Maintaining a ho-hum relationship can be more stressful than making a healthy shift. Here’s how to break free of relationship inertia.
Expert Source: David Schnarch, PhD, a licensed psychologist, codirector of the Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo., and author of Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships and other books.
Every relationship has its ebb and flow. Whether it’s an intimate connection, a friendship, or an important professional partnership, relating brings energy and focus to our lives. Both partners feel more engaged and alive — until the relationship goes stale, that is.
A married couple feel they’ve lost their spark. Two lifelong friends find they’ve been playing well-defined roles for too long. A collaborative professional partnership feels like it is spinning its wheels.
When inertia sets in, the same patterns repeat themselves with diminishing returns. There’s a certain degree of comfort in familiarity, of course, but there can be a growing sense of stress and frustration, too.
The couple may start drifting in separate directions. The friends may feel suffocated by each other’s outdated expectations. The work collaboration may lose its creative oomph.
We can always let such relationships go, of course. But what if we want them to develop, to get more interesting, to move to the next level? According to psychologist David Schnarch, PhD, that’s when it can be worth the risk to make a change yourself, and to let go of worry about how the other person will react.
Challenges to Overcome
- The idea that the relationship is flawed. Schnarch points out that all relationships eventually reach a point where they feel unfulfilling. “This is just how relationships work,” he says. The first signs of staleness in a relationship may make you believe that there was something wrong with the relationship from the beginning, and this may make you either unwilling to change (what’s the point?) or eager to get out.
- Risk-aversion and an unrealistic expectation of security. One reason a relationship may flatline, Schnarch says, is because one or both partners are unwilling to take the risk of changing; they’re uncertain how the relationship will look, or whether it will even last, if it goes beyond its familiar rituals. This stasis is usually rooted in an unrealistic demand for total safety and security. “An irrational part of us demands the security of always knowing in advance what’s going to happen,” he says.
- Emerging negative feelings. “You can’t actually keep a relationship in a holding pattern indefinitely,” Schnarch says, “because even holding patterns inherently change over time — and almost always in a negative direction. As your relationship goes stale, you begin to avoid and hide out from each other and lose touch with the real issues in the relationship. Your respect for each other goes down, and both partners usually treat each other increasingly poorly.”
- Putting it all on your partner. Your frustration with a going-nowhere relationship may make you extra aware of the partner’s role and less aware of your own unwillingness to take a risk. “Relationships become unfulfilling when partners stop growing,” says Schnarch. Hoping your partner or friend will match your desire for change right out of the box is probably doomed to failure, and your own resistance to new ideas and actually acting on what you need to do to meet your desires can keep you stuck.
- Presenting a “safe” self. In long-term intimate relationships especially — but in others, too, says Schnarch — you may fall into the habit of presenting a version of yourself that’s totally predictable in order to keep the relationship safe and stable. But by doing so, you stop showing the personal quirks and surprises that attracted a partner or friend in the first place and that could help give the relationship new energy.
Strategies for Success
- Take the initiative. For Schnarch, being willing to initiate the kind of change you want to see in the relationship is the key. You can unilaterally begin being more honest and connected, and ask for the same from your partner. “You don’t need your partner’s permission to change yourself, or even to change the relationship,” he says. “It only takes one person to change the status quo. When you change, other people have to shift in some way to adapt to your changes.”
- Learn by doing. You’ll never know if the relationship can grow and change for the better if you don’t step up and try, Schnarch points out. It’s only by putting yourself out there that you get to see what will actually happen. “We often mispredict our partner’s response,” he says, and this can keep us stuck and unwilling to try.
- Expect and accept resistance. If you’re worried that your partner might be uncomfortable with the changes, Schnarch notes, you’re probably right. “If your partner wanted to change, he or she would be making that change. This is why, when you start to become more of your own person, the important people in your life are more likely to be telling you, ‘Go back the way you were! You’re going the wrong way!’”
- Accept that everything changes. Healthy relationships, like everything else in life, are always in a state of flux and change, says Schnarch. Accepting that, as well as the unease that comes with it, can set the groundwork for renewed relationships.
- Care for yourself. Being willing to act unilaterally means letting go of the idea that your partner is responsible for validating your choice to refresh the relationship — or even for acknowledging the changes in you. Instead, seek that validation from yourself. “Any form of real change, whether changing a relationship or ending it, means you have to look to yourself for your identity, validation, emotional soothing, and resilience,” says Schnarch.