Relationship ruts are difficult yet all too common stages for couples. Being stuck in a relationship rut can trigger individual feelings of abandonment, rejection, or frustration. Left unaddressed, these ruts can lead to lower relationship satisfaction, increased arguments, infidelity, and break-ups.
Yet digging out of a relationship rut can also seem daunting. It can be hard to know where to start or what really needs correcting. (Learn how treatment is helping some couples address one partner’s drug or alcohol habit at FHE Health.) Take heart. There are ways to address these challenges that can bring even deeper intimacy, closeness, and contentment to a relationship. What follow are four common ruts that couples often encounter, as well as tips for how to address them—but first, some perspective for framing relationship ruts.
The Right Perspective Is Key
First, though, before a couple begins the hard work of digging their way out of a rut, it is important to understand and accept the cyclical nature of relationships. A healthy perspective recognizes that there will be highs and lows—often many—throughout the life of a relationship.
A couple that has cultivated this perspective is able to view their highs and lows as ocean waves that ebb and flow naturally. The low waves carry the pain of conflict, dissimilarity, and doubt. The high waves come in to sweep up those negative emotions, churning them into positive feelings of love, joy, and excitement.
While this perspective may require a bit of a paradigm shift for some couples, it can help keep a relationship fresh and more interesting. Instead of panicking and trying to swim against the tide, couples are better equipped to go with the flow: They can ride out those high and low waves with the acceptance that they belong to the inevitable ebb and flow of nature.
The harder waves to ride are the milder and flatter ones—the waves in between the highs and lows, which are feelings of indifference, boredom, and stagnation. Without strategies for riding these in-between waves, couples risk getting into a rut where dull and unproductive habits can become engrained and difficult to change.
Another Lesson from Nature for Reframing Ruts
The metaphor of ocean waves is one way to reframe a relationship rut and gain a healthier perspective. Couples can also look to the animal kingdom for instructional metaphors. In the animal kingdom, those milder, flatter waves or periods can be vital and productive mating periods for many mammals. Similarly, in romantic relationships between human beings, ruts can be opportunities for expanding, deepening, and strengthening mutual connection and intimacy.
For animals, ruts typically are purely an opportunity for mating and reproduction. In human relationships, mating can mature and expand beyond the physical pleasures of sex and/or baby making to include habits, rituals or practices that improve emotional intimacy for stronger connection, understanding and growth.
Below are four common relationship ruts, along with tips for improving stale mating rituals and habits that can help couples get unstuck and refresh and enliven their life together.
Mundane and Repetitive Conversations
This common rut became even more prevalent during the pandemic and was a frequent gripe among couples. It is easy to see why. When two people are cooped up together for inordinately long periods of time, finding new things to talk about can be downright challenging. Many couples become so familiar with each other, from being around each other all the time and a part of one another’s daily routines, that their conversations begin to focus almost entirely on stale and boring things.
Household chores. Chaperoning the kids. Problems at work. Taxes. These topics of conversation are usually so menial and mundane that the information might be relayed while watching television, responding to texts, or surfing the Internet.
To enrich and revitalize conversations, set aside a chunk of time at least once a week to unplug, put all the distractions away and focus on interesting topics to share with each other. Have fun coming up with open-ended questions to get to know one another on deeper levels. Some possible questions to use as conversation starters:
- What are your favorite or worst childhood memories?
- If you had a million dollars to spend in one day, what would you spend it on?
- What is on your bucket list?
This may also be a good time to deal with relationship problems head on, so that they do not grow into larger, irreconcilable issues. Exploring differences and similarities in beliefs, values, hopes and dreams can be kindling for that spark of fire needed for a more complex and compelling relationship.
Predictability is another common rut. Many couples fall into one or more relationship patterns that each party can anticipate and expect. For example, one person may be the date planner, while the other waits for direction. Maybe one partner initiates sex while the other waits for cues and signals. In conflicts, one may tend to be the one who shuts down and avoids confrontation while the other pursues and pushes. These relationship patterns rob couples of spontaneities, excitement, and mysteries.
To get out of the rut of predictability, identify typical individual and relationship patterns and then swap roles. A regimented person then may spontaneously take their loved one on a romantic drive along the coast. A submissive partner may step up to dominate a decision, plan, or action. The practitioner of the silent treatment may initiate open communication. Changing entrenched patterns can keep both parties on their toes.
Boredom in the Bedroom
One silver lining of boredom in the bedroom may be that it means a relationship has matured from the early ups and downs of dating to a more meaningful stage of longevity and commitment. That said, moving beyond the “honeymoon” stage of dating when sex is often passionate and exciting may not feel like much of an achievement when sex has become boring and routine.
There are plenty of ways to make sex more fun. Role playing, changing the time and place of sex, or adding toys are some examples. But, for deeper levels of satisfaction, try moving beyond the rutting to viewing sex as a special and sacred time for two people to become one, not just physically but spiritually. Introduce some mindfulness practices into the bedroom, by emphasizing one body part at a time or focusing on using all five of the senses during lovemaking. Begin or expand upon meditation practices together or explore intimacy rituals that bring more emotional and spiritual connection with each other.
Disconnection and Disinterest
Long-term couples may get stuck in a cycle of disconnection, where they no longer feel like they are part of a team. They may do many things individually or with other people rather than with each other. When disconnection happens, couples lose interest in learning about each other because they either no longer care to make the effort or believe that they already know everything about their partner.
This disconnection and disinterest may be the clearest sign of all that it is time to do something different before the relationship falls part. Plan an activity, project, or task—ideally something fun that will challenge both parties to work together. Take a ballroom class together. Learn to cook a special meal together. Train to climb a mountain together.
When individuals face new challenges and overcome them, they often discover new gifts and qualities in themselves that they never knew they had. Couples can have a similar experience when they conquer new challenges together—they find out new things about one another and become more dedicated and committed to investing their time and energy into the relationship.
None of the above ruts needs to end a relationship or be permanent and insurmountable. Learning to accept that these low points are part of the natural flow of relationships is the first step toward moving out of them. Instead, view these ruts as opportunities for growth. Mundane and repetitive conversations, predictability, boredom in the bedroom, or disconnection and disinterest can be an opportunity to elevate a relationship to more interesting, satisfying, and meaningful levels.
The article was provided by Dr. Sachi Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP, who directs a trauma-based treatment program for first responders, at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.