How Researching the Science of Boredom Prepared Me for Marriage

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Photo: Ernst Haas/Getty Images

We live in a culture that treats boredom as inevitable in monogamous relationships. Racks full of magazines at the pharmacy offer peppy advice along the lines of “Boring Sex: Seven New Things to Try in Bed.” A whole subset of stock photos features couples ignoring each other in favor of their phones. Sitcoms and comedians tend to treat boredom in long-term relationships as just a depressing given. “You can be married and bored or single and lonely,” joked Chris Rock in a 2008 routine. “Ain’t no happiness nowhere.” For anyone who’s thinking about getting hitched — or god forbid, already betrothed — the future can feel inevitably bleak.

A year ago, I got engaged to a man I love. We’d been together for several years, and I was looking forward to getting married, but I was also terrified that we’d end up like one of those couples sitting silently across from each other at dinner, idly scrolling on their phones, barely acknowledging the other person’s existence. Almost every time we went out to eat I saw them, these specters of deadened romance. So, I decided to get ahead of the problem. As a researcher by trade, I did what came naturally and began gathering evidence: researching boredom in an attempt to understand its power, and figure out how to dismantle it.

This purpose wasn’t immediately obvious when I first began gathering boredom statistics and studies through the Internet and the odd day at the library. But by the time I’d begun spending my free time interviewing psychologists and polyamorists, it was clear. What began as a semi-conscious attempt to prep myself for matrimony turned into a two-year research project, a book, and a realization about monogamy that should make anyone getting married feel a little more hopeful: You might not always be able to avoid being bored with your spouse, but you can use it to your advantage.

One of the first things I learned was that there’s no question that boredom is an epidemic. You don’t have to be one of the Real Housewives or a philandering Louis XIV to feel like things have gotten dull with your partner. Throughout my research, I spoke to soldiers, actresses, fishermen, techies, accountants, artists — everyone had a story to share about a relationship that went wrong because they got bored. People told me about relationship doubts, break-ups, stagnant sex lives, and affairs. Statistics back all this up: 71 percent of men who cheat do so because they’re bored, according to the Normal Bar survey, and the same is true for 49 percent of women.

It’s unsurprising, then, that a whole industry exists for couple to “spice things up”: books and magazines, couples retreats and porn, sex toys and gadgets — all exist to turn what can begin to seem like a known quantity into an unknown, if only for a night. The sheer amount of options can seem exhausting, but it’s what we have.

One night, in the course of my research, my fiancé and I went to a Babeland sex trivia night on a recon mission. Both midwestern squares, we were awkward and strange with each other at first, but we relaxed after a while, enough for me to notice all the other couples there too, gay and straight, old and young, perusing racks of edible underwear and copies of the Kama Sutra. There were about a dozen couples in the store and, because of the months I’d spent investigating boredom, I knew there were probably hundreds of thousands more experiencing the same concerns in New York City alone. This is one handy thing about knowing how common boredom is: It’s less sinister once you know that it’s something that happens in every relationship from time to time.

It’s also not necessarily a bad thing. While persistent boredom isn’t usually a good sign — it’s linked with depression, for example — occasional boredom is actually useful. I learned this by speaking with Wijnand Van Tilburg, a psychologist who began studying boredom because he wanted to know if it has a function, and now believes that it’s a signal alerting us to a lack of meaning. Because boredom feels so irritating, explained Tilburg, “the emotional experience of boredom is impossible to ignore, and in this way it indirectly helps people engage.”

If we didn’t get bored, we’d just plod along, doing the same thing night after night, never challenging each other or ourselves. Easily bored people, on the other hand, are typically thrill-seekers, risk-takers. On a smaller scale, they’re the people in relationships who — as my fiancé did the other night, after two hours of sitting side-by-side staring at wedding-planning documents on our separate screens — say, “Let’s take a break and go get a drink.” Studies suggest that boredom contributes to creativity, and though leaving the house doesn’t sound like a creative act, in that moment it really felt like one. We’d been stuck in an after-work routine of screens and logistics and sweatpants, and suddenly we were out in the world.

When I first began worrying about boredom in monogamy, I pictured a couple bored to death of each other. I hadn’t accounted for all the other stuff of life, all the paperwork and chores and transit you have to do no matter what. These are really the things that make life boring sometimes, and I was beginning to understand that two people against the inevitable tedium are better than one.

Still, there remained the statistics to contend with, the ones that suggest that the motivating power of boredom can also propel people into infidelity. Here again, my initial assumptions had been slightly off. I’d figured that people who cheat out of boredom are bored with their partners, when really, according to sex therapist and author of Mating in Captivity Esther Perel, it’s usually because they’re craving a sense of vitality and “affairs unfold in the margins of our lives, and are luxuriously free of the dental appointments, taxes, and bills.” Affairs are removed from the regular routine stuff, and living with someone, sharing toothpaste and dishes and dog-poop duty, can make it easy to conflate the dull stuff with marriage itself. Relationships might be the best artillery we have to fight boredom, but only if we’re able to distinguish the monotony of everyday routine from the reality of the people beside us — the people who are probably just as annoyed as we are with talking about recycling and whose turn it is to go to the laundromat.

The best thing, according to polyamory expert and author of Love Without Limits Deborah Anapol, is to talk openly about it. “At some level everyone needs novelty,” she told me. This might mean polyamory or experimenting within monogamy, but whatever the scenario, if you want to avoid the dread choice between infidelity and unhappiness, “talking about sex really helps.”

This part seems obvious, but it’s sneaky hard. Sex, sure, can be awkward to talk about, even with HBO paving the way in vivid detail. But talking about boredom is even more difficult. Couples therapist Sylvia Rosenfeld told me that people almost never use the word “bored” in her sessions. “They say they need to try something new, or that things feel stale,” she explained. “Most people don’t want to say they’re bored right in front of their partner.” There’s the possibility of hurting the other person’s feelings, for one thing — nobody wants to be perceived as boring and many of us worry that we already are. It’s a “common adult fear,” according to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips.

To call a person boring is hurtful and demeaning. To call a relationship boring, or even to say that you’re experiencing boredom within a relationship, is often seen as the kiss of death. The magazines and books advising you to avoid being boring in bed or in conversation at all costs, the shows and movies that perpetuate this idea that love is a flame that’s either lit or out — all conspire to create a belief that boredom is a kind of pox, and you’re just not as good of a couple once it touches you.

No wonder we avoid talking about it as much as possible. It’s a strange paradox: Relationship boredom is so common that whole industries have been created to deal with it, but still there’s this belief that, as the Washington Post advice columnist once put it, “You’re bored. End of the line on this relationship, no?”

No, I really don’t think so. Though research didn’t bring me a magical cure for relationship boredom down the road, it did get my fiancé and me talking about it, and more consciously noticing when it hits and alerts us that we need to change things up. Maybe it would still be better to never feel bored in the first place, but I’m not so sure. We would forfeit some of our best memories if we never got bored: terrible car karaoke on long road trips, learning card tricks while waiting for delayed flights, deciding to clean the kitchen floor by skating on rags. Our first kiss came after a half-hour of idly making up backstories for the other people waiting for drinks in a crowded bar. I might even say that I’m grateful for the boredom we’ve experienced so far, and if there’s more to come I’m looking forward to it.

How Researching Boredom Prepared Me for Marriage