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

Examining boredom

Boredom is a universal experience like happiness or sadness, but how does it feel to be bored? Some might answer "it just feels boring," though responses like uninterested, dull, monotonous, tired, unhappy, and so on, are also likely. Boredom is often described as a state of low or decreased arousal and is variously elaborated in terms of dissatisfaction and inadequate stimulation (Mikulas & Vodanovich, 2003), emptiness, disengagement, and disinterest (Bourgeois, 2001), unvariating repetition, (Conrad, 1999), restlessness and lethargy (Martin, Sadlo, & Stew, 2006), absence of meaning (Barbalet, 1999), and lack of novelty (Smith, 1981).

Engagement, the opposite of boredom, is also a universal experience. Everyone at times has felt that drive, purpose, interest, and involvement that staves off boredom. Csikszentmihalyi’s (2000) characterization of "flow," a highly enjoyable state brought on by focused engagement in an intrinsically motivated pursuit, is perhaps an antithesis to boredom. Maybe boredom is best thought of not as a something, but as a lack or absence of something; perhaps a lack of engagement? That is, if engagement means being interested and involved, then boredom (or "relationship disengagement") should mean being uninterested and uninvolved. From the preceding observations, bored people appear to lack something. They are not being challenged enough or they are overly skilled at what they are doing.

Romantic relationship boredom

Relationship boredom should represent most of the characteristics of typical, non-relationship boredom; that is, a lack of engagement, interest, excitement, and so on. Further, it should also consist of a lack of relationship-specific concepts, such as intimacy, commitment, passion, romance, etc. These concepts tend to be associated with highly arousing emotions and relationship  approach motivation goals. That is, intimacy and passion are both emotional and highly arousing in nature, while commitment to one’s partner and engagement in romantic behavior represent motivational goals one must work on to sustain.

Because there is no definitive example or statement that captures the meaning of relationship boredom, it may be best represented using a prototype structure; that is, comprised of a set of similar, yet distinct ideas, each of which is more or less central to the overall concept of relationship boredom. For instance, both "lack of intimacy" and "not going out enough" may be important in describing relationship boredom, but different people may consider each more or less central to its overall meaning. To use a different example, if asked to choose whether a tuna or a salmon is a better example (more prototypical) of a fish, some would choose tuna and others would choose salmon, but everyone would likely agree that both are very representative of the prototype of "fish."

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