Can you remember when your partner said or did something that genuinely surprised you? Have the two of you gone on a date together, just the two of you, in the last two months?
If you answered no to any of these questions, it is very common for a relationship to fall into a ‘relationship rut’. You know, where the relationship becomes routine and humdrum and partners start feeling as though they are missing all of the good things that make relationships fun and exciting.
Bear in mind that you and your partner don’t have to be fighting or not having sex to be in a rut. In a relationship rut, there may not be anything wrong with your relationship; it has just become routine and monotonous.
Most relationships go through periods like this. And, many people like the fact that routine gives them predictability and stability. So, some ruts are okay and inevitable. In my long-term research study funded by the National Institutes of Health – which has followed 300+ couples over a period of 32 years – over 42% of the partners felt like their relationships were in a rut (or falling into a rut). It is a very common complaint.
But, here’s the red flag: If the rut goes on for years, it can become a problem and lead to boredom and unhappiness. My study also found that partners who said their relationship was in a rut year after year were significantly less happy each year they were together!
In other words, My study found that boredom, if not addressed, predicts relationship unhappiness and distress many years later.
The key message here for you is that getting your relationship out of a rut NOW will increase your chances of happiness, now and years into the future.
Let’s look at the three factors that cause a relationship rut, and discover some simple concrete changes you can make to reduce boredom and increase happiness and excitement.
First, relationships can fall into a rut because the two partners are living almost parallel lives. This means you and your partner are both progressing along toward the same life goals – raising a family, maintaining a household, saving money, and planning the future – but you are so busy doing what you are doing separately that you just don’t take time to cross paths.
In order to feel happier and more interested, you have to change direction slightly so your paths intersect from time to time.
To get out of the rut, you need to slow down.When you take on too many responsibilities and tasks you put your relationship on the back burner. But now – pay attention, slow down, take time today to notice what your partner is doing. For example, tomorrow, try and slow down your morning routine and notice what your partner is wearing. You can also make plans to do something together, this week. Put it on the calendar.
One of my favorite stories is from a woman in my study called Pat. She said that in her kindergarten class, they use the “freeze moment.” “At random moments, in the middle of class, I will say ‘freeze.’ All the kids stop whatever they’re doing and freeze. It’s a great way for me to gain control of the class and help the students refocus. I use this with Max (her husband). Sometimes he’ll say something to me that’s really perceptive, and I’ll think “freeze.” I take a mental snapshot of that moment. I don’t want to be a zombie in my marriage – just trudging through. I think that kind of effort has helped keep our marriage happy.”
Another reason a relationship rut may occur is because people forget that relationships are not just about caring for children and creating a secure and stable home. It is also about making your relationship more fun and playful.
To be truly happy, you need to strike a balance between the rational and fun. The happy couples in my study characterized their partners as fun to be around, people they enjoyed spending time with. Too often, after two people have been together long term, partners tend to look to outside friends for fun and entertainment, and to their partner for security and stability.
To get out of the rut, you just need to pepper your relationship with one or two fun activities that get you laughing, relaxing together, or playing. A family tennis game if you have kids or miniature golf, a snowball fight, board games, or watching a comedy show together. The idea here is to lighten up. Inject some fun and laughter into your relationship to counteract the same-old, same-old boredom.
Did you know? Exercise is scientifically proven to boost sexual arousal?
The third reason for falling into a relationship rut is because both partners begin to take each other for granted. In a typical relationship, each person starts adopting certain roles and responsibilities. For example, one of you always does the shopping and cooking. The other partner might always do the bills and take care of the kids. Next, things start to feel very predictable.
To get out of the rut, you need to knock your partner gently off balance.It is important that you do surprising things that make your life less predictable. For example, wake up first and bring her breakfast in bed, OR instead of having dinner and movie date night – go to brunch on Sunday or a movie on a school night.
There are several reasons why relationships fall into a rut, but staying in this rut will eat away at the happiness and excitement in your relationship. Small changes like ones prompted by this exercise can reinvigorate your relationship.
How do you improve as a couple? Download the Paired app to learn more about your partner and relationship by comparing answers to our weekly couple's quizzes.
Here's a short exercise you could try to get out of the typical couple date night rut.
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Dr. Terri Orbuch (PhD) is a distinguished professor at Oakland University, and research professor at University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research.
She is trained as a therapist and an academic and uses science and research to help people find and keep love. She is the Director of a long-term research study funded by the National Institutes of Health - which has followed 300+ couples over a period of 32 years.
Terri is also known as The Love Doctor® in the U.S. media and has written six books on love and relationships.