“I’m dating this guy. He’s attractive and super-nice, and he treats me well, but he’s just not deep, you know? I feel like our conversation is all surface level; we can’t really connect.”
If this is a familiar story, you are not alone. It’s probably the most common comment I’ve heard from friends who are navigating the dating pool. It can be tempting to brush off a little thing like intellectual compatibility when everything else is so good. I mean, how often do you meet a guy who is super-cute and acts like a gentleman?! But the way you connect on an intellectual level—the way you think about and discuss ideas—is an important element of the relationship to consider.
For my husband and me, exploring our intellectual compatibility was a big part of our dating relationship. Aside from being attracted to one another and sharing the same values, we wanted to know that we could daydream together and have shared pursuits. In fact, studies show that intellectual compatibility in a relationship is a huge indicator of long-term success and, eventually, happiness in marriage. According to the New York Times, researchers attribute this to the natural inclination we all have for what they call “self-expansion.” We are happiest in relationships that encourage us to grow our base of knowledge. The more our significant other causes us to expand intellectually, the more connected and attracted we are to them. Your significant other should be someone whose presence inspires you to expand your knowledge of whatever you feel innately called to discover: art, literature, music, poetry, politics, nature, you name it.
Here are five ways to cultivate a thriving intellectual relationship and find out if you and your partner are compatible in the process.
o1. Talk about your intellectual goals.
It is so important, especially while you’re still dating, to discuss your intellectual goals. Even though your goals may be very different, they should be on the same scale. For example, if your significant other is pursuing a Ph.D. in history and can’t get his conversation out of the Middle Ages whereas you are just trying to finish the Harry Potter series, you might have a red flag. One study conducted in 2012 in Hong Kong looked at the marital and sexual satisfaction of more than a thousand married men and women and found that a woman is 40 percent less likely to be satisfied with her marriage if she is better educated than her husband, compared to when they are equally educated. It’s not so much formal education that matters here as it is your ability to relate and build off one another. You don’t want to end up unhappy because you realize that you can’t connect with your future spouse.
02. Push past the small talk.
Getting stuck in small talk is a huge barrier to discovering and developing an intellectual relationship with the man you are dating. In fact, studies show that the more we talk substantively and the less we small talk, the happier we are in general. If you always get stuck in a rut of discussing schedules, work, and the weather, try to change the direction of the conversation with thought-provoking questions such as, “If money and time were no obstacle, what would you be doing right now?” In fact, it’s a great idea to have a lot of thought-provoking questions on hand—you may never have to suffer through a boring date again.
03. Discover shared intellectual pursuits.
You both might be brilliant experts in your respective career fields, but having an intellectual relationship doesn’t mean boring each other with stories about work all day. It’s important to have shared meaning. In fact, as Zach Brittle tells Verily readers, shared meaning is the hallmark of a happy relationship. According to Brittle, “Creating shared meaning is the top level of Dr. John Gottman’s Sound Relationship House, a model for comprehensive relationship health.”
When my husband and I were dating, we noticed that some of our best conversations came about when we were discussing a mutual intellectual interest—in our case, documentary movies. To this day, we regularly sit down to watch a documentary and spend hours, sometimes days, talking and sharing ideas about it afterward. After a long and tiring day at work, these conversations are a great (and needed) reminder of why I fell in love with my husband in the first place.
Find your shared intellectual passion. If it’s reading, find a new series that you will read together. If it’s politics, make time to read the news every morning, and then share your opinions with each other later. Exploring an uncharted new world together will help you offer each other the self-expansion that we know brings satisfaction to your relationship. If you can’t find a point of intellectual connection, it may be a sign that you weren’t that compatible to begin with.
04. Keep it alive.
Once you find your shared intellectual interest, create a routine around it so that it doesn’t fall by the wayside after a week or two. Whether it’s reading together or something grander, such as saving to travel to a new place each year, research says that it takes at least sixty-six days for something to become a habit. That means you have to give your new intellectual habit at least two months in order to have it really take root in your relationship. So be patient and diligent to keep that part of your relationship alive even when things get busy and tough—it’s worth it.
05. Use your intellect to discover each other.
Cultivating an intellectual element to your relationship is a useful tool when you are trying to find out whether you’re really right for each other. You might discover that you are fulfilled and inspired after discussing a topic with your significant other, or you might feel frustrated because that connection just isn’t there, and maybe it’s best to part ways.
You can get a sense of your intellectual chemistry by making an effort to start discussions about big ideas (life, art, religion, politics, art, etc.) and seeing how it goes. Does your conversation leave you inspired and eager to dig deeper, or do you find that you have to simplify your thoughts in order to feel understood? When you’re out by yourself and discover something interesting, do you have the intense urge to share it with your significant other or not so much? If there are warning signs that you two are compatible only on the surface, it probably isn’t worth pursuing the relationship. Don’t downplay your interests or your own intellect for the sake of a man. Use your intuition and intelligence to draw out his deeper side. And he should be doing the same for you.
When you begin to develop your intellectual relationship, you will inevitably learn incredible things about each other. And whatever the outcome, discovering your intellectual compatibility will always set you on a happier path.