As a couples’ therapist, I often hear the same types of responses repeatedly in my practice. One question I like to ask couples at times is, “What do you have in common?” It may not be surprising to learn that a majority of the time, people answer by repeating my question back to me, placing a great deal of emphasis on the last word, “COMMON???” as if to make sure they heard correctly. This is really a non-verbal way of announcing to me that my question is a very difficult one to answer because they in fact can’t think of anything they have in common. The couples seem to want to remind me that they aren’t there because of their commonalities, but because they are struggling. This is nothing I don’t already know, by the way.
Interestingly, one typical way couples answer this question is, “Nothing. We don’t even like the same kind of music….” This always makes me chuckle a little bit inwardly because if there’s one thing my husband and I did not connect around when we were dating, it was our music. In fact, I literally overheard this exchange a few weeks ago between an adult son of mine and my husband:
Son: How did you know you wanted to marry mom?
Husband: Well, first, I thought she was gorgeous. Then, as I got to know her, I just liked her more. Every time I found out something else about her, it just kept getting better and better. Well, except for her music…..
Me: What do you mean my music?
He’s right. My husband and I do not naturally enjoy the same types of music. His tastes tend toward the mainstream and mellow, while my tastes represent what researchers would call “sensation seeking,” in alternative styles. Over the years, we have found a lot of common ground, but we still have very different musical listening habits. You can always tell who has been in the car by which radio station is selected.
Just so we’re clear, my music has always been kind of a big deal to me. From a young age, I was one of those obsessive types who always needed to know who sang what (which has come in pretty handy when I want to show off my song pop skills), and I’ve always been very opinionated about what I like. Every guy I connected with before I met my husband had similar music tastes to mine. In high school, I dated someone who was a mobile deejay for the greater Los Angeles area and routinely made me music mix tapes. Honestly, my courtship with my husband proceeded incredibly slowly in part because he didn’t appreciate my music, so I didn’t see how we could be a match. He was far more indifferent about music (and still is), but seemed to have a particular disdain for some of my favorite groups. “It sounds like they’re singing through a tunnel,” he complained about many of them (it was the 80’s, folks, which has somehow become hip of late).
Relationship formation vs. relationship maintenance
Because couples seem to place so much meaning on this issue, I decided to see if any research had been published about differing musical tastes in marriage. I wasn’t surprised by what I found. Similar taste in music is one thing which people often initially connect around, because it is a way of signaling something about oneself. It’s one of the most common topics of conversation in early relationship development. If someone likes the same music as you, at some level, it feels like they “get,” or understand you. Some research indicates this is because music preference also signals values similarity.
However, relationship formation and relationship maintenance are two very different things. Even though musical taste can play a role in relationship formation, it drops off in importance as relationships progress. This is probably due to a concept I learned while an undergraduate student studying Family Science. The concept is called, “salient categorical homogeneity,” and was used to describe the phenomenon that the more potential mates agree on things that they think are really important in their personal value system, the more likely they are to pair up and probably stay that way (you know how we social scientists are about convoluting simple language).
For most people, musical taste doesn’t necessarily represent the most salient aspect of their lives, so they manage to get along even though he wants to listen to Earth, Wind and Fire, and she wants to listen to Muse (hypothetically speaking).
Dissimilarities become bigger in distressed marriages
However, in a distressed marriage, minor differences seem to take on greater importance, and couples mistakenly use those differences as evidence that they really shouldn’t be with each other after all. In other words, if a couple is getting along, they will tolerate the differences in music, hobbies, entertainment choices, etc., but if they feel constantly distressed, those differences will become symbolic of the distress and actually feel more unmanageable.
It’s important to know that couple relationships can sustain many preferential differences. In fact, differences can actually enhance the relationship by reciprocally influencing and broadening spousal interests. For example, I have a much greater appreciation now of Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder, and my husband can actually identify the names of some of my 80’s alternative bands.
The bottom line is, it really is not helpful at all in marriage to highlight what you don’t have in common, but to start with what you do. Make a list. Then, negotiate your differences by having your spouse teach you more about their interests. I am still in the process of understanding the finer points of basketball, and my husband is currently listening to my Bastille songs in preparation for an upcoming concert.
I’m not sure, however, I will ever comprehend his interest-approaching-obsession with the Tour de France. Here’s my illustrative example:
Me: What is it about watching dudes in spandex pedal on bikes forever that is entertaining to you?
Him: Fascinating! Just look at how far and how long they can go! It’s incredible!
Me: Hmm. You mean, “C’est incroyable.”
Maybe someday I will get it, and we can enjoy the endless recorded segments of the Tour de France together. Until then, I will continue to play up our commonalities in other areas, and somehow we will survive.
If all else fails and you really can’t think of anything you have in common with your spouse, remember there’s always Breakfast at Tiffany’s—the song or the film.
How shared music preferences in music create bonds between people: Values as the missing link (2011) by Boer, D., Fischer, R., Strack, M., Bond, M. H., Lo, E. & Lam, J. in Personality and social psychology bulletin, 37(9), 1159-1171.
Sensation seeking and music preferences (1986) by Litle, P. & Zuckerman, M. in Personality and individual differences, 7(4), 575-578.