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

Emotion is only one part of relationship boredom; another—approach and avoidance motivation—will be elaborated next. Hedonism refers to the pursuit of pleasures and the avoidance of pains but these are separate motivations and engaging in one does not necessarily prevent the other. This distinction is important because there are different outcomes when one either achieves or fails to reach a motivational goal, depending on whether one is approaching a desired outcome or avoiding an undesired outcome (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1999). When a person is doing well in approaching a desired goal, the result is an increase in positive emotion such as joy or happiness. When one is doing poorly at the same goal, the result is a decrease in positive emotion (i.e., experiencing low positive emotion), such as disinterest or boredom. When one is doing well at avoiding a particular undesired goal, the result is a decrease in negative emotion (i.e., experiencing low negative emotion), such as relief and security, but not an increase in positive emotion, such as joy and excitement. When one is doing poorly at this task, the result is an increase in negative emotion such as fear, anger, sadness, etc., but not a decrease in positive emotion. Successfully avoiding a conflict with your spouse is rewarding and positive; nevertheless, it is not the same as successfully receiving praise from your spouse. Avoiding an argument is not the same thing as receiving a gift, even though in both cases, goals are being achieved (avoidance goals for the former and approach goals for the latter—avoiding pain versus pursuing pleasure).

Like positive emotion, a lack of  approach motivation could be a significant factor of relationship boredom. How can a romantic relationship grow and flourish if there is no progress or goals? If it does not move somewhere, forward, backward, anywhere, it becomes stagnant, dull, and boring. Thus, we once again suggest that relationship boredom is a prototypical construct that generally encompasses an absence of positive emotion and an absence of  approach motivation.

Alleviating relationship boredom

Now that we have an idea of what relationship boredom means and what is potentially associated with it, we suggest some possible remedies for eliminating or reducing boredom in romantic relationships. Because boredom is essentially a lack of emotion and motivation, the simplest solution for relieving boredom should be to increase emotion and motivation—just do something fun! Indeed, Aron, Aron, Norman, McKenna, and Heyman (2001; see also Lewandowski & Aron, 2004) had couples do exactly that, engage in novel and exciting activities with each other, and found that, sure enough, for couples who had reported feeling bored, shared participation in the activities increased their feelings of relationship quality. Graham (2008) showed evidence that this is effective even when couples are sharing non-leisure, routine day-to-day activities such as cooking and childcare. Graham suggests this may be occurring through the experience of "flow" as described earlier; in essence, that couples may become absorbed in routine activities and associate their positive feelings of flow with their relationship and partner. In other words, simply becoming engaged and interested in every-day activities with your partner may help alleviate feelings of relationship boredom.

These suggestions mostly imply that positive emotions arise during the shared activities; that doing things together, even routine things, feels good. Strong and Aron (2006) even make an argument that positive emotions serve as a necessary mediating link between sharing novel and challenging activities together and subsequent increased relationship quality. However, we are starting research investigating the possibility that activities that produce negative emotions, so long as those emotions are not caused by the partner, may also actually increase relationship satisfaction. For instance, imagine a couple trapped on a sinking ship. If they survive the experience together, it may draw them closer to each other. That is a dramatic example, but the argument is that making it through an unpleasant experience together may help a couple form new bonds.

article author(s)