When Nothing Bad Happens but You’re Still Unhappy: Boredom in Romantic Relationships

Warning signs your lover is bored:

1. Passionless kisses
2. Frequent sighing
3. Moved, left no forwarding address.

— Matt Groening, Love is Hell

When one considers feelings and emotions in close, romantic relationships, many thoughts may come to mind: love, caring, understanding, and happiness, to name a few. Of course, romantic relationships are not always so rosy. When considering the dark side of relationships, plenty of negative feelings also arise: jealousy, arguing, and resentment, for example. However, this is not the whole picture. What is often left out or forgotten are the stretches of indifference or lethargy. Practically everyone who has been in a relationship, particularly long-lasting relationships, has experienced these slow, unemotional, un-arousing spells. We refer to these periods as relationship boredom.

Many people have experienced boredom in their relationships, even in relationships that are otherwise very good and satisfying, without breaking up with their partner. Other couples may have never experienced relationship boredom, even after many years together. Some people feel bored with some relationships but not with others, even when the relationships themselves are relatively similar. So what is going on here? Romantic relationships are supposed to be fun, passionate, loving, and exciting—not boring! Are certain relationships doomed to boredom? Are certain people intrinsically bored or boring? What causes boredom in romantic relationships, and perhaps more importantly, what might prevent or alleviate boredom in romantic relationships? We will first briefly examine romantic relationships; what they are and what they mean to people. Then we examine boredom more closely, what it means generally and specific to relationships. A discussion follows of constructs related to boredom and how they are associated with romantic relationships. Finally, we conclude with some potential remedies for relationship boredom, based on our observations of the underlying structure and possible causes of relationship boredom.

Romantic relationships

Romantic relationships are typically very important to people (Berscheid, 1999). They are cited as one of the greatest sources of overall life satisfaction and emotional well-being (Berscheid, & Reis, 1998) and often top the list of people’s life goals (Emmons, 1999). Many, if not most, adults have experienced, or are currently in, a romantic relationship. In many cases (particularly in western culture), an established, romantic relationship is defined by the degree of partners’ commitment to each other, resistance to alternatives, investment in the relationship, and overall satisfaction. Established relationships are something that people do not typical treat flippantly without suffering unpleasant consequences for doing so.

Although romantic relationships are important, it is well known that people’s satisfaction in these relationships declines over time (Bradbury, Fincham, & Beach, 2000). This decline is not completely understood; however, boredom may potentially play a role. Among couples who attend marital or couple’s therapy, many cite boredom as a primary reason for their dissatisfaction (McKenna, 1989Reissman, Aron, & Bergen, 1993). Further, in a longitudinal study of married couples, Tsapelas, Aron, and Orbach (in press) found that simple boredom seven years into the marriage predicted decreased satisfaction nine years later, irrespective of couple conflict or tension. Unfortunately, even though boredom (and to a lesser extent, relationship boredom) is a world-wide experience, neither of these concepts has received much attention by researchers (Vodanovich, 2003; although seeBarry, Lawrence, & Langer, 2008, for a notable exception).

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