If your relationship has become a bit stagnant, it likely lacks sufficient self-expansion. As we’ve discussed previously, self-expansion refers to people’s inherent desires to improve themselves and relationships serve as a key route to accomplishing this goal.1 However, many relationships are in a rut or otherwise feel a bit stagnant, stale, or boring. This sense of boredom can occur because you’re not learning or doing new things in the relationship. The consequences of such stagnation are serious: according to a recent study in Psychological Science, those who were more bored with their marriages reported less marital satisfaction 9 years later.2 Clearly, boredom isn’t something to ignore.
(If you are interested in learning about how much self-expansion you have in your relationship, check out the self-expansion quiz.)
If your relationship isn’t as exciting as it used to be (or as exciting as you want it to be), here are some strategies for improving your relationship that counteract boredom by fostering self-expansion:
1) Bring Back the Spark – The fundamental strategy for maintaining self-expansion in ongoing relationships involves injecting novelty and excitement into the relationship. When relationships begin, these experiences are natural and effortless. But over time it becomes easier to take things for granted and spend less time maintaining a sense of excitement in your relationship. Reflecting on how your relationship started and savoring those memories will help you to avoid losing sight of some of those early novel and exciting experiences. With your partner, think back to some of your dates from early on in your relationship and go through the photos you’ve collected. What kinds of things did you do for fun? Spend some time reminiscing and enjoying the memories, then pick out your top three activities. Spend the next few weekends recreating them as closely as possible. They may be even more enjoyable the second time around!
2) Create a Couple Bucket List – Oscar Wilde once said “One's real life is often the life that one does not lead.” The only solution then is to start leading your real life and avoiding a life of regret. What is it that you’ve always wanted to do, but just haven’t found the time? What would your partner say? Grab your partner, some pens, some paper, and then each of you take some time to draft your individual “bucket lists.” Have a competitive partner? Challenge your partner to see who can come up with the most activities in 15 minutes. To make things a bit more challenging, focus your list on things you can do within a 100 mile radius from where you live (this also increases the chances that you’ll actually do these things) and on things you can do together. Next, compare notes with your partner and then take turns picking 3 things to do off the other’s list. Over the next few months, enjoy crossing things off of your list!
3) Take a Relationship Road Trip - Pick a long weekend and plan an excursion that has a little bit for everyone. For example, if you plan a summer road trip, go to a baseball game in another team’s home ballpark (almost any sports fan would love a chance to go to Fenway or Wrigley, or one of the newer state-of-the-art ballparks). Any city with a baseball team will also provide great opportunities to do some shopping and enjoy local restaurants. If you’re going to road trip during the colder months, drive to somewhere balmy where a round of golf and a trip to the spa will surely warm up your relationship. During your drive, bring along a set of Trivial Pursuit cards to quiz each other, or fire up the “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader” app on your smartphone. Between you and your partner, those 5th graders don’t stand a chance!
Regardless of whether you use these specific activities or mix and match your favorite parts with some of your own ideas, you should start enjoying time with your partner again. This way you can work on growing together rather than growing apart.
1Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1997). Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research, and interventions (2nd ed., pp. 251-270). London: John Wiley & Sons.
2Tsapelas, I., Aron, A., & Orbuch, T. (2009). Marital boredom now predicts less satisfaction 9 years later. Psychological Science, 20(5), 543-545. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02332.x
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.