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Expert Advice: Willard F. Harley Jr., PhD, clinical psychologist and author of His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage.

You want to Rollerblade around the lake and your partner wants to catch a movie. You both want to take a class, but you’re interested in kettlebells and your partner wants to learn German.

It can be tough on the relationship when partners have different ideas about how to spend leisure time. Either you’re always at odds with each other, or you agree to do separate activities and wind up like ships passing in the night.

Expert marriage therapist Willard F. Harley emphasizes that shared leisure activities are essential for growing together as a couple and staying in love. Here are his expert strategies for couples wanting to find recreational companionship.

Barriers to Overcome

  • Differing energy levels. As a function of your physical makeup or health status, you may simply have different amounts of “gas in the tank” for leisure activities.
  • Separate tracks. “When people are dating,” says Harley, “they often experiment with doing things together that one of them doesn’t enjoy. Once married, though, they tend to separate into two tracks. More confident that their partners won’t leave, they find comfort zones that don’t involve each other.”
  • Infidelity dangers. Sharing the fun of leisure activities creates strong bonds and attractions between people, Harley points out. Building outside relationships in separate leisure spheres can threaten the partnership.
  • The “if you loved me” trap. Thinking that a partner’s unwillingness to join you in your leisure activity indicates a lack of love or a lack of willingness to compromise on his or her part can quickly turn into resentment and anger. 

Strategies for Success

  • Communicate. Be honest with your partner about whatever frustrations or feelings of abandonment you may have, while acknowledging that different recreational interests do not signal a lack of love or commitment. Let your partner know the benefits you see in recreational companionship: positive feelings toward each other and a stronger connection.
  • Build “together time.” Harley recommends temporarily eliminating all unshared recreational activities until you find common interests that you both genuinely enjoy. (Download the Recreational Enjoyment Inventory below for a list to consider.) Once you’ve built up a strong recreational connection, you can reintegrate individual pursuits. “Sometimes a client will ask, ‘Do I have to give up hunting forever?’” says Harley. “My answer is, only until your partner becomes your favorite recreational companion.”
  • Find the intersection. “Try a lot of activities with varying degrees of active and passive energy,” says Harley. “Look for the intersection between your interests and your partner’s. You probably won’t have time for more than about five activities that you both enjoy, so there’s a universe of possibilities.”
  • Patience. For partners with very different energy levels, says Harley, “There will be a shorter list of things that you can share and enjoy, and deciding on them will take a bit longer. Just hang in there until you’ve discovered them.”

Determine Compatible Leisure Pursuits

Download a PDF of Harley’s “Recreational Enjoyment Inventory.

This article originally appeared as “Fun Time Face Offs” in the March 2012 issue of Experience Life.

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