A kitten. There is a kitten balancing on his forearm. When I first saw my now-boyfriend’s Hinge profile, I stopped in my digital tracks. Clearly this meant that not only did he like cats but that this cat liked him. I’d long yearned for a cat-person partner and along with a photo of him wearing a Peep Show T-shirt, I reasoned that these similar interests were a sure sign we were meant to be together. It turns out I’m not alone in this thinking – but it's not always ideal for a relationship.
Some 61% of daters use apps to meet people who share common interests, according to research by Healthy Framework. Another study by the Pew Research Center revealed that 64% of married Americans believe that having shared interests is very important for a successful marriage. Those surveyed even ranked shared interests as more essential than good sex or shared political beliefs. Why do we think this, and are shared interests really the marker of a lasting relationship?
My boyfriend and I are a year into our relationship now and I can count our mutual interests on one hand (after cats and Peep Show, the other three are pizza, weed and reggaeton, if you’re curious). I like watching reality TV; he thinks it’s drivel and would much rather put on a horror film that’ll make me weep with stress. He is obsessed with finding the most authentic, local food on holiday (the more adventurous, the better), while I find trying new foods anxiety-inducing. My hangover days routinely consist of bed-bound binge-eating, whereas he favours going to the gym – leaving me to consume junk food as though I'm in some sort of solo competition.
"When you first start dating someone, it can be exciting to discover that you have a lot in common," says relationship expert Carmelia Ray. "However, as time passes, you may find that having too much in common can be just as challenging as having nothing."
Dating apps like Hinge are built on the idea of finding someone whose likes and dislikes are similar to yours. Hinge’s USP might be getting your personality across with quirky conversation-starters, but we're scanning them for interests we identify with. We might think, Ah, they’re a drinker – thank God. We examine their photos to see if they might love travelling, partying or the pub. Oh, they like vintage shopping on the weekends? Me too! Searching for commonalities is sewn into the discourse of modern dating and it’s becoming more extreme by the day. Tinder’s 2021 update included the launch of the 'Explore' tool to make it easier to find people with the exact same interests as you. Newer apps are even more blinkered: POM claims to match users on the basis of their listening history; Clover allows you to join groups like 'dog lovers'; Kippo matches gamers based on the games both parties play.
"People often confuse compatibility with being the same," says relationship psychotherapist Charisse Cooke. "It’s often the differences in relationships that can cause problems and conflict. So we may imagine someone having the same interests as us protects us from misunderstandings or disagreements."
Perhaps this boils down to a rebellion against the badly matched relationships of our elders? After all, it’s only in the last 50 years or so that we’ve been marrying for love first and foremost. "In previous generations, the main motivation for relationships and commitment was security," continues Cooke. "Being part of a couple or family unit was imperative for social and economic reasons." The number of shared interests, or similarities in general, was not part of the decision-making. Cooke believes that younger generations have an "urge to merge" their lives: we want to view the world the same way, hold the same beliefs and do the same things. By doing this, Cooke believes we expect to experience less dysfunction and stress. But are we going too far in our pursuit of a clone-like "type on paper"?
For starters, having different interests from your partner allows you to become a more well-rounded person. "When dating someone with the same interests, there's less room for growth," says Cooke. "You may find that you stop trying new things."
Hattie, a 27-year-old art director based in London, has wildly different music tastes from her boyfriend. But through compromise (yay to adulting!) she’s discovered a surprising appreciation of genres she thought she despised. "I used to be adamant that I hated all music without lyrics," says Hattie, a lover of indie bands and pop bangers. "But nowadays, if I just have at least one lyric to hold onto, then I can have fun." She now loves dance festivals like GALA and has swapped Tom Odell for Caribou on her running playlist. In turn, her boyfriend recently discovered a love of Sam Fender and Holly Humberstone – artists typically too mainstream for him – after being dragged to see them at this year’s Glastonbury festival.
"It's essential to continue exploring new things together so your relationship can grow and change over time," says Cooke. It’s a bit like the echo chamber effect on social media. We become narrow-minded when we seek out opinions or information that reinforce our existing views.
Different opinions and interests also prevent boredom. Mancunians Lizzie, 27, and Harry, 29, have been together for almost 10 years and note that their differences are what keep the relationship fresh. "There are interests we’ve picked up from each other and do together but it’s the separate ones which allow us to have independence and our own space," says Lizzie. The couple certainly don’t agree on everything, especially when it comes to what constitutes fun – yoga vs rugby, for example. "You have friends for a reason," she continues. "They’re who I have the most shared tastes with, and it makes spending time with them that much more fun."
A sense of separate identity is essential when it comes to the unthinkable relationship breakup. Lana* is a 27-year-old tax advisor who recently split with her girlfriend of two years. "Thankfully I kept most of my hobbies separate during our relationship and this has helped me so much," she says. "I’ve managed to retain my sense of self and the memory of her doesn’t lurk over all my favourite activities."
Breakups can be far more traumatising when every little thing reminds you of them (a brief break from my current partner almost ruined cats for me forever). Cooke even believes that too many shared interests can make relationships last longer than they should. "It can make leaving them that much harder, in fear you’ll never find someone you can share so much with again," she says.
Shared hobbies can also trigger unfriendly competition. "My boyfriend and I are both really into the outdoors and fitness so when we took up climbing together I thought it’d be a great way to bond and have fun," says 28-year-old teacher Tanya*. "But he started to get much better, much faster and it knocked my confidence. I felt discouraged, unreasonably angry and stopped enjoying it altogether." Although she theoretically likes the idea of her boyfriend getting more into running, which is her favourite sport, Tanya anticipates it feeling like he’s encroaching on her identity. "He’s naturally quite an outspoken, dominating character and as I’m much softer, it would probably feel like he’s taking over that side of me," she continues.
"Society has conditioned us to believe that having similar interests can equate to being romantically compatible — but in reality, having similar interests is not enough for a couple to sustain a happy and successful long-term relationship," confirms Lisa Fei, founder and CEO of relationship wellness app Clarity. "Having similar values and ethics is what can make or break a relationship in the long run."
Lana agrees, sharing: "I’ve discovered that having similar value systems is much more important to me. For example, do you make decisions based on the same moral code? If you don’t appreciate each other’s logic and how you get to decisions, then you don’t actually understand each other."
Respect for each other’s differences is crucial, too. "I’m very spiritually minded," says Tanya. "And although Jack* might roll his eyes when I say I want to sage the house or set some intentions, he would never belittle my interests because they don’t align with his." Having different passions doesn’t mean you need to spend time doing them apart either. "My ex and I did a thing called 'alone time together'," says Lana. "I would read my book and she would practise on her DJ decks. It felt like we were together but we also got our essential alone time with our favourite hobbies."
"As long as your values and non-negotiables are aligned, having different interests can be healthy," continues Fei. "It’s differences in values about fidelity or life goals, for example, that could prove fatal to a long-term partnership," adds Cooke.
Yes, I enjoy the many cat memes my boyfriend and I send each other. And of course it’s utter bliss when we smoke while eating pizza and watching Peep Show every Sunday. But I still don’t watch horror movies or get a kick out of trying new foods. My boyfriend is never going to watch Love Island with me or discuss the latest creative director movements in the fashion industry. And that’s fine. I have a whole host of incredible pals to do this with and more. And as for my solo hangover eating competition, it’s wonderful – more junk food for me.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
This story was originally published in October 2022 and has since been updated.