Yesterday, my husband and I had the dumbest fight in the history of our relationship. Were the takeout Belgian waffles I’d brought home for breakfast too small, or just the right size? Oh my god, c’mon, I said. In what universe is it reasonable to expect Waffle House-style portions from Pain Quotidien? You knew exactly what you were getting into when I told you I was going there!
It may seem counterintuitive, but this fight was actually a great example of why our relationship works. We’ve been married for 10 years now, and we get happier all the time. I am profoundly grateful for our differences. And they are, uh, legion.
I can remember the first moment I saw Chris. We were teenagers, and Chris was the new kid in school. He was walking toward me down a hallway—this tall, athletic guy—very much my type, with dark eyes and dark hair. We made eye contact and, right away, I felt an intense emotional connection.
In one of the nicest surprises of my life, Chris turned out to be smart, kind and funny. But he did not turn out to be interested in any of the things that I care about; he plays video games while I read, he designs webpages while I write. And he doesn’t see the world as I do. You could say his waffle iron is half-empty, while mine is half-full.
Talking about this publicly can get awkward, fast. If you ever want to make a dinner table go quiet, say that you and your spouse don’t have anything in common. People will expect a divorce announcement to follow. 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?
Stephanie Coontz is a historian who’s spent decades researching and writing about marriage. It’s no exaggeration to say she’s the nation’s foremost authority on the institution; her work even influenced the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. When I called her to ask if it’s necessary for couples to have a wealth of interests in common, she was frank: “There’s no one magic tip for marriage. There is no single secret.”
According to Coontz’s work, it’s only in the last 50 years or so that we’ve been marrying for love at all. “For thousands of years, marriage was more about gaining in-laws, channeling authority, and handling the tasks of daily life,” she said. “There was no sense you had a right to demand complete understanding from your partner.”
Today, we expect much more from marriage, including emotional fulfillment and like-mindedness as well as help with the dishes. “It’s not so much the case that couples must share hobbies and interests,” Coontz said. “But it is essential to be interested in your partner, to experience joy in their joy.”
Hearing this was liberating for me, for obvious reasons. Ten years in, I can still count on one hand the tastes and hobbies that Chris and I have in common. We both enjoy Eminem, zombie movies, and vacationing in Colorado. Both of us like Mexican food, the more inauthentic the better. And neither of us believe in an afterlife, as much as we would like to.
After that, we depart. The differences don’t stop at our personalities, either. I come from a white, conservative and devoutly Catholic household. I love my family more than I can say, I know that they love me too, and we’re very close. Yet it’s true that, in my adult life, my values and beliefs have diverged from theirs.
Chris’s family is a warm and endlessly accepting melting pot. I have black in-laws, Mexican in-laws, white in-laws and Asian in-laws. Their unconditional acceptance of one another took a long time for me to understand, because in some ways it was new to my experience. (For years, Chris and I had the same conversation. “What happens when somebody messes up?” I’d ask. And he’d say, “We still love you and support you.” And I’d say, “That’s a good trick. I like that trick. So what really happens if…”)
In short, marrying someone so different from myself has broadened my experience, introduced welcome novelty to my life, and deepened my understanding of love. The emotional connection we have was, and is, more significant than any shared interest.
That’s not exactly unusual, either. “Ironically, good communication—which many people believe is the cause of a good marriage—is more the product of having a strong emotional connection than the cause,” said Everett Worthington, a licensed clinical psychologist, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of Five Steps to Forgiveness. (Full disclosure: he’s also my friend’s father.)
“Common interests, values, and topics of conversation are definitely helpful to great marriages,” Worthington told me by email. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean partners have to be joined at the hips. They have to find their unique ways of strengthening the emotional connection between them. Of course, most of those unique ways will involve spending time together pleasantly.”
Perhaps most revealingly, even married couples who love the exact same things echoed Coontz’s and Worthington’s sentiments when I asked. My brother-in-law Brendan shares my sister Molly’s devotion to rock climbing. He said, “I love being able to sneak out with Molly for a night at the climbing gym.” But in the end, he just wanted to spend time with someone who has “an interest beyond shopping or Netflix.”
“One of the things which is enjoyable as a couple is to hear the excitement of your partner while they tell you about their latest adventure or accomplishment,” he said. “Shopping and TV really can’t bring that to a conversation.”
And my sister-in-law Jessica, who first bonded with my brother Carl over their shared passion for an obscure Soviet children’s show, said something similar. She’s glad for their common interests, but it’s their differences that “leave room for each of us to expand our horizons.”
Chris and I have found that this holds true for us, too. Once, I dragged him to a reading given by the writer Jane Smiley, who ended up talking about a Star Wars novel, The Joiner King. It quickly became clear that Chris—who would never have been there of his own accord—was the only person in the audience to have read the book. A couple of weeks ago, he took me to my first professional basketball game, and I was surprised to find the game not boring but completely gripping—almost too much so. By the end, I’d become a rowdy fan, ready to brawl in the aisle.
There are other things I’d miss without him, too. Chris has a better grasp of nuances of tones of voice and expression than anyone I’ve ever met. When we walk out of parties, I turn to him and ask, “So what just happened there?” It’s not as though I hear revelations every single time, but his take is always compelling to me. He sees things that I don’t.
Put another way, it can be enlivening to be with someone who sees the waffle differently than you do—even if the two of you can’t agree about what exactly constitutes a sufficient breakfast. Even a wrong-size waffle can make you happy.