Feeling Bored? Is It Your Partner — or You?
What to do about boredom in romantic relationships.
Posted Jul 26, 2018
When Sandra first met Jason, she felt a surge of excitement. No matter how many hours they spent together, she held on to his every word, taking true pleasure in listening to all of his interests, ideas, and future plans. Even something as trivial as learning about his favorite color felt exciting to her. Together, they took weekend trips around the country, tried sky-diving and hand-gliding, and set out to try a new restaurant each week. Sandra was the happiest she had been in a long time. After about a year together with Jason, however, just as the adventures slowed, so did Sandra's feelings: She was bored.
Although the topic of boredom in romantic relationships is not robustly researched, it is often cited as a reason for marital or relationship difficulties. This may be because as relationships settle, the urge to stay up all night getting to know the intimate details of your partner naturally slows. The reason why these activities are so pleasurable to us in the beginning is because we are, in essence, expanding our "self" to better fit our newfound romantic interest into our world, and us into theirs. As this self-expansion decreases over time or ceases completely, the positive emotions associated with it, like excitement and arousal, decrease, giving way to boredom. After all, when it comes to knowing our partners, there are only so many stones we've left unturned as time carries on.
There is a difference, however, between feeling bored with your partner and feeling bored of your partner. It may sound indiscriminate, but there’s actually a layered psychological distinction between the two.
We tend to feel bored when we have excess energy (what we’d call "arousal"), but nowhere to direct that energy. As a result, we end up feeling negative emotion. Feeling bored with your partner might mean that you’ve fallen into a pattern; although you both have an interest in doing something new, you don’t explore it. This could be because of circumstances outside of your control — like wanting to go hiking in the middle of a New England winter — or simply because you can’t decide what to do, so you choose the easiest option, which usually means doing the same mundane activities you’re used to, resulting in the dulling of your relationship. Feeling bored of your partner, on the other hand, might mean having your mind wander whenever you’re together, catching yourself daydreaming about other potential partners, or not wanting to spend time alone together anymore. Ultimately, the difference between feeling bored with your partner and feeling bored of your partner really lies in determining whether your boredom is shared, whether you still want to spend time with your partner, and how your partner supports you and addresses your feelings and your needs.
If you aren’t sure why you feel bored or where to attribute that feeling, you may also be wrestling with your internal motivations. When entering into a romantic relationship, people, in theory, have two goals: to pursue what’s pleasurable and rewarding (known as an "approach motivation"), and/or to avoid anything that might be costly or cause harm, like feeling insecure, isolated, or lonely (known as an "avoidance motivation"). So we can enter into a relationship because we find being with this person exciting, which brings positive emotion into our lives, or because we don't want to feel lonely anymore, reducing negative feelings, or both. In the most fulfilling relationships, we avoid negative feelings, so we usually feel safe and secure, but we also feel pleasure, which often comes from novelty or overcoming challenges together, which helps deepen our romantic bond. When we feel bored in a relationship, however, we usually still feel safe and secure, but we stop doing the fun and pleasurable activities that made us feel connected in the beginning.
Luckily, it really is a quick fix: As proven by research, the best way to avoid the stagnation of your relationship, and to determine whether you're bored with or of your partner, is to do something new together that neither of you have tried before. It helps most if you look for something challenging that requires setting a goal to overcome together, like running a marathon or cooking a three-course meal for friends, but even silly novel activities — like going bowling or taking a dance class — could similarly help bring passion back into your relationship. If you’ve tried a few new and exciting activities with your partner and still feel that you dread the thought of spending time alone with him or her, then it might be worth taking a closer look at whether the relationship is right for you.
Aron, E. N., Norman, C. C., & Aron, A. (2001). Shared self-expanding activities as a means of maintaining and enhancing close romantic relationships. In Close romantic relationships(pp. 55-74). Psychology Press.
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(2), 273.
Carver, C. S. (2006). Approach, avoidance, and the self-regulation of affect and action. Motivation and emotion, 30(2), 105-110.