we fed off those varied differences, and instead of separating us, it has made the whole bond a lot stronger.” I’m inclined to feel the same way.

Life is about growth, and growth is about change, but how can you change if you’re with someone who agrees with you about everything? By being open to something new, I got something better—a Venn diagram with a healthy amount of overlap in the important areas and a healthy amount of individuality in the frivolous ones, a relationship where I don’t have to stop being me and she doesn’t have to stop being her. We can also both give of ourselves and get something new that wouldn’t be there without the marriage.

Photo by mmaneeraj

About Jerry Brennan

Jerry Brennan hails from the eastern half of North America. He's of German-Irish stock, which means (according to one ex's mom) that he's probably drunk and depressed. He's also the author of Resistance, and you can follow him on Twitter @jerry_brennan


  1. I was recently part of an online exercise in telling the stories of how we met our spouses, significant others, or various “loves” in our lives. Many believe the beginning sets the stage for everything to come. I’m not entirely convinced of that, but I do believe there are fundamental aspects of ourselves we bring to a first meeting – and we cannot judge exactly what they mean until we know the other person for some time.

    It seems you received an impressive clue as to the character of your future wife from her act of not wasting food and giving it to a homeless man.

    Opposites may attract, as you say, but the core of common values and character are both essentials.

    Lovely column, and congratulations on your new baby!

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