We can all name the bad habits we get into when we and our partner are mutually bored. Maybe it’s the eyes glued to our cell phone screens in bed or afternoons filled with watching bad TV. We may feel it in the stretches of silence over dinner or the long, lazy minutes trying to think of something to do. Boredom may sound like a silent killer when it comes to the spark in a romantic relationship, but recent research is showing that it can also be a useful wake-up call. As researcher Thomas Goetz told The Wall Street Journal, “Boredom is a signal that something is wrong and we need to change things.”
A few years back, Goetz and his research team published an eye-opening study on boredom that divided it into five main categories. By taking a closer look at these types of boredom, we can get a glimpse into how each type might affect us and how we may counter it in our relationship. With each category, there are real tips we can embrace, big and small, that can serve as an antidote to boredom and allow us to enjoy a livelier, closer relationship.
1. Indifferent boredom was a lighter, less serious feeling, like being in a tired, yet pleasant mood. It may convey a desire to withdraw from the external world and relax. This type of boredom is probably not a serious indication of anything being wrong in relation to your partner. However, it may be a signal that you’d like a little bit of time alone or quiet to reflect or rest.
On the other hand, feeling indifferent boredom may actually offer a good opportunity to relax or rest with your partner, express affection, take a walk outside, or cuddle up and read or watch something together. You don’t need to be bubbling with energy to express warmth and intimacy. Quiet acts of closeness go a long way to making you feel more alive toward your partner.
2. Calibrating boredom is a little less pleasant. In Goetz’s study, it was associated with “wandering thoughts, not knowing what to do, and a general openness to behaviors aimed at changing the situation.” Basically, you may be keeping your ears open for better options, but you’re not actively looking to alter your situation.
Most people in a couple can relate to this state, and it can mean different things. For instance, if you’re feeling like there’s a lingering silence or lack of conversation that leaves you on alert for more stimulation, it may be a sign that something’s off between you and your partner. If you’re just tired of doing the same old thing, you may have fallen too hard into routine, which tends to deaden romance in a relationship.
Whatever the problem, the solution is the same: do something different, break the routine. If you usually stay in, go out. If you’re not communicating, say something personal and real about yourself or ask something personal and real about your partner. Don’t over-attend to or exaggerate the feeling of boredom; just take a small, simple action to liven things up and see if that changes your feeling.
3. Searching boredom is an unpleasant feeling of restlessness that leads to a more active search for alternate activities. Again, the reasons for this aren’t necessarily a big deal and don’t necessarily have to do with your partner or the relationship in itself. Nevertheless, there’s no harm in taking actions that prevent this mood from taking over. And again, the solution may well be to do something else.
If you feel a sense of searching boredom when you’re spending time with your partner, it may be a sign that you need to do something different together (i.e. try a new activity, visit a new place). It may mean you should invest energy in an old activity you both used to share but that’s fizzled out over time (i.e. hiking, taking a drive.)
Searching boredom can also be a sign it’s time to do something independent. After all, you and your partner are two separate people with unique interests, and going off to pursue something that lights you up individually can reenergize you when you come back together. Relationships should expand your world, from your interests to your social networks, not shrink them. Boredom tends to creep in when couples limit each other, rather than supporting each other’s individuality.
4. Reactant boredom is an altogether unpleasant feeling, but it’s one that often inspires action or a reaction. Again, this type of boredom is characterized by restlessness, but it’s marked by more extreme feelings of wanting to leave the situation and can be experienced as aggressiveness. One thing to look out for if you’re feeling this way are any “critical inner voices” you may be experiencing toward yourself, your partner, your relationship, or toward life in general. Your critical inner voice is like a mean internal coach that insults and undermines you and tends to target people close to you as well.
Naturally, there are times you have real complaints about your partner or your circumstances, but the critical inner voice tends to nitpick, exaggerate, and distort in ways that ruin your mood and negatively color your point of view. These thoughts or “voices” often come from old, often destructive patterns and, therefore, are often unrealistic and ill-suited to the present circumstance. Yet, when you listen to your critical inner voice, you’re more likely to act out toward your partner, picking fights or becoming agitated or irritable.
Reactant boredom may be a sign you need to do something else, but it can also be an indication that you’re listening to your inner critic at a rather high volume, which keeps you in a state of dissatisfaction rather than thinking rationally about how you could improve your situation. What actions could you take to make things livelier with your partner? To bring things closer? How could you communicate what your feeling in a way that could be helpful?
5. Apathetic boredom is very unpleasant and associated with both helplessness and low arousal, which means people feeling it aren’t inspired to take action. This type of boredom has been linked to depression and should be taken seriously. If you’re feeling apathetic boredom in your relationship, it could be a sign you’re feeling depressed or helpless, and it’s probably a good time to seek help and communicate with your partner. Having an honest, open talk with your partner about what you’re feeling may help, and it may be best to do this in couples therapy. You may also benefit from seeing an individual therapist to help you figure out what’s going on.
As far as couple dynamics go, one of the biggest contributors to apathy or boredom in a relationship is entering into a fantasy bond. A fantasy bond is a concept conceived by Dr. Robert Firestone to describe how couples enter into an “illusion of fusion” that places the form of being a couple over the substance of being in love. When a couple enters a fantasy bond, they stop engaging in certain loving actions and behaviors that show respect for the other person as a separate individual, i.e. listening, making eye contact, showing affection, supporting the other person’s interests, or staying lively and attuned to themselves. If you’re feeling consistently bored with your partner, it may be worth examining the extent to which you may have formed a fantasy bond.
Ultimately, boredom can be a sign of many things, but if you are with someone who once made you feel happy and alive, there’s a good chance you can get that feeling back. But to do that, you have to listen to the signals your boredom is sending. Are there actions you engage in (or don’t engage in) that may deaden your relationship? Do you find yourself too often listening to your critical inner voice?
Once you catch on to your own patterns, you can start to break them. Some of these changes will be as small as stepping outside when you would have stayed in. Some will mean reconnecting to a part of yourself you may have lost touch with in your relationship. Some will involve small acts of playfulness and others may include grand expressions of love. Try to have fun and be creative in finding solutions. Don’t let yourself sink into the traps of your inner critic. Remember, it’s okay to get bored sometimes. Not everything in life or in a relationship is going to be thrilling. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue excitement every day in all kinds of big and small, sweet and silly ways that give you satisfaction and meaning.