Feeling Stuck in a Stale Relationship? How to Revitalize It
Boring relationships don't have to stay that way.
Posted Mar 15, 2020
Maria and Jim have been married for 10 years. They are great parents who spend lots of time with their kids and their activities; they both have good careers that they enjoy; they don't argue: What's not to like? But pull them each aside and ask how they are doing as a couple and you're likely to hear that sex is perfunctory, that day-to-day they're a bit bored.
Welcome to the stale relationship. While this is hitting Maria and Jim at the 10-year mark, it could just as easily happen at 3 years or 30. And like that of Maria and Jim, stale relationships are often work and/or child-centered and relatively conflict-free because the partners tend to be "nice" conflict-avoidant people.
This niceness only fuels a downward spiral. Though they both may feel the lack of intimacy, a growing distance, they avoid talking about it and instead throw themselves even more into the kids or jobs, try even harder to be more accommodating, nicer. This suppression of emotion leaves them with superficial getting-along, a relationship lacking vitality and intimacy.
Two underlying problems are driving this state of affairs:
Lack of common interests. While Maria and Jim shared a lot of common interests when they dated and were first married, kids and jobs have eaten into the time they used to have for these activities. But what’s also likely changed is them: Their own interests have changed over the years, and though they may have developed individual hobbies, they haven't made creating new couple interests a priority. It’s their kids that keep them connected or they live in parallel universes focused on their work.
Unresolved problems. The second problem is that they've likely swept a lot of problems under the rug. Because they don't like conflict, when problems arise they are often minimized or ignored. Over time these accumulate and become landmines that they are constantly avoiding. They begin to use distance to avoid conflict, and the number of "safe" topics quickly gets reduced to the kids, news from work, the weather. Again, this flatness of emotions flattens intimacy; they turn into roommates, stop being lovers.
How to revitalize stale relationships
1. Develop common interests. There are 2 parts to this: making this a priority and exploring.
Making this a priority means carving out more couple-time for couple-time. This is about not going on auto-pilot, making time in your day for each other, ultimately about looking hard at your choices and lifestyle. Exploring means that you can't just sit on a couch and hope to find new common interests. You need to get boots on the ground, you need to explore and experiment and see what sticks. Sign up for a few swing dance lessons or yoga classes at the Y, enroll together in an online course, join a group and go birdwatching, build a garden. This is less about dance, courses, birds, gardens and about creating shared experiences that turn into shared positive memories that in turn create a new, more solid foundation.
2. Heat things up. It's normal for relationships to wind down after a year or two as oxytocin naturally drops, as routines get worked out and take over. But that winding down winds down even further when there are unresolved problems to walk around. Time to drag at least some of the problems out from under the carpet. Just as exploring new interests is less about dancing and more about commitment and contact, talking about problems is less about particular pet peeves and more about changing the way you interact – breaking out of the niceness, conflict avoidance, and walking on eggshells, and more about speaking up, fighting for what is important, updating the relationship contract. It’s time to bring energy, vitality, and passion back into the relationship and it really doesn’t matter where and how you start.
Like stale bread in a drawer, stale relationships don't get better with time or on their own. Maybe it's time to act, to step up, to revitalize your relationship.