• Couples meet in a room furnished only with a bed and a large-screen TV. Instructions and questions flash up on the screen, guiding the strangers. (SBS)Source: SBS
Watching Undressed this week, Ben Pobjie is questions whether marrying someone with a similar background to his own has done much to expand his, or his wife's, worldview.
Ben Pobjie

23 Jan 2017 - 10:43 AM  UPDATED 23 Jan 2017 - 11:57 AM

Charlotte and Johnny have both faced massive challenges in their lives: Johnny has been picked on throughout his life for his hearing disability; Charlotte was bullied for her weight. They’ve come together on the big bed to bond over the hardships they’ve fought and overcome, and that have helped shape who they are. Meanwhile Christopher and Matilda come from different worlds: his life in the military in Cyprus is a long way from her past as a budding ballerina. It raises the question: how much do our backgrounds impact on our relationships, and does having much in common with someone help smooth a relationship’s path, or throw up obstacles? Would you rather date someone whose life has followed a similar course to your own, or someone whose story is a million miles from yours?

I married a woman with a background that had some similarities with mine – white Anglo-Saxon protestant – but who had also experienced hardships in her childhood that I found difficult to even imagine. To meet someone who comes from a different place than yourself gives you the chance to learn and to consider different perspectives – an exposure to a different side of life. That can’t be a bad thing, surely? There’s a million different ways of living in this world, and the chance to gain a deeper meaning of someone else’s is a chance to grow as a person. If a relationship can improve you as a human being, that’s a big positive – or is it selfish to think that way? I wonder if I’ve contributed much to broadening my wife’s horizons: besides getting her to watch Monty Python, what new perspectives have I offered her?

And is that even important? Christopher and Matilda are both exposed to something new and different, and I’m sure it’s a valuable learning experience; but is it the best path to romance? Over the other side of the show, Johnny and Charlotte are able to strike an immediate chord with one another: their common ground brings the conversation to a deep and meaningful place straight away. But then, I remember a lot of deep and meaningful conversations with girls when I was a teenager: feelings were expressed and insecurities revealed and hopes and dreams shared; and not one of them ever led to any of those girls wanting to date me. Deep and meaningful doesn’t always mean romantic, and feeling powerful empathy for someone doesn’t necessarily translate to the mysterious spark that ignites a relationship. Which Johnny discovers when he chooses to see Charlotte again, but Charlotte doesn’t reciprocate the feeling: they’ve shared something special, but the chemistry hasn’t quite worked. Meanwhile Matilda and Christopher are in concord: they both want to see each other again. Has the desire to learn more about a person different to oneself proven more powerful than the desire to bond over similar experiences? Or is it all about the ineffable vagaries of attraction – maybe the spark will do as it will and pay no mind to background at all. But it does seem like the whole idea of “having something in common” is a little overrated when it comes to making a love match. I have always suspected so, of course – generally I find people can have a little too much in common. I wouldn’t want to date someone a lot like myself. I’d pity them, but I wouldn’t date them.

Karol and Corinna have something in common too – they’re both European immigrants, Karol from Poland and Corinna from Italy. The other attribute they share is that they are both attracted to a physical type completely different to that with which they are being confronted. We’d all love to tell ourselves that this is no major consideration, but let’s be honest: nobody’s immune to the dark pull of physical attraction, and that has to be magnified when you’ve got just half an hour to get to know someone, and they’re in their underwear. If they fit your “type”, it’s gotta be at least a headstart, doesn’t it? But Karol and Corinna are both 37-year-old Europeans with a passion for theatre, so the fact that he’s not a dark Mediterranean type and she’s not blonde might be no biggie. And it’s incredible how easily your “type” can switch when you find the right person. I was never into petite tennis players until I saw Martina Hingis at the Australian Open, and she’s dwelt in my dreams ever since. Some might say my chance with her has gone, but I’m not one to give up hope. But I digress: the point is, if I were paired up with Martina Hingis on Undressed, the fact she’s not really my “type” wouldn’t stop me focusing on the things we have in common, such as our mutual love of Martina Hingis.

Karol and Corinna’s common ground grants them a certain level of comfort with each other, which is not easy to achieve in a thirty-minute window. Hell, there are women I’ve known for twenty years who I’m still not all that comfortable around – men, too, for that matter. I guess what I’m saying is: I am afraid of people. I think that fear is a natural part of being human, and being able to overcome it is pretty handy in the early stages of any relationship. In that sense, common interests can help more than instant physical infatuation: sometimes the hotter the person you’re looking at, the more afraid you are.

Jacob and Steven seem to have a lot in common too: both sons of immigrants, they admire each other’s tattoos and swap coming-out stories, but there’s not so much comfort here. Sometimes having things in common just means you end up going down a checklist of conversational topics and spending a lot of time nodding and saying, “yeah, right, mmhmm,” when ideally you’d be staring adoringly into each other’s eyes. But what determines whether two people’s shared experiences lead to an easy rapport, and when they lead to sterile conversation? Karol and Corrina weren’t each other’s types when they started, but they’ve both click “yes”: Jacob found the fact Steven wasn’t his type too much to overcome. We can only wish chemistry of the heart was as simple as the periodic table.

So what can we take from the dates we’ve seen? What can we take from our own experiences? We can say that it’s important to have something in common, except when it isn’t. And that an instant physical attraction is crucial, unless it’s not. But most of all: even after we get to know someone, it can be impossible to tell whether they feel about you the way you feel about them; trying to predict it in advance is downright ludicrous.

Double episodes of Undressed air every Monday night on SBS at 9:30pm. You can also watch the show at your leisure on SBS On Demand:

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