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Is Relationship Boredom Inevitable During COVID?

Don’t let your relationship become another COVID casualty.

Who would you most want with you if you were shipwrecked on a deserted island? Think carefully. This proverbial question, no longer merely a hypothetical conversation starter, has become all too relevant.

During COVID our social circles have been drawn tight—often uncomfortably so. We’re constricted; unable to get away from family or housemates and yearning for fresh faces. It doesn’t matter if we’re sitting in makeshift basement offices, improvised school rooms, or overrun dining rooms, they are, annoyingly, always there. You can’t escape them. Never mind the fact that you genuinely like your housemates, love your family members, seeing the same faces day in and day out can start to grate.

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Of course, who we are sequestered with during COVID lockdown makes a huge difference. Being trapped with harmful people can do tragic damage. Others might struggle with the burden of loneliness. Yet even those blessed with healthy relationships can face significant strain—both personal strain and tension in relationships during COVID lockdown.

The usual relationship threats—conflict, betrayal, jealousy, and broken promises—can rear their ugly heads when we are isolated together for inordinate amounts of time. But another more insidious menace also lurks—relational boredom.

Relational boredom occurs when we feel tired of our partner and feel that our relationship lacks excitement, novelty, or passion. And it can be a real problem. Relational boredom is strongly related to poor relationship satisfaction, even to the point of predicting satisfaction 9 years later. It can weaken our connection to our partner and is linked with less investment, withdrawal from relationships, and an increased willingness to be unfaithful.

Although we might withdraw from our partner when mired in relational boredom, it seems we don’t actually blame them for the doldrums. Instead, we tend to attribute boredom in our relationships to things like being stuck in routine, too much familiarity, feeling like we’re doing the same thing all the time. We blame external factors more than our partner.

These relational boredom determinants may sound unnervingly familiar during social distancing and lockdown. It’s December, and as we head into the holiday season, many of us are trapped by a second lockdown or at least on the cusp of it. For many, the first lockdown was an agonizing 10 months ago, and yet the same-old people are still underfoot. We’re also constrained in what we can do together and burdened by routine and responsibilities. In short, relational boredom looms.

And we know it. We are pretty good at tracking the relational boredom levels of our partner. In fact, if anything, we tend to overestimate how bored our partner is with our relationship. Most importantly, we seem to accurately notice when they’ve become more or less bored with us.

We also have decent intuition about how to deal with relational boredom—namely, "spice things up" with novel and exciting shared activity. Relationship theorists highlight that effective relationships lead to self-expansion. On the other hand, we stagnate in boring relationships. So, at first blush we might think relational boredom is an effective early warning signal helping us break out of a destructive spiral to get our relationship back on track. However, the bad news is it seems we don’t consistently follow through on our intentions to pursue new, relationship-invigorating activities together.

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It is particularly tough to engage in new and exciting activities during COVID lockdown. First, as we know all too well, we are pinned down and constrained by public health restrictions. Simply put, it’s hard to find opportunities for novel excitement. However, less obvious factors are afoot too.

Relationships have to navigate the poles of growth and security in order to find that zone where the relationship can flourish—the Goldilocks zone. Too much growth-inducing novelty and excitement and we risk insecurity and, at worst, blowing the relationship apart. On the other hand, too much comfort and familiarity and we risk relational boredom. As with many things in life, we face a trade-off, and balance is best.

To climb out of relational boredom we may have to risk security and embrace uncertainty, all for the possibility of relational growth. And here’s the bind: 2020 has brought more than enough uncertainty for a lifetime. Quite frankly, we’re fed up with uncertainty. The idea of seeking more of it does not appeal, and so we gravitate towards the familiar and soothing. Let’s just collapse on the couch with our favorite comfort food and a movie—reassuring to be sure, but unlikely to stave off relationship boredom if it is all we do, night after night.

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To be clear, we are not suggesting you take up couples skydiving or engage in activities that pose health risks during a pandemic. But we are suggesting you don’t simply fall back to the same-old-same-old when looking for activities to pursue with your partner. Focus on what you can do under the circumstances that is fresh, and in line with your values. If you have a passion for board games, splurge and pick up something new. Foodies might try their hand at preparing an unfamiliar exotic meal. Try an online concert, setting your living room up as an arena or theatre to enhance the “feel.”

Being stuck together doesn’t have to be relationship-destroying. In fact, facing the adversity of COVID together might even lead to stronger relationships and personal growth. So, take heart and look for opportunities to grow your relationships during the isolation and constraint of COVID health restrictions. Familiar faces do not have to become boring faces.

More from James Danckert Ph.D., and John Eastwood, Ph.D.
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More from James Danckert Ph.D., and John Eastwood, Ph.D.
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