Maybe this sounds familiar: You go on a first date, it goes well, so you go out again. Then you go on another date, and another, and all of a sudden, a few months have passed, and you're with someone who makes you smile. But there's that nagging feeling: Is this too easy? Are you—God forbid—settling?
So you call it quits. After all, who wants to be with someone they're bored with? But the crazy thing is, this sudden onset of what seems like boredom may not be a deal breaker; it's actually what some psychologists consider the greatest threat to new relationships. It's called "the Wave of Distancing," or disinterest—and it's totally normal (despite sounding like a 1950s horror movie).
The Stages of Love
Think of a typical relationship trajectory. At the club (or on an app), it's generally all about lust, fired by testosterone in both men and women, says Andre Moore, LCSW, a marriage and couples counselor. Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Fisher HE, Aron A, Brown LL. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 2007, Feb.;361(1476):0962-8436. If the dates that follow (and the mornings after) go well, that physical attraction can turn into infatuation or "romantic love," powered by the brain's reward chemicals: dopamine and norepinephrine.
This first stage of a relationship is also known as "the honeymoon phase," and it can last anywhere from nine months to two years, says Irina Firstein, LCSW, a couples therapist. And it's exactly what it sounds like. Characterized by a "Drunk in Love" kind of feeling, it's when everything physical, mental, and emotional just clicks—the happy days of finding someone you really like.
The post-infatuation period kicks in when you start to see things more realistically and less through the haze of chemistry, Firstein says. That's when you can actually start to assess what fits and what doesn't, and romantic love turns into attachment, characterized by the ‘‘cuddle chemicals’’ oxytocin and vasopressin, Moore says. For evolutionary reasons, these neurotransmitters help keep mates together to rear their offspring (no studies on paying off their mortgage, yet).
What that means: Domesticity is a different kind of magic. It's about finding the peace in quiet and knowing you don’t need to say anything, says Ken Page, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Games of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy. But before you can make it to that Notebook-worthy, dying-together kind of love, the courtship part of infatuation has to cease—and that's when the Wave of Distancing tends to hit.
Riding the Wave
The trouble with the chase at the start of any relationship is that it's packed with adrenaline, Page says (fear, check; excitement, check). We're trying to convince the other person that we're worth it, and when they actually agree, the air goes out of the room. "When we see that the other person really cares and means it and plans to stick around, then the Wave of Disinterest can come up," he says. This translates into thoughts like, "Oh gosh, I could do better," or "Is this really all there is?"
That sudden boredom or questioning comes from being addicted to the chase, with some of us just hooked on the excitement, Firstein says. (In other words, when things are good, our taste for adrenaline makes us immediately wonder if they could be even better. Thanks, brain.)
Plus, a certain amount of self-doubt also plays into it, Page says. The more insecure you are in your relationships, the more likely you are to experience the Wave: When someone seems decent, consistent, and like they plan on sticking around, the possibility of intimacy (and fear of getting hurt) leads us to self-sabotage.
These factors—the very real potential for comittment, the suspicion that we're not worth it, and the end of "the chase"—can all combine to turn your new partner into the most boring person in the world, even if it's a total 180 from how you felt about them days ago, Page says.
So how do we avoid writing off a potential Mr. or Ms. Right? Frustrating as it may seem, the best thing to do is nothing at all, Page says. Ride it out for a few days, and do your best to act naturally. Meaning don't force yourself to be more intimate than you feel, but don't tell them it's over as soon as they suggest Netflix (again).
The good thing about the Wave is that it should only last a few weeks at most. And when your feelings of attraction come back, you'll have a clearer sense of whether your partner truly is right for you.
More Than Boredom? The Red Flags
The Wave should be a temporary phenomenon, so if you find yourself in a perma-bored state (as in, you come home from work and thoughts of your partner give you no happiness whatsoever), something may be wrong in the relationship, Moore says.
While the Wave is a knee-jerk reaction to the fear of stability, there's a significant difference between stability and stagnation. "Stability is something we all crave: We want to know that we have somebody that has our back, that when we come home there's somebody there," Firstein says. "Stagnation, on the other hand, comes from the sense of taking something for granted."
In other words: Don't put work into your relationship, and it'll wither. Stagnation is boredom without effort, and it is a red flag worth paying attention to. Likewise, if your partner stonewalls and refuses to listen, emotionally withdraws, or gets defensive when you try to address things, those are all behaviors Moore says can sometimes point to relationships in big trouble. Don't necessarily give up, but know it may take some serious work.
Brief periods of boredom in the early days of relationships are totally normal and often just a reaction to the drop-off in adrenaline after the thrill of the chase (plus insecurity, a fun addition to any situation). Avoid any drastic measures, and the Wave should disperse on its own. But if it goes on for longer than a few weeks, or the effort has totally gone out of the relationship, it may be time to reassess.