Common beliefs may tell you that it is essential to have the same interests and styles to co-exist happily. Some 64% of married Americans believe that “having shared interests” is very important for a successful marriage, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, those surveyed ranked shared interests as more essential than good sex or shared political beliefs. Conventional wisdom goes that couples must have common interests to be happy. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?
Whereas it’s nice to share common interests there are many other determinants that will likely dictate whether your relationship prospers. What happens when you like to read and your partner would rather stream TV programs? What if you’re more of a homebody and your mate prefers to go out? What about exercise and fitness? Is she a gym rat and you’re more of a couch potato? Certainly struggling to find things in common can pose challenges but need they be deal breakers, an unclimbable wall or a chasm too wide to bridge? Well, it depends.
Let’s take physical fitness as an example. What do you do if you both just disagree or just prioritize it differently? Is it true that couples that sweat together, stay together? Well, there is research that does suggest that jointly participating in physical activity leaves both partners more satisfied in their relationship. Makes sense but what if that just isn’t you?
First, you both need to recognize whether or not your difference(s) registers as a deal breaker—a consistently divisive impact on your relationship. If not, then talking and negotiating a solution is much more plausible. For example, leave the more strenuous activities to the adventurer and instead agree on active outings that both of you can enjoy together. Discussing your differences and not simply ignoring them goes a long way in finding a happier middle ground.
When thinking about a problem or conflict in your relationship, it’s important to determine whether that problem is solvable or perpetual. John Gottman’s research has shown that almost 70% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems—they are likely not solvable and constantly reappear in your time together. Obviously, your style differences and interests will be reflected here but does that mean that all is lost? No. What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but rather the affect with which they are discussed. The goal should be to establish a dialogue about the perpetual problem that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem, rather than allowing it to fall into the condition of gridlock.
Once you have determined that a difference is something you are both willing and able to navigate together then you have options. Accentuating what you do have in common and building on those common interests and not letting the differences become the only narrative in your relationship allows you the opportunity to grow both individually and collectively.