Modern Love and the Flawed Theory of Common Interests

Love and Sex

Modern Love and the Flawed Theory of Common Interests

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

“I’m a chaisexual,” Sagar said, nearly causing me to spill my drink. Drunk Delhi winters can get weird, but this was still out of the ordinary. “I don’t think I can date people who prefer coffee over tea, it just doesn’t work for me.” Now Sagar is a super smart dude with a super smart job — smart enough not to use his real name when being quoted in stories — so this level of specificity in potential romantic partners threw me off. He clarified that this was just an extension of the “common interests” phenomenon, a notch above “what are your hobbies?”, but my mind was already buzzing.

Sagar was not off the mark, if only in helping me understand how millennial love works, and how far it skews from love from the Binaca Geetmala generation. So many of us base our romances based on monocultural milestones, i.e. things we all consume together over Netflix and Amazon, making our connections extremely specific?

Back in the day, connections were forged over whether you had a stable job at Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, from where you could retire after 35 years of service, ideally after your home loan EMIs were paid for. Now, of course, you have to find someone who definitely agrees that Ross and Rachel weren’t on a break. As this generation, born in the early nineties, which has some affection for Just Mohabbat and Baadshah and Race, went from Limewire to Torrents, the shared interest became even more sacred.

I remember being stumped by this girl in school, who was into Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel, even more than I. In college, as my tastes refined a bit, I was even more dumbfounded by another girl who agreed with my closet take that Once was a better depiction of modern romance than Richard Linklater’s Before series. Both of us were absolutely floored to the point of “How can this be”, when we realised we might’ve been the only two people in the world who had the first Rhye record downloaded on their phones, with the song “Open” being the most played. We obviously talked, found more similar interests, and boom: Perfection.

The specificity made us special, we thought, and were drawn to each other like puppies to a tennis ball. Like all good romances, though, this came with built-in obsolescence.

The problem though, with placing shared interests in such high regard, is that apart from making the small talk easier, it doesn’t really function well as an indicator of a relationship’s overall health. Being able to argue passionately about a scene in Mad Men won’t matter when the problem is managing a day job or your father-in-law’s burgeoning expectations.

Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition

I understood this a little better when I watched High Fidelity.

In the film, Rob (played by John Cusack) recounts his collegial relationship with Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Charlie, who is bright and attractive and says “smart things” about things he cares about, like Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. She’s artistic, he’s mesmerised by her, by her ability to dazzle with a conversation, highlighting an inherent youthful snobbery in him. But she dumps him for a less needy dude, and it takes him a revisit after over a decade to understand that when Charlie spoke, she mostly spoke of nothing. This pushes him back to his current love, who doesn’t say anything spectacular, but is “just good. But really good.” It isn’t as if the current love, Laura, replaces smarties about shared interests with inherent goodness; it’s just that she believes that Rob is more than just a quote from a book, more than a remembered lyric from an obscure song from the ’60s.

This idea is laid out most eloquently in the deeply insightful and viral essay, “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person,” by British-Swiss author Alain de Botton. He makes a case for finding not the right person, but a person who isn’t “overly wrong” for us. “The person who is best suited to us,” writes de Botton, “is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘not overly wrong’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

I keep going back to that last line. Someone’s taste in TV — “Is he/she not smart enough to enjoy Rick and Morty?” — or current events — “I wonder what she has to say about Shashi Tharoor’s latest tweet?” — is a most imperfect way of looking at love.

Why then do we continue to google “Why shared interests are important in relationships” only to come up incorrect and inaccurate answers, when there is a plethora of research that advises us against it? Stephanie Coontz is a historian who has spent decades researching about marriage, who says here that, “It’s not so much the case that couples must share hobbies and interests. But it is essential to be interested in your partner, to experience joy in their joy.”

I wanted to tell my friend Sagar that gauging people on their choice of beverage, might work for him in the initial few days. But if one of them cheated on the other due to miscommunication, the agreement over chai would be cold comfort. And that he should leave room for the fact that a coffee-lover was just as capable of being kind and thoughtful and caring, and just might set his heart aflame.

A cup of chai, or a song, or a movie, is after all, just a red herring, trying to dissuade us from real love, which is already a kind of socially acceptable insanity. And when Sagar, and I, and you, aren’t going to be rational anyway in romance, why look for it at all?