This is a question that comes up more often than I would have expected. We’ll address this issue of shared interests but at the end of the post I am going to go a whole layer deeper and tell you what really matters for couples that are focusing on this issue.
Some couples seem to spend all their time together and have exactly the same interests. Others seem to have nothing in common and their leisure time is a constant battle between their individual preferences. If you’re in the latter group you may be wondering to what extent you are expected to join in with your spouse’s interests and hobbies. So we’re going to examine this issue and how it can impact marriages.
Clarifying Shared Leisure or Interests
Whether we’re talking hobbies or shared leisure or shared interests, it’s helpful to clarify that in order for something to truly fall into this category the activities need to be[i]
- Expected to be enjoyable by BOTH spouses
- Freely chosen by BOTH spouses
That might sound obvious but often the contention comes in right here because either one person is not enjoying it, or one person does not feel like they were part of the decision. This is a challenge for being honest with each other and with ourselves: don’t call it shared if it’s not.
It’s OK if you’re happy to do something with your spouse because he or she enjoys it and you just enjoy being with them. Just make sure it is fair: so that somehow that imbalance is reciprocated even in other ways.
I think it’s also good to point out that shared activities can be joint or parallel. Joint are interactive and undertaken together. Parallel are undertaken together but not interactive. For example, going to a swimming club: you’ll change separately, you won’t interact while swimming etc. But it’s still a joint activity.
I think this is helpful to note because it begs the question: are you wanting more activities together or more interaction? If you only want the latter, it may be that you’re focusing on the wrong problem. More on that later.
Shared Interests and Marriage Satisfaction
Spending free time together and having shared interests is linked to increased marital satisfaction[ii].
Having shared interests is a sign of high levels of intimacy as it shows that the couples are choosing to spend their free time together. Shared leisure also predicts higher self-reported feelings of love for your spouse and less conflict in the marriage[iii]. So, at least initially, this seems to be a good thing, right?
However, it’s slightly more complicated than just shared free time equals marital satisfaction. For starters, the interests really do have to be shared: a study from 2002[iv] studied couples over 10 years for changes in shared leisure and its effects on marriage. They found that involvement in interests that the husband liked but the wife disliked was “both a cause and a consequence of wives’ dissatisfaction”. Forcing or expecting your spouse to care about the same things as you isn’t going to be good for your marriage.
There are a whole range of other factors that play into this other than simply how long you spend on what activity, and who enjoys it. Here are some of them[v]:
- Satisfaction with the leisure time (both of you finding it enjoyable) is correlated with marital satisfaction. This satisfaction with the joint leisure time is a more important predictor of marital satisfaction than the amount of time spent in such activities.
- Marital satisfaction is linked to the percentage of free time spouses chose to spend with each other, rather than the total number of hours. That’s a very nuanced but interesting detail. It’s saying this: if you have 2 free hours a week, and you spend one of that with your spouse, that’s 50%. If you have 8 free hours a week and you spend 2 of those with your spouse, that’s 25%. Spouse’s with the 50% ratio will be more satisfied with their marriage than the 25% spouse who is getting double the time. So even when couples are busy, spending their limited free time together is good for the marriage.
- Satisfaction with amount of leisure time: the extent to which both spouses are happy with the amount of time spent in joint leisure is linked to marital satisfaction. So couples who spend little time in leisure together may still be happily married as long as they are both happy with the amount of joint leisure. This is more about meeting expectations or wants: are you getting enough of what you want.
- Similarity of interests was linked to higher marital satisfaction. Having similar interests makes it easier to find activities you’ll both enjoy, motivates you to do things together and means you are still likely to enjoy activities that your spouse chooses.
- Interaction: the rate to which couples interact during their shared leisure was linked to marital satisfaction. So taking part in activities that allow direct interaction with the spouse was good for the marriage. Activities that encourage lots of communication between spouses were also linked to marital satisfaction.
- Decision making: a link was found between marital satisfaction and the extent to which the individual spouse was involved in choosing the joint leisure activities. But here’s the problem: individual spouses had the highest rates of satisfaction when they had the most control over choice of activities. They did NOT report that equal decision making was the best: both spouses want to have the most control. So obviously for this to work in marriage there needs to be some give-and-take.
So there are some of the issues that you need to think about. Are you happy with the amount of time, and the amount of interaction you get during your leisure time? Do you feel like you get enough of a say in choosing what you do? Interestingly, no gender differences were found for any of the above effects: they’re all important for both men and women.
Let’s look at an interesting side note here. Shared leisure was uniquely important for cross-cultural couples who often face additional challenges from language and communication differences and lack of shared culture.
Shared leisure time allowed these couples to positively work on communication and actively establish shared interests and form a shared identity[vi]. We’ve looked in detail at cross-cultural marriages previously and this just adds a little extra bit of info you can use. So you could consider this like an intervention on your marriage: specifically for strengthening your shared identity and communication.
Now if you’re reading this today and thinking this is great — I’d love to go through this with my spouse, we have a guide that you can download and go through together.
Bridging the Age Gap
Our bonus guide will step you through identifying your respective interests, looking for overlap, and then making sure they are the right kind of shared interests so that you can move your marriage forward. Hopefully you’ll find it both fun and beneficial to look at your leisure time together, and you may even discover some interests you never knew you shared! You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
So we’ve seen how shared interests can be good for your marriage if done right. Now let’s think about the activities themselves more. Just to help give a deeper understanding of how the nature of the activity impacts marriage. And then, as promised, I want to show you that deeper part, the thing that really matters and what quite possibly may be the real issue that you’re stuck on as a couple if you can’t come to an agreement in this area.
Types of Shared Leisure
There’s a helpful distinction highlighted in research done by Dayley in 2015[vii] which distinguishes between what they call core and balance activities.
Core vs. Balanced Activities
Core activities are the day to day leisure activities couples take part in that don’t have much of a cost in terms of time or effort and are usually based in the home.
Balance activities are the ones that are more out of the ordinary and require more investment of time and resources: things like skiing, camping etc.
Here’s what this researcher noted:
Core activities lead to closeness and familiarity, help facilitate communication and lead to development of roles within the couple. Enjoying core activities together is a prerequisite of enjoying balance activities.
Balance activities promote development as a couple and improve negotiation skills and flexibility. This relates to the idea of shared experiences, and how trying new things together can strengthen you as a couple, which we looked at in our recent episode on learning to date your spouse.
Both kinds of activities are important for marital satisfaction. Today’s bonus guide will help you make sure you have a good balance of both.
This might be a contentious one. In sports and other competitive leisure activities the relative skill levels of each spouse become important.
Both spouses need to be of a similar skill level in order to make the competition rewarding and engaging[viii]. Common sense right? If tennis is our shared activity and twice a week you get out there and crush me, how long is that gonna last?
There’s some funky gender bias here too. Tell me what you think about this…In a study of 657 couples, marital satisfaction was highest for couples who were of similar skill levels in their chosen activities and couples where the husband had a higher skill level: couples where the wife had a higher skill level were significantly less satisfied[ix].
However, spouses who were less skilled than their spouse but still reported enjoying their joint leisure scored very high on marriage satisfaction scales. Suggesting that being happy spending leisure time with your spouse even though you always lose is indicative of a strong marriage. I’m not sure I agree with that conclusion. I wonder if in this case you are simply deriving more enjoyment from the time together and winning or losing doesn’t mean as much to you.
Shared Leisure at Different Life Stages
Not surprisingly, couples experience a decline in the amount of joint leisure time during the transition to parenthood, followed by a gradual increase after the wife’s return to work. This decline did not impact marital satisfaction[x].
However, shared leisure before parenthood was predictive of higher levels of love and lower levels of conflict 1 year later. So it’s good having this in place heading into parenthood, even though it’s not going to remain consistent. And the ability to adjust your leisure patterns to fit with changes in the family life cycle, such as childbirth, is an important factor in marital satisfaction[xi].
What’s the Real Issue?
I told you that I’d get down to brass tacks and tell you what really matters or what might really be going on for you.
So: if you guys can create shared leisure and/or hobbies and that works great for your marriage, then go for it.
But I want to talk to couples who are stuck on this.
You maybe showed up at this episode thinking this was going to solve your problem but you keep coming back to the same issue: you cannot meet on any particular activity that really grabs you both. Or at least is a 6 or 7 out of 10. Know what I mean? So you’re stuck.
I’m not sure that Verlynda and I have a hobby or a core shared leisure activity — unless sex counts as one hey baby! — and we are very happily married.
I think the deeper issue is that you want to connect with each other. You’re missing each other. You want to have a felt sense of team, of “us”, of togetherness. But you maybe don’t know how to put words to that or how to ask your spouse to work with you to get there and so you’ve chosen a safer, maybe more neutral subject like finding a mutual hobby or activity.
The real issue is: you want a deeper connection with your spouse. You want more interaction at an intimate level. So when it really comes down to it, it’s not about finding the exactly perfect activity for you guys as a couple so much as creating real intimacy and connection.
Now: intimacy comes through deeper knowledge and understanding, through curiosity, and through positive emotions and events. So shared activities can certainly help. But it certainly isn’t the whole story. I want to refer our listeners back to episode 108, How to Create More Intimacy In Your Marriage. To me, that’s the deeper issue.
[i] Knowles, “Marital satisfaction, shared leisure, and leisure satisfaction in married couples with adolescents.”
[ii] Voorpostel, van der Lippe, and Gershuny, “Spending Time Together–Changes Over Four Decades in Leisure Time Spent with a Spouse.”
[iii] Claxton and Perry-Jenkins, “No Fun Anymore.”
[iv] Crawford et al., “Compatibility, Leisure, and Satisfaction in Marital Relationships.”
[v] Knowles, “Marital satisfaction, shared leisure, and leisure satisfaction in married couples with adolescents.”
[vi] Sharaievska, Kim, and Stodolska, “Leisure and Marital Satisfaction in Intercultural Marriages.”
[vii] Dayley, “Marital Leisure Satisfaction.”
[x] Claxton and Perry-Jenkins, “No Fun Anymore.”
[xi] Sharaievska, Kim, and Stodolska, “Leisure and Marital Satisfaction in Intercultural Marriages.”