People often profess to enjoy activities they don’t, in order to please a partner. “I love football!” they gush when invited to watch a Monday night game. “I have been following that story too,” they assure a potential romantic interest when discussing the latest world news headline. But from sports to food, to politics and beyond, mismatched interests can only be concealed for so long before they begin to take a toll on relational satisfaction.
Romancing a Relational Mismatch
In the long run, we know that a fitness fanatic is not a good match for a couch potato—pun intended. Travel-addicts are unlikely to remain grounded with homebodies. And partners who feign compatibility early on are unlikely to keep up the façade forever—which can cause resentment. A spouse who was alluringly accommodating to an outdoor-loving paramour during courtship will ruin a planned camping trip when she leaves her partner alone in a tent after checking into the closest hotel.
Is it possible then, to be accommodating without being dishonest? Research has some answers.
Accommodating and Empathizing With Diverse Interests
Francesca Righetti et al. (2016) examined the impact of empathy on partners' divergent interests regarding issues of daily life.[i] Acknowledging that empathy can be viewed as a beneficial process both individually and interpersonally, they investigated the circumstances under which it might also be a burden.
Righetti et al. recognize that we live in a society that demands the pursuit of multiple goals, including personal health and fitness, knowledge, being successful at work, having hobbies, building an extensive social network, and maintaining positive relationships with family as well as with significant others. They note that due to the myriad of personal goals, romantic couples are likely to encounter divergent interests. They give the example of one partner desiring to spend a Sunday afternoon in the gym while the other would like to go to the movies. They note other examples include different ideas regarding where to live, and whether to prioritize career opportunities over family.
Yet we all know couples who manage to make it work. How do they do it?
On the Same Page of Music
Righetti et al. note that compatible partners have their preferences aligned, creating smooth and harmonious relationships. They note that prior research has shown that couples are happy and are closest when engaging in activities that fulfill the goals of both partners as opposed to only one.
Unfortunately, however, goal alignment is not always possible, which requires partners to make a choice. Do they pursue their own interests, or that of their partner—in the interest of relational well-being? Righetti et al. recognize these situations involve uncertainty, risk, and concern about potential rejection, loss, and even exploitation.
In their own research, Righetti et al. found that divergence of interests with a partner negatively impacted stress, mood, and perhaps not surprisingly, relationship satisfaction. They further found that empathy exacerbates negative consequences created by divergent interests, as it was linked with more stress and negative mood, and reduced relationship satisfaction for partners high in empathy.
A bit of good news: Righetti et al. found that their results did not show that the extent and amount of divergence during the course of their experiment predicted changes in relationship satisfaction one year later. They note this might be due to differences between the week of the experiment and a couple’s typical week, or there are other relational dynamics that more strongly influence satisfaction over time than the potential divergence of interests.
Enjoying the Sunset Together
In order to maintain relational quality, shared activities must be mutually enjoyable. A “fake it till you make it” approach is not sustainable. But mismatched interests do not necessarily signal relational failure. You can authentically admire a partner’s passions without necessarily sharing all of them. And remember, some of the most important attributes shared within successful relationships, such as honesty, love, and respect, don’t require any special skill or level of knowledge.
[i] Righetti, Francesca, Judith Gere, Wilhelm Hofmann, Mariko L. Visserman, and Paul A. M. Van Lange. 2016. “The Burden of Empathy: Partners’ Responses to Divergence of Interests in Daily Life.” Emotion 16 (5): 684–90. doi:10.1037/emo0000163.supp (Supplemental).