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

When we asked people to list as many words and short phrases as they could think of about relationship boredom, a prototype structure did appear, and supported our conviction that relationship boredom is comprised of an absence of positive emotion and  approach motivation. The most frequent words included variations of: No love, no fun, lack of sex, lack of caring, growing apart, stale relationship, not talking to each other, and so on. It is clear that relationship boredom is not easy to sum up in one simple statement, it truly appears to encompass several meanings, centered primarily around emotion and motivation, and people will relate more or less to a particular meaning based on their own feelings about it. This helps us address some questions we raised earlier: "Are certain people (or relationships) doomed to be boring?" The answer: probably not. Because the meaning of relationship boredom appears flexible and dynamic, we suggest that the tides of boredom may rise and fall in different circumstances for different people. If one is experiencing relationship boredom, they may be able to change it by changing the situation and changing their feelings and motivations. We will revisit our questions again and provide more detailed, potential solutions. Now that we have a better representation of the meaning of relationship boredom, we can examine it and its association with relationships.

Emotion, motivation, and relationship boredom

In the preceding paragraphs, we suggested that relationship boredom consists of an absence of positive emotion and an absence of  approach motivation. But what does that mean exactly—an "absence" of emotion and motivation? Positive and negative emotions are independent of each other (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988); that is, "feeling good" is NOT the same as "not feeling bad." People feel varying amounts of positive and negative emotion at the same time. Imagine someone riding a roller coaster; as the car races over the track, swerving and diving, the person might feel excited and afraid, anxious and happy, all at once. He or she is experiencing arousing positive and negative emotions at essentially the same time, something that would be impossible if positive and negative emotions were opposites of each other. Simply, one can feel positive emotions ranging from low arousal (calmness, relaxation) to high arousal (excitement, exhilaration), and at the same time, one can feel negative emotions ranging from low arousal (irritation, annoyance) to high arousal (rage, terror). When one is experiencing either low negative or low positive emotion, it means they are experiencing very low amounts, or even an absence of that emotion. In other words, low positive emotion means a lack or an absence of positive emotion.

From the foregoing analysis it is possible to characterize boredom as being more representative of an absence of emotion rather than being an emotion itself. Boredom is very low arousal, or even an absence of arousal, and is experienced as dissatisfying. Thus, it appears to be a complete lack of positive emotion and either a lack of negative emotion or negative emotion of the very lowest arousal. The view of boredom as a lack of arousal and emotion makes practical sense; feeling bored is more a feeling of nothingness instead of feeling positive or negative. Or, to quote Elie Wiesel: "The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference."

As stated earlier, relationship therapists commonly hear complaints of boredom. Could boredom in a romantic relationship be more distressing than conflict? Although boredom (or romantic disengagement) and conflict are both unpleasant, they are not identical (Barry, Lawrence, & Langer, 2008). At least couples who argue with each other are still doing something. They may not be happy, but they are probably not bored (Strong & Harasymchuk, in press). Further, boredom may be an underlying cause of conflict. When someone is bored, they seek a means of relieving it. Boredom can be relived in both constructive and destructive ways. Perhaps some couples begin arguing as a (destructive) way to relieve relationship boredom? If so, it suggests that couples who stop arguing with each other may actually be setting themselves up for boredom; especially if they fail to increase their positive emotion to replace the negative emotion that came from arguing.

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