Do you feel like your relationship is in a rut? New research on marital satisfaction underscores the importance of having fun in a relationship. Stony Brook University social psychology researchers Irene Tsapelas and Arthur Aron, along with University of Michigan researcher Terri Orbuch, interviewed a representative U.S. sample of 123 married couples seven years into their marriage, and then again, nine years later, 16 years into their marriage, and found that those who felt bored in their marriage at 7 years were significantly more likely to feel bored and less satisfied after 16 years of marriage.
The researchers asked couples questions like, “During the past month, how often did you feel that your marriage was in a rut (or getting into a rut), that you do the same thing all the time and rarely get to do exciting things together as a couple?” It was found that boredom at 7 years was correlated to increased boredom even 9 years later.
One important finding here is that being in a rut, or being bored in the relationship, led to less closeness, which led to reduced satisfaction in the marriage. People often think that couples who ‘never fight’ are the happiest; these findings suggest that a happy marriage involves more than merely a lack of conflict (though knowing how to work through problems in a respectful way is also key).
It also reminds us that going through challenges as a couple (from daily life stress that we help each other manage, to major crises that we support one another work through) isn’t entirely bad, and can actually bring couples closer. Although major crises can also take a toll on a marriage, this is a reminder that enduring sameness and routine isn’t the ideal, either, and that the challenges we face can have a positive impact, too. (For more on this, read up about eustress.)
Aron has done previous research on couples that has shown that when couples go through new experiences and challenges together, marital satisfaction increases. “It is not enough for couples to be free of problems and conflicts,” notes Aron in a press release. “The take-home message of this research is that to maintain high levels of marital quality over time, couples also need to make their lives together exciting.”
So how can you keep things exciting in a marriage--especially when life takes over and you have real responsibilities? The key is to not only communicate and work through conflict in healthy ways, but do things together that are new and exciting. Here are some ways to do that, and maintain a happy marriage:
- Have a date night once a week. My husband and I started doing this years ago, and it was transformative for our marriage. We had fallen into a rut of being parents and workers who just exchanged stories about our days each night, and this helped us have frequent new experiences together where we were able to just be “us” again, and have fun! (Note: if hiring a sitter is out of the question financially, see if you can swap babysitting with another family; then the kids get to play and the adults get regular breaks for free.)
- Try new things—regularly! When you’re on your dates, don’t just do the same things all the time. Go see stand-up comedy, go on hikes, go horseback riding, see live music, try new and exotic food, take dance classes together. Do things that you haven’t done before! This helps relieve stress and boredom in life, and allows you to grow together at the same time.
- Participate actively in each other’s lives. Get involved in what your spouse is doing, and invite their participation in your life. Your challenges then become shared experiences, you both benefit from the support, and stressors feel less stressful. If you’re parents, this includes both of you being actively involved in your kids’ lives, and facing challenges as a team. (This sounds like a given, but sometimes reminders help.)
- Have More Fun. Sometimes it's just that simple--seek out fun, and make it part of your relationship. This can be as simple as maintaining a sense of humor, or can involve taking certain steps toward having fun on a regular basis. Don't let responsibility and stress rob you of marital satisfaction and fun in life--you both deserve better! (See these tips for more on having fun.)
Following these steps can help you to enjoy life more, feel less stressed, and experience greater levels of marital satisfaction. Sounds "win-win", doesn't it?
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Tsapelas, I., Aron, A. Psychological Science, April 14, 2009.