Discover more from mixed feelings
AITA for thinking my partner and I need to like the same things?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. If you’re dealing with one right now, use our anonymous form to be considered for a future newsletter. This week, writer Emma Holland explores the tricky territory of sharing — or not sharing — your interests with your partner.
I recently started dating someone new…They're smart, accomplished, funny, kind, thoughtful…But I've noticed something that's starting to feel consistent, which is that they hold really strong opinions about art/movies/music/books I like, in some cases not even being willing to give certain things a chance. They write it off thinking they won't like it. A few weeks ago I lent them a book and they told me they might never read it. They hadn't so much as read the first page. Then I showed them a TV show I loved and about 20 minutes in they had me pause it and told me they didn't want to continue watching because they weren't enjoying it. A few weeks later I thought about showing them one of my favorite movies, again, and just gave up because I didn't want to face this kind of rejection.
I've asked them to change the way they talk about the things I love that don’t interest them or that they dislike, but I haven't noticed a change. By all other rights they seem to really appreciate my taste and opinions, but theirs are so strong that it becomes an issue of them not being willing to engage with the things I'm interested in, sometimes. The truth of the matter is that, if the tables were turned, I would simply swallow any distaste I had for the sake of being present and interested in what they liked. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Is this a problem? Is it nothing?—BadTasteorBadPartner, she/her
I, like you, connect best through both form and content. I’ve been known to see movies 4 or 5 times in theaters, just to be able to sit next to each individual person I love and witness them witnessing the thing I loved. My best friend yells at me when I stare at her, watching her read every Tweet I’ve DMed that week just to participate in her reaction. Watching people’s synapses fire at the exact moment yours do, seeing something lodge into place in the archival crevices of their mind that you, too, had squirreled away for later — it’s almost euphoric.
When we’re dating someone new, we are in constant search of those moments of connection, those small instances that add up to the radical conclusion that “yes, this person is for me.” Before you’re sure, every time you throw a piece of yourself out there to see how it lands can feel like risking a crushing blow.
I think often of one of the first big fights of my last relationship. I was awake one morning long before my boyfriend, researching plumbers who might be able to stop the artillery of incessant bangs coming from my radiator pipes every time the heat turned on. Down a rabbit hole of Google reviews and truly incredible web1.0 sites, I found myself stumbling upon a local Pennsylvania plumbing murder mystery. I think we can all agree this is exactly what the internet was made for.
When my boyfriend woke up an hour later, I excitedly (see also: unhinged-ly) told him everything I had learned, eyes glinting, talking at a speed and decibel he certainly found inappropriate for the first ten minutes of consciousness. After I finished recounting the whole saga, I waited for what I assumed would be a barrage of questions. I had played out the whole scene in my head, pictured him sitting up abruptly, asking to see my phone, needing to read it for himself, wondering aloud—with a mixture of pride and awe and fascination— where I possibly found this. His actual response was, “Huh. Weird!” before pulling me back down in bed to, presumably, remember the Saturday morning of it all.
I deflated immediately, feeling totally abandoned on the vulnerable peak of my excitement. It felt like I had opened wide the door to my brain and did a little dance while asking him to come in. He peeked around the foyer and turned around instead. Famed psychologists, marriage counselors, and founders of the Gottman Institute Drs. John and Julie Gottman call these moments “bids” – any gesture, big or small, towards connection with your partner. “Bids can be simple or complex and can represent a request for conversation, humor, affection, support, or simply for attention,” certified Gottman therapist Zach Brittle explains.
In the Gottman lexicon, there are three responses one can have to a bid: Turning Towards, Turning Away, or Turning Against. While we can all understand how Turning Towards leads to more frequent connection and therefore happier relationships, the Gottmans discovered that, interestingly, there is no meaningful difference between Turning Away and Turning Against; both are equally damaging to relationships. Simon Courtney —a trauma-informed psychotherapist, coach, and guide at spiritual care company Labyrxnth — adds that “when we come into a new relationship with someone we like/love, this person can inadvertently become our primary attachment figure, in lieu of our parents. As such, our intimate relationship is often where all of our attachment issues from childhood can come to the surface to be seen (and loved).”
It is, of course, not reasonable to expect our partner to meet our every mood at every moment, or to delight in all the same cursed corners of the internet that we do. My boyfriend couldn’t quite understand why I felt so sad, and, consequently, so angry about this encounter. What I was seeking was really just a ramshackle version of the real thing – a gestural translation of “I see you, I understand you, I delight in you.” The moment had seemed isolated and inconsequential to him, and it’s easy to see why. I couldn’t quite articulate it at the time, but to me, it felt like a perfect little vignette of who I was (or at least, who I imagined myself to be), a microcosm of my totality. And so his rejection felt absolute, instead of specific.
These are also the interesting, thorny questions that we wrestle with alone and that only become more urgent when we are taking on the task of making ourselves known to another person. What actually makes you, you? When is something a thing you do versus a way you are? Can a preference exist on its own to define you, or does the compendium of taste have to act together? Who am I to myself, and is that who I also am to this new interloper? Which matters more, the books I read or the way I tell a story? Besides connection, it sounds like some of the letdown you are feeling from your partner is a result of feeling either misrepresented, or not wholly represented, in their eyes. By denying you the generous act of showing them, they are, in your mind, missing or misinterpreting core pieces of data. In the final essay of her perfect collection Too Much and Not the Mood, author Durga Chew-Bose writes, “I still confuse being misunderstood with feeling shame.”
Outside of the sparks of fusion, we are always engaging in an ongoing process of discovery with our partner. This is — hopefully — still true 25 years into a marriage, or 3 years into a partnership, but it’s certainly true and at its most saturated — those first few heady, tentative, all-consuming months. It’s continuous work, and at our best, we take an archaeological approach to this task: gently sifting and digging, holding valuable artifacts with care. When we’re feeling less generous, or perhaps simply more anxious about it all, that process might turn more suspicious: waiting for the evidence of incompatibility or disappointment to reveal itself. We are, whether we mean to or not, continuously connecting the tiny, numbered dots of our partner to outline the full picture, e.g., This movie was canonical to us both; we have absolutely zero overlapping eating habits; this song makes her cry. Or more importantly: I love the way he acts around his brother; they articulated exactly how I feel about snow; her politics make me proud. When all is said and done and you feel you’ve colored in enough corners, you make a determination about whether or not this person fits.
Of course, we often expect — or search for — a mirror image of ourselves in a partner. This does a disservice to you both. And I think, BadTaste, it is important to question what it is you actually want from your new significant other. Are you hoping they fall in love with pieces of literature that were core to your growth? That they’ll enthusiastically watch Real Housewives with you on Monday nights? An equally impressive PhD in Beyoncé’s life work? These things may or may not happen! One of the most important and most fun parts of welding yourself to another person for a period of time is the brand new introduction to entire worlds you’ve never entered before — and also the freedom to keep some solely as your own. If you and your partner are both substantive, opinionated, self-actualized people—which it sounds like you are— you will absolutely disagree on many topics, pieces of culture, and even approaches to life, in ways that will likely ebb and flow throughout the course of your relationship.
I asked my friend Roxanne, who has been with her husband for 15 years, about this and she said, “I think when we were younger, we both assumed that we should include each other in everything that we do/enjoy, and that made for [situations where] one of us was kind of gritting our teeth and sitting through something we weren’t vibing with.” Now, she says, they try to orient their schedules so that they can each enjoy their individual interests separately on the same night, and then come back together to talk about it and simply “revisit this funny thing that we don’t have in common.”
knowing the difference
In between the healthy places where we move towards and away from one another, there is a white space that, in my opinion, is where true discord lies. This is a lack of effort, an absence of learning, a disinterest in uncovering the innermost variables of the person you love. There is the old adage that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Particularly at the beginning of something new, indifference looks and feels mainly like incuriosity: an aversion to participating in the ongoing project of you.
It sounds like, on the one hand, it hurts your feelings when your partner speaks negatively about things that are meaningful to you. This is understandable, and on the surface is perhaps simply an issue of communication or delivery. But, if the reason this hurts your feelings is because it begets an unwillingness to engage at all, even if your tastes and preferences differ, then I think you’re right to have some alarm bells.
Oftentimes, a bit of good show-don’t-tell guidance here can go a long way. Hilary Rothman, therapist and clinical social worker with expertise in individuals, couples, and sexuality (yes, she trained with Esther Perel), recommends demonstrating to your significant other what you would like to see in return. “Since you experience this person as thoughtful and kind in other ways, try modeling how it looks and feels when a partner really pays attention. When you pay close attention to their favorite art, movies, music, and books, verbally engage around what you notice, demonstrating that you understand and appreciate their tastes: ‘because I know you like X, I thought you might also find this interesting, as it has this in common’. If they respond well, be sure to tell them how that feels for you — even if they don’t like what they’ve sampled, it may feel great that they were willing to try.”
At the end of the day, it is almost unfathomably difficult to be a human being, and undergoing the process of doing that with another person feels like it somehow both amplifies and mitigates that exponentially. Our opinions can be hard-won, and your partner might not be used to having theirs challenged, or to opening themselves up to things that sit outside of the sturdy personality they’ve crafted for themselves. Hopefully, they are also flexible and empathetic and willing to internalize your feedback. If not, I promise you there will be many softer places for you to make camp.