Over time, couples inevitably find that they slip from out-and-out lust into a more comfortable steady state in which their friendship matters as much, if not more, than their sexual passion. In the process, a relationship’s initial highs and lows may smooth out into a more evenly distributed and predictable pattern. They may experience occasional flare-ups of anger that only moderately disrupt their otherwise solid feelings toward each other. While their friends and relatives are heading toward angry and contentious divorces, their relationship just rolls along over the years as it weathers the many strains of family and work life that couples confront.
Boredom can become problematic in a relationship when the steady state turns from comfort to stagnation. According to Canadian psychologists Cheryl Harasymchuk and Beverley Fehr (2013), “relationship boredom” can take one of several forms:
- State of atrophy associated with the ending of a relationship, sometimes called the “empty shell”
- Negative emotional state characterized by lack of excitement and stimulation, called a "relationship maintenance challenge"
- Dynamic tension or “dialectic” between a desire for predictability and a desire for novelty
Regardless of the form of boredom a relationship takes, the main quality is that it’s a matter of perception. There’s no objective indicator of boredom in a relationship. It’s all in the eyes of the participants.
To quantify relational boredom, Harasymchuk and Fehr started by asking a group of participants (college undergraduates) to rate how closely each of a number of statements fit the criteria of relational boredom. Of all 69 possible qualities of relational boredom, “lack of interest in partner” emerged as number one. Loss of excitement, spark, fun, and surprises was the second strongest feature of relational boredom according to these participants. Following these two nominees for outstanding feature of a boring relationship were such prototypical qualities as decrease in sexual interest, being “sick and tired,” and “feeling nothing.”
Armed with these prototypical concepts, Harasymchuk and Fehr then asked another group of participants to read a description of a bored couple. They then rated the hypothetical couple on 24 of the top prototypes of relational boredom. This state reaffirmed the initial findings, as did a later experiment.
People have in their minds a pretty clear image of what it means to be bored with your partner. There are important practical implications. If boredom is in the mind of the relationship partner, then by changing that mental image, it may be possible to reduce that boredom.
1. Decide what you mean by “boredom” in your relationship.
Participants in the Harasymchuk and Fehr study were first asked to rate a list of terms that could apply to a boring relationship, but obviously not everyone had precisely the same image. What’s boring to you might be exciting or at least neutral to someone else. If lack of interest in your partner emerges as the number one quality of a boring relationship, as it did for the people in the study, then you’ll proceed differently than if you believe that lack of compatibility causes boredom. Have you lost interest in your partner as a person? Does what he or she does no longer matter to you? Or are you still fascinated by your partner’s quirks and foibles but feel that your relationship lacks spontaneity? How you proceed next will be determined by the image you arrive at in this step.
2. Talk to your partner about his or her definition of relational boredom.
Is your partner perfectly content with the routine you’ve fallen into or does he or she long for change and novelty? You might also determine whether your partner is truly interested in you as a person and finds your personality to be a source of endless intrigue. Once you’ve both put your prototypes out there to compare, you can figure out what you need to do to set things right.
3. Make a plan for each of you to adjust your relationship to take into account what you’re seeking in a non-boring relationship.
If it’s interest that emerges as the number one culprit (as was true for the students in this study), then develop ways to talk to each other to recapture that fascination you both once had. It it’s the predictability that’s causing the zest to fade rather than lack of interest in each other, find ways you’re each comfortable with to change up the routine into which you’ve fallen.
4. Work on your perceptions.
It may be the perception of your relationship, rather than the reality, that will determine whether it’s boring. Having a routine, feeling comfortable with each other, and enjoying your similarities don’t seem to be all that important in defining a boring relationship. However, if you believe what you see in romantic comedies, you might think that if you’re not jetting off to grand destinations or dressing up in sexy attire before you make love, then there’s something wrong with you. Simply enjoying your partner as a person may be the most important and easiest fix for a boring relationship.
5. If necessary, seek counseling.
Couples counseling can work, and if you're not making progress on your own, talking to a professional can give you a much-needed perspective. Lay out the problem as one involving boredom, not conflict, and you're likely to get very different advice than if you were trying to figure out how to argue less often. In fact, by addressing the boredom piece of the issue, you'll be much less likely to suffer the more deleterious consequences of conflict. A professional counselor can help you learn to tell the difference and get you talking in ways that keep the interest factor strong and alive in your relationship.
It’s natural for relationships to show a certain ebb and flow over time. If yours is at an ebb, by taking these steps, you may be able to keep it vital and fulfilled for many years to come.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Harasymchuk, C., & Fehr, B. (2013). A prototype analysis of relational boredom. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 627-646.