Couples can thrive in many ways. As my colleague Howard Markman said long ago, Tolstoy was wrong in the opening lines of Anna Karenina when he wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It may be just the opposite; the most diversity and mystery exists on the positive side of how two people connect rather than on the negative. Couples who are miserable tend to look pretty similar to other couples who are miserable with either nasty conflict or growing indifference—or both. There’s not a lot of creativity to being unhappy, but there are an astounding numbers of ways that couples thrive in healthy, happy marriages.
One of the things that can help keep your marriage strong is doing things together during some of the leisure time you have available. However, how this actually works out depends on if the things you are doing together are things you both enjoy. Some couples have a number of clear, common interests in what they like to do for fun, which makes it pretty easy to decide what to do together. But not all couples have such common interests, and if you don’t, it will take more thought and care to find what works.
In a study from 2002 that remains one of the best ever on the topic, Duane Crawford and colleagues Renate Houts, Ted Huston, and Laura George described patterns affecting Compatibility, Leisure, and Satisfaction in Marital Relationships. They found that the way leisure time activities impact marital happiness is more complex than you might think. Specifically, they used diary methods to study marital happiness in a sample that they followed for over a decade. They found that the pursuit of leisure activities as a couple was less strongly associated with marital happiness than most people believe.
Crawford and colleagues found something obvious yet nuanced: the benefit in a marriage from spending leisure time together depends on compatibility in interests. Most tellingly, they showed that is it no real boost to marital bliss, now or into the future, if a couple routinely engages in leisure activities that mostly only the husband enjoys. In other words, when women are going along to get along, it’s a lose-lose deal for the marital quality of both partners. These researchers detail some of the reasons why women may be more likely to try to accommodate their partners’ interests than men. Among the various ideas they consider is a point made by Stephanie Coontz that suggests that, too often, husbands may not even be fully aware of their wives’ lack of interest in some of the things they enjoy doing together because (some) women may be so good at covering up how they really feel.
Both partners don’t have to enjoy all the same interests in order to have a great marriage. That would be oppressive and barely possible. However, if one spouse is mostly doing things that are more fun for one partner and not the other, that comes at a cost. Crawford and colleagues also showed that spending a lot of time pursuing individual interests, without your spouse, can be a sign of problems.
Make a list. It’s best if couples find a few things to do for fun and friend time together that they both enjoy. This does not have to be a big list, but it’s worth figuring out what’s on it and communicating about that. Do you really know that your partner shares your fondness for golf? For eating out in sports bars? For lingering in art museums? Figure out the overlapping list and do some of those things regularly.
Make the time and keep ongoing issues/problems off limits during that time. This is, arguably, the most important advice about keeping fun alive that my colleagues and I have written about in all our books about marriage (for example, this one and that). Most of us are busy and distracted. To do things together, we have to make some time for it. It can be a lot of time or just a little, but it needs to be some.
Second, and less obvious to many, do your best to protect that time from conflict and issues. You can decide not to slide into letting issues and problems (that need solving) be triggered during the time you’ve set aside to reconnect. Of course, it helps if couples also make time to deal with issues as issues, constructively.
Speak up. If you are good at faking it (you know what I mean), maybe that’s not doing your marriage any great favors. Sure, each partner should be willing to do some of the things that the other finds enjoyable even if it’s not high on one’s own list. That’s a sign of a healthy relationship—not a sign of a problem. But if you know that the two of you are rarely doing “fun” things that you both find fun, consider speaking up if you are not already doing so.
Focus on enjoying being together. Compatibility in interests is a great strength in a marriage, but even where you are not compatible in your leisure interests, be fully present and work at enjoying the simple fact that you are doing something together, even if the current activity is not your personal favorite thing. In light of the findings of Crawford and colleagues, I want to suggest that men, in particular, might need to step it up here.
Single and Searching? My advice for singles is a common refrain for me. Go slow. Be careful. Know what you want, and look for that. Don’t slide into situations where you increase your odds of settling for a relationship where you share little of the values and interests in life that make it easier to keep a marriage happy. You don’t need to find perfect compatibility. If you are looking for that, good luck. But it’s okay and important to look for the type of person with whom you can share a fuller life.
Lastly, I want to suggest that it’s okay if what you do in your leisure time, together or apart, is not the most important part of why your marriage works. Knowing some ways to have fun together is pretty important and of great value to a healthy marriage, but it’s not the only thing. There are many other ways to build a great life together.
Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.