Are you bored in your relationship? If so, there is no shortage of advice on the internet for how to combat it (from Boredom Busters to Spicy Sex Tips for Bored Couples). The overwhelming advice on the internet is to simply spice things up when bored – and such advice includes a broad definition of “spicy” (e.g., board game night—oy!; creating a date jar; cooking class; laser tag; and a whole new repertoire of bedroom moves). What do relationship scientists say?
Benefits of Spicing Things Up
Relationship scientists haven’t created an official list of activities that will combat boredom. However, they do think that some types of activities are better for the health of the relationship in terms of staving off boredom. More specifically, research suggests that engaging in novel and arousing shared activities increases relational satisfaction above and beyond just spending time with a partner. 1,2,3 There isn’t an objective level of novelty and arousal (i.e., excitement) in an activity that promotes relationship quality; instead, it is more important whether the couple thinks it is exciting (i.e., bungee jumping might work for one couple while bird watching might be a thrilling activity for another). Why might trying exciting things matter in a relationship? People have a need to “grow” and relationships represent one good way to do so.4 Without this growth, relational boredom might settle in.5
Spicing Things Up When Bored?
In my research lab we study what promotes and hinders effective positive activity engagement in intimate relationships. Positive activity engagement refers to leisure time spent with a partner that is supposed to be enjoyable and rewarding (e.g., movies, concerts, dinner, hikes in the park, travel, bird watching, sporting events, date nights). In a recent set of studies, we examined whether boredom signals people to make their date nights more exciting (e.g., trying a novelty restaurant across town where the meal is consumed in complete darkness vs eating at a favourite pizza place in the neighborhood).6
In the first study, we asked people in relationships to rate how they should respond to relational boredom in their relationship in terms of exciting and fun activities (e.g., trying a new restaurant) vs familiar and comforting activities that make them feel more secure (e.g., going to a favourite restaurant). Consistent with popular culture advice, when bored in the relationship, people thought they should respond by engaging in novel activities (vs a baseline group that was simply asked how much novelty they should have in their relationship). However, this pattern did not occur when we asked people “How are you likely to respond to relational boredom?”. In other words, people may know what they should do when bored, but acknowledge that they may not act that way.
In follow-up studies, we took things one step further and put participants in a relational boredom frame of mind by having them write about times when they experienced a lack of interest in what the partner was saying, experienced a moment where sex was not as exciting, and so on (vs a no boredom control group that was asked general questions about the relationship). Our goal was to assess how relational boredom in the moment shapes the types of dates people plan and their activity intentions. That is, in the heat of the moment, do people feel the urge to spice things up and try something new when they need it most—namely when bored?
Well, not quite. Although we found that people were more likely to plan dates with more novel elements when bored (vs. the control group), they did not indicate greater intentions to try more exciting activities with their partner in the near future. Instead, when bored, people consistently planned dates with less familiar elements and displayed less intentions to try familiar dates. What do these results mean?
The results suggest that boredom changes people’s positive activity engagement but just not in the way they think it should or in a way that research has shown is effective in combating boredom in relationships. So, when you feel a hint of boredom in your relationship, resist the urge to simply spend less familiar time with your partner; instead, try to plan an unusual activity that you will both enjoy (perhaps the Boredom Busting tips will inspire some creative ideas?).
1Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experience relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-284.
2Coulter, K., & Malouff, J. M. (2013). Effects of an intervention designed to enhance romantic relationship excitement: A randomized-control trial. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2(1), 34-44.
3Graham, J. M. (2008). Self-expansion and flow in couples' momentary experiences: An experience sampling study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 679-694.
4Xu, X., Lewandowski Jr, G. W., & Aron, A. (2016). The self-expansion model and optimal relationship development. In C. R. Knee & H. T. Reis (Eds.) Positive Approaches to Optimal Relationship Development (pp. 79-100). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
5Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Getting tired of the other. In A. Aron and E. N. Aron (Eds.). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York, NY: Hemisphere Publishing Corp.
6Harasymchuk, C., Cloutier, A., Peetz, J., & Lebreton, J. (2016). Spicing up the relationship? The effects of relational boredom on shared activities. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407516660216.
Dr. Harasymchuk’s research relates to excitement, fun, and novelty, including the factors that promote and hinder these qualities in long-term relationships. She also focuses on boredom in relationships and how it impacts relationship happiness. She is an assistant professor at Carleton University, Canada, and teaches courses on research methods, social psychology, and close relationships.