In every phase of life, and in every new situation, each person must continuously choose between security and predictability on the one hand, and the hunger for adventure and challenge on the other. If individuals have too much security, they can fall prey to a deadly trance of comfortable monotony that dulls the mind and kills the spirit. If, on the other hand, they live a life of continuous challenge and adventure, they may severely deplete their resources and live in unpredictable chaos. The optimum goal for each person is to find the best balance between the two choices.
That process is difficult enough for individuals when they have only themselves to consider. When they enter into an intimate relationship, they must mutually balance their conflicts with their significant other.
The partners in a new relationship are initially very willing to embrace whatever adventures their interaction may bring. They are attracted to the challenge of discovering each other, and continuously experience new thoughts, actions, and feelings. Not yet attached to whether the relationship will last, their needs for the comfort of security are not yet a consideration.
As they get to know each other and that rate of new discovery slows, the partners become more concerned about the relationship's future. One or both partners limit any threatening personal transformations and reward each other instead for predictable interactions. They become partners who strive to accept each other's limitations rather than challenge them. Their initial explorations into unknown territory fall into sleep mode as the partners let the past define the future, and see those chosen limitations as true and lasting love.
- "I know I'll always love you the same as I do now."
- "Don't ever change. You're perfect the way you are."
- "We understand each other so completely that we don't even have to think about it anymore."
- "I can predict everything he wants and be there for him."
- "I just think of something I need, and she knows it before I tell her."
- "We've created the ultimate love. Let's stay this way forever."
- "We accept each other's faults completely. That's why we get along so well."
- "We'll never allow anything to separate us."
These kinds of comments are what most romantic idealists would savor. Unfortunately, they maintain the trance state that can discourage further relationship growth. The partners saying them to each other believe that their familiarity and predictability more than compensates for the loss of the of excitement they once so avidly pursued. The intimacy of security has replaced the thrill of discovery, and made them vulnerable to losing the love they have created.
When people have given up challenge and discovery in exchange for security, they are in danger of investing less energy because the relationship does not demand it. Instead, the partners develop predictable verbal and physical rituals. As a result, they stop sharing any ideas that might threaten what they are protecting.
Too much predictability can lead to indifference. Over time, apathy can turn to exasperation, annoyance, and irritation. The security that once was their protective castle now becomes their prison. They have unwittingly become bored and boring to each other.
The couple often does not realize their problems stem from the boredom they have unwittingly created. Bickering over minimally offensive issues can grow into dramatic challenges. The couple may suspect that their presented complaints are not the real problem, but they are no longer able to understand what may be the underlying cause.
The real problem often turns out to be the discovery they have lost. They have accepted a life without emerging newness. Though mutually committed to life's external challenges, they have become uninterested in their relationship.
Why Do Committed Partners Choose Security Over Continued Discovery?
Security is sweet. The partners in established relationships are comfortable knowing what to expect and able to handle whatever situations evolve. The ordinary struggles of life are enough for the partners to combat together, and unexpected ones are uncomfortably challenging.
When I ask them why they chose security over discovery, they tell me that they appreciate the closeness and the lessened energy it requires. They are less anxious when they do not have to be constantly on their toes, waiting for the next challenge.
- "I already know what he's going to say just by the way his face looks, and I'm usually right."
- "She walks in the house and starts cleaning furiously. I know I'm in for it, but we'll work it out."
- "She puts fresh sheets on the bed and the computer is turned off when I walk in the door. I know she wants to make love."
- "He gets that silly grin on his face and I know he wants me to say yes to whatever is coming next."
- "He's been late for the last three dates. I'll get flowers this afternoon."
- "She's being really nice to me. That means her mother's coming to stay for a month."
Why New Lovers Give Up the Excitement of Discovery
New lovers are devoted to continuous discovery. They explore each other's bodies, hearts, minds, and memories with excitement and intensity, searching for ever-new ways to join and intertwine. Each fresh discovery is stored and archived for future reference. They revel in their ability to second-guess whatever their partner's desires are, and feel deeply satisfied when they succeed. They do not see predictability as a precursor to boredom; they see it as a well-traveled path to mutual comfort.
Each partner is in constant transformation, alive and open to every new experience. Both are emotionally responsive, constantly sending messages of hope and approval. They share constantly moving and passionate emotional earthquakes, enjoying their constant surprises. They support each other's dreams, create new ones together, and become capable of things neither could do alone.
New lovers generate mutual aliveness together. Their innate love of the hunt combined with their lust-filled physical connections drives them into the deepest recesses of new experience. Their pupils dilate and their bodies tingle with adrenalin. They are just-outside-of-reach fascinating prey to each other, adding energy to every new discovery.
Along with their excitement of the hunt, the partners feel anxiety and insecurity. They are understandably concerned that their new connection will not hold its intensity. The more they fall in love, the more they fear the possible pain of the relationship's potential ending. That fear drives them away from risking new thoughts or behaviors, and pushes them to seek comfort and security instead.
The two desires, hunting/discovery and fear/insecurity begin to conflict. Before, the lovers reveled in the constant newness of their experiences. Now they want to know that their partners will love them forever. To ensure that outcome, both begin to hide thoughts, feelings, or actions that could drive their lovers away. They offer only what they believe will be accepted, and stop searching for any new knowledge that would risk their partner's rejection. The hunt is over and the partners are drawn into ritualized, predictable, and less interesting interactions.
How These Ritualized Couples Present in Therapy
Many committed couples find frustration in their counseling when they cannot seem to get to the core of their heartaches. Each time they resolve what they believe is the true problem, one or the other comes up with a new complaint. If boredom has become the underlying issue, it typically emerges in these disillusioning interactions.
The partners, unable to tolerate the hidden loss of passion, are often serial bickerers, fighting over seemingly useless, energy-draining issues. Their boredom has transformed into hostility, a pseudo-passion replacing any real intimacy. They are tired to examine their motivations or to find a way to do things differently, and they are no longer interested in each other's opinions or feelings. When asked for time or interest, they often respond in irritated comebacks.
- "I know, I know. You just want more time to yourself, right? Don't mask it with some damn excuse."
- "What do you want? I've got a lot on my plate."
- "Why can't you understand how tired I am? You're never satisfied."
- "I've told you a thousand times, I'm never going to go to some bullshit dance class with you. I'm not interested."
- "Stop nagging me. Just write a list and I'll get to it when I can."
- "If you want something, tell me. I can't read your mind."
- "I don't care why you did it, I still don't like it. Either change your behavior or stop wanting me to like it. OK?"
Most of the couples I see would never have spoken to each other like this in the beginning. They would have wanted to understand, cared about how their partner felt and why, and been motivated to find successful solutions to conflicts.
They've asked for help. They want to feel better. They even want to fall in love again, and don't understand what has gone wrong.
How to Find Discovery and Excitement Again
If you and your partner fight over trivial issues, react curtly to each other, or go long periods without talking, what can you do to regenerate interest in each other? There are three steps you need to take:
1. Evaluate how far you have allowed your relationship to get out of balance.
2. Assess your motivation to change.
3. Recreate your initial desire for discovery.
The following exercises will help you.
Exercise 1: Evaluation
Answer the following questions and score your responses. When you have completed your answers, ask your partner to do the same. Then share your answers with each other. Feel free to stop between each answer if either of you need to ask why, or how, you came to that conclusion.
Score your answers in the following way:
Always = 5
Often = 4
Occasionally = 3
Not very often = 2
Rarely = 1
- When your partner tries to share an important experience with you, do you find yourself impatient for it to be over? _____
- Do you finish your partner's sentences because you already know how they're going to end? _____
- When your partner states an opinion, could you have predicted it? _____
- If your partner asks you a question, are you likely to give a superficial answer? _____
- Are you sad that your partner doesn't seem more interested in you? _____
- Do you withhold things from your partner because you believe he or she wouldn't really be interested? _____
- Do you find that you aren't willing to share new dreams with your partner anymore? _____
- Do you find yourself wanting more excitement in your relationship? _____
- How often do you notice that your energy together has diminished? _____
- Do you wish that your interactions with your partner were more passionate? _____
- Do you wish you could make your relationship more exciting, but withhold those ideas from him or her? _____
Add up your scores.
A score of 10-20 means you are not as bored as you thought.
A score of 20-30 means you are in the zone of concern.
A score of 30-40 is inching closer to diminishing interest in each other.
A score of 40-50 is a significant warning sign that your relationship is in trouble.
If either of you is concerned about your scores, your nest step is to evaluate your level of motivation to turn things around.
Exercise 2: Motivation
Score the following questions using these options:
1 = In a heartbeat
2 = With some reservations
3 = Skeptical but willing to try
4 = Prove it to me
5 = I don't trust it can change
- Would you be willing to listen to your partner's thoughts and feelings if they included new ideas and challenging concepts? _____
- Would you like to be surprised at what your partner shares with you? _____
- Would you be more interested in your partner if his or her questions were not what you expected? _____
- Would you like your partner to expect you to be more interesting? _____
- Would you like your partner to be more interested in what you have to say? _____
- Do you wish you felt more eager to tell your partner your thoughts and feelings? _____
- Would you like to be more excited about sharing new ideas or feelings? _____
- Would you like your partner to surprise you with thoughts and feelings you haven't heard before? _____
- Would you like more positive and energetic exchanges with your partner? _____
- Would you like more passion in your relationship in general? _____
- Do you wish your partner were more mysterious? _____
Add up your scores.
10-20: There is a good chance you can rediscover exciting challenges in your relationship.
20-30: You have lost some hope but are still willing to try.
30-40: You are discouraged that you won't be able to get things going again.
40-50: You are clearly bored but resigned to things the way they are, and are willing to accept security without rocking the boat.
You may feel like you won't see any changes no matter what, but when you try, your attitude will change, even with small differences. Hope creates energy and you will not need much to get your relationship going again.
The partners in great relationships constantly make sure that their balance between security and discovery stays in check. They love the intimacy of knowing each other deeply, but also understand that they also require continuing challenge and new discovery. They know they must continue transforming and evolving, even if that process temporarily threatens the security they have created. They hold on to the comfort they have come to treasure, while committing to discover new ways to be together. It's important to know you can count on familiarity and predictability together, but it's equally important to be surprised and challenged by new experiences.
You can't ask your partner to become more interesting to you unless you also work on your own capacity to excite him or her in return. Start by changing your own predictable behaviors. Ask yourself when you last challenged your own purpose, looked for deeper meanings in life, or left unproductive rituals behind. What new ideas and thoughts have you withheld from your partner for fear that they might risk the comfort you depend upon? If both of you live by these rules, you will begin the upward spiral of again finding new discoveries in the person you thought you knew so well.
If you want to add more challenge and discovery to your relationship, please remember what you sought when your love was new. Tragically, most people who leave a committed relationship and begin to date again, instantly and willingly do all the things that would have possibly saved their last relationship had they done them there. You've invested so much in what you have created together. Adding the excitement of unexpected and interesting new experiences can recreate the best of what you once had with the joy of what you already have.