Illustration by Xixi Qin
Each week, Dr. Took-One-Psych-Class-Sophomore-Year will be answering Colorado College’s questions about the one thing that most perplexes our student body, Love on the Block. This week, we ask about what to do when you realize that you don’t have much in common with the person you’re dating and you don’t have hobbies you like to do together. Is a relationship bound to fall apart when this happens, or can these sorts of differences be managed? Email your burning questions about love, sex, and relationships to Catalyst@ColoradoCollege.edu for a totally free, totally anonymous consultation in these very pages.
Dear Dr. Took-One-Psych-Class-Sophomore-Year,
I’m currently quarantining with my girlfriend in Colorado Springs, where things remain pretty uncertain. We go to the grocery store occasionally and try to spend time outside, but we are otherwise stuck in our off-campus house. This has left us with a lot of time together. We started dating only a few months ago, but we decided to quarantine together at the last minute, mostly because we both thought it’d be better than quarantining with our respective families. During the school year, our relationship seemed to be going really well, but I’m now worried that this was because we were both so busy with different classes and activities. Now that I’m spending so much time with my girlfriend, I’ve realized that we don’t have much in common. She likes to go rock climbing, and to take long hikes, and I don’t enjoy those things. I like reading and debating ideas, which she doesn’t care about. She keeps trying to get me to go climbing, and I keep trying to get her to read, but we usually reach a stalemate. Can two people who have nothing in common maintain a relationship? Should we keep trying?
When couples spend much more time together than they usually do, certain challenges can present themselves. This is especially true when the rest of the world seems to be in disarray. Even for those couples whose relationships have survived significant hurdles, quarantining together can prove very trying. It may be tempting to see this as a sign that a relationship isn’t meant to last. After all, if spending lots of time with someone feels so taxing, you might reason that being in a committed romantic relationship with them is surely a mistake.
Often, that isn’t bad reasoning. If you’re on a first date and find that the time you spend with the other person feels burdensome, that’s a good indication that you probably shouldn’t pursue a relationship with them. If, a few weeks into dating someone, you find that you always feel drained after seeing them, there’s a reason to think that things might not work out. But today’s circumstances are exceptional — as we’re all used to hearing, these are “strange and difficult times” — and it wouldn’t be so surprising if time spent with a romantic partner is more challenging today than it otherwise might be. Even the strongest romantic bonds can feel shaky when anxiety seems to enclose the whole world.
You say that your relationship was steadier when you and your girlfriend were both busy with classes and activities, when you each had to keep pace with the demands of academic work and extracurriculars. Now that you’re left to yourselves, having to structure your time as best you can in order to create some semblance of everyday routine, you worry that you might be seeing your relationship for what it really is: a haphazard union of two people who don’t have much in common, made possible by a busyness that kept inevitable malfunction briefly out of view.
Our lives are busy, though. We do have to keep pace with various obligations and activities. And so it makes sense to expect your relationship to be suited to this busyness, this pace. No relationship should be expected to perfectly withstand our present circumstances. Our expectations in a romantic partnership should be aligned with our day-to-day lives, not with weeks or months of sheltering in place. The fact that your relationship seems especially fragile right now isn’t a sign that it’s not meant to be; it’s a sign that now is a hard time for all of us, and that this affects our relationships.
Being quarantined with someone may feel particularly difficult when the two of you don’t have much in common. These days can appear expansive in duration as hours endlessly pass each other by, punctuated only by the latest bad news. Or they can seem terribly short, cut off from meaning, and senseless. It can help to have something to do: a project, something that takes time and energy, something that feels exciting and worthwhile. It can help even more — since human connection has largely been rendered virtual and fleeting — when this project is shared.
That’s not to mention that “having things in common” is often imagined to be central to any healthy relationship. Recent surveys suggest that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that having “shared interests” is essential for successful relationships. By and large, Americans believe this to be more important for couples than common values or mutually satisfying sex (this just goes to show you that we shouldn’t ask most Americans for relationship advice). The idea that a loving relationship is founded on activities enjoyed in tandem — though not sexual ones, apparently — is often considered a kind of folksy truism.
There’s some truth to it, of course. Saint Augustine counseled us that if we wish to get a handle on someone’s character “we have only to observe what they love.” Someone’s hobbies can tell us a great deal about them; these can speak to their virtues and vices, and to the kind of romantic partner we can expect them to be. But I don’t think that a love of rock climbing or hiking suggests a vice that can’t be overcome. Nor is a love of reading the only virtue. It doesn’t sound like your girlfriend’s hobbies speak against her character, or provide a reason to break things off.
A relationship founded on shared interests alone isn’t likely to work out. It’s not enough, as far as romance is concerned, to love someone because you love doing such-and-such with them. Romance is about loving them for who they are. It’s for this same reason that a relationship in which two people don’t have much in common isn’t bound to fail. You may not love rock climbing, and you shouldn’t love your girlfriend because you love rock climbing with her; but you can still love her, and perhaps even go rock climbing with her once in a while because you love her.
I suggest that you be open to engaging in activities you wouldn’t ordinarily do, were it not for her. Your love of her, and your wish to see her happy, might be reason enough to go rock climbing or hiking on occasion. But not always, and that’s all right. You shouldn’t feel forced to compromise what you enjoy doing, or your values and tastes, for the sake of a relationship. We can love those who are dramatically different from us, so long as we don’t try to overcome this difference by lessening it.
In the end, it’s your enjoyment in each other that needs to be held in common, not other interests or activities. And this can be plenty to share. The truism that good relationships are built on shared interests comes up against another truism: “opposites attract.” Both have some truth to them. Opposites attract when one interest is shared: the relationship itself, the love of someone who’s really different from you.
My advice is to try climbing or hiking with her, and to see if she tries reading or discussing ideas with you in turn. Your goal should be to focus on the relationship, on the connection you have with your partner, and to let this lead the way — it’s only this joy in the other person that can cross differences between people without lessening them. You could also try spending time doing the things you already do together in a romantic fashion: you both have to cook dinner, so why not make this a shared activity that’s enjoyable? And most Americans are, it seems, wrong about mutually satisfying sex; that’s an interest you might share, one that is often vital to a strong romantic relationship.
You don’t need to force things. Nor do you need to compromise what you like and value. Neither does your girlfriend. You have each other in common, and that can be enough for the fiercest of bonds. It’s only when you fail to have this in common — when you no longer love another person in their difference from you — that you should question whether it’s still worth trying to make things work. For the time being, as you quarantine together, try to enjoy each other’s company in the simple, ordinary tasks of everyday life. That’s all any two people need to have in common for romance to stay kindled in otherwise dark times.