How Couples Can Get Bored with a Relationship
Managing expectations for excitement while still keeping things fresh.
Posted September 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Relational boredom can serve as a constructive signal for people to add more novelty and excitement to the relationship.
- Expectations play a role in helping people diagnose whether they are bored in their relationship.
- Relational boredom occurs when there is a growth-type "expectation gap," that is less excitement than what a person ideally wants.
- Being aware of the early signs of expectation gaps is the first step to combating relational boredom.
Passion refers to intense feelings of longing for a partner (emotionally and sexually). One perspective of passion relates to acquiring new perspectives of the self and the world. At the beginning stages of relationships—when people are experiencing rewarding experiences like trying new restaurants, meeting a new circle of friends, and learning about the partner—passion is high. However, in the context of established relationships, when the new skills, resources, and perspectives become commonplace, passion decays and boredom might be experienced.
What is Relational Boredom?
Boredom is associated with a lack of interest, apathy, and restlessness. The cause of boredom has been attributed to sub-optimal levels of arousal (either too much or too little), habituation, and loss of meaning. Although commonly associated with school and work settings, boredom is also experienced in intimate relationships.
The damaging effects of boredom-like states in relationships (e.g., disillusionment, stagnation) have long been underscored by clinicians working one-on-one with couples. Common features of these boredom-like relationship states include apathy, lack of delight (fun and laughter), and feelings of confinement. The focus of much of this work has been on ways to classify deteriorating relationships, implying that once boredom is experienced, it is inevitable that the relationship will end.
However, boredom does not always signal the end of the relationship. Relational boredom can also be thought of as a dynamic, fluctuating state that can be responded to and fixed. One strategy to combat relational boredom is to add novelty and excitement to the relationship (e.g., vary your date night repertoire). Beneficial effects (e.g., increased satisfaction, passion, sexual desire) for the relationship have been found by researchers when exciting date events have been assessed in the lab and by measuring them as they naturally occur in people’s daily lives.
People are not expected to seek out excitement in their relationships all the time. There are occasions when it would be best to engage in comfortable behaviors with a partner and other times when it would be best to explore outside the comfort zone. A key relationship skill involves being in tune with the early signs of boredom to respond to and prevent the relationship from settling into more serious stagnation.
Am I Bored in My Relationship?
Gauges for instantly assessing needs and emotions in the self and the partner could be a welcome addition to people’s relational tool kit, albeit in the realm of science fiction. For instance, people could consult the relationship gauges and “fill the tank” with excitement when the dial is low and avert boredom. In the real world, people must rely on themselves to judge the state of their relationship and the appropriate maintenance responses.
One important relationship judgment is: Am I bored in my relationship? To answer this question, people rely on their expectations (i.e., the bar they set for excitement). That is rather than thinking of relational boredom stemming from an objectively low level of excitement, it is best to think of it in terms of whether there is a gap between what people experience and what they ideally want. Expectation gaps in a relationship are considered undesirable, but they can also be used as a relationship diagnostic tool.
Types of Expectation Gaps
Expectations in relationships can be divided into different categories, including growth (i.e., fun, excitement, adventure) and security (i.e., comfort, trust, and predictability). People differ in terms of how much growth and security they want in their relationship at any point in time. Some people might generally set the bar high for excitement, while others might prefer more routine and comfort in their relationship. Additionally, even for the people that set the bar higher for excitement, there might be occasions in their relationship (e.g., illness) where the bar is adjusted lower.
In a recent set of studies, we found that people were more likely to diagnose boredom in other people's relationships and their own relationship if there were expectation gaps for growth (low novelty and growth), but not security (low comfort and predictability). In other words, relational boredom is a specific type of need dissatisfaction and other aspects of the relationship may remain satisfying.
As well, absolute low growth did not predict boredom diagnoses, instead, it was only if the person was falling short of their expectations (i.e., experiencing an expectation gap) for growth. Being low in growth without an expectation gap was not associated with diagnoses of boredom.
Many factors are outside of people’s control to have a happy relationship (e.g., external stressors, personality). However, one thing people can change is how they interact with their partner. The first step is being aware that you or your partner are feeling bored in the relationship. Ideally, people will catch this at the early stages, before boredom has become entrenched. One specific thing people can do is to imagine where the dial is on relationship gauges for both security (comfort, predictability) as well as growth (fun, excitement) and assess if there are meaningful expectation gaps. Once a person is aware of an expectation gap, the next step is to act by, for instance, planning a date that you and your partner consider novel and exciting (i.e., vary your date night repertoire).
Facebook image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock
Harasymchuk, C., Peetz, J., Fehr, B., & Chowdhury, S. (2021). Worn out relationship? The role of expectations in judgments of relational boredom. Personal Relationships, 28(1), 80-98.