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 couple of months?
If you answered no to any of these questions, you might be going through 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.
Most relationships go through periods like this. A lot of people like how routine gives them predictability and stability, so some ruts are okay and inevitable.
In my long-term research study that followed 300+ couples for 32 years, over 42% of the partners felt like their relationships were in a rut (or falling into a rut). It’s a very common complaint.
But there’s a caveat. If the rut goes on for years it can 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, boredom, if not addressed, predicts relationship unhappiness and distress further down the line.
The key message here for you is that getting your relationship out of a rut as soon as possible will increase your chances of happiness — not just now, but also years into the future.
Let’s look at the three factors that cause a relationship rut, and some simple changes you can make to reduce boredom and increase happiness and excitement.
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, running a household, saving money, and planning the future — but you’re both so busy doing what you’re doing separately that you just don’t take time to cross paths.
To feel happier and more interested, you have to change direction slightly so your paths intersect from time to time.
When you take on too many responsibilities and tasks you put your relationship on the back burner. Try to pay attention, slow down, and take time every day 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 and 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.”
Pat uses this technique with her husband, Max. “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 you and your partner might be in a rut is that people forget that relationships aren’t just about caring for children and creating a secure and stable home. They’re 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 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.
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’s important that you do surprising things that make your life less predictable. For example, wake up first and bring your partner breakfast in bed, or instead of having dinner and movie date night go to brunch on Sunday or a movie on a school night.
Here's a short exercise you could try to get out of the typical couple date night rut:
Write down five things you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t, and have your partner do the same. Both of you agree that you will do the activity on the sheet if selected. Tear the suggestions into pieces of paper and put all 10 sheets in a bowl.
Take out a calendar and find two times you could go out together in the next month.
Each of you picks out a piece of paper from the bowl. This is the activity you will do for those two scheduled times! Schedule the activities on the calendar.