Fighting all the time? Bored as hell (even with the sex)? Yup, we've been there. Relationship ruts are normal, but they can also be frustrating, isolating, and simply no fun. That's why we've gathered together a big 'ol list of ways to bring the spark back to a fizzling relationship.
What You Need to Know
According to studies, couples' long-term satisfaction with each other and their relationship depends on a few key factors: thinking positively about each other, thinking about each other when they're apart, acting affectionately toward each other, sharing new and challenging activities, and generally being happy in both their individual and shared lives. Oh, and having sex.
Sounds great to us—but the truth is virtually no relationship elicits feelings of pure bliss all the time. It's normal for people in long-term relationships to go through periods of lesser and greater intimacy; in fact, a decline in love and satisfaction after the doe-eyed period of a relationship is one of the most well-documented findings in Western marriage.
Unfortunately, there's no official definition or time frame for these relationship lulls, since they take different forms in different relationships. However, general signs of being in a rut include fighting a lot, being bored, and lack of sexual interest or activity.
The Good News
Since relationship ruts are a common phenomenon, people have put a lot of effort into finding ways to haul ourselves out of them. Before trying to rejuvenate a relationship, remember there's nothing wrong with losing a little passion now and again; it's normal.
The important thing is putting in the effort to sustain the relationship (provided a person wants to, of course) even during those periods of "lesser intimacy." On that note, presenting your action plan to bring a relationship back to peak satisfaction:
The Boredom Rut
1. Try (exciting!) new activities.
Doing things together is obviously key to maintaining a relationship, but doing the same things all the time can lead to boredom, which is linked to decreased relationship quality. Stave off the blahs by trying new and exhilarating activities together (sky diving, taking a weekend trip, riding roller coasters, a couples' massage)—doing so can enhance relationship satisfaction. And don't be afraid to get goofy! Cook dinner naked, play "the floor is lava," or practice your hide-and-go-seeking skills—playing together can boost relationship happiness.
Still at a loss for ideas? Try reflecting on exciting things you did together in the beginning of the relationship and re-create those experiences.
2. Create a "Couple's Bucket List."
Work together to create a list of things you want to do together as a couple, without the "excitement" requirement (cook dinner together once a week, go to a café or bookstore, grab produce at a farmer's market). Then choose three items from the list and tackle them over the next three months.
3. Kick screens out of the bedroom.
Ditch the TV, laptops, tablets, and phones and pay attention to each other instead.
4. Make mini dates.
Too busy for a weekly date night? Try eating breakfast together, meeting for lunch, or designating 20 minutes every evening for talking with each other—no distractions allowed.
The Fighting Rut
5. Communicate about each other's needs.
Bottling it up can decrease personal emotional well-being and relationship satisfaction. Plus, when needs aren't met in a relationship, the chances of infidelity and decreased satisfaction go up. Suppression sours sacrifice: emotional and relational costs of suppressing emotions in romantic relationships. Impett EA, Kogan A, English T. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 2012, Mar.;38(6):1552-7433. Something's missing: need fulfillment and self-expansion as predictors of susceptibility to infidelity. Lewandowski GW, Ackerman RA. The Journal of social psychology, 2006, Oct.;146(4):0022-4545. Open the bottle by sharing with your partner what you need from a relationship, whether it's emotional support or splitting the grocery bill.
6. Name what you like about each other.
Express appreciation through positive feedback (not just negative, which we're prone to focus on in a "fighting stage")—doing so can help both partners feel more attractive and confident. Challenge yourself to sit down and make a list of things you like about your partner, and then share them.
7. Work out together.
8. Talk through problems with people outside the relationship.
9. If you live together, share household chores evenly.
10. Bounce back post-conflicts.
Handling disagreements well—by, for example, practicing forgiveness and not judging each other—predicts more positive relationship emotions and satisfaction. Recovering from conflict in romantic relationships: a developmental perspective. Salvatore JE, Kuo SI, Steele RD. Psychological science, 2011, Jan.;22(3):1467-9280. It can help to remember that it's less important to solve the conflict than it is to treat each other well, even if there's no solution to be found.
The Sexless Rut
11. Take it online.
Online sexual activity (like watching porn or having cybersex) alone and with a partner can increase both intimacy and the quality and frequency of physical sex. Perceived consequences of casual online sexual activities on heterosexual relationships: a u.s. Online survey. Grov C, Gillespie BJ, Royce T. Archives of sexual behavior, 2010, Feb.;40(2):1573-2800. To keep things positive, seek out female-friendly porn or videos designed for couples.
12. Create a "fantasy jar."
Write out as many fantasies as you can think of, each on a separate piece of paper, and have your partner do the same. Stick 'em all in a jar, then take turns picking out of the jar and acting out the fantasies.
13. Put sex on the schedule.
Toss out the idea that spontaneous sex is the only way to have good sex. When we're crazy busy, sex can be one of the first things to go by the wayside. But sex (especially simultaneous orgasms!) is also key to maintaining intimacy and relationship satisfaction—so come up with a schedule for doing it and stick to it. Sexual and relationship satisfaction among heterosexual men and women: the importance of desired frequency of sex. Smith A, Lyons A, Ferris J. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 2011, Jul.;37(2):1521-0715. Simultaneous penile-vaginal intercourse orgasm is associated with satisfaction (sexual, life, partnership, and mental health). Brody S, Weiss P. The journal of sexual medicine, 2010, Dec.;8(3):1743-6109.
14. Sext while you're apart.
It'll build anticipation for fun times later in the day. Don't want to use your work phone? Create "For Your Eyes Only" email accounts to communicate saucy messages while you're away.
15. Shake things up.
16. Don't forget non-sexual touch.
Hugs, massages, an arm slipped around a waist—these small actions can all boost feelings of affection.
The General Rut
17. Don't be embarrassed to seek external support.
It's probably not a great idea to propose couples therapy six weeks into a relationship. But for people in it for the long term, therapy is a reasonable (and sometimes necessary) choice.
18. Remember not all relationships are worth saving.
Yes, relationships go through phases of lesser and greater closeness, but sometimes people just aren't compatible. And emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse is never okay. Not sure if you should stick around? The best bet is to see a personal or couples therapist for their take on the relationship.
19. Work on yourself first.
Relationship satisfaction is tied to personal life satisfaction, so the happier a person is in general, the happier they're likely to be with a given relationship. Anxiety disorders and the quality of relationships with friends, relatives, and romantic partners. Priest JB. Journal of clinical psychology, 2012, Oct.;69(1):1097-4679. Don't rely on a partner to make your life great; work to make a great life regardless of whom you're dating.
Originally published October 2012. Updated April 2016.