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The Stale Relationship: 3 Ways to Shake It Up

Bored? Stuck? Time for some first aide

The stale couple. There are no recently-discovered affairs going on, no Jerry Springer-like-out-of-control arguments, no underlying porn addictions or even serious mental health problems to derail them. No, there is nothing major going on, and perhaps in some ways that is part of the problem. They talk in therapy about not having much in common, not doing much together, feeling disconnected. They are essentially... bored.

This is not all that unusual especially for couples who have been married for a long time. Sometimes this happens because they have been busy with parallel lives - both fully invested in their careers, for example - and over the years their lives have grown wider and wider apart, leaving them with little in common. Other times they have been essentially child centered - every weekend for 15 years was tied up attending some child's soccer or volleyball game - and now the kids are teenagers or even off to college and have little to do with their parents. The kids who filled up the space between them for all those years are suddenly gone and what the couple sees is this wide hole between them.

Underneath all this is the simple fact that they have changed as individuals and as a couple. The initial basis for the psychological contract between them - what they needed from each other when they first got married - is no longer there because they have grown and changed thanks to the support of each other. But if the relationship hasn't kept up - if the couple is still locked into Year One routines and rules - and hasn't updated them to fit who they are now - it's understandable that they feel disconnected and adrift.

What to do? If your relationship has or seems to be shifting in that direction, there are few first-aide steps you can start right away. The first is to talk it up. Each partner needs to talk about how they are feeling, how they have changed, what's important in their life right now. It's not an argument or complaint session, it's an updating. Do the reflection then sit down and have the conversation. Simply talking at this level may be a revelation and the intimacy can jump-start you to a deeper level.

Second, you need to shake it up. If you have lost common interests because the kids are gone, because you've both fallen into a rut and shackled by routines, you need to go out, explore and act on anything that catches your attention - the tango lessons, the Saturday hiking, taking a class together or starting up weekend dinner parties - the wilder the better. The key here is a Try-it attitude. You're discovering new interests and more importantly, creating a new batch of memories together. If you like any of what you try, keep it up; if not, that's fine, move to something else. Whatever you do, don't stay still.

Finally you need to heat it up. We're not only talking about passion here (though that is always a good start even if you have a schedule it to make it happen at first). We're talking about pulling out from under the rug any resentments that have gone the way of the bitten lip over the years that need to be said - Christmas ‘ 03, left over feelings about the miscarriage 5 years ago. Unfinished business. Often by shutting down these more difficult topics and emotions, others are shut down as well. You only talk about the kids and weather, and it's not wonder that you are bored. Boredom becomes the wall that you need to tear down.

If this last one is scary to do on your own, see a counselor, a minister, someone who can provide a safe environment to do this new kind of talking. It need not be a long process or turn out as frightening as you imagine, and it can go along way in helping energize the relationship.

The fact that you're able to acknowledge the problem in the relationship means you are ready to handle it - seeing the elephant in the room is half the solution to moving it out of the way. The only way you can fail is by continuing to walk around it, rather than taking action.

So take some and see what you discover.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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