Before I start writing this, I want to acknowledge that I know my experience isn’t universal, and that there isn’t any right or wrong, or any one-size-fits-all advice, when it comes to relationships. But I have wanted to write this for a while because I think it’s worth saying – and it’s something that actually came as a surprise to me, so it might well do so to anyone else reading this.
So much received wisdom about finding a romantic partner is wrapped up in the idea of shared interests. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the kind of advice I was reading in teen mags in the ’90s or the fact that dating apps in 2021 encourage you to list your interests; the bottom line seems to be that if you’re looking for your soul mate, you should seek out someone who likes the same things you do. And it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t you want to be with someone who shares your loves, hates and interests? I certainly believed it for the first 30 years of my life. I tried to find boyfriends who, somehow, reflected myself back at me. Whether that was in hobbies (Lord, I hate that word) or temperament or experiences, I thought the aim of the game was to find someone who was as much like me as possible. Doesn’t that sound arrogant? Yet this is the narcissistic approach we’re encouraged to take.
Of course it’s lovely when you meet someone who likes the same comedy shows you do; who knows the songs you love; who went to uni in your home town. Those things are easy talking points and a great way to bond. But they’re not the be all and end all. I had a few relationships in my twenties that were full of these common denominators. They were all perfectly nice while they lasted, but they didn’t last. And yes, I would probably have carried on looking using the same criteria if I hadn’t met my now husband.
When we met, it was in that classic scenario of a loud party with lots of alcohol. At that point, our shared interests, favourite books and hopes for the future didn’t really come up, funnily enough. Introduced (match-made, in fact) by a mutual friend, we flirted, we kissed, we shared a taxi home because we lived near each other. Then I woke up the next morning to a text asking me out for a drink.
From our first date onwards, I think we established quite firmly that we had very little in common, in most ways. I remember him looking at my CDs when he came to my little room in my horrible house share; he didn’t have a single nice word to say about any of them (no “Hey, I’ve got this one!” or “Isn’t this album great?” Just a quiet, dismayed silence). No wonder, since he’s a former music journo with eclectic but respectable tastes that take in The Beatles, Dylan, all kinds of rap and lots of jingly-jangly indie music, whereas my collection is 90% robotic synth and 10% ’80s pop.
Ten years later, when we got married, I still struggled to think of much we had in common, as I said in my wedding speech. I pointed out that while he’s sociable, I’m shy; he’s tidy, my nickname is The Pig.
For every activity we enjoy together (horror films, certain comedy shows, playing Scrabble, holidaying in cold countries), there are more that we don’t agree on. Plus, our temperaments could not be more different. Again, I spent my twenties looking for someone like me, thinking that would make for a smooth and harmonious relationship. Um, no. Turns out it’s not always the best idea to pick someone who shares your neuroses, your insecurities, your weak points. My husband and I couldn’t be more different in that respect, either. And it works.
After 15 years with my husband, I’ve an understanding of the phrase ‘soul mate’ that is totally different to the one I had at 29. I had thought it was someone who mirrors you. I now know it’s someone who complements you. There are essential things that relationships are built on – magic, chemistry, attraction, understanding… and none of these things care about whether you both like to do extreme sports or read the same authors. And that’s what I wish I’d read when I was 19.