From time to time, relationships can go through periods of feeling stale, even boring. Nothing necessarily wrong in particular, but the absence of vibrancy means that every little niggle or irritation can become an issue, and the prevailing energy in the relationship is low. Maybe a little irritation in the beginning can become a huge wedge over time causing things to not feel alive and interesting anymore.
If any of this resonates with you, the first thing to say is you are not alone, and the second thing to say is that there is much hope for vibrancy to return again!! Many couples go through periods of feeling like they have lost their magic. Every now and again we all need to give our relationship a spring clean to freshen things up a bit, keep it alive and vibrant, get a bit more Va Va Voom! and close the door to enticements outside of the relationship.
These feelings of boredom or life being a bit stale are common and emerge from the balancing act we unconsciously perform with two drivers of human behaviour deep inside each of us. We hold in constant tension the need for predictability in our circumstances to create that sense of stability, safety, security and comfort, yet at the same time we have an equally strong desire for adventure and novelty, excitement and surprise, a need for uncertainty to stretch us and keep us alive and vibrant. Of the six basic human desires that drive our motivations and behaviours on a daily basis (identified by motivational guru and author Tony Robbins), these needs for certainty and uncertainty, present more of a challenge to us because they co-exist in potential conflict.
Nowhere is this tension more relevant than in marriages and long-term relationships. The things that work towards stability and security quite often work against the element of novelty and surprise, especially when children come along and life at home has to settle into predictable routines for the family to survive. Even without children in the picture, our default setting is to create habits, routines, patterns of behaviour that help reduce the need for constant decision making and offer more predictability. However, that desire for uncertainty continues to demand attention and slowly the sense of unease with the status quo begins to build into boredom and frustration. Left unattended this can lead to some pretty destructive decisions on how to fulfil them – like infidelity.
If you find yourself feeling stuck in a rut, Michael Bungay Stanier, author of the much acclaimed book “The Coaching Habit”, provides some useful questions that we’ve adapted here to help you start a conversation around what and how to change things to help breathe life and vitality back into your relationship. In his book, Bungay Stanier offers seven questions which help bring clarity, focus and ownership of the issue to any situation and these questions provide a useful framework for giving relationships a good spring clean.
Let’s look at each question in turn, understanding the purpose in general, and see how it can be applied to helping your relationship get some more Va Va Voom!
Question 1 : What’s on your mind?
Sometimes relationships just get up to a certain cruising altitude and stay there. In general things are going well, with no major issues, but there is a sense of coasting and the need to “rev things up” a bit. That makes it tricky to identify anything to address in particular, but this question gives you the chance to just off-load anything that is going through your mind, maybe niggles and irritating habits, maybe things you desire to experience that aren’t there, maybe a bit of both.
Question 2 : And what else?
Often the first few attempts at discussing an issue will skirt around it. This question gives the opportunity to get down to the meatier issues under the surface and open up the conversation. Talking about relationships and emotions often requires time to just unpack things layer by layer.
Question 3: What’s the real challenge here?
Against the background of what emerged as answers to the first two questions, this question allows you to focus and tease out the real issue, the one thing that if changed would make a huge difference. In most relationships, people know the answer in their gut. Quite often we have a good idea about what needs to change but are not sure what actions to take…and perhaps place a disproportionate amount of blame and responsibility for the change on our partner! Of course, as in all matters of the heart, it takes two to tango.
Within the context of identifying the real issue, Dr John Van Epp, counsellor, psychologist and author, identified five means of bonding which taken together create feelings of closeness, love and attachment in a relationship. These five dimensions focus on the extent to which we know, trust, rely on, commit to and enjoy touch with our partner and looking at each in turn can help highlight the area(s) that could do with some attention to liven things up and deliver positive change in the relationship.
The great news is that for each of these areas, help is at hand in the form of an online video-based course that we’ve developed.
You can do them alone or with your partner, in the privacy of your own home, to get some tools and insights to support you in making the change you desire to see.
- KNOW: For example, you can know someone for a long time but never really appreciate their strengths and what their unique personality adds to the relationship. Many relationships struggle because of misunderstood differences which can become a key source of irritation. Maybe getting to know your partner better through really understanding your differences more and learning how to appreciate and even celebrate those differences could breathe new life into how you both experience the relationship. Navigating Unmet Expectations will help you appreciate each other’s perspectives, work together more effectively by playing to each other’s strengths and might create the same lightbulb experience we had in realising we weren’t just irritating each other on purpose! You will also get great benefit from the sessions on Understanding & Minimising Conflict and Managing Conflict Effectively as you will learn more honouring ways to communicate with each other in a conflict situation and emerge successfully from it, still in love, on the same side and stronger together as a result.
- TRUST: In considering the area of trust, you might want to explore things like your level of communication, in terms of trusting each other to be open and honest, the level of trust you have for each other with money, parenting skills, fidelity or being respectful vs controlling. Chances are you will find that much is good in the relationship already but you might get a few ideas on how to take things to the next level by going through the courses on Effective Parenting as a Couple and Managing Finances as a Couple
- RELY ON: The challenges of chores and responsibilities, or more importantly how these are shared up are often cited as causes for disagreement between couples. Conversations around the extent to which you can rely on each other for support might allow a new opportunity to agree chores and responsibilities based on best fit for the season of life / availability rather than gender stereotypes, assumptions and taking things for granted. Mutual Honour and Respect will help unpack some of these issues and give you different ways of thinking about how you work together and support each other so you can find the solution that is right for both of you.
- COMMITMENT: Of course, there is a level of commitment that already exists between the two of you in the relationship but sometimes the commitment is assumed rather than felt and affirmed on a regular basis. Making the decision to invest time in the relationship and prioritise “us time” in the diary will allow you the chance to strengthen the commitment and remind each other of all the wonderful reasons you made the decision to share life together in the first place. The free session on Improving Communication in Your Relationship will be priceless in helping you show love in ways meaningful to your partner and is guaranteed to improve the level of warmth, emotional connectedness and feelings of commitment that you both enjoy.
- TOUCH: If there is one area that tends to go stale and monotonous, it’s the area of touch and intimacy in relationships. Sometimes the busyness of life, fatigue, various hormonal changes during pregnancy, after pregnancy, small kids, big kids, financial pressures, heavy workloads, menopause – you name it – all challenge the level of energy and reserve left for one-on-one time, tender touch and sexual intimacy. Staying Connected & Maintaining Intimacy will literally breathe life into your relationship and give you practical ideas on how to rev things up in the bedroom and keep it revved up for the long haul!
Question 4: What do you want?
Once you have zeroed in on the one dimension you want to work on, and armed with the training session(s) that will help you improve in this area, this question is about deciding what success would look like. What do you want the outcome to be? Is this something you both want? One thing we have learnt over the years, is that if you want the relationship to get better and last for a long while, every conversation and interaction has to be done with the goal of strengthening the relationship for the long haul in mind. By being clear on where you are heading, you will feel more empowered to take steps in that direction and to take ownership for making it happen. Equally, being clear on what success looks like will help you choose your battles and not pursue arguments or conflicts that are not worth it in the long run.
Question 5: If yes to this, no to what?
You will need time to carry out the actions that will make the difference, and also make space in your diary to prioritise time together as a couple. Being limited supply – only 24 hours in a day for everyone and no extra time for good behaviour! – the question then becomes about what you will give up or postpone to have the time to focus on strengthening the relationship. It could be as simple as coming off Facebook and social media once you get to the bedroom so you can actually enjoy positive interaction with each other rather than everyone else. It might be shifting evening commitments to free one up for your date night. It might be time away like a weekend retreat or other trip together to reconnect and have deep meaningful, uninterrupted conversation. What will you each have to shift or stop doing to make room for giving your relationship attention and taking action? No one ever regretted not doing more work on their death bed. At the end of the day, it’s the relationships with our partners and other loved ones that matter and we need to let that be reflected in how we spend our time on a daily and weekly basis.
Question 6: What was most useful?
So now that you have gotten this far with the article, this question will help you decide on next steps. From what you have read, what struck a chord with you the most? What is the one thing that you think if you just tackled that, your relationship would be well on its way to the one you desire? Is it a conversation with your partner? Is it time away or a date night? Is there a training session you need to go through yourself or together? Whatever it is, make the decision today and take action.
Nothing will change until you decide to do something about it, but so much could change for the better quickly if you just get started with something. None of us got into relationships to be miserable or bored, but a great relationship won’t just happen on its own. We need to be proactive and on purpose about learning the skills and developing the relationship with our partner that we dream of. No more ho-hum, hum drum! It’s time to take action!!!