The Importance of Shared Interests in Relationships
One way to get and remain close to your partner.
Posted October 9, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
As a young clinician, I believed that if you were physically attracted to someone and could not find anything intolerable about them, it made sense to make a commitment. Of course, the concept of tolerance is a subjective one. For example, if you cannot tolerate a smoker or someone who drinks in excess it would be prudent to stay away from such a person rather than invest in their change—which may be the same as investing in a fantasy. If you are a saver and you determine that your potential partner throws caution to the wind when it comes to money, your union is likely to end in disaster. I would not include in this, partners who initially meet your expectations but through no fault of their own regress to intolerable habits or tendencies. Life is tough and bad luck can come upon any of us at a given moment. You can, however, expect that they would do what they could to improve themselves.
But I now see things somewhat differently. I believe that differences in interests can cause serious relationship problems. Take hobbies, for example. Many couples I have treated see nothing wrong with each partner having different interests. A husband likes basketball, and his wife likes movies. But it is a bit more complicated than that. If a couple is unable to tolerate the time and money a partner puts into a hobby, it can become a source of conflict.
A male client once told me that his friend’s wife set him up with her best friend. He was taken by this woman’s beauty and she seemed to meet many of his basic requirements. She was a well-educated professional with a great career. She was also close to him in age and a nonsmoker with no children. But something bothered him: He picked up that this woman absolutely loved to ski. She often mentioned the sport in conversation and demonstrated excitement and passion every time the topic came up. My client, in contrast, happened to ski once in his entire life, and as he put it, “barely survived.” He was clearly not a fan of the sport. He told me that a skier was one step away from the emergency room.
Considering their significant differences when it came to skiing, my client decided to end the relationship before it had a chance to develop. For her part, the young woman became combative—as if she were being rejected. Refusing to let go, she apparently berated my client. She told him, “People do not have to share interests. And if I want to ski, I can ski with my friends. You and I can do other things.” Fair enough, but in retort, my client asked the magic question: “How often do you ski?” Without hesitation, the woman said, “six months of the year.” In response, my client told her that he was not trying to be critical of her lust for skiing, and in fact, he admired her for her dedication to her passion. He assumed that her skills were close to that of a professional. The woman did not deny this but reiterated that my client did not have to go with her on her ski trips, and if he did, he could find other things to do. Astutely, and in an effort to exit as gracefully as possible, my client said to the woman: “Picture this: You are skiing on a mountain in Switzerland with Bode Miller (ref. to the great skier) and I am sitting in the ski lodge with a cup of hot chocolate. How long to do realistically give our relationship?” To that my client reported the woman gave no response and disappeared from my client’s life.
Please do not mistake what I am saying. This is not an indictment on any one hobby, interest, or individual’s values. And I certainly do not limit “interests” to hobbies. The Pew Research Center (2016) found that 44% of adults surveyed said that shared religious beliefs are important for a successful marriage. My point is first and foremost about the matchup. If my client wanted to learn how to ski or was remotely interested in the sport, perhaps he passed up a great opportunity to broaden his horizons. But he was not interested in skiing and in fact, found it quite dangerous. He also saw it as potentially detrimental to the development of his relationship.
The truth here is evident: When two partners have the same or similar interests, life is easier for the couple. Better yet, if they share a passion for the same interests, it can bond them for years. I once owned a house in the mountains. One day while taking a walk I came across an old man who asked me if I lived nearby. When I answered that my house was around the corner he responded: “Isn’t this place paradise? My wife and I love it here. We have had a home here for 50 years and we feel blessed.” Indeed, I thought, this man “was” truly blessed, and so was his wife.
But there is still more to this underestimated concept of shared interests. There are couples, for example, who share interests but not to the same degree. A couple loved to exercise, but the husband was far more consumed with it than his wife. Although the couple would exercise together two to three days during the week, the husband went alone on the weekends, causing his wife to accuse him of stealing valuable time away from the family. The point here is that the degree to which an interest is shared is also an important factor and that couples need to negotiate and manage any significant differences. Partners need not match up perfectly, but close enough to enjoy what they do have in common.
A final word of caution: Partners can use differing interests or a failure to negotiate or support them against one another to mask deeper incompatibilities. If a couple is not emotionally or physically attracted to one another, or if one or both have intimacy issues, partners can use hobbies and various interests to distance from one another.
I have always wondered about some men, for example, who could never tolerate shopping with their wives. Isn’t the main point to spend time with your wife? Who cares if you hang out in a few dress shops for a couple of hours? Maybe you can build up some goodwill in your relationship, or at the very least, have lunch with your wife afterward. But some men prefer to nap or listen to the ballgame on the car radio while their wives shop by themselves. Other men may accompany their partners but whine or complain all the while. Not a good idea in my opinion. According to Gottman (2018), it is not what you do together but how you interact while doing it. Each partner must show respect and support for their counterpart's interests.
I have also treated many couples that chronically triangulate other couples. That is, they have large groups of friends who they cannot seem to be without. Many of these couples’ vacation with each other; and … even go on honeymoons together. But I have noticed that when these friends fade or when the couple is forced to be alone for extended periods of time, their relationship tends to fall apart. Their foundation is too weak to bear the intimacy thrust upon them and their true lack of compatibility is exposed.
All else considered, couples that have similar interests to a similar degree tend to have healthier relationships. These partners show interest in one another, think alike, share passion, enjoy similar adventures, and in the end, bond. These couples fight less because they generally agree on how to invest their energy and finances. Life is better in so many ways for couples who share interests. While not all relationships fail because partners have significantly different interests; they do not. But Geiger and Livingston (2019) found that 64% of couples with shared interests believe that this has helped their marriages to succeed. And Buscho (2020) reported that having “no common interests” was one of the major reasons couples cited for divorce. D.H. Lawrence wrote: “I want us to be together without bothering about ourselves—to be really together because we are together, as if it were a phenomenon, not a thing we have to maintain by our own effort.”
Buscho, A.G. (2020, February 22). Why do people divorce? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-divorce/202002/why-do-pe…
Geiger, A.W., & Livingston, G. (2019, February 13). 8 facts about love and marriage in America. Retrieved from https://www..pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/13/8-facts-aboutlove-and…
Gottman, J. (2018, July 11). Why conventional marriage wisdom is wrong. Retrieved from gottman.com/blog/why-conventional-marriage-wisdom-is-wrong
Pew Research Center (2016, October 26). Retrieved from Religion and public life: One-in-five U.S. adults were raised in interfaith homes. Retrieved from pewforum.org