Relationship compatibility is often less about shared interest than we think.
I recently listened sympathetically to a girlfriend whose marriage was unraveling. She and her soon-to-be-ex liked the same music and movies, books, sports, and hobbies. Hell, they even sounded alike, had shared a college major and were working in the same field.
"You seemed so in sync," I said.
She nodded. "It's ironic. I mean, how on earth do you and Frank stay married? You have nothing in common."
My husband and I walk to the beat of two different drummers. Match.com would never link us up. We're not, most of the time, on the same wavelength; in fact the static is sometimes deafening. You know those Jack Sprat-and-wife couples: two people with such disparate proclivities you wonder how they even met, much less manage to cohabit. That's us.
I'm the worrier; he's relaxed. I'm working at 1:30 a.m., he's been snoring for hours. I make long range plans; he suggests swimming at midnight. He likes Nascar, I'm into Nova. His food comes bland, mine spicy. He's a beach person, I hate sand in my suit. He watches CSI, I'm liking Medium. Frank skied, I was a competitive equestrian. I listen to NPR, his tastes run to (do I have to say it?) a.m. talk.
Then there's the biggie. Frank never went to college. Not a semester, not a day. Me? I just completed a master's degree. In literary nonfiction. Which my husband never reads.
Am I sometimes frustrated? You bet.
And yet, everywhere couples are coming unhitched over much less. That's not us.
At the lowest times of my life, Frank always makes me laugh, and as for the sex part, yeah, we've got that. Then there's money. You'd think we'd fight over it more, but we don't. Discuss it, yes. In loud, frustrated (him) and weepy (me) voices? Yes.
Frank was the anti-striver. When we first started dating, I was tired of men who detailed how they'd earn their first million, become partner or make their fellow MBA buddies jealous. Frank was my rebellion, the stake I planted to showcase my expansive egalitarianism; after all, I had dated a black man, a much older man, and (oh yes, oops), a married one. The expectations of my white, upward-striving, narrow-minded suburban upbringing were not for me. Take that, I seemed to be saying (to whom I don't know), I'll date and marry whom I please.
This is all true. But so is this: I fell in love. Fell in love, as it happens, upon first seeing him in a high school play, though we wouldn't meet for two years, or seriously date for ten. But what matters, finally, in the very long run is this: I married him because I love him and I still do.
Before we married, I didn't give a lot of thought to which color collars we were each wearing. We were both earning money, expenses were low, the savings account high. Frank's no-college status was not a deal breaker; his almost-final divorce and my over-controlling nature were.
When I became pregnant with our first son, six years into our marriage, I was running a thriving public relations agency, and outearning my husband. His small shoe products distributorship was in an ebbing industry. With the second child, it might have made sense for Frank to become the stay-at-home parent, but since we both had the same retro ideas about raising kids, that discussion was shelved. I worked part-time for a few years, then I didn't work at all. Finally, I decided on graduate school, throwing our finances into chaos. But that earning hiatus and my decision to make a midlife switch to a more creative but lower-paying field were the great equalizers.
Although he's upgraded his little company, his is a throwback kind of business where income growth comes in predictable and incrementally low spurts. I could be upset and I am. Not at him but at the world. My husband is loyal, hard working, responsible, trustworthy—and he will never be monetarily rewarded for it. But he works in a job he mostly enjoys, and he is at the baseball field to coach his son's team at 4 pm, three times a week. Yes, we've got economic uncertainty, but so do two-white-collar career couples who amp up their financial worries with a bigger house, a vacation house, a bigger vacation.
When the checkbook threatens ugly red noises every month, I do not say "we'd be better off if you had a degree or a job in a higher paying field"(although it's true), and he does not say "we'd be better off if you hadn't stopped working or gone to graduate school or switched fields" (also true).
Of all the ways we are not alike, however, the one flashpoint for me is not education or career, but that my husband does not read. I read in order to keep breathing. Frank reads the sports pages and Consumer Reports, and he even reads long involved fantasy books about bats and bots aloud with our ten year old. But I long, yes, still, after 20 years for him to really read—a novel, any novel, or a memoir, even a ghostwritten one about a quarterback. He won't. So, we don't often discuss some otherwise fulgent topics like books or politics, and at times I feel there's an entire part of me to which my husband has no access.
But, besides making terrific Cranium teammates, we do have one other huge thing in common, and pay attention because this is it: desire. We desire one another. Is there a way to explain desire? Dissect it and it seems to disintegrate. We're different, we don't make sense. But desire—for one another, and for a life together—is potent. This is what makes us work.
Do I sometimes wish I'd married a man who went to college, who works in a more lucrative, higher profile business, who likes Springsteen, knows the difference between The Nation and The New Republic, and who has already read the book I'm in the middle of? I do. But only if that man were the man I married.